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They See Everything: US Intelligence Expansion and the Dissolving of Privacy Rights Since 9/11. By Max

September 23, 2010

Privacy International is a London-based NGO that monitors how well human privacy is protected in countries around the world using a 5-point scale. For the most recent data and analysis of 2007, Greece and Canada had the best scores while the United States placed 40th out of the 45 countries surveyed, just 0.2 points above China and Russia (1).

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, US intelligence operations have grown enormously while the effectiveness of the programs is questionable and our society has become one of perpetual government surveillance. In turn, the government has increasingly turned to subcontracts with private companies to fulfill their goals and this raises the question of whether these corporations, in dealing with such sensitive matters as privacy and freedom, are serving the public good or their own self-interest. Although the Bush administration initiated many of these policies and programs, Obama has continued the same policies and even taken some further. Although this is reason for extreme alarm, these developments have scarcely been reported in the mainstream media.

One exemplary exception to the mainstream media blackout on this topic is Dana Priest’s and William M. Arkin’s two-year investigation of the burgeoning intelligence community for the The Washington Post and the resulting series of articles that were printed this last July under the title “Top Secret America” (2). As the findings of this investigation are timely and of extreme importance, I feel it is worth summarizing and quoting some of its findings:

-The annual US intelligence budget is now $75 billion, 2 ½ times greater than it was before Sept. 11th.

-”The privatization of national security has been made possible by a nine-year ‘gusher’ of money, as Gates recently described national security spending since the 9/11 attacks. With so much money to spend, managers do not always worry about whether they are spending it effectively.”

-CIA director Leon Panetta expressed concern that the contractors’ responsibility “is to their shareholders, and that does present an internal conflict.”

-”The problem with many intelligence reports, say officers who read them, is that they simply re-slice the same facts already in circulation.” ”Even analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center, which is supposed to be where the most sensitive, most difficult-to-obtain nuggets of information are fused together, get low marks from intelligence officials for not producing reports that are original.”

-The National Security Agency intercepts daily 1.7 billion pieces of personal communication, including emails, telephone conversations, text messages, and IP addresses.

This is just a taste of the facts found and the conclusions that the Post reporters came to and the series as a whole is eye-opening and alarming. While some commentators have been reporting on this for years, this is the first time that the overreaching intelligence industry has received such a comprehensive and front-page treatment in a mainstream news source and this is indicative of how serious the loss of privacy has become.

While subcontracting of high-level government work has been an aspect Washington for some time, it was accelerated after 9/11 by the Bush administration because private companies were thought to be more cost-efficient than government programs at doing the same task. However, a 2007 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee says, “Another concern of the committee is the Intelligence Community’s increasing reliance upon contractors to meet mission requirements. It has been estimated that the average annual cost of a United States Government civilian employee is $126,500, while the average annual cost of a ‘fully-loaded’ (including overhead) core contractor is $250,000” (3). This remarkable 2:1 ratio in cost-per-employee calls into serious question how cost-efficient and sincere the private intelligence subcontractors are in doing publicly-funded, governmental work.

One example of a private company that does intelligence work for the government is Project Vigilance. Chet Uber is the Executive Director of Project Vigilance and this is what Andy Greenberg of Forbes Magazine wrote about him and his company:

“According to Uber, one of Project Vigilant’s manifold methods for gathering intelligence includes collecting information from a dozen regional U.S. Internet service providers (ISPs)…. A Vigilant press release says that the organization tracks more than 250 million IP addresses a day and can ‘develop portfolios on any name, screen name or IP address.‘” (4)

That private companies track virtually all internet activity and can compile comprehensive information on any person without that person’s consent is something that could never have existed on the same scale in a pre-9/11 environment. But since the government has been able to create an environment of fear and instability, the public has largely acquiesced to whatever sacrifices of personal freedoms that politicians say are necessary to keep us safe.

The transfer of much of this work to the private sector also raises serious questions about public congressional oversight. A 2004 report by the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, “The use of private-sector data aggregators allows the government to insulate surveillance and information-handling practices from privacy laws or public scrutiny.” While laws were passed to keep the government from violating human freedoms as basic as privacy, corporations are free to violate them without restraint.

Although it might seem difficult to draw a connection between the intelligence industry’s invasion of privacy and USC, a solid link exists. In a June 2007 article, Tim Sherrock of noted that while “nearly 90 percent of intelligence contracts are classified and the budgets kept secret,” looking at public information from the “Securities and Exchange Commission and company press releases and Web sites, the current top five intelligence contractors appear to be Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SAIC, General Dynamics and L-3 Communications” (5). In the last issue of this zine, Lis wrote an unfavorable profile of Ronald Sugar, who is a USC board of trustee and was CEO of Northrop Grumman from 2003 – 2010, right when the growth of the intelligence community was at its height (6). While Northrop Grumman is historically a builder of naval vessels and aircraft, when it became apparent that the US was willing to throw tons of money at intelligence programs, they jumped on board along with many other companies who didn’t have backgrounds in intelligence. USC has an investment portfolio with billions of dollars invested in companies and considering Sugar’s relationship to USC and that USC President Max Nikias has “established” a “key partnership” (7) with Northrop Grumman, it is likely that USC has money invested in Grumman (USC’s investments are completely secret and one can only look at the relevant evidence and make informed guesses as to what companies USC has stock in). As students, the money we pay for our education probably ends up benefiting those who spy on us and this should be cause for serious concern.

As a radical zine with some anarchist writers and content, I think it’s probable that our emails and blog are scanned and logged without a warrant, which is constitutionally questionable at best, and is vaguely justified as necessary for keeping Americans safe. As the war on terrorism abroad and the war on privacy at home continue with no end in sight, the loss of privacy may be becoming a permanent characteristic of our society.

“The ways in which the loss of privacy destroys a society are somewhat abstract and difficult to articulate, though very real. A society in which people know they are constantly being monitored is one that breeds conformism and submission, and which squashes innovation, deviation, and real dissent.” – Glenn Greenwald (8)










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