As the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell affair dominated the news recently, news media seized on every available shred of information and innuendo as they delightedly spread the story. But there is a sub-text almost totally ignored in the flurry of prurient excitement. Glen Greenwald, who has done in-depth and extensive reporting on what he calls “The Surveillance State” is the exception.
In an article in the November 13 Guardian UK titled “FBI’s Abuse of the Surveillance State Is The Real Scandal,” Greenwald says, “It appears that the FBI not only devoted substantial resources, but also engaged in highly invasive surveillance, for no reason other than to do a personal favor for a friend of one of its agents, to· find out who was very mildly harassing her by email.” He goes on to point out there were no actual threats contained in the emails. The recipient, Jill Kelly, described as “a Tampa socialite,” seemed more curious than frightened. Greenwald’s point is there was no credible reason for the FBI to launch an investigation—but it did.
Greenwald continues, “What is most striking is how sweeping probing and invasive the FBI’s investigation then became, all without any evidence of any actual crime or the need for any search warrant.” (Italics mine). Ms. Kelly found she had unleashed a monster. Next thing she knew, the FBI was looking through her extensive exchange of emails to General John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The media loved it, although they couldn’t come up with any romantic connection between Kelly and Allen.
Darn! This, in spite of the fact that the FBI got hold of and read between 20,000 and 30,000 (!) pages of emails between them in an attempt to find something. What all this may prove is that General Allen doesn’t have enough to do, since he has time to write upwards of 20,000 emails to a woman friend.
All this came to light because of the celebrity status of the individuals, especially Petraeus, involved. But this type of surveillance goes on constantly and involves mi11ions of Americans. In its 2010 “Top Secret America” series, the Washington Post reported, “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency (NSA) intercept and store 1.7 billion (that’s with a b) emails, phone calls, and other types of communications.”
Greenwald comments on this: “What is most disturbing about the whole Petraeus· scandal is not the sexual activities that it revealed, but the wildly out-of-control government surveillance powers which enabled these revelations. What requires investigation here is not Petraeus and Allen and their various sexual partners but the FBI and the whole sprawling, unaccountable surveillance system that has been built.” In his definitive article, “’The Digital Surveillance State: Vast, Secret, and Dangerous,” published August 9, 2010 in Cato Unbound, Greenwald details ‘the growth of the “More-Surveillance-Is-Always-Better mind-set. Despite the 30-year-old FISA law making warrantless eavesdropping a felony, it has been ignored and unenforced, allowing it to grow to immense proportions. In fact, subsequent legislation (2007 Protect America Act, and 2008 FISA Amendments Act) made this illegal activity legal and expanded it even further.
Since Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, he has consistently advocated for increased and less restrained surveillance, this in spite of his pledge during his 2008 presidential campaign to do the opposite. In 2010, the Congress once again extended the Patriot Act without even a single added oversight protection—with the overt support of the Obama administration.
“O.K.,” you say, “but why should we care about this? It’s designed to catch terrorists. They don’t have an interest in us regular people; if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” Yes, we do. Here’s why. First, you can count on it that among those 1.7 billion communications collected daily are some that originated with or were received by you and me.
It’s a small step (It has happened over and over in history even without present-day electronic surveillance capabilities) from looking for terrorists to looking for dissenters. Authoritarian regimes maintain themselves by suppressing and persecuting dissenters. The apparatus is in place for that to happen here. Second, the out-of-control surveillance apparatus has become counter-productive. As Greenwald points out, “the Surveillance State already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications – so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale – that it is increasingly difficult for it to detect any actual national security threats.” Ample information was · collected on Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and attempted Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab but it simply went unrecognized. The more information we collect, the less safe we become.