Government spying is old news, so why the fuss?

He lies. That’s a word not often used here, but in light of sensational leaks that have led to allegationsWashington is ‘‘spying on Americans’’, there’s no nice way to parse James Clapper’s testimony to the Senate inMarch. Democrat senator Ron Wyden is unambiguous – ‘‘does the National Security Agency collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?’’

He lies. That’s a word not often used here, but in light of sensational leaks that have led to allegations Washington is ‘‘spying on Americans’’, there’s no nice way to parse James Clapper’s testimony to the Senate in March. Democrat senator Ron Wyden is unambiguous – ‘‘does the National Security Agency collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?’’ Clapper ought to know that Wyden knows the answer. But the Obama administration’s director of national intelligence looks the Oregon congressman in the eye, telling him: ‘‘No, sir – not wittingly’’. Fast-forward to last week. The Guardian in London and The Washington Post start to roll out impeccably sourced reports on the NSA’s collection and storage of all

American phone traffic, domestic and

inernational, and how the agency monitors email and social media internationally. And for news junkies, it gets better. On the weekend, a bespectacled 29-year-old American pops up in

Hong Kong – the geeky Edward Snowden identifies himself as a computer systems administrator based in Hawaii, whose top-level security clearance allows him to scoop up bundles of top secret documents from the classified files of the US security agencies, some so tightly held that only a few dozen officials would ordinarily have access to them. The Snowden story cannot be viewed in isolation, no more than it can be divorced from a corrosive atmosphere of distrust of government in the US – the sexy manhunt is interwoven in the wild ride of threats, real or perceived, to constitutional amendments that Americans hold dear – the first (freedom of speech) and the fourth (privacy). Discourse breaks down. Instead of debating the merit of surveillance, great energy goes into lionising or verbally ‘‘lynching’’ Snowden – ‘‘hero,’’ ‘‘traitor’’. Some want to shoot the messengers –New York Republican

Congressman Peter King demands that journalists be indicted along with leakers. But buried in the hyperbole is a seemingly plausible account of what’s going on. As explained by various officials, including the less than truthful James Clapper, the government needs to bulk-store ‘‘metadata’’ on phone calls within and to and from the US internationally because after a time, the telcos would destroy it rather than pay to store it. The data sits idle until, as former CIA chief Michael Hayden put it, ‘‘you roll up something in Waziristan’’. By which he meant, American or Pakistani forces acquire the cell phone of a terrorist or one of his associates in the badlands on the Afghanistan border. ‘‘You know it’s related to terrorism because of the pocket litter you’ve gotten in that operation,’’ he explains to reporters. ‘‘[So] here’s how it works – you simply ask the database, ‘Hey any of you [American] phone numbers in there ever talked to this phone number in Waziristan?’’ Only after a positive response from the database would the content of conversations between an American phone and the one acquired in Waziristan be accessed – and only with the permission of the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. This explanation comes replete with guarantees that it’s all within the constitution and the laws of the US and that Congress is briefed regularly. And that’s the problem – it’s all done with such secrecy and, as no less a figure than Clapper himself has demonstrated when he was questioned in the Senate, with blatant lies when it suits them. There is an issue of trust as much on the left as on the right of politics. At another time, Obama and his team might get away with a plea to ‘‘trust us’’. But on a second battlefront, there is hysteria over the way in which the Internal Revenue Service – aka the US taxman – went about investigating the activities of Tea Party and other conservative groups seeking tax exempt status. And on a third, there is more hysteria over the Department of Justice’s pursuit of leakers and the journalists with whom they work. This last case is especially problematic – the seizure of media phone records feeds into anxiety about what the NSA might be doing with its metadata mountain. A deep distrust of Washington resides in the political pathology of the US. Part of the logic in a crazy campaign to protect the rights of millions of gun owners (the Second Amendment) is that a day will come when they will have to fight Washington

Scepticism and suspicion lurk on both sides. Writing at Breitbart.com, columnist Patrick Caddell warns that as the crisis drags on, ‘‘it’s likely we will learn of important and inculpating connections between the National Security Agency ... and many civilian agencies ... I’m not just referring to Eric Holder’s Justice Department, I’m also referring to the gleefully gushing leakers and win-at-any-cost politicos at the White House. And, oh yes, let’s not forget the Obama administration’s partisan allies at the IRS.’’ Americans have been here before. In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled in Smith v Maryland that the numbers dialled by a phone subscriber do not qualify for fourth amendment privacy. A greater sense of deja vu for some is that there is nothing new in the Snowden leaks – they merely confirm what has been reported previously. In other words, these are ‘‘beat-ups’’. To the extent that this is true, it is being re-reported at a time when the fractured political landscape in the US is like a parched forest that needs just a bolt of lightening to become a fireball. In the wake of the Snowden leaks, some Americans are gasping at the illusory nature of privacy in a post- September 11 world. But others suggest it is the media’s treatment of the contents of the Snowdon leaks that is illusory. On page one, The Washington Post was having a field day with its scoops. But deep inside the paper, veteran columnist Walter Pincus pulled out a 2006 report from USA Today disclosing that the NSA ‘‘has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth. ‘‘The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans – most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyse calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity ...’’ Pincus also quotes a March 2012 report from Wired magazine, in which intelligence expert James Bamford describes the NSA’s $2 billion new data centre in Utah and its capacity to ‘‘intercept, decipher, analyse and store vast swathes of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables in international, foreign and domestic networks.’’ Writing about how the centre would operate when it comes on stream at the end of this year, Bamford writes: ‘‘Stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails – parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases and other digital ‘pocket litter’.’’ Americans are hardly shocked by snooping. In a poll published a week before the Snowden stories, 85 per cent of those polled figured that the government and business could access their phone, email and internet activity. As well as political gridlock, Washington is suffering leak gridlock. The star turn of the early summer was to be the trial of Bradley Manning, the US Army private who admits leaking 700,000 classified documents, but that’s been blown out of the water by Snowden’s bombshells – and the promise of more based on other sensitive documents that he has reportedly given to reporters. The cases are similar – nerdy young men, ideologically driven, stationed in far-flung corners of the security empire. Staggeringly, nothing was done in response to the Manning dump that might have tightened access to the NSA data mountain by a fellow traveller. It might have been different. Obama is spinning the surveillance row as best he can, claiming Americans can’t have 100 per cent security and privacy, saying he’s happy to have a debate on how to finesse the balance. But he’s coming off the back foot – it all would have been completely different had he initiated a debate rather than responded to sensational leaks that for some leave him looking like Uncle Sam’s dubious uncle. Through all this, Clapper the intelligence czar has been a star player – sometimes frustrated, but seemingly not losing his sense of humour. He refused to allow the crisis to prevent his appearance at a black-tie banquet last Friday to honour former CIA chief Hayden. ‘‘Some of you expressed surprise that I showed up,’’ he reportedly said.

‘‘So many emails to read!’’

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