The most recent batch of classified NSA documents disclosed by Snowden reveal shocking facts about the criminalization of dissident speech by the US security state.
It has been revealed by journalists at The Intercept that the NSA sought to put a media publisher on a “manhunting” list for the mere publication of content it disapproved of.
The NSA files just leaked reveal that elements within the NSA sought to get a publishing institution (Wikileaks) classified as a “malicious foreign actor,” a category normally reserved for the likes of al-Qaeda and other elements actively perpetuating real violence against the US. This designation would let the US security agencies by-pass the normal judicial (and constitutional) checks on targeting and surveilling not only the publishing institution but all elements associated to it, including US citizens.
In the reaction of a Cato Institute spokesman quoted by The Intercept,
“All the reassurances Americans heard that the broad authorities of the FISA Amendments Act could only be used to ‘target’ foreigners seem a bit more hollow […] when you realize that the ‘foreign target’ can be an entire Web site or online forum used by thousands if not millions of Americans.”
Another civil rights activist cited in the same article asks:
“How could targeting an entire website’s user base be necessary or proportionate?” […] “These are innocent people who are turned into suspects based on their reading habits. Surely becoming a target of a state’s intelligence and security apparatus should require more than a mere click on a link.” […] “We may be tempted to see GCHQ [Britain’s equivalent of the NSA] as a rogue agency, ungoverned in its use of unprecedented powers generated by new technologies,” he says. “But GCHQ’s actions are authorized by [government] ministers. The fact that ministers are ordering the monitoring of political interests of Internet users shows a systemic failure in the rule of law.”
It is worth recalling that the NSA’s official task is to protect the American public by gather “foreign intelligence signals.” NSA officials defend their mandate by claiming that it guards against terrorist attacks. Given this, it is shocking to find the agency targeting political speech, media outlets, and civil liberties instead–none of which, obviously, represent a threat of violence against the US public.
Assange’s attorney, Michael Ratner, assesses the situation thus:
“He [Assange] has every reason to heavily fear what would happen to him in this country, in the United States, if he were to be ever taken here. […]
“When people cross borders who are associates with WikiLeaks, they get stopped. They get surveilled all the time. […]
“The manhunt timeline, I think, is incredibly significant, considering that the manhunt is an effort to locate, find and destroy—in some cases, kill—kill people.
Assange’s statement on the revelation, published by The Intercept, is especially pertinent: “Today, we call on the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the extent of the NSA’s criminal activity against the media, including WikiLeaks, its staff, its associates and its supporters.”
It is ironic, in regard to the aggressive persecution of dissident political speech, that the US is finding itself in the company of North Korea and China. Take this passage from a 2010 New York Times article:
“WikiLeaks, a nonprofit organization, has rankled governments and companies around the world with its publication of materials intended to be kept secret. For instance, the Army’s report says that in 2008, access to the Web site in the United States was cut off by court order after Bank Julius Baer, a Swiss financial institution, sued it for publishing documents implicating Baer in money laundering, grand larceny and tax evasion. Access was restored after two weeks, when the bank dropped its case.
“Governments, including those of North Korea and Thailand, also have tried to prevent access to the site and complained about its release of materials critical of their governments and policies.”
James Goodale, former attorney for the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers publication, had this to say last March:
“The biggest challenge to the press today is the threatened prosecution of WikiLeaks, and it’s absolutely frightening. […]
“Now if Assange is convicted, it might be a conviction for […] gathering the news, for asking questions, for getting stories. So he’ll go to jail for doing what every journalist does. […]
“[Obama’s approach to journalism is] antediluvian, conservative, backwards. Worse than Nixon. He [Obama] thinks that anyone who leaks is a spy! I mean, it’s cuckoo.”
“Why we’re so concerned about the prosecution of Assange is what he did is the same as what the Times did in the Pentagon Papers, and indeed what they did with WikiLeaks. The Times published on its website the very same material WikiLeaks published on its website. So if you go after the WikiLeaks criminally, you go after the Times. That’s the criminalization of the whole process. “