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The NSA's Pandora's Box

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Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, now charged with violating the Espionage Act, has opened a Pandora's box of American global surveillance for the rest of us to be stunned by. Every day a new revelation, a new set of secrets or information, seems to pour out from somewhere -- without Hope, that last denizen of Pandora's famous container, yet in sight. No matter what any of us already knew (or guessed at or imagined), this rolling, roiling set of revelations, not likely to end soon, should expand our vision of the world we live in, especially the shadow world of those who covertly watch us.

Recent examples would include the Associated Press's reminder that the Prism program Snowden, Glenn Greenwald of the British Guardian, and Barton Gellman of the Washington Post brought to global attention is actually "a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort" in which the NSA "snatches data as it passes through the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet's backbone. That program, which has been known for years, copies Internet traffic as it enters and leaves the United States, then routes it to the NSA for analysis." (British intelligence -- yet another revelation of the last week -- acts similarly and shares with the NSA what it finds off such fiber optic cables, including "recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook, and the history of any internet user's access to websites.")

You would have to add as well NSA expert and author James Bamford's recent exploration of how General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, brought war to the Internet, developing and launching the first cyberwar in history against Iran's nuclear program. The man known as "Alexander the Geek" has also, Bamford tells us, encouraged and gotten lavish funding for the creation of an ever more elaborate universe of cyberwarriors, including private contractors. (In the meantime, President Obama has secretly ordered his top intelligence officials and cyberwarriors to draw up a list of possible future cyber-targets.)

Last week at the New York Times, James Risen and Nick Wingfield slid through the new revolving door that's taking top Silicon Valley pros into the well-paying shadows of American surveillance in a Vulcan mind meld between the corporate giants of the Internet and U.S. intelligence. Meanwhile, FBI Director Robert Mueller, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, let us in on a future horror that turns out to be yesterday's nightmare: FBI drones are already in the air domestically, possibly over your hometown surveilling... well, maybe you. Mueller, however, couldn't have been more reassuring on the subject. The Bureau, he told the senators, uses drones "in a very, very minimal way and very seldom... we have very few." And p.s., the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are both testing drones for similar use. But undoubtedly very minimally and very few, so don't fret.

And last but hardly least, thanks again to the Guardian, we know that warrants issued by a secret FISA court provide the NSA with a loophole into domestic surveillance large enough to drive an up-armored Humvee through. "Top secret documents submitted to the court that oversees surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies show the judges have signed off on broad orders which allow the NSA to make use of information 'inadvertently' collected from domestic U.S. communications without a warrant." And what can't qualify as "inadvertent," after all? As Timothy Lee of the Washington Post points out, "These documents look more like legislation than search warrants. They define legal concepts, describe legal standards to be applied, and specify procedures for NSA officials to follow... But rather than being drafted, debated and enacted by Congress, the documents were drafted by Obama administration lawyers and reviewed by the FISC."

In other words, we are in a new world and as Rebecca Solnit, author of the just-published memoir,The Faraway Nearby writes in "Welcome to the (Don't Be Evil) Empire," it's one in which big government's most oppressive powers, increasingly on display, are meshing wonderfully with big business's most oppressive intrusions on our lives. We await the Edward Snowden of Google.