Monday, August 19, 2013

Recommended Demands for Restore The Fourth


This document enumerates a set of recommended demands for the Restore the Fourth organization to take up with regard to the National Security Agency (NSA) in light of the recent controversies surrounding the agency.  It begins with some background on the national security state, of which the NSA is a part, to put the recommendations in context.  It does not deal with how these goals will be accomplished.  Feedback is encouraged and appreciated.  

The National Security State

The September 11th, 2001 World Trade Center / Pentagon attacks signified the start of a new era for the United States.  This spectacular, violent act and dramatic images of crumbling towers in Manhattan captured the American public imagination.  Leaders seized on the fear of terrorism to push through a variety of new initiatives.  Once the shibboleth of "protecting America from terrorism," was sounded, little could be done to back it down; this concern seemed to override all other priorities.  "National security" became the "Open sesame" to the public treasury.  Naturally, many of these authoritarian tendencies existed before 2001, but were intensified in the post-9/11 world.

The results of the security state mentality have been catastrophic for the American people.  The police have been militarized; virtually every electronic communication is monitored; torture and even assassination have been inflicted upon citizens by the state; extreme powers such as indefinite military detention have been signed into law; an unparalleled attack on the press and whistleblowing has ensued... and this is hardly an exhaustive list of grievances.  One former NSA official was quoted as saying America is quite close to a “turnkey totalitarian state.”

In the rest of the world, by comparison, the national security state has been far more destructive.  Drones constantly pepper several countries with missiles, executing due-process-free assassinations of supposed terrorists.  A network of black sites and prisons stand at the ready to detain extraordinarily rendered suspects indefinitely.  US special operations forces stand at the ready to raid and/or kill in any foreign country at moment’s notice.  But the most heinous acts of American violence post-9/11 were, of course, the aggressive invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Given all of the destruction wreaked by America on the world and itself in the name of “protecting America from terrorism,” it is well beyond the point where one should ask: is the cost in lives, money and lost freedoms worth it?

The United States and "Terrorism"

If fighting terrorism -- a dictionary definition of which is "inflicting violence against civilians for a political purpose" -- really were the objective of the national security state, there are several things that the US could do to prevent it.  The simplest one would be to stop participating in it.  Drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan; night raids in Afghanistan; harboring known terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles -- this is just a sample of the long and sordid history of the United States' record of inflicting terror on other countries.  

But even accepting the national security state's axiomatic definition of terrorism, in which the violence is only directed against the United States and its clients, there are several courses of action that America could take to prevent even this narrow conception of it.  The terrorists, actually, have quite legitimate grievances -- they are fed up with being attacked by the United States.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged organizer of the 9/11 attacks, cited the occupation of Palestine as the reason for his anger towards America (9/11 Commission Report, p. 147).  Without the United States' crucial military, diplomatic and financial support of the Israeli occupation, it would crumble, as KSM surely knows.  Osama Bin Laden, the former head of Al-Qaeda, cited the American/Israeli destruction of buildings in Lebanon as inspiration for the 9/11 attacks.  If America pursued a humane foreign policy, in accord with international law, surely the US military aggression around the world would come to an end, thus depriving would-be terrorists of any rationale to undertake extreme action against America.

The absurdity of the "fighting terrorism" rationale is further revealed by the fact that law enforcement agencies are incapable of preventing terrorist actions -- even by people that they have been warned about in advance.  The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is an instructive example.  One of the alleged bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was in a CIA database of terrorists, had been frequently investigated by the FBI, and also had been identified by Russia (who notified the FBI of this) as a follower of radical Islam.  Nevertheless, the attack succeeded.

Further examination reveals that only certain types of crimes are labelled by the security state as terrorism and other comparable actions not, giving us further insight into what the security state means by "terrorism."  For instance, a plane flown into a building in 2010 by a white man causing multiple fatalities is not considered terrorism, even though the nature (if not the scale) of the act was identical to the 9/11 attacks.  The endless mass shootings that have been plaguing American society, many with higher death tolls than the Boston bombing, reveal that body count alone is not enough to qualify an act as terroristic.  One is led to the inescapable conclusion that, in the security state's lingo, "terrorism" can only be committed by certain ethnic or demographic groups -- namely, Muslims.

One could take a step back from this discussion and wonder why such an emphasis is placed on terrorism (using the security state's definition) in the first place.  After all, in 2011, 17 Americans were killed by terrorism, which is about as many Americans that were crushed by their own furniture.  From a public policy perspective, such an emphasis on terrorism in the national discourse while more pressing problems (the broken healthcare system, the ballooning prison system, rampant gun violence, massive unemployment, the foreclosure crisis, etc.) go unaddressed makes no sense; terrorism simply is not that much of a problem, objectively.

In sum, using a dictionary definition of terrorism, the United States is the world leader in perpetrating it.  The security state does have a definition of terrorism around which most public discourse uses which is, approximately, "spectacular violence committed against the United States by Muslims."  But even if the authorities wanted to prevent this kind of violence, there are more effective ways to do it.  And even if the government is committed to the present course of fighting terror, it fails on its own terms.  In any event, the security state's "terrorism" is not that much of a problem relative to other issues.

Why does the National Security State Persist?

Given that “protecting America from terrorism” is not a convincing rationale for security state policy, the question arises: why does the national security state persist?  

There is no singular reason for the security state dynamic; instead, a myriad of considerations each play a part.  The desire to control populations with fear; short-term electoral calculations; squashing of domestic dissent and resistance; domination of geographic regions; access to natural resources; ensuring access to markets; subsidy of corporations through the Pentagon System... in short, elite segments of industry, government and the military have different and changing motivations for continuing the security state, but they all agree that they should do so in their common interest.

In any event, it is safe to say that the American national security state does not exist to benefit the citizens living under it, or the worldwide population which must deal daily with its violence.

Lack of Accountability

A notable feature of the national security state is the complete lack of accountability for anyone in a sufficiently high position of power.  Condoleezza Rice, et al have not been prosecuted for the torture regime they helped institute.  George W. Bush and company still have not been brought to account for their aggressive invasions, a crime for which the US prosecuted Nazis at the Nuremberg Tribunals.  Obama’s administration has not been held criminally accountable for their failure to prosecute the aforementioned war crimes.  James Clapper has not been prosecuted for lying to congress (even when a majority of Americans support such a prosecution) about the NSA’s behavior.  And so on and so forth.

The National Security Agency

The National Security Agency is a small but significant part of the national security state.  In fact, the NSA is only one of sixteen US intelligence agencies -- to say nothing of other agency categories, such as law enforcement, etc.  It is an extremely secretive branch of the military that carries out a wide variety of electronic surveillance, codebreaking and hacking activities.

The NSA’s activities have recently come under increased scrutiny because of the documents that Edward Snowden leaked through the UK Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, and follow-up stories by other outlets.  Although there is surely more revelations that will emerge in the immediate future, so far several key facts have been confirmed by recent reporting:

  • The NSA aims to collect all electronic communications, and approximates that goal currently
  • The NSA is collaborating with a variety of technology companies through a program called PRISM to monitor data from these companies’ users
  • Data collected by the NSA is used to target suspects, and then the means of data collection are attributed to other methods in subsequent prosecutions
  • The court set up to oversee the NSA’s data collection is really incapable of doing its job, according to a judge on the court
  • The NSA breaks its own privacy rules thousands of times per year

This is, of course, only a partial list.

It is worth noting that many of the NSA activities that Greenwald and others are now exposing were alleged by previous NSA whistleblowers and authors such as William Binney, Thomas Drake and James Bamford.


The following recommendations are necessary but insufficient conditions for dismantling the national security state.  I suggest that Restore the Fourth, at a minimum, take up the following as concrete objectives with respect to the NSA:

  • Complete dismemberment of the NSA
    • Destruction of all data that the NSA has gathered pertaining to individuals
    • Abolition of all offensive capabilities
    • Reorganization of defensive capabilities under civilian auspices
    • Form committee to investigate history of the NSA
    • Declassify appropriate NSA documents
  • Initiate criminal investigations of
    • George W. Bush - for initiating the warrantless wiretapping program
    • Gen. Michael Hayden - for overseeing warrantless wiretapping as Director of the NSA
    • Gen. Keith Alexander - for overseeing warrantless wiretapping as Director of the NSA
    • James Clapper - for, at a minimum, perjury
    • Any other senior members of the present and past administrations suspected of having played a role in criminal activity at the NSA
  • Declare amnesty for and allocate reparations for all persecuted NSA whistleblowers including, but not limited to:
    • Edward Snowden
    • William Binney
    • Thomas Drake


The National Security Agency is a part of the US surveillance apparatus which, in turn, is a part of the national security state.  Criticism of the national security state in American discourse up until this point has been mostly verboten.  However, because of the recent Greenwald/Snowden disclosures, and surely more to follow, public attention has finally been turned to the NSA and the larger issues with which it is intertwined.  Thus the NSA controversy may prove to be a critical wedge issue that opens up possibilities to attack the much larger, much more complicated and robust security state.

Postscript: A Note on Language

In the corporate media and in official government press conferences, the language of the national security state is predominant.  But that need not be our language.  When we chose to trap ourselves into answering “How are we going to strengthen national security?” or “How are we going to keep the terrorists from winning?”, we’ve already lost the debate.   We don’t need to make ourselves a party to this imagined Manichean struggle between the good national security state and the evil terrorists.  We can, instead, discover, develop and deploy a language based on peace, humanitarianism, democracy, freedom and mutual aid.  In order to win any victories, we need to shift the public’s perspective to align with our own, and getting them to use our language is a critical part of that struggle.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Android and iPhone devices now have 'Presidential alerts' that you can't disable

Last night I received an AMBER alert on my Android phone (a few-years-old Samsung running Gingerbread), which made the phone vibrate madly like I had received several consecutive text messages.  Wanting to disable these alerts,* I navigated to the Messaging App, then Settings, then Emergency Alerts.  There, I saw four alerting types:
  • Presidential alerts (Mandatory alerts)
  • Extreme alerts (Extreme threat to life and property)
  • Severe alerts (Severe threat to life and property)
  • AMBER alerts (Child abduction emergency alerts)
All of these can be disabled except for the Presidential alerts.  Being a bit creeped out by the fact that there are 'Presidential alerts' that can't be disabled on my phone (especially with all of the government surveillance coming to light these days), I started to do some research.  Other Android users have taken notice of the Presidential alerts as well.

These alert types were brought about by the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) which was created with the passage of the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act in 2006.  The system, however, was only implemented by all of the major carriers starting in 2012.  The system confusingly goes by other names as well: Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN).

So why can't one block Presidential alerts?  The FCC's FAQ on the subject has the answer:
Why can’t consumers block WEAs issued by the President? 
In passing the WARN Act, Congress allowed participating carriers to offer subscribers the capability to block all WEAs except those issued by the President.
'Participating carriers,' of course, means all of the major ones, at least:
And it is not just Android phones -- the non-disableable Presidential alert system has also been recently rolled out to iPhones as well.

* A good article critiquing AMBER alerts is here: Abducted!  The Amber Alert system is more effective as theater than as a way to protect children