Snowden, surveillance and the Cold War

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, May 28, 2014

by Stephen Warren

“The United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air…. That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

Those are the words of Senator Frank Church, the chair of the committee that investigated the FBI’s system of mass surveillance in 1975. The counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, was used mainly to target, not criminal suspects, but people, such as Martin Luther King, with the “wrong” political views. Several other government agencies were found to be conducting similar operations. These abuses, first exposed by antiwar activists that broke into an FBI office in 1971 and took thousands of documents, provoked public shock and outrage, which lead to serious reforms.

Unfortunately, the tragedy of 9/11 has been the pretense for taking us back to the darkest days of the Cold War. The NSA’s current programs of mass surveillance, revealed by former NSA employee and contractor Edward Snowden, go farther than Frank Church could have imagined. One program, X-KEYSCORE, captures “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet,” according to a training document. A secret court order compelled Verizon to turn over “all call detail records” for “communications… including local telephone calls.” They collect “content” (listen to phone calls; read emails and online chats) and “metadata” (time and length of calls; who is talking to whom; location of transmissions; etc.). By analyzing our metadata they can learn things about us that we’re not even aware of. As one document stated, “Sniff it All; Know it All; Collect it All; Process it All; Exploit it All.” George Orwell couldn’t dream of such.

Though some groups and individuals have indeed been targeted, the abuse of these new capabilities has not yet reached the level of COINTELPRO, but where such power exists, humans can be counted on to abuse that power, even those with the best of intentions. History shows us this over and over again.

Furthermore, even if by some miracle such power is not flagrantly abused, mass surveillance poses another serious problem for freedom loving people:

“We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgmental eyes of others… People radically change their behavior when they know they are being watched. They will strive to do that which is expected of them… If you believe you are always being watched and judged, you are not really a free individual… Mass surveillance by the state is therefore inherently repressive, even in the unlikely case that it is not abused…”

That’s from Glenn Greenwald, the journalist that received and published Snowden’s documents, in his important new book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State.” Chapter four, “The Harm of Surveillance,” goes on to explain the many other grave dangers of mass surveillance. The book is worth getting for these 40 pages alone.

The first two chapters tell the story of how the revelations came about, from Snowden’s first failed attempts to contact Greenwald, to their meeting in Hong Kong and the first publications. As with chapter four, this part of the book stands alone. It’s a gripping read even if you’re not interested in the broader issues.

Chapter three goes over all the leaked documents. For anyone that’s been following this story, there isn’t much new here. But having it all together in a single narrative is very helpful for making sense of it all. For anyone that hasn’t been following, this chapter will quickly catch you up.

The final chapter looks at the establishment media’s handling of the Snowden revelations and shows its tendency to put serving power ahead of telling truth. (The establishment response to the book is further evidence of this subservient pathology. See “A Response to Michael Kinsley” at

As Greenwald states in the introduction, “opposition to government invasion of privacy was a major factor in the establishment of the United States itself, as American colonists protested laws that let British officials ransack at will any home they wished.” I hope this great legacy of independence still means something to us and that we’ll put a stop to mass surveillance.

An interview with Greenwald and Snowden will air tonight [Wednesday] at 10 p.m. on NBC.

STEPHEN WARREN lives in Waverly and can be contacted at