PRISMatic Global Surveillance

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

It’s pretty incredible that in the United States an enormous lobby exists to distort the Second Amendment to make people believe that citizens should have unfettered access to enormous firepower, but there is nothing similar to guard the right to privacy. And when someone comes along and reveals the massive extent to which the United States government is spying on private communication between ordinary citizens, the debate becomes about “national security.”

There are, to be sure, good reasons why any government must keep things secret, and why there are laws to punish those who break the confidence the government places in them when it trusts them with classified information. But even the most elementary definition of notions like liberty and democracy demands that such secrecy be restricted to absolute necessity. The PRISM program and the revelations Edward Snowden made about it don’t begin to meet that standard. And the responses from not only US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper but also President Barack Obama are extremely chilling.

Explaining why the program was classified, Clapper said, “Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a ‘playbook’ of how to avoid detection.” Put bluntly, that’s just nonsense. How many of us, before the revelations about PRISM, believed all of our electronic communications, including the telephone, were impervious to government spying? The only thing Edward Snowden revealed was the existence of the program. Does anyone seriously believe that al-Qaeda thought they could just send emails around the world with no risk of discovery by the US government? Please.

As Obama said, “There’s a reason these programs are classified.” That’s true, but it is not because of the false choice the President laid out that US citizens “can’t have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” No one is asking for that. Obama’s statement is meant to frighten us with the threat of terrorism into sacrificing more of our freedom. It speaks volumes that the PRISM program, though started by George W. Bush, has expanded exponentially under Obama. It says even more that the author of the Patriot Act (which first expanded the government’s power using the excuse of fighting terrorism after the 9/11 attacks), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican, considers the program “an abuse” of the draconian law he wrote.

No, PRISM was not classified for security reasons, as the information it uncovered could be argued to have been. It was kept secret because US citizens would be angered by the breadth of the surveillance of their electronic communications. Again, many already assumed this was going on, though PRISM’s scope probably surprised them too. But the acquiescence of the internet corporations who own the servers being monitored — all the big ones, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, et al — is going to have a chilling effect on internet traffic and internet commerce. That is one reason it was kept secret. The other is that the Bush and Obama Administrations were concerned that if the breadth of the surveillance was known, the people of the United States just might object.

Can there be a clearer violation of the Constitution? Not only does PRISM directly violate the Fourth Amendment in as blatant a manner as could be conceived, it was intentionally hidden only to make sure the will of the people could not enter the conversation. Yet the streets are not filled with US citizens demanding accountability. This says a great deal about the post-9/11 US, and just how much freedom we are now willing to sacrifice for a “war on terror” that has availed us nothing.

But the issue speaks to much more than just the rights of US citizens to privacy. Almost all of the restrictions that are in place and even the more ephemeral ones that Obama and Clapper claim to be in place act only to protect some measure of US privacy. According to the leaked PowerPoint presentation on PRISM (which, it should be noted, no one has claimed is falsified), the program uses search terms to find out which of the trillions of pieces of data it has intercepted are “foreign.” That it has only a 51% level of certainty is troublesome for Americans, but the implication that every single person on the planet outside of US citizens is fair game should trouble us even more.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is the legal basis for this program, such spying on citizens of other countries can proceed virtually unencumbered. In olden times, before the internet, the limitations of access and prohibitive cost served as barriers to wanton surveillance. It simply was too much trouble and too costly to spy on random citizens of other countries.

But now, with a global data network, where every bit of information passes through numerous servers and where US corporations that own many of the biggest servers do a lot of their business globally as well, those restrictions are absent. Yet nothing in US law changes the playing field with the new technology.

Voices of outrage have already been heard in Great Britain, Germany, New Zealand and other US allies. But the main focus of the surveillance, of course, is countries like Pakistan and Iran. But what have we said to the citizens of those countries? That’s a question we might consider the next time we start thinking “they hate us for our freedoms,” which we in the US are sacrificing because of our own fear, rather than wondering if we are not enraging “them” with our hubris.

The scandal has been prominent, and the media fallout severe. Yet the US moves along with business as usual. The US government has violated the Constitution in the most egregious way, and we have established ourselves as a state that considers it perfectly acceptable to spy on everyone else, without any control or semblance of probable cause. You wonder what it would take to bring US citizens into the streets en masse. We could, perhaps, learn something from the Turks.

America’s Digital Stasi

This week at Souciant…well, I had a different article idea, and I was halfway through writing it. But the whole PRISM thing is just overwhelming. As much as what it says about the state of freedom and democracy in the US, it says even more about the utter and shameless phoniness of Barack Obama. How much will we take?

Imaginary Syria

It seems there’s an awful lot of surety around when it comes to action, or non-action, on Syria. But a deeper look at what is happening there does not lead to simple solutions, or even to a whole lot of clarity on the nature of who the “good guys” are. I examine the dynamics in this week’s column at Souciant.

Israel Uses Social Media To Defend Its Assault On Gaza

The current Israeli onslaught against Gaza contains many echoes of the assault four years ago. In one regard, however, it is clear that Israel learned some lessons from its experience with “Operation Cast Lead” and is applying it to “Operation Pillar of Defense.” Those lessons are reflected in Israel’s use of social media to spread its “hasbara” (Hebrew for propaganda).

The spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been tweeting for years a consistent stream of reports of thwarted terrorist attacks, pictures of sexualized female IDF soldiers, reports of the many tons of goods allowed into Gaza and almost daily reports of the million or more Israelis living under constant threat of Hamas rockets. Now, Facebook and the IDF blog have been shifted into overdrive, with some rather shocking new features.

There have been, for some time, various programs offering tourists to Israel the opportunity to play as an IDF soldier at various sites in the country. Now, there’s a new game to help urge people to promote IDF hasbara, IDF Ranks. The idea is that you go to various pages, you like them on Facebook or you tweet a page and you help the IDF get its message out. In essence, a virtual army of supporters on the internet.

Here’s how the game is described: “IDF Ranks is an interactive game, directly implemented into all of the IDF’s social platforms allowing YOU to be a virtual part of the IDF.” It’s participants are told that: “Your every action — commenting, liking, sharing and even just visiting — rewards your efforts, as well as helps spread the truth about the Israeli army all over the world.”

The light-hearted air emanating from the game stands in stark contrast to the news reports, even those from the IDF Spokesperson herself, about the fighting.

The IDF Twitter feed has been an opportunity for tough talk, such as this:

@IDFSpokesperson We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.

And it warns away journalists like this:

@IDFSpokesperson Warning to reporters in Gaza: Stay away from Hamas operatives & facilities. Hamas, a terrorist group, will use you as human shields.

One might wonder how a reporter is supposed to report from Gaza if they don’t encounter any governmental officials or facilities.

The IDF blog has a “rocket counter” to enumerate the number of rockets launched at Israel and a graphic as to where they have hit. It also has a very telling page about how the IDF avoids harm to civilians.

What is revealing about this page is that it is an almost verbatim repetition of what Israel put out during Operation Cast Lead four years ago. Indeed, it generally references practices used in that attack, including dropping leaflets, pinpoint targeting, tapping rooftops (a low level bomb dropped on a roof that would cause minimal damage and warn those inside that a real bomb was coming), and automated phone calls. As anyone with knowledge of Gaza pointed out at the time, the densely populated Strip offered nowhere for civilians to run when attacks came. Israel is of course well aware of this, which indicates that most of these methods are meant to provide deniability more than protect civilians.

But the online blitz doesn’t stop with the IDF. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a large international organization with a $100 million budget, circulated the following picture on Facebook:

Caption: An Israeli soldier wearing tefillin, which are worn by religious Jews during morning prayers, while he holds his firearm and talks with his commander.

This picture is given the following description: “This awesome photo shows the true strength of the Israeli Army! This soldier’s right hand connects him to his commander, his left to his Creator. “For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.”

Might we stop to wonder how most westerners would react if this was an obviously devout Muslim holding a Koran and a rifle? And how chilling would those words feel to most Western Christians and Jews if it was describing a Muslim with a quote from the Koran, instead of an Orthodox Jew and a quote from the Torah?

All of this comes as a reaction to what Israel realizes was an absolute disaster for their standing in many US citizen and non-Israeli Jews’ eyes: Operation Cast Lead. Despite US scuttling, the Goldstone Report — commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council — severely criticized Israel (Hamas as well, though the wide disparity in the capacity to damage resulted in a spotlight on Israeli actions), and the massive devastation of the onslaught sat poorly with many.

This time around, Israeli leaders met with foreign officials beforehand and laid out plans for communicating their view. Thus far, as well, the devastation of Gaza, bad as it has been, has not yet approached the levels of Cast Lead, especially in terms of loss of life.

Yet media mogul Rupert Murdoch, a staunch right-wing supporter of extreme Israeli policies, lamented in a tweet (since deleted and retracted) “Why Is Jewish owned press so consistently anti-Israel in every crisis?” And the ever repugnant Alan Dershowitz, who will misrepresent the law as far as he can to defend any and all Israeli actions bemoans the “…media and international community’s failure to distinguish between the Israeli military and Hamas terrorists.”

As of now, it looks like Israel is reluctant to engage in a ground offensive this time around. The latest calculation by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, confirms 41 civilian deaths out of 105 in Gaza at the time they issued their statement yesterday. That is a much lower total and a slightly better ratio than Cast Lead, where B’Tselem catalogued 1,390 dead in Gaza, of whom 759 were civilians. Perhaps this, as much as the greater attention to Israeli hasbara, can be attributed to the world watching these events in a way it could not before.

But it is hard to get past the gaming and the fiery rhetoric we see across social media supporting Israeli action today. It is further evidence, though, of Israel’s alienation from the liberal values that motivate much of the international community, as well as the international Jewish community. In the long term, that may help, despite the fact that political obfuscation and powerful lobbying continue to allow the bombing of a besieged population in Gaza.