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Spies, lies and the NSA - More details, questions emerge on U.S. surveillance

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Correspondent- | Last updated: Jun 19, 2013 - 10:43:26 AM

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FBI Director Robert Mueller
WASHINGTON ( - More than a half century ago, the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad warned his followers of a beast which had “eyes before and behind.” This, Mr. Muhammad explained, was a description of the U.S. government and its ever-present snooping operations prying into the private lives of practically everyone in this society.

It should come as no surprise then that after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed a huge, secret operation which spied on hundreds of millions of Americans that FBI Director Robert Mueller and other government officials have defended the Obama administration’s mass collection of domestic phone and Internet records, saying such practices are legal and done in the interests of national security.

President Barack Obama tried to calm the public before the identity of the whistleblower and before the vast extent of the spying was known, declaring at an event in California according to published reports, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.

NSA Director General Keith Alexander
That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at the numbers and durations of calls. They’re not looking at names and they’re not looking at content, but sifting through this so-called Meta data, they may identify potential leads with respect to people that might engage in terrorism.”

Black people in this society have known they have been under the microscope for nearly a century.

“We well recognize that there has been a long history of surveillance of Black community leaders, at least stretching back to the post World War I era, that is to say about 95 years ago,” Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Houston told The Final Call.

“Obviously it has a take off and acceleration with COINTELPRO—the Counter Intelligence Program—in the mid-1950s, which of course leads directly, I would argue, to the liquidation of a number of Black leaders. So the revelations by Mr. Edward Snowden—now of Hong Kong—are just part of a longer pattern if you factor in the Black community,” Dr. Horne said.

Administration officials sought to portray the spying on Americans as routine and well regulated by congressional and judicial authorities, and they described Mr. Snowden as a traitor. Speaking before the House Intelligence Committee June 13, Mr. Mueller also confirmed the administration has launched a criminal investigation into Mr. Snowden, who was believed to be hiding in Hong Kong at Final Call press time.

“As to the individual who has admitted making these disclosures, he is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation,” said Mr. Mueller.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden
“These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety. We are taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures. As this matter is actively under investigation, we cannot comment publicly on the details of the investigation.”

Meanwhile, the head of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, defended the surveillance programs and claimed, without offering any specific details or evidence, that the operations had helped prevent dozens of potential terrorist events both in this country and overseas.

“I would tell you, I’ve been working with this committee for the past several years,” Gen. Alexander testified on Capitol Hill June 13. “They are very good about asking all the questions and providing tremendous oversight, as does the court and the administration. This is not a program where we are out free-wheeling it. It is a well-overseen and a very focused program.”

“What he’s talking about in terms of oversight also is—is just nonsense. He talks about the courts. Well, the court he’s talking about is a top-secret court that nobody is even allowed to know where it exists, where its address is, let alone getting any information from it. And in the last—or, the last time that they overhauled the legislation, they weakened the court a great deal,” investigative reporter James Bamford, author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America told “Democracy Now!” on June 14.

This stealth U.S. spying program is run by an even more secretive commander. “Keith Alexander is a four-star general. And if you walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, it’s very unlikely that even members of Congress would even recognize who he is. His name is unfamiliar to most Americans. His face is unfamiliar to most people even in Washington. So, he’s a very mysterious person, but he’s the most powerful person that’s ever existed in the American intelligence community. First of all, he runs the largest intelligence agency and the most secret intelligence agency on Earth, probably, which is the NSA, in charge of enormous numbers of people that do just amazing electronic spying, as we could see in the revelations just in the last week.”

“In addition to that, he runs basically his own military,” Mr. Bamford continued. “It’s the U.S. Cyber Command, which was just placed under his authority. The U.S. Cyber Command is an extremely powerful organization that’s already launched aggressive, what they call ‘kinetic attacks.’

“Kinetic attacks means destructive attacks using cyber to actually destroy things. And they destroyed the centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear development plant using cyber. So, as is—as being commander of U.S. Cyber Command, he’s also got three branches of the military under him. He’s got the 2nd Army, the 24th Air Force and the 10th Navy Fleet. So you’ve got an enormously powerful person who’s enormously secret and who can do things without even members of Congress knowing about it,” said Mr. Bamford.

On the other hand, relatively low-ranking individuals like Mr. Snowden, and like Army Private Bradley Manning, before him, loosed a trip-wire which has caused the enormous cyber-security apparatus to stumble.

“There might be other Edward Snowdens out there,” said Dr. Horne. “And I think historians may very well conclude that the United States made a disastrous and grievous error when they persecuted Bradley Manning—the young man now on trial as we speak, for the Wiki-Leaks revelations—and treated him so harshly, because this gave other potential whistleblowers the idea that perhaps they cannot cooperate with the U.S. authorities, and perhaps they should seek the jurisdictions of Beijing (China).”

There are also likely even more complex spying operations yet to be revealed, according to Dr. Horne. “I would imagine it’s going the other way. That is to say, that the U.S. authorities are probably seeking to circumvent U.S. laws by allowing the British authorities to spy on U.S. nationals, and then of course, the British authorities turn over the fruits of that scrutiny to the U.S.

“It’s probably not just limited to Britain. As you know, there is this longstanding intelligence arrangement between the British, the United States, the Canadians, the Australians, and the New Zealanders, and so there’s probably some back and forth between-amongst all of those different governments,” said Dr. Horne, who pointed out that the ultimate irony is that these revelations come at a time when this country has been trying to portray China as a dangerous threat to international cyber security.

“Well, obviously, the United States is the heavyweight champion of cyber hacking, and it makes the United States seem quite hypocritical,” said Dr. Horne.

Sure enough, as Britain played host to the G-8 Summit of the world’s industrialized nations beginning June 17, The Guardian newspaper in London revealed that in 2009, foreign politicians and officials who took part in two G20 summit meetings in London in 2009 had their computers monitored and their phone calls intercepted on the instructions of their British government hosts, according to documents seen by the Guardian. Some delegates were tricked into using internet cafes which had been set up by British intelligence agencies to read their email traffic.

There have often been rumors of this kind of espionage at international conferences, but it is highly unusual for hard evidence to confirm it and spell out the detail, according to The Guardian. The evidence is contained in documents—classified as top secret—which were uncovered by Mr. Snowden and seen by the Guardian. They reveal that during G20 meetings in April and September 2009, the British used what one document calls “ground-breaking intelligence capabilities” to intercept the communications of visiting delegations.

The tricks employed included: •  Setting up internet cafes where they used an email interception program and key-logging software to spy on delegates’ use of computers; • Penetrating the security on delegates’ BlackBerrys to monitor their email messages and phone calls; • Supplying 45 analysts with a live round-the-clock summary of who was phoning who at the summit; • Targeting the Turkish finance minister and possibly 15 others in his party; and •  Receiving reports from an NSA attempt to eavesdrop on the Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, as his phone calls passed through satellite links to Moscow.

The documents suggest that the operation was sanctioned in principle at a senior level in the government of the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, and that intelligence, including briefings for visiting delegates, was passed to British ministers.