Letter from US: Fresh pressure over NSA spy regime

Division among ruling circles in the United States and internationally about what to do about the revelations of wholesale NSA spying continues to deepen.

A January 17 speech by US President Barack Obama, which was supposed to move the discussion forward, was a flop. Polls indicate it failed to change people’s minds.

He gave his usual “on the one hand, and on the other” type speech trying to appease both sides, but came down in defence of the NSA program.

Where he did seem to offer changes, there were caveats. For example, he said the NSA’s bugging of foreign leaders would cease — except in cases of “national security”. But that is the justification for the whole NSA spying program.


The New York Times said that in the case of Germany, attempts to come to an agreement on spying on each other’s leaders are “floundering”.

The sticking point is, “American officials have refused to extend the ‘no spying’ guarantee beyond [Chancellor Angela] Merkel, telling German officials in private sessions that if the White House agreed to forego surveillance on German territory, other partners would insist on the same treatment”.

These discussions do not even touch on the spying on hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Reports indicate the views of most Europeans are dismissive of Obama’s speech.

Obama also promised to find a way to have targets of NSA spying who are brought before the kangaroo Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) have some kind of advocate present.

But the targets themselves would not be present and would not even know of the secret FISA proceedings.

Such “advocates” would be chosen from a government-appointed list, and only be present when FISA decided to allow it.

The word “foreign” in FISA’s name is misleading. FISA is the only court which oversees the NSA’s operations. Such operations include the sweeping up of all “metadata” of every phone call, tweet, email or text of all US citizens, to which it has given carte blanche.

New report

On January 23, an independent federal privacy watchdog issued a 238-page report. It concluded that NSA’s collection of bulk “metadata” of US citizens provided only “minimal” benefits in counterterrorism efforts, is illegal and should be shut down.

This is a direct refutation of Obama’s stance that the program must continue.

This was the first major public statement by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Congress made it an independent agency in 2007 and it only recently became fully operational.

Commenting on the report, the NYT said it “lays out what may be the most detailed critique of the government’s once-secret legal theory behind the program: that a law known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to obtain business records deemed ‘relevant’ to an investigation, can be legally interpreted as authorizing the NSA to collect all calling records in the country.

“The program ‘lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value,’ the report said. ‘As a result, the board recommends that the government end the program.’”

The NYT noted that the “report also scrutinizes in detail a handful of investigations in which the program was used, finding ‘no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.’”

Of course, Section 215 and the whole Patriot Act is a violation of civil liberties. The “war on terror” rationale for the wars the US has waged since and the setting up of this vast spy operation is bogus.

Growing concerns

Snowden’s revelations of the extent of international spying, including economic spying, have also caused concern.

Also on January 23, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, set up a commission to “scrutinise the future of the web in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations”, according to the British Financial Times.

“Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, said [in Davos] trust in her company and others had been damaged by the disclosures.” Her concerns were echoed by other company heads.

Microsoft has now said it will not store international users’ information in the US. The Financial Times said: “Brad Smith, general counsel of Microsoft, said that [such a measure] had become necessary after leaks showed the National Security Agency had been monitoring data of foreign citizens from Brazil to the EU.”

Whether this move by Microsoft will calm concerns, given the worldwide reach of the NSA, remains to be seen.

Such divisions among ruling class circles are important? They help our side, the working class side, expose ruling class attacks on us.

Polls now show that about 70% of US citizens think NSA spying on them should be curtailed or eliminated, for example.

The division over the NSA program also extends to differences over how Snowden should be treated.

The NYT editors have called for clemency for Snowden, given the great value of his revelations. Calls for clemency have grown in the past several months by other news groups as well as civil liberties groups.

In response, Obama’s spokeperson, Attorney-General Eric Holder, rejected such appeals on January 23. He said Snowden should plead guilty to the charges against him — and only then the government would consider a plea deal.

Bipartisan attack

A bipartisan attack on Snowden was launched by the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on the January 19 Meet the Press program.

Mike Rodgers, the Republican head of the House committee, was joined by Democrat Dianne Feinstein of the Senate’s in raising, without a shred of evidence, that Snowden had been working for the Russian spy services while employed as a contractor for the NSA.

Rodgers said that Snowden's possession of a “go bag” to get out of Hawaii and his smooth entry into Hong Kong indicated pre-planning beyond his individual capacity.

“I don’t think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB [the Russian spy agency],” Rodgers said.

Feinstein chimed in: “He may well have [been a Russian spy].”

In December, Jesselyn Radak, a legal advisor to Snowden and a lawyer with the Government Accountability Project, replied to such nonsense, adding: “I absolutely think the tide has changed for Snowden. All these things taken together counsel in favor of some sort of amnesty or pardon.”

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]