I have a compulsive habit of making analogous references to film and/or television. Not only because their narratives are relevant but also because I’m a lonely nerd who’s obsessed with both. It’s become entirely subconscious. Accordingly, when news broke concerning the recent NSA scandal, I couldn’t help but make a connection with one of my favorite TV series: Homeland.
A quick summary for the uninitiated: The show centers around two main characters, Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody. In the opening scene of the first episode, we’re introduced to our protagonist–Carrie–a hot, blonde-haired CIA agent with a knack for doing things her own way. We find out that Carrie has bribed her way into an Iraqi prison to speak with an informant. The informant, reluctantly, tells her that, “An American prisoner of war has been turned”. Coincidently, a few days later, Nicholas Brody, a sergeant in the Marines who went missing 8 years prior, is rescued from captivity in Iraq and brought back to America. Upon his return, Brody is presented to the country as an American hero. Carrie, however, has her suspicions. Is Sergeant Brody the P.O.W.-turned-terrorist that Carrie’s informant warned her of? If so, what are Brody’s plans? And, more importantly, will Carrie and Brody eventually cross paths, resulting in a sexually-charged love affair? You’ll have to see for yourself.
I know I’ve gone completely off-track but it’s for the purpose of context. My analogy is related to a specific scene in Homeland when Carrie’s suspicions lead to paranoia. She’s convinced Brody is a spy and wants him under 24/7 surveillance. She confides in her mentor at the C.I.A. (Saul Berenson). Carrie begs for permission to spy on Brody. However, Saul’s response is surprisingly blunt: “No”. As a veteran of the agency and a man of principle, Saul chastises Carrie on how un-American it is. How the C.I.A. doesn’t spy on it’s own citizens. How Carrie is absolutely prohibited from doing so. (Spoiler Alert!) She does it anyway. Saul eventually finds out. At first, he’s outraged with Carrie. But after a scolding, Saul convinces a judge to grant Carrie a month-long FISA warrant giving her full-access to Brody’s life. Even though she already orchestrated her own version of big brother within Brody’s home–without permission–she never faces the repercussions. On the contrary, she’s encouraged to continue. It was after I recalled this particular scene when I asked myself: is this not a perfect reflection of the current state of affairs in America? A society defined by status and devoid of accountability. The worst part about it is: no one cares.
Back in the real world, in early June, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper began publishing a series of exposes outlining the extensive nature of America’s top-secret surveillance program. The whistleblower responsible for the leak turned out to be a contractor working for the NSA (National Security Agency) named Edward Snowden. It began on June 5th, when the Guardian released top-secret information regarding a request made to the FISA court, ordering Verizon to provide data for all telephone calls “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls, and all calls made between the U.S. and abroad.” This revelation wasn’t exactly mind-blowing. The PATRIOT Act made it clear that this has been happening since 9/11. However, what we didn’t know, was the extent of the surveillance. What no one expected was that the warrantless wiretapping that took place during the Bush administration was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Let’s rewind. To better understand this issue, one must better understand a brief history of domestic surveillance. In 1978, an act was signed into law known as FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). This law prescribed procedures for the electronic surveillance and collection of foreign intelligence information (which may include American citizens and permanent residents). More importantly, FISA set up the FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court). This federally-appointed court is charged with overseeing the processing of all FISA requests (requests for surveillance). Important to note is that these court hearings are “ex parte”: a legal proceeding brought by one person in the absence of and without representation or notification of other parties. Basically, “ex parte” is a big middle finger to due process. It remains true that FISA–initially–was enacted as a form of checks and balances, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Ironically, FISA was supposed to limit the surveillance of American citizens by filtering unjustifiable requests through the FISC. Unforeseeable, the events of September 11th, 2001 would change everything.
After 9/11, the Bush administration added an amendment to FISA known infamously as the PATRIOT Act (Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism) (our government LOVES acronyms). Among other things, the PATRIOT Act significantly weakened restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ gathering of intelligence within the United States. The act also expanded the State Department’s classification of “terrorist” to include “domestic terrorist”. What followed was a substantial increase in the number of operations to which the PATRIOT Act’s expanded law enforcement powers could be applied. Not surprisingly, this free-range access of information led to widespread abuse of power. A New York Times whistleblower would eventually disclose information confirming the unauthorized warrantless wiretapping of American citizens by the Bush administration. While the FISC demonstrated executive overreach by giving the middle finger to due process, the PATRIOT Act gave the middle finger to the entire U.S. constitution.
Fact: John Ashcroft has never been refused a woman’s phone number.
To think of the FISC as a jury of peers would be a complete misperception. The court is basically just there, ostensibly, as a tribunal to make the FISA process appear as if it exists in the realm of legality. In truth, the FISC is what’s known as a “rubber stamp”. Surveillance requests are granted by the FISC 99.97% of the time. Since 1979, nearly 34,000 FISA requests have been made and only 11 have been rejected. About 20,000 of those requests were made following September 11th, 2001. Nearly 60% of all requests were filed within the last decade.
Fast forward to 2013. On June 6th, one day after the Verizon leak, another bombshell was dropped on the American people by the Guardian and Washington Post. It was revealed that Verizon was just one of nine companies, all contributing to a top-secret clandestine surveillance program known as PRISM. This program operates under the FISC and is the primary source of all analytical data at the NSA. Among leaked information were slides from an NSA Powerpoint, outlining the extensiveness of PRISM:
Strange how something so evil can look so shitty.
PRISM takes surveillance to entirely new levels. Forget warrantless wiretapping, this program data mines EVERYTHING. Honestly, look at the above list and tell me you haven’t used your computer for at least one of those reasons, through at least one of those carriers. And if you think the government is asking nicely for permission, you’re sadly mistaken.
According to the New York Times, in 2008, Yahoo challenged a FISA court order requiring the company to give them data without a warrant (Yes. The FISC–the federally appointed court charged with granting warrants for spying–asked Yahoo for permission to spy without a warrant). Yahoo’s argument was simple: “The order violated its users’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The FISC responded by saying, give us the data or face federal charges of obstruction of justice. Yahoo obviously lost. Subsequently, in 2008, the company became one of the first of many to join the ranks of PRISM (albeit, against their will).
In the grand scheme of things, no one should necessarily be shocked that this type of covert operation exists. Since September 11th, it’s no longer breaking news that homeland security has metastasized into a monolithic entity. My concern isn’t so much with the extensive nature of surveillance slowly pervading this country. My concern is more focused on the fact that no one cares. By that I mean, what does it take for Americans to get pissed off at the establishment again? Where is the red line? Does it even exist in contemporary society?
During the Vietnam War, one of the most famous intelligence leaks in American history came to light thanks to a man named Daniel Ellsberg. He was a military analyst working for RAND (Research and Development). In 1971, Ellsberg leaked a cache of top-secret DoD intel to the New York Times known as “The Pentagon Papers”. Not only did the documents outline the U.S. government’s decision-making policy related to the Vietnam War but also provided a thorough report on U.S. political-military involvement in Vietnam between 1945-1967. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. had unknowingly expanded it’s war in Vietnam with bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia. Above all, as the New York Times said of the 1971 leak, “demonstrated, among other things, that the Lyndon B. Johnson administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance”. Consequently, from 1971 to 1975, the largest grassroots anti-war movement in American history reached it’s tipping point, eventually playing a significant role in ending the conflict in Vietnam.
We currently find ourselves in the same situation. A top-secret intelligence leak coupled with yet another “revelation” that are government lies to the masses and lurks in the shadows. And what is our response? Protests like the 60s and 70s? Of course, not. Instead, we illustrate an overall sentiment that defines a generation of Americans. It’s characterized by a form of complacency which occurs by not caring about what’s happening in the world, simply because you’re not being directly affected by it: out of sight, out of mind. “Why should I care if the government has access to my life? I have nothing to hide.” You should care because this is just the beginning. Because, since 9/11, surveillance requests have tripled. You should care, because, if you don’t care, it sets a precedent and sends a message to our government that translates to: “Do whatever you want.”
During it’s time, the Watergate scandal epitomized government corruption. So much so, that President Nixon was forced to resign. Within the past decade, we’ve watched as the pinnacle of corruption has reached new limits. We’ve seen the Bush administration fabricate sources to justify invading Iraq. Wikileaks became the Pentagon Papers on steroids. And now PRISM.
In the past decade, we’ve also seen incredible injustice. We’ve seen Wall Street nearly bankrupt the world economy. We’ve seen the BP oil spill, the largest ecological disaster in American history. We’ve seen two wars. Mass shootings on the rise. Incompetence in Congress. A shrinking middle class. Shrinking employment. Shrinking privacy.
“It was shrinkage!”
It seems in the aftermath of incredible injustice, there is rarely ever a face on which to place the blame. However, when it comes to whistleblowers–Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden–fighting AGAINST injustice, it seems there is always someone there to conveniently absorb the wrath of the U.S. government. It’s rarely the other way around. And for that, we the people, are to blame.
At what point do you say, enough is enough? At what point do you become angry at everything that has happened and everything that is happening around you? Are you even aware of what is happening? Or do you just not care?
You should care. Regardless of politics. Regardless of whether or not you think all whistleblowers are traitors. Regardless of whether or not you believe anything I said directly affects your life. If you’re an American citizen, you should care. Because not caring only shows our government that they don’t have to care either. If Homeland taught us anything, it’s that our government is rarely held accountable. Carrie spying on Brody? No problem, here’s a FISA warrant. The NSA spying on Americans? Oh well, shit happens. Our government is basically the geo-political equivalent of Chris Brown.
The less accountability we choose to wield, the less power we hold as a democracy. The more complacent we become, the more powerful and unaccountable our government becomes. Thanks to the internet, our generation has access to more information and more ways of sharing information than anyone in history. It can be utilized to bring about social change only if it is protected by the people who use it. The same can be said about our democracy. We have the tools to stand up and be heard, to fight for our guaranteed rights, and we live in a country that still allows us to do so. It’s time to start caring while caring is still an option. It’s time to get mad as hell. (See below)
UPDATE: Snowden claims U.S. surveillance worse than Orwell’s “1984”