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The NSA’s Spying Program: What’s at Stake for the Climate Movement?

Programs such as Prism could be used to hamper the social movements we need to tackle the biggest problems of our time.

Crowd with blank faces.

Photo by Eric Anestad.

The revelation that the National Security Agency gathers information about our phone and Internet use has been frightening, if not exactly surprising. What’s even scarier are the implications the program has for positive social change in the future.

In this time of climactic and economic peril, we need open spaces in which social movements are free to develop in a democratic fashion.

We live in a time when issues like climate change, runaway income inequality, and spiraling health care costs threaten our chance at a decent future. While individuals can help in important ways through local projects, only a national—or even global—social movement can generate change at the scale needed to address these issues.

It’s in this context that the deeper problem with the N.S.A.’s data dragnet appears. According to stories in the Washington Post and The Guardian, the agency's Prism program automatically gathers and stores data about many types of Internet use. The PowerPoint slides leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden mentions “email,” “videos,” “photos,” and “logins” under the heading “What You Will Receive in Collection.” Another slide mentions “collection directly from the servers” of companies like Google, Facebook, and Skype. (If you're wondering what that phrase really means, see this ongoing debate between The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and The Nation’s Rick Perlstein.)

And then there’s the matter of phone records. While California Senator Dianne Feinstein brushed off the program’s critics by assuring us that Prism doesn’t store the content of phone calls but only “metadata”—things like which numbers you dialed and how long the call lasted—articles at The Guardian and Washington Post show how clever spies can easily use metadata to figure out details such as your sexual orientation, illnesses you suffer from, and employment status.

In other words, if Uncle Sam doesn’t know what color underwear you’re wearing, he can probably figure it out by looking at your metadata. And, the history of social movements in the United States suggests that—no matter how well-intentioned and nonviolent the next big movement might be—the government is likely to use programs like Prism to stand in its way.

Consider some of the ways the government has used surveillance to disrupt social movements in recent history:

The Civil Rights Movement. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI operated the Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, intended to address J. Edgar Hoover’s suspicion of Communist influence in a wide range of groups—the program interfered with organizations ranging from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the American Indian Movement to the Black Panthers.

“Understand that COINTELPRO was not just surveillance, it was active disruption,” journalist Danny Schechter told NPR. “It was putting agents into the movement to incite rivalries … to try to get people fighting against each other and not trusting each other.”

The FBI also followed Martin Luther King Jr. everywhere he went, especially later in the ’60s when he began to actively oppose the Vietnam War. Agents bugged King’s office and home and filed “tens of thousands” of memos on him, according to a CNN story from 2008. According to those memos, one FBI meeting included an analysis “aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.”

Movements for Iraq and Palestine. In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Defense Department records, which revealed widespread monitoring of peace activists both before and during the Iraq War. They found that reports were filed on at least 186 antiwar protests, including ones put together by the Quaker organization the American Friends Service Committee, United for Peace and Justice, Veterans for Peace, and the Catholic Worker Movement.

In this time of climactic and economic peril, we need open spaces in which social movements can develop in a democratic fashion.

In some cases, again, surveillance was intertwined with active disruption. In 2008, a woman named Karen Sullivan joined the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee in Minneapolis, according to The Progressive, and helped to organize protests against the Republican National Convention as well as the group’s “solidarity trip” to the Palestinian territories. Upon arriving in Israel, group members were arrested by Israeli officials who had been tipped off about the trip by Sullivan, an FBI agent.

Occupy Wall Street. Heavily redacted documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund in December 2012 show widespread spying on the Occupy Movement by the Department of Homeland Security and by the FBI. The documents reveal that FBI agents discussed Occupy at the November 2011 meeting of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, even though agents themselves acknowledged that organizers “did not condone the use of violence during their events.”

Once again, surveillance of Occupy occasionally verged into outright disruption. A police officer infiltrated an attempted occupation of a Citibank branch during the heyday of Zuccotti Park, the Village Voice reported, posing as a protester and then arresting participants once the action had begun. “It was a bit startling how inside their information was,” Occupier Chris Garrett told the Voice.

The wrong climate for people’s movements

Movements in the United States have long been subjected to intertwining practices of surveillance and infiltration at the hands of the government. Yet Prism actually goes beyond any of these earlier cases because, as Moxie Marlinspike at Wired has pointed out, it collects information by default, creating a database that is ready for agents to look through as soon as they become interested in a certain person or group.

History shows why those who work for a more just and sustainable world should demand an end to Prism and programs like it. The United States government tends to regard change-makers and social-movement organizers as inherently dangerous and as somehow similar to terrorists. The depth of one’s dedication to the principles of nonviolence makes no difference to them, as the campaign waged against Dr. King illustrates. This is especially worrying in the context of recent statements by military officials suggesting that they expect an increased focus on domestic targets in the future, as Nafeez Ahmed has reported.

In this time of climactic and economic peril, we need open spaces in which social movements can develop in a democratic fashion—especially on the Internet, where the speed and ease of communication encourages the proliferation of new projects.

The NSA’s Prism program takes us in the opposite direction. Now that it’s been exposed, Congress and the American people should call for an end to it.


James Trimarco wrote this op-ed for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. James is web editor at YES!.

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