America's Deep State

by Berry Friesen (March 10, 2017)

The events of the last week can help us understand the ways and means of the US-led empire, particularly how “the intelligence community” (TIC) and the mainstream media (MSM) work in tandem.  

Last Saturday (March 4), President Trump tweeted “that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to election.”

A spokesperson for President Obama promptly issued a public denial:  “Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false." 

Choosing between Trump’s claim and Obama’s isn’t what’s important here.  But it prompts us to reacquaint ourselves with the context as a way to understand these recent events.  

Ever since Ed Snowden’s leak of National Security Agency (NSA) documents, we’ve known that TIC (that's "the intelligence community") vacuums up and saves every bit of digital information generated by any of us here in the US.  Absolutely everything (phone calls, text messages, emails, online posts, etc.) is taken into government custody.  Not just the technical details of how a communication occurred, but the substance of our messages too.  This routinely occurs without anyone in authority approving it.

No one is exempted from this privacy intrusion.  Donald Trump is no exception, nor Hillary Clinton, nor members of Congress or Supreme Court justices.  All of them—and all of us—are constantly being surveilled and recorded.

All this information vacuumed up by TIC is stored for future access in searchable databases.  This creates a staggering potential for government abuse via intimidation, blackmail, law enforcement investigation and criminal prosecution.  

Yes, there are detailed laws and procedures in place to describe who can access all this information, under what circumstances, and for what purposes. Who enforces these detailed laws and procedures?  Because it concerns national security, the courts won’t touch it.  Oversight is supposedly provided by congressional committees, but that’s not very effective because TIC has all the secret information and Congress is dependent on what it is told. So TIC pretty much secretly monitors itself (or not, as the case may be). 

How it all works is a highly specialized world unto itself.  Here is a brief overview.

a) If agents of law enforcement want to use in court the communications between two Americans located here in the US, then law enforcement usually needs a specific, prior warrant from a judge. 

b) If for national security purposes TIC wants to use in court communications data collected in bulk within the US from people who are within the US, it must first obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court order.  

c) For national security purposes TIC is authorized to collect communications outside the US without a warrant, even if captured information includes communication with an American here in the US.   So long as the collection occurs outside the US (such as a message routed through a digital switch outside the US), the collection is authorized even if all the parties to a conversation are Americans within the US.  Under this huge loophole, the NSA in 2014 reportedly collected 850 billion phone and internet records and the unfiltered private communications of millions of Americans, all without a warrant of any kind.

d) If a collected communication isn’t authorized one way or another, then it is not to be used by any government agent.  However, since these are all covert agencies, no one knows how often unauthorized intercepts are selectively shared for purposes of intimidation, investigation and building a legal case against a target.

e) In any event, TIC can leak what it has already collected to friendly media outlets, as it did back in January with the call between the Russian ambassador and national security advisor Michael Flynn.  In that instance, the leak led to Flynn’s termination. Though there was nothing wrong with anything Flynn said during the call, he was pilloried for not describing the contents of the call accurately.

With this background in mind, we move to consider the performance of the mainstream media (MSM) in its reporting on this controversy.  

For the most part, the MSM have encouraged us to regard what Obama’s spokesperson said as accurate.  Trump’s tweet, on the other hand, has been widely disparaged as lacking evidentiary support, reflecting poor judgment, and sourced from an “alt-right website” that lacked credibility. 

This rather disparate treatment may not surprise us anymore; we’ve known for several months now that the MSM is very displeased to have Trump as president.  Nevertheless, it is unnerving how the MSM ignored its own reporting in suggesting Trump was spouting nonsense.  

For example, it is likely Trump read this in the January 12 edition of the New York Times:

“In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

“The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.

“The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data…”

The January 19 edition of the Times included this:

“American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said."

The February 14 edition of the Times included this:

“Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

“American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications ...”

And if Trump read the March 1 edition of the Times, he would have seen this:

“In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information ... about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government ... to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.”

When we connect the dots between these MSM reports and the numerous leaks that have plagued the Trump Administration through its first two months in office, a clear picture begins to emerge.  

First, Trump’s campaign was surveilled by TIC (as we all are).  Some of the information authorized by the warrants was shared with law enforcement personnel.  Other collected information was widely shared across the government, thereby increasing the likelihood it would be leaked to the media. 

And that’s exactly what has been happening, according to William Binney, the National Security Agency’s former technical director. Remember news reports about President Trump’s phone call with Mexico’s president?  With Australia’s president?  How do you suppose the MSM gained access to that information?

Score one for the Obama Administration.  

No, President Obama did not explicitly order the surveillance of Trump’s phones; that happened automatically, simply because it is how things work in the USA now (and in a few limited instances, via a warrant).  But yes, President Obama made sure lots of people across the government received access to all of the information vacuumed up about Trump and his staff.  And yes, in his imprecise way, Trump blamed Obama personally for the mess his new administration finds itself in.

Last thing:  on March 7, WikiLeaks began publishing the CIA’s digital hacking tools. Reportedly included in the library of tools is Umbrage, which leaves false “evidence” of who is behind a hack and where it is coming from. Why would this be useful?  Well, let’s say you want to hack the Democratic National Committee and blame it on the Russians. By inserting fake “digital fingerprints” associated with prior Russian hacks, you can point investigators away from the real guilty party and toward an innocent party.  

As Robert Parry at ConsortiumNews.com sees it, the WikiLeaks disclosures raise fresh doubts about claims the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee last spring.

So what have we learned?  Justin Raimondo, editor of Antiwar.com, provides a summary.

“The campaign to frame up and discredit Trump and his associates is characteristic of how a police state routinely operates. A national security apparatus that vacuums up all our communications and stores them for later retrieval has been utilized by political operatives to go after their enemies – and not even the President of the United States is immune. This is something that one might expect to occur in, say, Turkey, or China: that it is happening here, to the cheers of much of the media and the Democratic Party, is beyond frightening.

“The irony is that the existence of this dangerous apparatus—which civil libertarians have warned could and probably would be used for political purposes— has been hailed by Trump and his team as a necessary and proper function of government. Indeed, Trump has called for the execution of the person who revealed the existence of this sinister engine of oppression – Edward Snowden. Absent Snowden’s revelations, we would still be in the dark as to the existence and vast scope of the NSA’s surveillance.

. . . . 

“What must be investigated is the incubation of a clandestine political police force inside the national security apparatus, one that has been unleashed against Trump – and could be deployed against anyone.

"This isn’t about Donald Trump. It’s about preserving what’s left of our old republic. I don’t want to live in a country where anonymous spooks with access to my most personal information can collect it and release it to their friends in our despicable media – do you?”

March 14 update:  Glenn Greenwald provides an excellent summary of current surveillance practices, including the way officials pretend that they are not allowed to "wiretap" conversations of Americans without a warrant, in his March 13 article, "Rand Paul is Right: NSA Routinely Monitors Americans' Communications Without a Warrant."

March 22 update:  Neema Singh Guliani provides another excellent overview in her "Could the President Spy on His Political Opponents?"