US government phone spying targets all Americans
The exposure in Thursday’s USA Today of a vast and secret National
Security Agency data base tracking the phone calls of hundreds of millions of
Americans is further evidence of the advanced preparations for the establishment
of a police state in the United States. The NSA database is a blueprint for
political repression and intimidation on a massive scale.
The patently illegal government surveillance has nothing to do with preventing
terrorist attacks, as claimed by President Bush and echoed by both the media
and Democratic Party politicians who criticize various aspects of the program.
It has been implemented by a state apparatus which sees its major opposition
as coming from among the American people, not scattered bands of Islamic terrorists.
At a time of growing social opposition, the government is systematically collecting
data to find out what people are thinking and to whom they are talking.
The phone-tracking program has, according to the USA Today report, been underway
since shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The three largest
telecommunications companies in the US, AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, agreed
secretly to collaborate with the Bush administration and hand over to the NSA
their records of every telephone call made by every one of their approximately
200 million customers. The program, carried out without court-issued warrants
or Congressional oversight, is in flagrant violation of federal statutes as
well as civil liberties guarantees laid down in the Bill of Rights.
It means that the government has at its disposal information concerning the
personal, business and political relationships and activities of most Americans—information
that can be turned over to the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon and other state agencies.
This program, as well as the previously leaked program of illegal NSA eavesdropping
on international telephone and email communications, has been carried out with
the knowledge and approval of leading members of Congress from both the Republican
and Democratic parties. Whatever protests are made by politicians in either
party in the wake of the program’s exposure, and whatever congressional
hearings are held, their primary purpose will be to provide political cover
for the collaboration of Democrats as well as Republicans in an unprecedented
attack on democratic rights.
Nothing will be done to halt the illegal spying or hold accountable those,
beginning with Bush himself, who have systematically lied to the American people
and broken the law in order to create the infrastructure of a police state.
The willing participation of major corporations in this operation underscores
the erosion of any serious support within the American ruling elite as a whole
for democratic rights, and the turn toward authoritarian forms of rule to suppress
growing opposition among working people to the vast concentration of wealth
in the hands of a financial oligarchy.
The secret surveillance program reported by USA Today goes far beyond the program
for intercepting international phone calls which was revealed last December
through a leak to the New York Times. In what one source for the USA Today story
called “the largest database ever assembled in the world,” the NSA
has compiled a record of nearly every phone call made in the United States since
9/11, combined with a historical record of phone calls going back for many years
before. The records include the phone number from which each call was made,
the number dialed, and the duration of the call.
While the name of the person making the call is supposedly not included in
the NSA database, such information is easily obtained by cross-referencing with
other government and commercial databases.
USA Today said the program did not involve actual listening to the conversations—a
physical impossibility given the billions of calls monitored—but rather
the amassing of information for data mining, in which complex software programs
are used to find patterns in the calling. Having created “a database of
every call ever made,” the NSA is in a position to track down the personal,
business, social and political affiliations of any person targeted by the US
According to Leslie Cauley, the reporter who wrote the story, “Chances
are that your cell phone calls, as well as your home phone calls, have been
tracked.” She added in a press interview that there was a “high
likelihood” that this information was being passed on to the FBI and CIA.
AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth control local, long-distance and cell phone
service in most of the country. A fourth company, the much smaller Qwest, has
refused to participate in the NSA program. The Denver-based Qwest provides local
phone service in 14 western states as well as long-distance service in some
areas. According to the USA Today article, Qwest balked at going along with
the NSA program because of its dubious legality.
The phone companies were asked to provide the complete past telephone history
of all their customers, as well as regular updates of contemporary phone usage.
This means that the NSA now possesses a historical database that extends back
at least to the 1984 breakup of the old AT&T monopoly, if not back to the
oldest records available. The lifetime telephone usage of virtually every living
American is now in a government dossier.
The NSA database could be used to track down anyone associated with political
organizations opposed to the policies of the Bush administration, such as socialist,
antiwar, civil rights and civil liberties groups. Anyone in regular telephone
contact with such organizations is undoubtedly flagged as a potential “terrorist”
in the NSA database. In the event of a roundup of such political opponents,
the database would supply the names and phone numbers of all those in close
contact with those targeted for arrest, thus providing a road map for further
arrests and detentions.
Searches of the NSA database could also pinpoint all those who regularly called
selected countries overseas, thus generating a list of potential targets for
immigration raids. The database could also be used to monitor phone calls made
to the media—such as those from the whistleblowers who spoke to the Washington
Post about secret CIA torture centers in Eastern Europe or who exposed the illegal
NSA monitoring of international phone calls. The White House could also identify
government employees who regularly call Democratic members of Congress.
The information could be used to intimidate and blackmail individuals and coerce
them into informing on friends, relatives and business associates.
As with all its other attacks on democratic rights, the Bush administration
is defending the massive NSA phone spying as an “anti-terrorist”
measure. But it is preposterous to claim that the federal government needs information
on the call patterns of every American in order to locate and monitor a handful
of terrorists. Nor would there be any reason, in relation to anti-terrorist
investigations, for the NSA to accumulate the records of phone calls made long
before Al Qaeda came into existence.
President Bush essentially confirmed the USA Today report in a brief prepared
statement issued Thursday after the article sparked a flurry of commentary in
the media and on Capitol Hill. Bush did not deny the substance of the newspaper’s
account, while claiming that all the administration’s surveillance actions
are legal and are solely directed against Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist
groups. “The privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all
our activities,” he claimed. “We’re not mining or trolling
through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.”
The credibility of this statement can be judged by recalling what Bush said
after the New York Times first reported the secret NSA warrantless surveillance
of international telephone calls. Bush claimed at the time that only international
phone calls made by or to terrorist suspects were being monitored. “In
other words,” he said, “one end of the communication must be outside
the United States.” It has since emerged that the NSA eavesdropped illegally
on thousands of domestic phone calls as well.
Bush used a similarly deceptive formulation in his statement Thursday. “The
government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval,”
he declared, although what USA Today reported did not concern listening to phone
calls, but rather recording private call information, which is equally illegal
under Section 222 of the 1934 Communications Act. The Bush administration did
not seek approval for the call-monitoring program from the secret court set
up under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, just as it bypassed
the FISA court for the warrantless phone-tapping.
Bush added this claim: “The intelligence activities I authorized are
lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican
and Democrat.” The White House has briefed only a handful of members—although
the legal requirement is for briefing of the entire membership of both Senate
and House intelligence committees. Nonetheless, Bush has repeatedly cited the
briefing of key Democrats on his administration’s domestic spying programs
to highlight the collaboration of the Democrats, exposing the hypocrisy of their
On Monday, Bush demonstratively reaffirmed his intention to continue these
programs by naming Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden to head the CIA, replacing
Porter Goss, who was ousted last week. Hayden, now deputy director of national
intelligence, headed the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005, and was therefore
responsible for the establishment of the call-tracking program.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee said that
they would question Hayden about the program during his confirmation hearings,
scheduled to begin next week. Hayden has vociferously defended the NSA program
of warrantless interception of international phone calls. He called it “targeted
and focused,” adding, “This is not about intercepting conversations
between people in the United States.” The phone-tracking program, however,
is the opposite: a massive dragnet targeting every telephone call placed by
every person in the US.
Last month, during an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney
General Alberto Gonzales asserted that the White House might have the legal
authority to order warrantless wiretapping of domestic phone calls as well as
international calls. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. Gonzales
was not asked about tracking phone calls, only about listening in.
It is not yet known whether President Bush signed a secret executive order
for the call-tracking, or whether the program was undertaken without such formal
authorization. Bush did sign an executive order for the warrantless NSA wiretapping
of international calls and emails.
The Bush administration has already moved to suppress one inquiry into illegal
NSA spying. The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility
(OPR) announced Wednesday that it was closing down an investigation into whether
Justice Department lawyers took improper action in approving the NSA warrantless
wiretapping program, on the grounds that the NSA refused to grant the OPR the
security clearances required to proceed. In other words, those carrying out
the illegal wiretapping used the “classified” stamp to block any
investigation into their activities.
With each revelation of police state measures, the lack of any genuine commitment
to democratic rights within the political establishment becomes more evident.
Not a single leading Democrat, and none of the leading US newspapers, responded
to last December’s exposure of NSA phone tapping by demanding that the
program be halted. The Democratic leadership has opposed even a token resolution
for Bush’s censure over the illegal operation.
Already the media and politicians of both parties have sought to downplay the
significance of the phone-tracking program, while accepting uncritically the
pretext that it is motivated by the vicissitudes of the so-called “war
on terrorism.” The truth is that the program exposes the enormity and
immediacy of the assault on the democratic rights of the American people.
This threat must not be underestimated. It is the outcome of a protracted breakdown
of American democracy, rooted in the crisis of the capitalist system and the
resulting malignant growth of social inequality.
The only social force that has a genuine interest in and commitment
to democratic rights is the working class. Working people can defend these rights
only by forging an independent socialist movement in opposition to the two-party
system through which the corporate oligarchy maintains its rule.