Letter from the US: NSA spying provokes protests — at home and abroad

Protest against NSA spying in Washignton on October 26.

Several thousands of people marched and rallied in the United States’ capital on October 26 in protest against the mass surveillance of almost all Americans and hundreds of millions of citizens of other countries.

The huge Big Brother program, conducted by the US National Security Agency (NSA), has been exposed by Edward Snowdon, considered a hero by those demonstrating.

Beginning in May last, Snowden’s trove of revelations keeps coming through releases by Glenn Greenwald in the British Guardian.

’Thank you’

“Thank You, Edward Snowden,” was the most popular banner among the crowd.

The march was kicked off by David Segal of Demand Progress, an Internet activist group. “They think an open government means our information is open for the taking,” he said.

One member of the activist women’s group Code Pink wore an Obama mask, and carried a large cardboard camera. Organisers supplied placards reading “Stop Watching ________,” allowing protesters to fill in their names.

Homemade signs were more colourful. Some read: “Don’t Tap Me, Bro,” “Yes, We Scan,” and “No Snitching Allowed”

As the marchers went from the Union railroad station to the famous reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building, they sang out chants, including “Hey, hey, ho ho, mass surveillance has got to go” and “They say wire tap? We say fight back!”

A protester wore a mask depicting a skull beneath the head of the Statue of Liberty. Another carried a large model of a US drone aircraft.

Message from Snowden

A message from Snowden himself, from his in exile in Russia, was read to the rally by Jessica Radack, a former Justice Department ethics advisor. Radack left that job, no doubt tired of butting her head against the wall, and now is with the Government Accountability Project.

“We are here to remind government officials,” Snowden’s statement began, “that they are public servants, not private investigators”.

“This isn’t about red or blue party lines, and it definitely isn’t about terrorism. This is about the unconstitutional, unethical and immoral actions of the modern-day surveillance state and how we must all work together to remind the government to stop them.

“It’s about our right to know, our right to associate freely, and to live in a free and open democratic society.

“We are witnessing an American movement in which ordinary people from high schools to high office to stand up to oppose a dangerous trend in government.

“We are told that what is unconstitutional is not illegal, but we will not be fooled. We have not forgotten that the Fourth Amendment in our Bill of Rights prohibits government not only from searching our personal effects without a warrant, but from seizing them in the first place, and doing so in secret.

“Holding to this principle, we declare that mass surveillance has no place in this country.

“It is time for reform. Elections are coming and we are watching you. Thank you.”

One of the people who once held “high office” also spoke to the rally. That was Thomas Drake, a former NSA whistleblower who was threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act. He finally pleaded to lesser charges under that threat.

“I was fortunate that I did not end up in actual prison,” Drake told the crowd, “having lived a virtual version [while under charges] for a number of years”.

Speaking truth to power

This was “for coming out of the system to speak truth to and of power — clearly a dangerous act of civil disobedience and individuality in these times, and now defined as a criminal act by the national security state, aided and abetted by journalists and reporters”.

He was targeted, he said, for “expressing one’s fundamental and inalienable right to individual sovereignty in the face of a government bent on destroying it”.

“The last thing a free and open society needs is a digital fence around us creating a virtual turnkey tyranny with the barbed-wire surveillance not only keeping track of our comings and goings, but now increasingly wanting to know what we think and feel, the very essence of who we are …

“It’s time to restore the Fourth Amendment. It is time to repeal the Patriot Act. It is time to repeal the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Security Act]. It is time the United States government stops watching us.”

Another speaker was Gary Johnson, former Republican governor of New Mexico and the 2012 presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party.

Unlikely as it seems, there is a tiny minority of Republicans who actually support the Bill of Rights, despite being right wing on other issues.

“The government has granted itself power that it does not have [under the Constitution],” Johnson said. “We have to stand against this.

“Angela Merkel, thank you for bring to the attention of the world that the US is monitoring the cellphones of 35 world leaders.

“Thank you Edward Snowden for allowing us to recognise that 70 million cellphone conversations in France every month are being monitored.

“Thank you for bringing to the attention of the world the fact that the US government, NSA, is engaged in massive information gathering — 125 billion cellphone conversations a month, judges granting legal authority for NSA to monitor 113 million Verizon users. This is not due process!”

The program included poets and punk band Yacht, who sang: “Party at the NSA/twenty-twenty-twenty-four fours a day!”

The demonstration came amid new revelations about huge NSA spying of French and Spanish citizens, as well as the sensational news about US bugging of the German chancellor’s phone going back to 2002.

These come on top of previous revelations of huge spying on Mexico and Brazil, including their leaders.


There has been outrage across Europe. Why then was the October 26 demonstration only in the thousands, important though it was?

I believe there are three reasons. Starting with the least important, there is the continual propaganda coming out the administration, the Congress and both capitalist parties, incessantly repeated in the capitalist media, that all the NSA is doing is “fighting terrorism”.

While a still significant section of the population swallows this falsehood, it is wearing thin. It gets harder to make this case in light of the results of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, waged under the demagoguery of “fighting terrorism”.

The second reason why the turnout was not larger was the failure of organisers to try to mobilise a wider layer. I am on many left-wing e-lists, including socialist ones but left-liberal ones too. I did not see one single announcement of the action, which I only heard about after it occurred.

It appears the organisers made no effort to appeal to left-wing or anti-war groups. These were conspicuous by their absence, by and large, with the exception of some members of the Code Pink anti-war group.

Press reports also mentioned that there were some Green Party people present. But well known Code Pink spokesperson Medea Benjamin did not speak. Nor did Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the Green Party last year. Nor did anyone from the United National Antiwar Coalition, or the ANSWER coalition.

Not even Amy Goodman, the host of independent TV and radio show Democracy Now!, was invited to speak. This was despite of the fact the show has been one of the best sources of coverage of Snowden, Greenwald and the NSA since the first revelations.

Many of the quotes of speakers at October 26 I use in this column I got from Democracy Now!<.em>’s coverage of the action, which was barely mentioned in the capitalist press and media, if at all.

It appears that the organisers did not want to have much of the left present. If they had, the actions could have been as much as two or three times larger.

But the main reason why the action was not much bigger is the fact that large numbers of people who are appalled at the NSA spying fear doing anything directed at the Obama administration and the Democrats.

The White House’s full-blast offensive backing the NSA is truly grotesque. One example: testifying before Congress (and on prime time TV) in the days after the October 26 action, NSA Director General Keith Alexander even charged the French newspaper Le Monde, the Spanish newspaper Il Mundo, the German Der Spiegel and others with spreading falsehoods about the spying on their citizens.

So while figures in the administration have gone on the offensive to justify the whole NSA program, the many millions opposed to that very program remain impotent and silent.

Among them is the MoveOn group, which purports to represent “progressive” Democrats. It was silent on the demonstration, and steers clear of Snowden.

Such is the logic of lesser-evilism, the fear to oppose the Democratic administration on anything so as not to look pro-Republican. It is a fateful trap.

Let us hope that October 26 is just the start of a breakthrough.

[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.]