SYNDICATED COLUMN: 10 Things You Don’t Know About How the NSA Spies on You

The Least Most Untruthful Analysis of Obama’s Orwellian Dystopia

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian says “a lot more significant revelations” about America’s colossal Orwellian surveillance state are coming down the pike — courtesy of the thousands of pages of classified documents he obtained from Edward Snowden, the heroic former CIA contractor. That should be fun.

In the meantime, we’ve got a pair of doozies to digest: Verizon’s decision to turn over its the “metadata” — everything about every phone call (except the sound) to the NSA, and the PRISM program, under which the biggest Internet companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, etc., pretty much all the top outfits except Twitter) let the NSA read our emails, see our photos, even watch our Skype chats.

Establishment politicians and their media mouthpieces are spinning faster than a server at the NSA’s new five zettabyte data farm in Utah, doing everything they can to obfuscate in the hope that we’ll forget this whole thing and climb back into our pods in The Matrix.

So let’s get some clarity on what’s really going on with 10 things you probably don’t know about the NSA scandals.

1. PRISM, not Verizon, is the bigger story.

Government-aligned mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and NPR focus more on Verizon because — though what the phone company did was egregious — it’s less indefensible. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama says. (When that’s what passes for reassurance, you’ve got a PR problem.) PRISM, they keep saying, is targeted at “foreigners” so Americans shouldn’t be angry about it. But…
2. PRISM really is directed at Americans.

“Unlike the call data collection program, this program focuses on mining the content of online communication, not just the metadata about them, and is potentially a much greater privacy intrusion,” notes Popular Mechanics.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress that the NSA does not collect “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” “Not wittingly.” As The New York Times said in an uncharacteristically bold post, this is a lie. Here’s what’s behind the Rumsfeldian logic of what Clapper describes as his “least most untruthful” testimony: “What I was thinking of,” explains Clapper, “is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers of those books in the metaphorical library. To me the collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it.”

In other words, the NSA collects the search histories, emails, file transfer records and actual live chats of every American. They store them in a data farm. Whenever the NSA wants to look at them, they can. But according to Clapper, this isn’t “collecting.” It’s only “collecting” when they choose to read what they have.

I have bought several books. They’re on my shelf. I haven’t read them yet. Have I “collected” them? Of course.

I don’t want the NSA to read my sexts or look at my dirty pictures. The fact that they may not have gotten around to it yet — but have them sitting on their shelves — doesn’t make me feel better.

3. President Obama should be impeached over this.

Richard Nixon was. Or would have been, if he hadn’t resigned. Obama, his top officials and his political surrogates have repeatedly and knowingly lied to us when they said the NSA didn’t “routinely sweep up information about millions of Americans.” He should go now. So should others who knew about this.

4. PRISM and other NSA spy programs are not approved by courts or by Congress.

White House defenders say the surveillance — which is, remember, a comprehensive vacuuming up of the entire Internet, and of every phone call ever made — has been approved by the legislative and judicial branches, so there’s nothing to worry about. But that isn’t true. The “FISA court” is so secret that, until last week, no one had ever seen a document issued by it. It’s not a real court. It’s a useless rubber stamp panel that literally approves every surveillance request the government asks for. In 2012, that’s 1856 requests and 1856 approvals.

Very few members of Congress were aware of the Verizon or PRISM programs before reading about them in the media. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a few select Friends of Barack, that’s it. That’s not Congressional oversight. Real oversight occurs in full session, in public, on C-SPAN.

5. There is no evidence that NSA spying keeps America safe. And so what if it did?

According to government officials, PRISM saved the New York City subways from being bombed in 2009. Actually, the alleged would-be terrorist was caught by old-fashioned detective work, not data-mining. There is zero evidence that the NSA has saved a single American from being blown up.

But so what if it did? In recent years, between 15 and 17 Americans a year died worldwide from terrorist attacks. You’re as likely to be crushed to death by your television set. It’s sad for the dozen and a half victims, of course. But terrorism is a low, low national priority. Or it should be. Terrorism isn’t enough of a danger to justify taking away the privacy rights of 320 million people.

6. This is not a post-9/11 thing.

We’re being told that PRISM and the latest Patriot Act-approved surveillance state excesses date back to post-9/11 “make us safe at any cost” paranoia. In fact, the NSA has been way up in your business long before that.

Back in December 1998 the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur revealed the existence of a covert partnership between the NSA and 26 U.S. allies. “The power of the network, codenamed ECHELON, is astounding,” the BBC reported in 1999. “Every international telephone call, fax, e-mail, or radio transmission can be listened to by powerful computers capable of voice recognition. They home in on a long list of key words, or patterns of messages. They are looking for evidence of international crime, like terrorism…the system is so widespread all sorts of private communications, often of a sensitive commercial nature, are hoovered up and analyzed.” ECHELON dates back to the 1980s. PRISM picks up where ECHELON left off, adding the Internet to its bag of tricks.

7. Edward Snowden expects to be extradited.

U.S. state media wonders aloud, “puzzled” at whistleblower Snowden’s decision to go to Hong Kong, which routinely extradites criminal suspects to the United States. But Snowden’s explanation is crystal clear. All you have to do is listen. “People who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions,” he told a local newspaper. “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.” Snowden could go to Ecuador, or perhaps Venezuela or Iceland. He’s staying put because he wants to face trial in the U.S. And I doubt he’ll cop a plea when he does. He wants a political hearing so he can put the system on trial. In the meantime, he’ll use the time it’ll take Obama’s legal goons to process the extradition to talk to journalists. To explain himself. To make his case to the public. And, of course, to help shepherd those new revelations Greenwald mentioned.

8. Caught being evil — or collaborating with evil — Google and other tech companies are scared shitless.

And they should be. Consumers and businesses know now that when Big Brother comes calling, Big Tech doesn’t do what they should do — protect their customers’ privacy by calling their lawyers and fighting back. This could hurt their bottom lines. “Other countries will start routing around the U.S. information economy by developing, or even mandating, their own competing services,” speculates Popular Mechanics. Europe, worried about the U.S. exploiting the NSA for industrial espionage, began working on work-around systems that avoid U.S. Internet concerns.

9. 56% of Americans trust the government’s PRISM program, which the government repeatedly lied about. What people don’t know should worry them.

You’re not a terrorist. You don’t hang out with them. So why worry? Because the data collected by the NSA isn’t likely to stay locked up in Utah forever. Data wants to be free — and hackers have already proven they can access the NSA. Some want to sell it to private concerns. To insurance companies, so they can determine whether your buying habits make you a suitable risk. To banks. To security outfits, to run background checks for their clients. To marketers. Mining of Big Data can screw up your life — bad credit, can’t get a job — and you’ll never know what you hit you. Oh, and don’t forget: governments change. Nixon abused the IRS and FBI to attack political opponents. Innocuous census data that collected religious affiliations was used by the Nazis to round up Jews when they came to power.

10. In the long run, the end of privacy will liberate us.

Everyone (who isn’t boring) has a dirty secret. The way things are going, all those secrets will be as out as Dan Savage — and just as happy and self-assured. Blackmail — the nobody-talks-about-real-reason-PRISM-is-creepy — only works if most dirty secrets are hard to come by. But if everyone’s got a nude photo online, if everyone’s sexual deviations are searchable and indexed, the power of shame goes away as quickly as it does at a nudist colony. By the time the surveillance state plays out, we may look back at 2013 as the year when America began to move past Puritanism.

If we’re not in a gulag.

(Ted Rall’s website is His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)



  • Great post Ted. Too bad the average American isn’t outraged like they should be. I totally agree with your previous post that this is really the last chance to make a stand. Sadly, it won’t happen.

    Also, this post from Susan Stark:

    “In regards to Edward Snowden; I would hold off on proclaiming him a “hero” for the moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama himself authorized the leaks, in order to make the unthinkable, thinkable.”

    Not helping things. In other words, starting a “Snowden Truther” movement here damages the site’s credibility. Meaning …

    Susan Stark: Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

    That should be reserved for clocks, not cogent political analysis.

  • I wonder if commenting here increases the value of my metadata?

    Just remember, there is no such thing as a private conversation. One has to assume that you are being recorded, filmed, etc at all times. Even in the “privacy” of your own home. I bet that instead of the going to the Guardian many a NSA operative has thought about going to the Enquirer with the latest about Jenifer Aniston and Brad Pitt.

    Great column.

  • Susan Stark
    June 12, 2013 8:35 PM


    Differences of opinion are welcomed at this site. And nobody is required to agree with one another all the time. It would be boring if everyone did.

    The bigger picture here is the data-mining, not Snowden himself, so that was a rather minor point I made, not so big a deal that you had to take it and run with it.

    As for the data-mining, I’m not impressed with Snowden. He’s not the first to leak such information. I’ve known that they’ve been recording phone calls for more than a decade now. Somebody must have leaked that for me to know.

    The real hero in this case is Glenn Greenwald, because he’s the first mainstream journalist to finally expose this stuff. However, my estimation of Mr. Snowden went up a notch if he’s willing to subject himself to a trial.

  • Obama certainly has proven himself a calculating evil genius so far, often leaking state secrets to his advantage. I give Susan credit for pointing out the possibility here. Obama is definitely attempting to reframe an argument once again with his very subtle linguistic shenanigans. The media often frames debates with a few choice phrases about ‘very serious people’ easily dismissing the fringe. Mr. Rall has pointed this out and I read about it in depth in one of the best books I’ve ever read: When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent by Anthony DiMaggio. So here, Obama will push us further right with words. The implication is that universal spying is debatable…

    More likely Obama is just being a good opportunist and spinning as best he can. Mr. Snowden seems to be outstandingly brave and clever.

    Suggesting conspiracy is not equivalent to fanatical belief in a conspiracy despite all evidence. Conspiracy is basically a secret plan…and we all know those never happen, right?

  • @Susan: Sorry you don’t get to be the fascist you are and delete me here. Not on Ted’s thread. On we believe in the Freedom of Expression above all. No fascists allowed — and that means you. Sucks to be stripped of your awesome power to censor me on this thread, doesn’t it? Power corrupts absolutely — you’re evidence of that.

    That said, you are a “Snowden Truther” — period. You made a bizarre post which actually posited that Snowden may be in cahoots with Obama, and that we had to wait and see how it plays out before calling Snowden a hero. I stand by my comments that you are nuts if you believe that. I mean, here we are in the middle of the biggest story of the year, with people actually discussing the menace in front of us of unchecked government power — and you want to shift the debate to whether or not Snowden is for real?!?

    No I say! No! Not on You’re not starting a “Snowden Truther” thread/movement on this site if I have anything to say about it. Considering Ted is not a “truther” either, I’m surprised he let your post stand at all. But, you see — Ted’s not a fascist like you. He doesn’t delete. He allows people their say because he believes in the Freedom of Expression — as do I.

    (I’ll also add, I love writing or saying the word “cahoots”. Glad I had the chance to do so here.)

  • Susan Stark
    June 13, 2013 3:01 PM


    If you want “Snowden Truther” babble, you should tune in to the Rush Limbaugh program. He’s been laying it on rather thick during the past week. My statement is rather tame in comparison.

    Frankly speaking, the 12 year old girl who lives in my house acts with more poise and maturity than you do. You’re a grown man, and you should act like it.

  • Susan Stark
    June 13, 2013 3:11 PM


    Exactly my point, to the letter. Thanks

  • 1. A friend recommended “A Clockwork Orange” so I read it a couple of weeks ago (it came out in the ’60s). In the Britain of the novel, no man can go out after dark without being mugged and possibly killed; no woman can go out after dark without being raped and possibly killed. The reason? The British government had to use its scare resources going after its political enemies, and could not squander any of those precious resources on violent criminals. I mention this because Prism was absolutely useless against the Boston bombers. So what’s it really doing?

    2. Some of us remember J. Edgar and also the bandido El Beejay, both of whom had collected a database on a large number of people, including a majority of the members of Congress.

    J. Edgar used his database to get carte blanche from the elected officials in the legislative and executive branches of the US government and from the judges in the judicial branch. J. Edgar used this carte blanche to expand and enhance his database, giving himself even more power, and making his carte even blancher.

    El Beejay had a similar database and used it to force Congress to pass civil rights and Medicare (he even forced the Southern senators to refrain from a filibuster), and to give him the full authority and funding to carpet bomb Indochina and send half a million US troops to invade Vietnam. Whoever controls Prism will have the power to emulate J. Edgar and El Beejay, and will certainly do so.

    3. Sadly, the Times reports that Prism is only opposed by about 40% of US voters. Meanwhile, the US media have reiterated that Prism is essential to keeping the US safe from the terrorists lurking everywhere. I particularly liked Mr Friedman’s insightful op-ed column to this effect.

    4. Even better than Friedman was the TV show “Castle”. This documented that Al Qaeda has a nuclear arsenal larger than Pakistan, India, and Israel combined, and has planted a dirty thermonuclear bomb in some American city every single week (during primetime, of course). Fortunately, the DHS and the FBI have thwarted every one of these plans to detonate the device. In the smaller cities, DHS and the FBI did this all by themselves, and all this is classified Top Secret for many very good reasons. However, in New York, the city was too big, and the DHS had to get help from the top policewoman working in NYPD, plus a mystery writer who, to make his novels realistic, has studied more criminology and criminal psychology than most PhDs in criminology. With the help of those two, the DHS once again prevented Al Qaeda from utterly obliterating New York City, with only one second to spare on the timer before the device detonated.

    “Castle” is just fiction? It seems that about 60% of Americans thought the show was a documentary, to judge from the polling numbers.

    5. It’s not clear how long it will take Prism to investigate Mr Rall. (We’ll know when his cartoons begin to resemble those by the real McCoy.)

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