THE BLOG
07/17/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

'Nobody Is Listening to Your Phone Calls'

Yes, you have President Obama's word on this and he said so right after being informed that secrets about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs had been leaked far and wide by Edward Snowden.

It brought to mind a wonderful scene in Elio Petri's 1970 classic Italian flic, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. The newly appointed head of the Political Intelligence Unit is given a tour of the unit's sophisticated surveillance operation. He's walked down into the bowels of the building and through a cavernous open space where scores of operatives are glued to headphones listening to non-stop phone conversations, all being recorded on reels of spinning magnetic tapes. Those doing the listening look bored as hell; brain-dead, chain-smoking as they listen to the monotonous details of their target's everyday existence trying to find that pearl of subversion, the one comment that will set the iron heel of the state in motion and crush their sorry asses like so many irritating cockroaches.

After Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA's blanket surveillance effort I wondered whether the secure rooms at NSA's "Prism Palace" are anything like that portrayed in the movie, perhaps up a bit more up to date with legions of hipster/operatives poring through not only phone calls but IM's, texts, and internet surfing sites trying to figure out who's doing what and for what nefarious reasons. But true pearls of subversion are often difficult to harvest these days so I'm left to wonder whether my You Tube preference for songs by the Clash might raise some Prism Palace eyebrows? Does endless listening to "Rock the Casbah," "Guns of Brixton," and "I Fought the Law," trigger meta-data algorithms that send gaggles of NSA hacksters scrambling to see what else might be buried in my sketchy past?

I hope so. More than four decades ago I found myself bemoaning the fact that I hadn't made it on Nixon's so-called "enemies list," a compendium of pain-in-the-ass Americans who a paranoid President and his staff found particularly troublesome and make no bones about it that list conveyed a certain cachet, a groupie status if you will. I remember sitting around a 14th Street coffee shop listening to the late/great documentarian Emile de Antonio proudly trumpet the news that, yes, he had made it on the list. He wore it as a badge of honor but sadly, when I checked, his name was nowhere to be found. I never had the heart to tell him.

For a new generation of potential "enemies" -- quite a large one at that -- our current surveillance state offers everyone an opportunity to join some sort watch list and I hope that this new rush to find subversives doesn't knock me down a few digital notches. After all I was once in the cross hairs of both the NYPD and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and it's a period of my life that I look back with much fondness and nostalgia. I even have the bona-fides and documentation to go with it: pages of old dog-eared FBI and NYPD surveillance files; even 3 x 5 file cards bearing my name that I found in a dusty warehouse in Virginia, the flotsam and jetsam of a private self-styled "intelligence organization" known as the Church League of America.

It was 1971 and a bunch of us sat at the feet of Marty Scorsese at NYU Film School learning the nuts and bolts of documentary filmmaking and our primo class project was a little black and white documentary we called Red Squad, all about NYPD's own little secret police unit who regularly turned out at anti-war demonstrations armed with the kind of surveillance gear you'd probably now see featured on Antiques Road Show. They'd walk through crowds of demonstrators getting all close and personal while recording your every move, often addressing you by your given name. Yes, it was all about "chilling" you into submission; scaring you off with God's big eye so you'd never want to show your face in public protest ever again. And it worked for a long, long time. Sometimes they'd stray from purely observing and absorbing the goings on and when the moment seemed right jump into a crowd of protestors wailing away at human flesh with the "copper's" best friend: a set of knuckle dusters. Then there was a legion of undercover agents who successfully scrummed their way into any group that offered an agenda threatening the status quo, from Yippies to the Black Panthers and everything in-between. And it wasn't just the NYPD that engaged in these sorts of extra-curricular activities. Chicago PD was famous for sending out a group of especially nasty snoops; knuckle-draggers who thought little of shooting first and coming up with excuses later (which is what they did to Black Panther organizer, Fred Hampton, shot to death during a 1969 nighttime raid on his home). On a related project, Surveillance: Who's Watching, for the old National Educational Television (the pre-cursor of PBS) we were sent out to "expose" the activities of the Windy City snoops and for our efforts found ourselves busted and spending a long uncomfortable night in the Cook County Hoosegow. Upon our release (no charges filed) we were told -- myself and colleague Marc Weiss (founder of PBS's POV series) -- to get out of Dodge ASAP, or else. Considering what the Chicago PD did to the aforementioned Fred Hampton we took their advice to heart.

Then came Handschu v Special Services Division: a true legal landmark in challenging the power of the NYPD to exercise a Peeping Tom prerogative wherever and whenever they pleased. First filed in Federal Court in 1971 by a group of lefty lawyers the class-action aimed at providing some judicial guidance over who could be spied upon, for what reasons and if the NYPD was going to send in undercover agents into a political group they better have some good reasons for doing so. Together with my co-producer at Pacific Street Films, Steven Fischler, and a host of other named plaintiffs that included Abbie Hoffman, several Black Panthers and a lawyer, Barbara Handschu, this filing eventually succeeded in providing some ground rules. Beat cops were issued a copy of "Handschu Guidelines" reminding them that peaceful protest wasn't enough to engender a Paparazzi style reaction and that because a Black Nationalist group was agitating for more opportunities in the hood that wasn't cause enough for an undercover agent to drop by and begin taking notes, or worse: Agent Provocateurs were all de rigueur at the time and many a group complained that those that screamed "off the pigs" the loudest were themselves cops or informers.

Anyway, "Handschu" has become the longest running lawsuit in New York State history, something that never sat well with the NYPD and when the opportunity to challenge its restrictions came up -- say right after 9/11 -- they were back in court quicker than you could say "terrorist," and given the turmoil were able to shake loose a few of the shackles. But like a chronic over-eater loosening the belt just stimulated the appetite and before long they were at it again doing the same old, same old, this time targeting the forces of protest that turned out at the Republican National Convention in 2004. Again, the lefty lawyers (the same ones, interestingly, who filed the original suit) trooped back into Federal Court to argue for more oversight, which they got. You'd think that Ray Kelly would get the message, but no, and of late his NYPD snoops (aided by some CIA contacts) have hit the headlines with stories about unwarranted surveillance of Arab-Americans (causing, again, the same group of intrepid lawyers to march back into Federal Court).

Not that the NYPD is alone in its desire to create Surveillance City; it seems that aided by Homeland Security grants every local PD including those of the Mayberry variety have some sort of snooping capability and when you've got it, flaunt it baby and the temptation to take the spying a bit far afield is often overwhelming. Chronic surveillance is an addiction and one that's fed by an industry that has billions invested in creating the technology and supplying the operatives (like Snowden) that become cogs in the machinery that supports the larger matrix. But herein lies this industry's Achilles heel. While you may have a trustworthy bunch of tied-to-the-time-clock civil servants monitoring the controls the sheer scope and complexity of the operation requires the skills and expertise of analysts like Edward Snowden. Like his military counterpart, Bradley Manning, they've cut their teeth in a pop culture environment of adventuresome gaming and hacking and a few of them end up discovering a conscience and despite top secret clearances (and in Snowden's, case, a comfortable salary and luxurious digs in Hawaii) decide to go rogue for all the right reasons. For these guys snooping on innocent civilians isn't constitutionally cool and gunning down journalists via helicopter gunships smacks a bit of zealous overreaction. No doubt in the future you'll see a lot more insiders -- cyber-anarchists -- working to blow up the intelligence establishments' carefully cultivated culture of secrecy.

In Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, the lead character -- a former homicide detective -- has killed his mistress. He's a psychopath and part of his game is to drop clues every which way but up to see if his colleagues catch on. They don't and given their tunnel vision focus on a "mission" they refuse to acknowledge what's plainly visible. In much the same way the administration and its apologists can't or won't understand the nature of this beast; a massive surveillance campaign conducted without any real oversight and justified by legal decisions made in Star Chamber secrecy via FISA.

Now, there is a way that the Obama administration might put a positive spin on this whole controversy. How about lending some of NSA's Prism assets to the Department of Justice? I'm sure operatives like Snowden could be of immense value in helping to deconstruct the overwhelmingly complex financial engineering constructs manufactured by Wall Street. You know, the ones used by financial terrorists to bring the global economy to its knees.

Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY is working on an updated version of the 1971 documentary, Red Squad. He has also blogged on a variety of social issues for both American Banker and Huffington Post.