Revolution #47, May 21, 2006
Big Brother and the Phone Companies
Bush Regime Spies on Millions
On May 11 the front page of USA Today featured the latest revelation in the scandal over the Bush regime's spying on people within the U.S. According to USA Today, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been obtaining phone records of all domestic phone calls from three of the biggest phone carriers in the country: Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth. (A fourth major company, Qwest, refused to hand over their records.)
200 million phone users. Billions of phone calls. All in the possession of a powerful secretive spy agency controlled by a president and an administration that's been ripping up fundamental rights at warp speed.
An unnamed source quoted by USA Today described this NSA surveillance program: “It's the largest database ever assembled in the world. For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made—across town or across the country—to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.”
This surveillance program reportedly involves “data mining” of phone numbers, not the content of the calls or the customers' names, addresses, and other information. But the NSA can easily cross-check other databases to get such information.
Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author of “Applied Cryptography”—called a “security guru” by The Economist—pointed out in a March 2005 issue of Wired magazine that "data mining is very useful for tracking credit card fraud, not uncovering ‘terrorist’ plots.” When Revolution asked Schneier what data mining would be good for, he responded, “A police state.”
And Washington Post columnist William Arkin points out:
“Once collected, the call records and other non-content communication are being churned through a mind-boggling network of software and data mining tools to extract intelligence.... Their sheer scope, the number of 'transactions' being tracked, raises questions as to whether an all-seeing domestic surveillance system isn't slowly being established, one that in just a few years time will be able to reveal the interactions of any targeted individual in near real time.”
In fact, things are moving very quickly, and we hardly have a “few years.” This is Big Brother at work now, big time.
The Lies of Bush, Gonzales, and Hayden
The new exposé of domestic surveillance brings out just how quickly and intensely the Bush administration has escalated and is escalating levels of repression and spying within the U.S. borders. It reveals more lying by Bush, and more carte blanche declaration of unlimited presidential powers.
In December of last year the New York Times revealed (in a story that the Times had sat on for months) that the NSA, under Bush's orders, was carrying out secret wiretapping of phone calls, without getting warrants from the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court as required by law. FISA, set up in 1978, has approved almost all the requests for wiretapping by the executive branch. But even this was not enough for the Bush regime, which wanted a totally free hand to spy on anyone, anywhere.
Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and then-NSA head Michael Hayden (now Bush's nominee to head the CIA) all said that the only phone calls tapped were ones where at least one end was located outside the U.S. and that it was all legal.
Gonzales told the press, “People are running around saying the U.S. is somehow spying on American citizens’ calling their neighbors. Very, very important to understand that one party to the communication has to be outside the United States.”
When asked whether the NSA is doing domestic spying, Hayden answered, “NSA is a foreign intelligence agency...what we've talked about here today is about foreign intelligence.” He added that if they deemed it necessary to do monitoring of domestic communications, “We go through the FISA court in order to do that.”
As for Bush, he told the media in December, “I authorized the NSA to intercept the international communications of people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. In other words if Al Qaeda or their associates are making calls into the U.S. or out of the U.S. we want to know what they are saying.”
As has now been dragged out into the open, these statements were all deliberate lies. Even as Bush, Gonzales, and Hayden spoke those words, their NSA was “data mining” and collecting the domestic phone records of tens of millions of people in the U.S., without ever going through any courts.
Some light was shed on the existence and the extent of NSA spying of domestic phone calls in a Dec. 25, 2005, L.A. Times report which said that since Sept. 11, 2001, “NSA has had a direct hookup into the database” at AT&T, code-named Daytona, which “keeps track of telephone numbers of both ends of calls as well as the duration of all landline calls.”
The following month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a federal lawsuit alleging that “AT&T Inc. had given the NSA direct access to the records of the more than 300 million domestic and international voice calls and huge volume of Internet data traffic it handles each business day.” (AP, 5/11/06)
Then in April, Gonzales, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, contradicted his own claim just a few months earlier that only international calls were being monitored. The New York Times reported, “Attorney General Gonzales suggested…for the first time that the president might have the legal authority to order wiretapping without a warrant on communications between Americans that occur exclusively within the United States. ‘I'm not going to rule it out,’ Gonzales replied when asked about that possibility...”
A month later, the whole world has come to know about the Bush regime's vast program to keep track of “communications between Americans that occur exclusively within the United States.”
Going After the Critics
After the May 11 exposure in USA Today, Bush went on TV to repeat (without directly referring to the domestic surveillance program) that any spying he has ordered has been all perfectly legal, strictly targeted at “terrorists and their associates,” and for the purpose of preventing “another attack.” He declared that “The privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities”—as if people should believe that entrusting the NSA with huge mountains of phone records amounts to “privacy.”
Some Bush apologists claimed that the NSA's data mining of phone records was, strictly speaking, not illegal, since the contents of the phone calls are not collected, business records are not protected by the Fourth Amendment, etc., etc. But Georgetown Law Professor David Cole told USA Today, “This may well be another example where the Bush administration, in secret, decided to bypass the courts and contravene federal law.”
But the main way that Bush and his crew is responding to the new exposure is to aggressively go after any critics, branding them essentially as traitors in bed with “terrorists” for questioning the President. After the NY Times story in December, the Bush administration ordered government investigations targeted at the newspaper. Now, in his TV appearance after the USA Today article, Bush warned, “Every time sensitive intelligence is leaked, it hurts our ability to defeat this enemy.”
That theme was taken up with a vengeance by other leading Republicans. “Every time we have a leak of classified information like this, it makes us significantly less safe,” said Senator Kit Bond on the Lehrer News Hour. Trent Lott said, “What are people worried about? What is the problem? Are you doing something you're not supposed to?”
Their argument boils down to: As president and “commander-in-chief,” Bush has the power to do anything he wants to, including ignoring existing laws and courts. This is the same “theory” of the “unitary executive” that Bush and Co. has used to justify torture and other crimes they have carried out against the people of the world.
The logic of Bush's arguments and the real-life actions of the Bush administration reveal how fundamental rights, supposedly assured under U.S. bourgeois society, are being ripped up—while new fascist legal norms are being cemented into place. With the calls and emails of tens of millions being tracked and monitored—legal concepts like need for probable cause to investigate people have been thrown out the window. To try to “wait it out” in the hope that the pendulum would “swing the other way”—instead of fiercely resisting this course—is to accept a very dark future where anyone can be a “suspect” and where those who question the government are instantly branded as “traitors.”
The Loyal Opposition...and the Need for Real Resistance
Democrats and some Republicans have raised concern over the warrantless wiretapping and the new exposures of domestic phone monitoring. One of their complaints is that they are being kept in the dark about the spying programs—but they've hardly tried to stop Bush. Democrat Nancy Pelosi met with then-NSA Chief Hayden in 2001 and wrote a “letter of concern” about the wiretapping programs. End of story. Bush's spy programs continued moving right ahead.
After the recent USA Today revelations, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has been a supporter of Bush's CIA nominee Hayden, said this new scandal may lead to a “major constitutional confrontation.” Other Democrats, and some Republicans, are demanding investigations.
But sharp as such struggle within the power structure may be at times, all this takes place within certain very narrow bounds. To begin with, agencies like the NSA exist to spy both on the foreign rivals of these imperialists and on the political movements of the people. Bush's critics within the ruling class almost universally limit their objections to the fact that he didn't follow the rules on how to do this. They are NOT really outraged over the fact that Bush has spied on millions of people. What concerns them is that he claims the right to violate the rules that legally govern that spying AND that he could turn—and probably already has turned—the NSA not just against the people, but against his ruling class counterparts and rivals.
What we are seeing is an illustration of how bourgeois democracy really is a bourgeois dictatorship. As the Bush administration drives forward with the war in Iraq, nuclear threats to Iran—and their overall goal of restructuring whole parts of the globe — they are more driven to tighten up control at home. And this includes tearing up certain guarantees and rights promised under “normal times.”
This represents great dangers for the people—including real dangers to the people's ability to resist. But it is also true that many millions are outraged, upset, and concerned about the course being taken by the Bush regime and the direction of society overall. And this needs to translate into massive political resistance and independent historical action. This is crucial, both from the standpoint of stopping this whole juggernaut of repression and also from the standpoint of building a revolutionary movement and repolarizing society for revolution. Mobilizing millions in the streets and throughout society against this repression and striking real political blows against the Bush regime will serve to open up new and greater opportunities for what the people think and dream is possible and what they are able to actually achieve.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.