Edward Snowden & the NSA Disclosures: Was it all a Waste?

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Disclosures from the vast trove of NSA documents obtained by Edward Snowden were first published in The Guardian exactly 560 days ago, and it’s worth asking ourselves whether we have gained anything from the revelations since then. The answer to that question increasingly seems clear: no.

Now don’t get me wrong, I agreed with the publication of those documents and was appalled by the breadth and depth of America’s surveillance state apparatus. I agree with the principle that those who would trade security for freedom deserve neither. (For a reminder on just how wide-reaching the NSA’s capabilities are, this timeline of Snowden-related disclosures from Al-Jazeera illustrates the extent of the Agency’s work).

When Snowden’s identity was first revealed in this video with Glenn Greenwald, he clearly stated that “his biggest fear” regarding his decision to reveal these documents to the world was “that nothing will change.” He goes on to say that this fear will be realized when the American public “won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things.”

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And so here we are a year-and-a-half after the NSA surveillance disclosures began, and I ask you: what’s changed? The short answer: nothing. Take a look at the massive Wikipedia page for the Global Surveillance Disclosures (2013-Present), and you’ll see that if you search for the word “reform” it only comes up in the footnotes. That same Wikipedia page also has a link for “Proposed Changes” in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures—these include the absurdly-named USA Freedom Act and the FISA Improvements Act, among others—and you’ll quickly realize that all of these proposed changes are dead in the water and have gone nowhere.

Not only did these proposed reforms not go anywhere, they weren’t even real reforms to begin with. Even Marcy Wheeler, who has been a major critic of the NSA surveillance state and is affiliated with The Intercept, wrote on her blog that she did not support the USA Freedom Act. She outlined numerous reasons for her disdain regarding the watered-down piece of legislation, but ultimately her case rested on a point she made at the end of her entry: the Act’s “supporters are vastly overestimating its impact.” To recap: the USA Freedom Act would have only tinkered with NSA surveillance—not curbed it in any meaningful, significant way—and yet not even that pseudo-reform could become law. Not only are we not getting real change vis-à-vis the NSA, we’re not even getting fake change.

We should all be crestfallen and pessimistic about our freedoms online in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures. Well over 500 days later, we haven’t gotten anywhere in terms of reining in an out-of-control surveillance state, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that real reform is anywhere on the horizon. Edward Snowden was spot-on to say that his “biggest fear” would be that nothing would change once the world knew about the extent to which the United States government sequesters, sifts, and sorts through our communications online. Unfortunately for all of us, however, it seems Snowden’s biggest fear is coming true after all.

 —Winston A.

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On the US & Cuba Deal: Don’t Believe the Hype

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“Today, the United States is taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people.”
—White House statement, 17 December 2014

If the nation’s for-profit media organizations are to be believed, then the announcement that the United States government “will restore full diplomatic relations” with Cuba is something of a Christmas miracle. But as with all things that appear too good to be true: don’t believe the hype.

First of all, the thawing in diplomatic relations has not ended the ongoing American sanctions against Cuba, which have been in place for more than 50 years. These sanctions, of course, have only served to cripple the Cuban economy and to throttle their attempts to achieve economic growth and prosperity. It’s important to understand that a warming of diplomatic relations between the countries—in which diplomats from Cuba will now engage with diplomats from the United States—has not yielded anything concrete except the prisoner swap that was part of today’s deal.

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 (Don’t believe the corporate media hype).

And we shouldn’t expect the normalization of diplomatic relations to change the overall situation overnight. Why? The United States has launched several attempts in recent years—not to mention the last 50+ years—to topple, undermine, and otherwise destabilize the Cuban government. Have we already forgotten ZunZuneo, the (secretly) US-government sponsored ‘Cuban Twitter’ that was a “social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government”?  That was only a few years ago. Have we already forgotten that the US government deployed Latino youth to Latin America, and that “[t]heir assignment was to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism”? That program was launched over the last two years as well. And have we forgotten that during that very same period, the US government “secretly infiltrated Cuba’s underground hip-hop movement, recruiting unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the government”? Have we really forgotten all of that already? And that’s only counting programs launched in the last few years, all of which were approved by the very same Obama Administration that is now trying to sell us on “a new course” in relations with Cuba.

I mean, honestly: how gullible are we? Do we sincerely expect the sanctions regime against Cuba to end tomorrow? Do we anticipate that covert programs aimed at undermining the Cuban government will end next week? Embracing history as our guide, we should feel confident that today’s much-hyped thaw in diplomatic relations is all bark and no bite. Now don’t get me wrong, the opening of diplomatic relations is obviously a step in the right direction, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the US government’s primary goal has changed at all.

It hasn’t.

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As is clear from the three Obama Administration-launched programs outlined above, the US government’s goal towards Cuba has been the same for decades: to undermine the Cuban government until it collapses, so that it may be replaced with a more US-friendly regime. Today’s deal does nothing to alter that ultimate goal, and that should be the headline for today. My expectation is that, even with the opening of diplomatic channels between the two nations, the United States will remain committed to their decades-long practice of sabotaging and undercutting the Cuban government. To believe otherwise is to believe in Christmas miracles, and we all know better than that.

As always, Santa Claus isn’t really coming this year.

—Winston A.

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What the Sony Hack can Teach us about Capitalism

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You’ve probably heard by now that Sony Pictures Entertainment has been hacked—everyone from The New York Times to Re/Code to Gawker has been reporting on the fallout—but, in an age of ever-expanding income inequality, I’m not here to discuss tawdry Hollywood gossip or other irrelevancies. For-profit media organizations seem content reporting on the hack through the angles of unsubstantiated theories (the North Koreans did it!), glitzy trivialities (Tom Hanks’ alias is Johnny Madrid!), and jingoistic fear-mongering (a headline from a Business Insider article says the hack is “an act of war”). What the for-profit media hasn’t told you is that the Sony hack can teach us a lot about capitalism.

The leaked documents make clear that, above all else, Sony Pictures isn’t in the business of making films—they’re in the business of making money. That shouldn’t be surprising, of course, given that Sony is a corporate entity that exists under a capitalist economy, but what’s unique about the Sony documents is how clearly they illustrate that Sony’s primary goal is profit.

Take a gander at these internal documents regarding the upcoming Sony film The Interview, for example, in which Sony states in no uncertain terms: “[I]t is important we don’t turn off a big chunk of the potential audience from the outset … There are several themes to this movie that can be utilized in your territory’s main positioning. … Feel free to position the film as an action comedy vs. situational comedy, or buddy comedy vs. outrageous comedy—whatever is optimal for your market.”* These excerpts make clear that Sony isn’t trying to do anything with The Interview except get as many people as possible to watch (read: pay) for it. As you can see from Sony’s internal documents, all that really matters about The Interview—position the film however you like!—is that it gets sold to audiences in a way that is “optimal for [the] market,” which is corporate-speak for “generate as much profit as possible.”

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Even the Kevin Hart drama—in which a Sony executive said about Kevin, “I’m not saying he’s a whore, but he’s a whore”—is an example of capitalism in action. Sony, ever on the lookout for profit, balked at Kevin’s demand to be paid additional sums of money for a “social media blitzkrieg” to promote one of his films. From Sony’s perspective, this was unjust and would cut into their profit on the film. Seeking to maximize the bang for their buck, the Sony executive then leaves no doubt as to what they wanted: “We paid for [Kevin’s] ability to open a film which included his social media savvy.”* After checking Kevin’s Twitter feed, it’s clear why Sony was eager to tap into his “social media savvy”: Kevin’s cover image is a promotion for his new film The Wedding Ringer, he has 14.6 million followers (read: potential customers), and his feed is replete with promotional material for his various projects. (One wonders whether the Sony executive was, in the final analysis, correct). The numbers we’re dealing with may be sky-high here—no one’s saying Kevin Hart is broke—but at the end of the day we’re still talking about capital (Sony) and labor (Kevin Hart), and the former wanting to squeeze as much out of the latter as possible for as little money as possible.

It’s really that simple.

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But, as usual, the for-profit media have largely missed the point. What could have been a “teachable moment” to demonstrate that Hollywood isn’t interested in educating or entertaining folk—they want profits and nothing else—has devolved into a circular conversation about celebrity gossip and cybersecurity. And they continue to miss the point. For example, just a few days ago Re/Code reported that Sony was already aware of gaps in their cybersecurity months before the hack. And yet Sony apparently stood by and did nothing. This should not be surprising because we already know why Sony stood by idly: profits. It would have cost money for Sony to upgrade its systems and enhance its cybersecurity, and that money would have cut into their profit margins for the year. Nothing—not even the security of their employees’ confidential information—was allowed to stand in the way of Sony’s profits.

And if there’s something else to be learned from the Sony hack, it’s that we cannot trust for-profit media organizations to report on issues relating to capitalism and profit-seeking. Todd VanDerWerff made that abundantly clear in a recent piece for Vox—which is itself owned by for-profit entity Vox Media Inc.—when he dismissed the information relating to Sony’s business practices as simply a catalogue of “the boring way that giant media corporations make money.” He’s wrong. The Sony documents don’t reveal the “boring way” that corporations make money—they reveal the inner workings of capitalism, in which it is laid bare for all to see that executives at the world’s largest corporations don’t care about their professed line of business (whether it be making films, videogames, electronics, or widgets) so much as they care about incoming profit. We ignore corporate America’s relentless quest for profits at our peril.

—Winston A.

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* Emphasis mine. Also, in the event Sony’s lawyers are reading this, please be advised that I have never downloaded the documents or even seen them. My entire article rests on what I have read about the documents from other news outlets.

Front & Center at the Oakland Protests: The Politics of a Police State

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By the time the officer (pictured above) said “OK, everyone here is under arrest!” it was too late. Encircled on three sides by the police and on one side by a tall brick wall, there was seemingly no place to go and nowhere to hide. We were, as they say in protester argot, completely kettled-in. I had been at the protest for about an hour, had committed no crime, and yet there I was: trapped on the corner of 29th & Telegraph in Oakland.

The post-Ferguson protests in the Bay Area remain ongoing, and it seems that for every act of civil disobedience—peaceful marching, die-ins, blocking intersections, etc—there’s an increasingly heavy-handed response by the police. Last Saturday was no exception. It was barely 8PM and already the streets were overrun—not by protesters, but by the police themselves. At least three helicopters circled above, their rotors unmistakable and relentless, and there were rumors that the police had dispatched a drone above the crowd to keep (an additional) eye on things.

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And those were only the eyes in the sky. The streets themselves were brimming with officers, all of whom were clad in riot gear (sans shield) and armed with what were presumably riot-guns at the ready. The atmosphere in the protest was one of solidarity and festivity; the atmosphere near the police was one of power and intimidation. By way of example, when I first arrived at the protest, I made the mistake of stepping into the street while still catching up with the protest—I was approximately 200 feet behind the crowd at this point—at a time when the only people in my immediate vicinity were police officers.

Bad idea.

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One of the officers glared at me, furrowed his brow, and audibly cocked whatever weapon he was carrying (it was hard to make out precisely what he was holding in the dark, but it seems to have been a riot or bean-bag gun). Shocked and awed, my body froze for an instant before I regained composure and stepped back onto the sidewalk and ran up to join the rest of the demonstrators. There was no time to engage with the officer, no time to ask him what the fuck he was doing cocking that thing at me, and no time to process whether he would have, in fact, followed-through on what appeared to be an implicit threat.

And after a week of attending various Oakland/Berkeley protests, it’s clear that’s how the (largely) peaceful protesters feel when they come face-to-face with the police: threatened. Many police departments across the country emblazon their cruisers with the slogan To Protect & Serve, but anyone who’s been to a post-Ferguson protest walks away unclear as to who precisely the police are protecting and serving. Are they protecting our 1st Amendment right to assemble peacefully in public? Doesn’t seem like it—indeed, their whole goal seemed to be this: to throttle the protests, to kettle demonstrators, and to arrest those who fail to comply with their orders. (Open question: but where are those orders coming from?) Rather, it seems like the police are primarily concerned with protecting private property and serving the interests of those who would like to see the protesters go home.

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The situation is at once unreal, insane, and unsustainable. Take a look at the picture above, in which a row of policemen line the block from one end of Telegraph to the other. Now imagine this line of officers uniformly marching behind the protest, sort of like a combine grazing across a field of grains pulling in everything in its path. This is what democracy looks like? Judging from the number, equipment, and movements of the officers, you’d think they were entering a battle-zone in Fallujah rather than the downtown area of a major American city. Surely there’s a more efficient and humane way to monitor public protests than to enter a city with warlike equipment and a seemingly-infinite number of officers, cruisers, and weapons.

But as the old saying goes: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so it’s no surprise that a militarized police force will respond to acts of civil disobedience with military-style tactics—it’s all they know how to do, it’s what they were trained to do. While the nation’s for-profit media outlets wax surprised and indignant over the heavy-handed response of America’s police forces in the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island, in reality the militarization of American police forces has been happening for quite some time. The end results are not encouraging, as I have witnessed several times now. Body-cams and DOJ investigations in the wake of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner killings will amount to little unless we change the way policing is handled in America, both at the individual level and at the group level.

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Because what’s happening now in Oakland has been happening across the country for years now. Remember the Seattle protests in 1999? Remember Zuccotti Park in 2011? Remember the Orwellian-named “free-speech zones” created for recent Republican and Democratic national conventions? Indeed, the tactics are becoming standardized worldwide. Take a look at recent events in Hong Kong, Ukraine, Greece, and Egypt—just to name a few—and you’ll notice remarkable similarities. In virtually all cases the police are: armed with batons and bean-bag guns; protected with shields, helmets, and body armor; aided by helicopters overhead; endowed with wide discretion; and united behind the same goal—to empty the streets of those with a mind to protest. The tactic isn’t to so much to police “broken windows” as it is to ensure that protesters leave with broken spirits. The implicit message from such overwhelming show-of-force seems to be: the time for protest is over. Please return to your job and/or go home and watch TV. Nothing to see here.

But we aren’t leaving with broken spirits. We don’t want to go home and plug-in to tune-out. What the police don’t seem to understand is that such tactics do not break our spirits—they strengthen them. We return more committed to social justice and civil disobedience than we did before. We return smarter and sharper. We return, in short, educated and united by what we have experienced.

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And what we’ve learned should tell us this: these military-style tactics are unsustainable. Simply from a financial perspective, the police cannot keep up such aggressive tactics. The same cities that have been experiencing budgetary woes for years—there were reports Oakland was mulling bankruptcy in 2009—are the same ones who mysteriously can come up with the requisite cash for an overwhelming, militarized police response to protests time and time again. Oakland has recently made cuts to education and the Oakland zoo in response to its financial trouble, but somehow there’s always enough money for police helicopters, body armor, bean-bag rounds, tear gas, police cruisers, police vans, sound cannons, SWAT Teams, armored vehicles, drones, and the like.

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That money can’t last forever. Indeed, there were rumors on Saturday that the police had kettled us so early in the night because they couldn’t afford not to. It turns out that after a week-plus of consistent protests, overtime for dozens of cops and fuel for helicopters and cruisers can get expensive. But perhaps I should restate what I said above: it’s not that the police couldn’t afford to keep monitoring the protests for hours, it’s that we couldn’t afford to, because ultimately everything the police had at their disposal—from choppers to drones to riot gear—was paid for using taxpayer money. In a sense, therefore, the protestors had been paying for their own repression.

When the protest on Saturday was over and the arrests had been complete, the block transformed back to business-as-usual. Patrons exiting bars stepped outside for a smoke, passers-by drove in their cars to the club or crib, and stars poked small holes of light into the dark patchwork of the sky above. The night’s vibrant energy had in the end been swept away—or rather, literally corralled and caged—by strong-arm police tactics. As the night wore on I kept looking at the cars rumbling down Telegraph, the passengers inside oblivious to what had happened here just a few hours ago, and I saw their faces whizz past, my mind turned once again to Orwell’s 1984: “They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

 —Winston A.

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Forget the CIA Report: Guantanamo Bay is the Real Scandal

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(All images from Wikipedia; public domain)

OK, so I didn’t want to write about the CIA torture report again—mostly because I stand by what I said before—but I felt compelled to address it because the cognitive dissonance surrounding the report’s release has been too much to bear. It’s impossible to stand by idly as America’s politicians and pundits feign soul-searching in the wake of the report when those same individuals largely ignore the ongoing and severe affront to the rule of law that is Guantanamo Bay.

How is it possible, for example, for The New York Times editorial board to say that the CIA report depicts “a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach” while remaining silent on the ongoing depravity that is Guantanamo? The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes that the CIA torture program was “immoral, illegal, [and] out of control,” and I think to myself: don’t those same words apply to the detention of the inmates at Guantanamo? And then my spirit just breaks in two when The Guardian editorial board proclaims that the CIA report ensures “the full story of America’s shame and disgrace was at last laid bare.”

Laid bare at last?

Let’s cut the bullshit—America’s shame and disgrace has been ongoing for years. It’s really not that hard to understand. All you need to know about Gitmo is that habeas corpus is one of the oldest principles in the common law, and it essentially affords you the right to challenge your unlawful detention. What’s happened at Guantanamo, however, is that the United States government has kept numerous individuals detained for years on end and many of them have never been charged with anything at all.

But it gets worse. In a scenario so preposterous that not even Joseph Heller or George Orwell could’ve imagined it, the United States “now holds 67 men at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release or transfer but … can’t go home because they might face persecution, a lack of security[,] or some other reason.” Can you imagine a scenario more horrible? Imagine being taken from your homeland, flown to a prison thousands of miles away on an island, and kept there indefinitely. Better yet, then imagine that you’ve been cleared for release by the very people holding you, but yet those same people still won’t release you for another two, three, or four years—perhaps even longer than that. Talk about immoral, illegal, and out-of-control!

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And yet the nation’s political debate on the CIA report only serves to contrast against the overwhelming silence regarding the human rights debacle that is Guantanamo Bay. We pretend as if we’re shocked and awed by the crimes catalogued in the CIA report, while at the same time ignoring the indefinite detention of those at Guantanamo, many of whom were simply guilty—and I’m not joking—of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Keep in mind these men are still detained there, and in some cases have been held for over a decade.

It’s enough to make one cry.

In fact, I did just that yesterday while preparing to write this piece. I came across a letter from Fahd Ghazy, a Guantanamo inmate who has been detained since age 17. He’s now 30. You can read his letter for yourself, but all you need to know is this: Fahd’s uncle was so pained by his nephew’s illegal imprisonment that he could not bring himself to contact him. Finally, one day, Fahd managed to secure a videoconference with his uncle. Fahd’s uncle was only able to say three lines—“We love you. We are waiting for you. We will keep waiting for you.”—before he collapsed and died, right there on the screen in front of Fahd’s very eyes, live and in color.

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There are no words to describe the pain Fahd must have felt in that moment and the pain he surely feels today. And then when you remember that Fahd remains imprisoned in Guantanamo even though he has been cleared for release since 2007, you want to cry, scream, and fall to the ground on your knees, wondering how the fuck the world ever became so unjust, so absurd, so Orwellian.

And so, while our political and media elite engage in moral soul-searching over the CIA torture report, Fahd’s imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay continues with no end in sight. What he sees each night are not the stars and moon but the ceiling of his Gitmo cell. That has been his home for well over a decade, it has been all he’s known for every year of his 20s. The cognitive dissonance is too much for me, and (I hope) it is too much for you. We cannot take discussions about the rule of law seriously if the human rights catastrophe that is Guantanamo Bay continues. We just can’t.

That being said, we can—no, must—try to make a difference. As someone once said, all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Or as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “[T]he hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” And since the debate about Guantanamo has primarily been one conducted in utter silence, I want to close by giving Fahd one more chance to speak:

“I want to have the honor to speak out in my own voice and reach you directly—you who are thinking people. I want to say thank you for caring. You are willing to view me as a human being and that is something so precious to me.”

—Winston A.

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