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PRISM: The US Government Is Mad At Bradley Manning For Doing To It What It Is Doing To All Of Us


Bradley Manning, who spilled the beans on the US blowing away of unarmed Iraqi journalists and overlooking war crimes by the US military and allied Iraqi troops, released thousands of low-level cable messages. He has been charged by the US government with thereby being a traitor, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It is not clear which enemy benefited from the catty remarks in some embassy cables, or how exactly their revelation harmed national security. What did happen was that millions of people in the US and around the world discovered some of the more egregious sins of commission and omission of the US government, especially with regard to Iraq. The treason charge against Manning is outrageous, and has been pursued because otherwise what he did is not obviously very serious and even a military judge might not return a severe sentence. While the scatter shot character of his revelations may be troubling, some of what he revealed was government crimes, for which Americans should thank him.

It turns out that Manning, in making government correspondence available for us to read, was just turning the tables on the US government, which The Guardian and the Washington Post today reveal has a back door called PRISM into all our internet communications (emails, over-the-internet phone calls, browser search history, etc.) with 9 major companies, including Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! (but not, interestingly, Twitter). The program is detailed in a Powerpoint slide presentation for initiating new NSA employees into its workings.

The sordid police states that have a paltry few tens of thousands of domestic spies monitoring the activities of ordinary citizens turn out to be minor players in this game compared to the home of the brave and the land of the free. Eat your hearts out, North Korean secret police and Baathist mukhabarat in Syria!

The NSA is supposed to use the back door only for communications going abroad or originating abroad, but it only has to be 51% certain that there is a foreign component. That is a low bar. But anyway nowadays how many of us have no email or social media communication with people living overseas? In practice, domestic communications will inevitably be swept up in this program. And, someone should explain to me why Americans’ correspondence going abroad is suddenly without Fourth Amendment protections? The FBI appears to be deeply involved in the operation, and how likely is it that, say, Occupy Wall Street activists or environmentalists haven’t been subject to surveillance? Apparently, unlike with the case of the Verizon phone call records, the NSA has access to the content of emails, not just records of to whom they were sent. In any case, meta data like who you are talking to is in most cases *more* important than content, as Jane Mayer explains.

Apparently the back door was installed under the provisions of the misnamed USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 that allow for requisition of “business records,” and the FBI and National Security Agency interpreted that language to allow installation of the equipment allowing direct access to the companies’ servers. The large internet companies’ spokespeople are puzzled by the news and denying it, but there is every reason to think that the CEOs and other authorities at these companies were strictly enjoined against revealing what had been done, and so the rest of the company and the world hadn’t known about it. One of the ways the anti-PATRIOTic Act subverted American norms of public life is that it allows the FBI to not only request your records without a warrant but to forbid the provider of the records from ever revealing that the request was made. In other words, it turned librarians and internet company officials into liars and stool pigeons and mafiosi, under a goonish seal of silence.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has known about PRISM for some time and been appalled, but could not speak openly about it because it is classified, and has pleas to fellow senators to do something about it were shamefully deep-sixed by his colleagues. Me, I have dark suspicions that PRISM and telephone record surveillance has allowed the FBI, NSA and other agencies to accumulate damaging information on our representatives’ private lives so as to be able to blackmail them into not rocking the boat. At least, these programs make such a way of proceeding entirely possible at any time.

It isn’t just the government. PRISM is only using the resources of private companies, and we cannot depend on them always being upright. We know that billionaire Rupert Murdoch has deployed his “news” organizations to hack into people’s voice messages and has attempted to use his known surveillance capacity to intimidate high-level politicians into accepting his policy diktats.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has made a timeline of NSA domestic spying and the EFF’s own so far fruitless attempts to get the courts to enforce the Constitution.

One reason Eric Holder should be fired is that his likely response to the revelation of PRISM will be to pull out all the stops to find and punish the NSA employee that turned the Powerpoint slides over to the Guardian and WaPo. Stepping back from this massive incursion against the Constitution? On past evidence, that won’t be on his agenda.

In any case, the US Government has been gleefully getting access to your private correspondence and that gave the Government Class an inherent superiority over ordinary Americans. Manning announced that turnabout is fair play, and we should be able to see their correspondence, too, especially given the war crimes in Iraq. That’s why they’re trying to execute him. 

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