Ed ‘n’ Me

I’m all fired up because I just finished Edward Snowden’s, Permanent Record and have a pressing need to applaud it, to highly recommend it, and to add a couple of points that I felt he was too modest to stress enough.

Like Ed, I was a “member of the intelligence community”, a catch-all phrase describing people who worked in one of the civilian and military agencies that dealt with the acquisition of intelligence. That is, intelligence in its political sense of other nations’ data that you want to read while simultaneously keeping your own data safely out of Other Hands. Unlike Ed, I made no lasting contribution to the nation.

Spycraft over the centuries became increasingly complex, and in the latter third of the 20th century the interception of electrical signals and communications proliferated. When I got into that field in the spring of 1964, this country had, under the aegis of the National Security Agency (NSA), listening posts all over the world tasked with eavesdropping on the electronic emanations of, mostly, cold war enemies with the occasional check on friendly nations just to make sure they were still loyal.

Our Army, Navy, and Air Force also had agencies devoted to the collection of foreign military communications; and I was in the Army version, the Army Security Agency. Following the example of the NSA, these military agencies all used the word “Security” in their names to make it seem as if all we were doing was providing security for our branch’s communications when the reality was that the vast bulk of the personnel in all these agencies were engaged in communications intelligence acquisition. Well, see, the very fact that we were gathering communications intelligence was itself classified, as if somehow nobody knew we were doing it.

My unit, the 102nd ASA Security Detachment, was one of the token handful that were actually working in security; and my job largely entailed running around all over Germany and France performing cryptosecurity inspections on US Army installations to prevent them from compromising the system by using it incorrectly. This was entertaining duty since the inspection schedule had been very very carefully drawn up to send the inspector to every site when the local area was at its finest. Better yet, it took full advantage of weekends. For example, we had two accounts in Paris to inspect; and by some chance one was set up for Friday and the other on Monday, forcing the inspector to cool his heels in Paris for the whole damn weekend before he could get back to work. It was that weekend that I discovered creamed spinach.

But that was then, back in 1966. Periodically in the following years, the NSA was accused of misusing its powers by monitoring Americans right here at home at the behest of high government officials; but of course there was never proof of the charges, and they were met with stout denial.

The most dramatic of these, it seems to me and perhaps because it occurred right here in San Francisco, was in 2005 when Mark Klein blew the whistle on AT&T’s now-infamous Room 641a. Klein was a technician working for AT&T who got curious about this mysterious door with no doorknob labeled Room 641a. And being a technician, he started snooping in the wiring in the crawl space above the room and discovered a splitter that was allowing a copy of everything (all Internet traffic and all phone calls) that went through that building to be sent to the NSA. And then he turned around and told everyone. I’m not one for videos, but here’s a PBS program for which I’ll make an exception since it covers the story beautifully. Of course, nothing changed since AT&T and the NSA denied the whole thing and Klein had no proof.

But back to 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s great victory, not that he won the war but rather that he triggered a wave of repressive action in this country that reduced the great mass of its citizens to Suspects who required continuous surveillance. It started with George W. Bush’s Patriot Act, written and signed while the ashes were still cooling. At this point, the NSA secretly changed its mission to the collection of Everything, whether it be the communications of foreign entities or American citizens. The screws were tightened in the following years as in 2004 and 2008 when Bush retroactively authorized NSA surveillance of US citizens here in this country. And then in 2012, Obama spinelessly extended Bush’s warrantless wiretapping for another five years.

Enter Edward Snowden, who in June, 2013 turned over thousands of highly classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill. And they almost immediately released many of these documents to The Guardian, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, and The New York Times, all of which then printed articles about this material.

So why was this any different from the occasions in the past in which the whistle had been blown on the NSA? Simple, because what was released this time was not mere accusations but rather actual NSA and CIA documents, so for the first time ever, there was absolute proof which could not be denied. Faced with this, in 2015 Congress passed and Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, which for the first time in over thirty years, put some limits on NSA surveillance.

Before we go dancing around singing “Praise God, We’re Free at Last”, let’s note that from the moment the act was signed, hawks and surveillance sympathizers like San Francisco’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein began working to weaken it. I keep calling her “Big Sister”, hoping that the epithet will stick.

And this is why Snowden is, to many of us, a great patriot up there with Daniel Ellsberg. He risked his life and his own freedom to strike a blow for the freedom of the rest of us, and he did so with no anticipation of being rewarded for it. Quite the contrary. He now sits marooned in Moscow, where he was stuck enroute to asylum in Ecuador when the Russians discovered that his passport had been revoked and denied him permission to continue on his journey.

The story of how he came to release the documents to journalists is well told by one of them, Glenn Greenwald, in his 2014 book, No Place to Hide, which I highly recommend

And bear in mind that even as we sip our evening cocktails, the forces of the right, allied with the NSA, are doing everything they can to remove limitations on the NSA; so if we stop paying attention, it’ll be back to the Panopticon for us.

Meanwhile, a bit of San Francisco street art:

Holding it Down

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*
*