Home > Internet > Secret Surveillance and Hereditary Kings: Putting a Check on Unlimited Network Surveillance

Secret Surveillance and Hereditary Kings: Putting a Check on Unlimited Network Surveillance

On Monday (March 23) a Second Circuit Court of Appeal in New York reinstated a lawsuit by civil liberties and human rights groups, journalists, media organizations, labour unions and others who argue that Internet, telephone and other electronic communication surveillance in the U.S. violates Constitutionally protected rights to privacy and freedom of expression.  The gist of the case is that the groups do have standing even though they are unable to prove whether or not their communications are actually under surveillance or not.

The case is a continuation of running attempts over the past five years to reign in claims that the President has unchecked powers to authorize the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on the electronic communications of Americans.  The process was first brought into the light of the day in December 2005 by New York Times’ reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtenblau. However, even then Risen and Lichtenblau’s coverage had been held back for a year because of the NYT’s deference to Bush Administration assertions that publication threatened national security (see mea culpa by NYT public editor Byron Calame, Jan. 1, 2006).

Despite being found to run afoul of existing law and the Constitution (see below), nobody ever put a stake through the heart of the Bush Administration’s illegal warrantless surveillance program. Instead, it has been continued by the Obama administration and given a retroactive legal footing with the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act. Consequently, the electronic surveillance of communications of Americans making international phone calls and using the internet to correspond with others outside the country is likely still alive and well, complete with secret data rooms and dedicated network connections linking all of the major U.S. telecom companies main switching centres to the NSA.

For those interested in a fuller treatment of the issues involved up until late 2007, I published an article in the International Communication Gazette in 2008.  You can find it here.

In its original form, the NSA’s warrantless electronic surveillance programme was authorized by President Bush on the pretext that he could do so using the claim that wartime presidents have virtually unlimited powers to do whatever it takes to prosecute a war. And we must remember that the Bush Administration used 9/11 to unleash a global war on terror that knows no set limits either in terms of how long it will last or where it will take place. Putting the two together — unbound powers of Wartime Presidents and war without end — the Bush Administration made unbound claims that it could it could do as it pleased, including authorizing electronic surveillance outside the normal process established by law of judicial review by the Foreign Intelligence Review Courts.

Sometime shortly after 9/11, the NSA began tapping into the telecom networks and switching hubs of AT&T, Verizon and most other big US telecoms firms (except, to its credit, Qwest) to eavesdrops on telephone, email and Internet communications between people in the US and elsewhere in the world. The program targeted up to 500 people at any one time and thousands overall in a bid  to monitor the electronic communications of people suspected of having ties to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and thus to pre-empt terrorist plots.

The two major cases dealing with these issues — Hepting v. AT&T and ACLU v. NSA — are replete with sections of the government’s case ‘blacked out’ on account of unspecified claims of national security. The cases also take on a Kafkesque tone with the Government’s claims that it was impossible to proceed with the cases at all because doing so would reveal the existence of ‘state secrets’.  And without being able to discuss the matters, well, the people involved couldn’t prove anything.

Over and against the administration, stood those representing journalists, academics, writers and lawyers who argued that they had been illegally caught up in the electronic drag-net because of their work involving Muslims living abroad. The president lacked authority, they stated, under the AUMF, the Constitution or any law to create the secret programme. Carolyn Jewel, a writer of futuristic action and romance novels, claimed that the surveillance programme made it impossible for her to talk ‘openly about Islam or US foreign policy in emails to a Muslim individual in Indonesia and that she could no longer use the Internet as part of her research.

In the ACLU v. NSA case, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor was blunt in her decision: the surveillance program was illegal and unconstitutional. She further argued that the claims before the court were not speculative and general, but ‘distinct, palpable, and substantial’ (ACLU et al. v. NSA et al., 2006: 22). The activities, she stated, crippled plaintiffs’ ‘ability to report the news and … to effectively represent their clients’ (ACLU et al. v. NSA et al., 2006: 20).

In exceptionally strong language, she disparaged Bush’s claims that his authority stemmed from the ‘inherent powers’ clause of the Constitution or the Authorization of Use of Military Force — a law hastily passed within days of 9/11 (ACLU et al. v. NSA et al., 2006: 33–41). To these claims of unfettered authority, Taylor sharply retorted: ‘There are no hereditary Kings in America’ (ACLU et al. v. NSA et al., 2006: 40).

The administration withdrew for the next six months, but in January 2007 it announced that the surveillance project would continue, but only after warrants were obtained according to the rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Foreign Intelligence Review Court. In other words, the Bush Administration would follow the law.

Even that, however, was not enough. On July 10 2008, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was changed to, essentially, make legal what was previously illegal. Just as importantly, the new law granted telecoms companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. immunity from prosecution, either for their activities in the past or in the future.  In other words, U.S. telecoms companies got a free pass despite the fact that they were, by court decision, acting in concert with the government in ways that were beyond the pale of either the Constitution or the law.

The decision on March 21, 2011 by the NY Second Circuit of Appeals is the next phase in this process. In many ways it was a rehash of issues that have already played out in the past, but with the crucial distinction that the ACLU and the others involved now have the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in their sights. If successful, the sections of the Act granting extensive actions to the Executive to authorize surveillance and for such activities to be conducted outside of formal processes of judicial review could fall on the grounds that they are unconstitutional.

One of the travesty’s of the current case is that the Obama Administration has simply carried through with the precedents set by Bush.  This is another major blemish on the Obama Admin’s original claims to establish some clear blue water between itself and its predecessor.

Thus, in the current case, many of the same players are involved, with the Executive, NSA and telecoms companies lined up on one side against journalists, media organizations, minority (e.g. read Muslim) groups, and civil rights groups, on the other. And again, claims are offered by the former that to even discuss the matter would be to reveal ‘State Secrets’ — a catch-all maneouvre that seeks to stop things dead in their tracks before they even get started by ruling that any kind of discussion of the matter is, simply, off-limits because of the wide ranging powers of the President that are in dispute.

And similar, too, are comments by journalists such as Noami Klein and media organizations such as the  leftish magazine that has been around since the 1865, The Nation — the oldest weekly magazine in the U.S. – that the spectre of unbound surveillance has a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech and freedom of the press.

As Naomi Klein stated in the Globe & Mail piece today, “The issue is that we think that the activities that we do could fall under these broad definitions”. When asked whether she herself was the target of such surveillance, Klein responded, “I have no idea whether they are or they aren’t”.

And that’s the point: the extraordinary powers and secrecy granted to ‘wartime presidents’ makes it impossible to penetrate the veil of ‘State Secrets’ and to know just where one stands. As a result, speech is chilled, the free press trumped by unchecked powers of the State, and privacy turned into a poor shadow of itself.

The decision on Monday by the New York Appeals Court is to be applauded. As the decision to go ahead with this legal challenge states, those pressing the case do not have to show that they are actually under surveillance, because given the broad claims of the national security agencies and the President this would be impossible to prove. It is enough, as the court state, that “allowing the executive branch sweeping and virtually unregulated authority to monitor the international communications . . . of law-abiding U.S. citizens and residents”, at least on the surface, appear to be an affront to the Constitutional protections of free speech and the free press, privacy as  well as the restraints that aim to prevent presidents, whether Bush or Obama, from acting like, to use Judge Anna Diggs Taylor’s words, “hereditary kings”.

This is a topic that, for Canadians, we also need to examine. This because are own Prime Minister Harper often appears to have torn a page from the Bush Administration’s playbook and sets himself up as an authoritative leader. As a wartime Prime Minister, just what kind of electronic network surveillance has been authorized in Canada?  And to what extent have the telecoms companies gone along with them?

From WWI onwards, the fact that trans-Atlantic cables linking not just Canada, but the U.S. as well, to Europe and the rest of the world have run too and from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have made them an integral part of the Euro-American surveillance system. It is unlikely that this is still not the case today, although someone needs to take up the challenge of doing the digging to find out.

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