Yes, Margaret, the NSA Dragnet Does Involve Infiltration

Margaret Talbot has a piece at the New Yorker comparing COINTELPRO with Snowden’s leaks (and implicitly, the theft of data that lies behind both disclosures). Here’s the key paragraph of the comparison:

In most respects, the National Security Agency’s collection of domestic phone records which Edward Snowden revealed is nowhere near as disturbing as cointelpro’s activities. It is neither ideologically motivated (the N.S.A.’s actions were initially ramped up in response to a real attack; Hoover’s were intent on destroying perceived enemies) nor thuggish (it entails surveillance but not infiltration or harassment or blackmail or smear campaigns). Yet in one regard—its technological prowess—it is worse. As the U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon wrote last month, in an opinion that strongly suggests that the metadata collection could be found unconstitutional, “Records that once would have revealed a few scattered tiles of information about a person now reveal an entire mosaic—a vibrant and constantly updating picture of a person’s life.” Leon noted that the government did not cite any instances in which the data collection proved necessary in preventing an imminent attack, and concluded that, when weighed against the “almost-Orwellian technology that enables the Government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States,” the N.S.A.’s rationale was simply too weak. [my emphasis]

There’s a lot I might quibble with in this paragraph. The government considered the anti-war effort part of Communism’s “attack” on the “free world,” whether or not that was true, in the same way it sometimes considers many critics of US policy in the Middle East — if they are themselves Muslim — to be inspired by al Qaeda, not opposition to crappy US policy. And the NSA has itself analogized its targeting of certain people in the US as terrorists with Project Minaret, the SIGINT targeting of largely anti-war activists; if the NSA makes this comparison, who are we to question it? Further, there’s evidence (albeit still very sketchy) that NSA targeted people associated with the Iraq War, not just terrorism.

But I’m particularly concerned by Talbot’s claim that none of this dragnet entails infiltration. The government itself told the FISA Court that it uses the phone dragnet to find potential informants — it is, according to the representations the government has made to get the FISC to approve the program, one of the primary purposes of the dragnet.

From the very start of the FISC-approved program, the government maintained the dragnet “may help to discover individuals willing to become FBI assets,” and given that the government repeated that claim 3 years later, it does seem to have been used to find informants.

When you unpack the possibilities of using metadata including the phone records of all Americans to find people who might narc on their community, it becomes very scary indeed. Because the dragnet would allow the government to discover details about people — their 3 degrees of separation from people suspected of terrorist ties, sure, but also extramarital affairs or financial problems — they can use to harass or blackmail potential informants with to convince them to inform, something they’ve suggested they do with their SIGINT.

One of the only reasons why we don’t know more about this is because we’re seeing just the NSA side of these programs. The government is thoroughly redacting any details about what FBI or CIA do with the data that gets churned out of the dragnet (all while boasting of its transparency), so we can’t yet explain what happens between the time the data gets crunched and some kid gets caught in a sting or some American loses her right to fly.

But we do know what the end product of infiltrating the Muslim community looks like, both in the way FBI informants push young men until they press a button they can be arrested for, the descriptions of the extensive spying FBI’s (and NYPD’s) informants conduct, largely targeted at mosques, and in the effect it has had on the discourse that takes place within those mosques.

African-Americans in the heart of Michigan’s auto industry built the mosque I attended as a child.


Our African-American imam took turns with others to deliver the Friday khutba (sermon). We witnessed oral traditions accented from around the globe and across the road: the khateebs(deliverers of sermons) were lyrical and inspired, awkward and soft-spoken; the congregants received the khutba differently too, from active talk back to a silent receptive posture. While varied in style, the khutba routinely offered global context and critical content. The khateebs would remind us of the poverty in Detroit’s neighborhoods and the death in Baghdad’s streets. They would preach about the importance of the Muslim ummah (global community) and the duty to speak out against injustices small and large. The khateeb would regularly call for civic engagement as he also reached for religious inspiration.

These days, when I stop in a mosque, I am struck by the new normal: no politics, no world, no nimble movement between religious ethics and social context. Today’s khutbas present the congregation religious teachings in a void. Khateebs speak of the importance of honesty, forgiveness, humility and remembrance. They ignore Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantánamo and drones, informants and surveillance. They tell stories about Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, Mary and Jesus but leave out the universal themes of poverty, inequality and injustice.

From mosques to Muslim Student Association offices, American Muslim community spaces have been emptied of their politics, leeched of their dynamism as centers for religious and political debate. This new normal is the result of ten years of post-9/11 scrutiny combined with our government’s more recent embrace of “counter-radicalization” and “countering violent extremism” programs, which subject Muslim communities’ religious and political practices to aggressive surveillance, regulation and criminalization.

It’s easy, I think, for elite non-Muslim commentators to consider the infiltration of a political tradition they or their associates had personal involvement in, the anti-war movement, to be worse than the infiltration of mosques. I’m not sure they’re in a position to judge. But at least from what I’ve seen and heard, the infiltration of America’s Muslim communities seems designed to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox,” just as the FBI’s efforts targeting the anti-war and African-American communities aimed to do.

The NSA has told us the dragnet involves infiltration. That the NSA hands off the data it collects so the FBI can carry out the infiltration should not confuse us that it does, in fact, play a role in infiltrating communities and sowing paranoia.

15 replies
  1. lefty665 says:

    Not intrusive??? The data collection is much more invasive, pervasive and intrusive than in Hoover’s day. “intent on destroying perceived enemies” is no different. We want the USG to protect us from “enemies”.

    However, the definition of “enemies” is just policy, and policy is subject to change on a whim. It potentially includes 300+ million US citizens. You describe how “enemies” policy is implemented with anti-war groups and the Muslim community. The crushing of Occupy is another example.

    … is Eurasia or Eastasia the “enemy” this week? Or, is it the domestic collection of all information about every one of us? Tyranny is just a policy change away.

  2. bg says:

    I hope you forward these comments to TNY, marcy. These important clarifications/distinctions need increased visibility.

  3. bloodypitchfork says:

    Perhaps if you format team NSA/FBI and their citizen opponents in the context of a football game more people would sit in the bleachers. :)

    quote:”It’s easy, I think, for elite non-Muslim commentators to consider the infiltration of a political tradition they or their associates had personal involvement in, the anti-war movement, to be worse than the infiltration of mosques. I’m not sure they’re in a position to judge”

    Well, someone moved the goalposts and the referee didn’t see it.

    FBI’s Comey v NYPD

    They say this weekend marks the changing of the guard, with a Bushie appointee of old and 2 NY’ers of the future. But the Cointelpro matchup pits an elite NYPD who has never reached that elite pinnacle, against the best FBI of this generation.

    Only, there’s that troubling little problem that NYPD’s Bill Bratton tends to beat him once he gets to the playoffs.

    Which is one of two reasons I think the NYPD will repeat their feat of several years ago, beating the Muslims at home. The other is CIA has really grown comfortable with letting others carry the ball (which is how they beat the Muslims the last time).

    James Comey Comes Home

    Boy did I laugh my ass off when the O announced, earlier this year, that he’d signed Jim Comey. That’s the kind of thing Bush would do, after all, hiring a longtime player from the DOJ just in time to learn signals and other neat details. But to do it with one of Holder’s long-time partners? Priceless, even if it only serves as a head game.

    I’ve been predicting for weeks Cointelpro would make it to the playoffs yet again but go nowhere, and I stand by that. I think three things will deliver that: Holder lying on his ass under Obama, Hayden running through the holes where CIA used to be, and Feinstein kicking a game winner from a very sloppy Congressional field as time expires because why not? I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

    The Young Guns

    I think the ATF are right to complain that Congresscritters are underestimating them. They are a great team this year, given Todd B has already proven they can hold the F&F — and especially Issa — in check.

    But that was when DOJ was healthy and Leahey was out. He’s back and hurting people. Now that the NSA will have to account for him, it’ll free up Rodgers to do what he always seems to do in oversight playoffs.

    Who Says “Short” Men Can’t Throw?

    This game features the most poignant matchup, as Wyden has modeled his game on the way Church succeeded as a sub-six footer before.

    This game will be closer than the blowout earlier this year, because Clapper has been emphasizing the end run. Still. It’s NSA. It’s their secret. I just don’t think the Committee can beat NSA in WDC.

    Who says NS can’t be fun. :)

  4. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    I am always amused whenever someone suggests that politicians will sit on a diamond mine of information without abusing it. I am confident in my assertion that a politician will eventually abuse any power given to him or her. James Madison knew this; so why do we have seemingly intelligent people suggesting it won’t happen with the NSA information? We don’t have to look to far for a recent example. Just consider the case of Governor Christie and Bridgegate. Speaking of which, I have a suggestion for Hillary Clinton and her aides. You need to find out if there is anything Christie said in any of his telephone calls (stored at the NSA) that would indicate he was personally involved in Bridgegate. If you can show that, you have one less person to worry about in 2016.

  5. lefty665 says:

    @ArizonaBumblebee: Uh, what in the world would make you think Hillary is any better, or any less abusive/corrupt, than any of the Repub dingbats?

    We’ve seen the damage two Bushes and one Clinton can do in 20 years combined in the oval office. What would possess you go for 24 or, perish the thought, 28? Apparently you have not had enough fun yet.

    Hope your suggestion that Hillary access NSA data to get dirt on Christie was tongue in cheek. If not, it is exactly the abuse you decry. But it’s ok I guess if it is done by someone you approve of for a “good cause”. Then again, that’s what they all say.

  6. Jeffrey Kaye says:

    Superlative article and analysis!

    The time they are a’changin’ – but not for the better.

    The Stasi, too, used their massive surveillance to blackmail and recruit (coerce) informants.

  7. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    Lefty, I had two purposes in making the comment. First, I wanted to give a real-world example of how the system could and will be abused. Second, I wanted to give another example of a politician potentially being devoured by a system he supports and helped create. As I recall, Governor Christie has been a major supporter of the national security state and was a Bush-appointed federal prosecutor when the NSA went out of control during the George W. Bush presidency. It would be poetic justice if he were to be destroyed in its abuse. The comment was not directed at Hillary Clinton, it was directed at those who say foolishly that the system will not be abused. That is not to say that I think Democrats are above such tactics. I’ll give just one example of how politicians are willing to use anything they can get their hands on to destroy their opponents. Here in Arizona I know for a fact that Republicans had several private investigators combing through the background of the Democrat running in the 2006 senate race against Senator Kyle for any dirt they could get on him. (They subsequently learned a business he had operated as a young man had gone bankrupt. They then brought forward some of the people who had lost money in that bankruptcy to attack the candidate’s personal integrity.) The moral here is that Lord Acton was right: power corrupts.

  8. lefty665 says:

    Glad I led with giving you the benefit of the doubt. It’s a little hard to infer that “The comment was not directed at Hillary Clinton” when you said “I have a suggestion for Hillary Clinton”. A <snark> or <wink> or something similar helps give a heads up when words are not intended as written.

    Also glad to hear you’re not one of the delusional Hillary cultists.

  9. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    Man, is that an ignorant article. It’s a tautology that revelations from a surveillance agency will be limited to surveillance, The absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Sheesh.

  10. orionATL says:

    talbot is an idiot for making this comparison and for giving what are assurances utterly without merit.

    she has NO grounds for asserting the nsa has not been involved in domestic spying on political opposition to a president, e.g., the anti-war movement opperating on opposition to the bush/cheney invasion and occupation of iraq or the continued occupation of afghanistan,

    or on political movements, e.g., the occupy movement.

    this is just more pro-national security state op-ed claptrap from the establishment media.

  11. der says:

    Again, on the heels of the Media 8 book and interviews, the intent of articles like this, IMO, is to confuse the bewildered herd that the good thing that happened way back when in the bad Hoover days is not the same as the bad thing that Snowden has done in the good Obama era, so stop worrying and go shopping – Mars bitches.

  12. spongebrain says:

    @lefty665: The *snark* or *wink* was the context in which the statement you took issue with was written. Emoticons, textual or otherwise, would detract from the ever so sweet sarcasm.

    @der: der! (*snark* or *wink*)

  13. Jeff Kaye says:

    Talbot’s piece is also wrong about the history of the origin of the Church Commission. I don’t know what Medsger says in her book, but the Church Committee was formed in reaction to scandals about the CIA’s support to the Chilean coup and Sy Hersh’s story on CIA domestic spying. Ford first appointed the Rockefeller Committee, but even the revelations coming out from that source gave way to the later Senate investigation. Additionally, there was a concurrent investigation in the House (the Pike investigation), the results of which were famously suppressed at the behest of the CIA.

    Of course, there were many scandals coming up around the same time, including both the Cointelpro and Army domestic surveillance and informants scandals, BW revelations, and assassination scandals. All of these played a role with the FBI revelations in leading to the Church hearings. Trying to make it seem the important Media burglary was the sole factor is not fair to history. That said, my hats off to those brave patriots who risked a great deal in trying to expose government crimes.

    On formation of the Church Committee, see this Senate history:

    Essential link on Church hearings and report:

  14. lefty665 says:

    @spongebrain: Not knowing AzBumbleBee at all, the original post was not clearly sarcastic, at least to my simple mind. I included my hope that the post was not meant to be taken literally, and I mostly agree with his response to me.

    This posting stuff’s hard. Language can be pretty cold, and nuance, even sweet sarcasm, hard to convey. Not sure I’d completely agree that a simple clarifier detracts. (snark, wink, nudge).

  15. spongebrain says:

    @lefty665: “This posting stuff’s hard. Language can be pretty cold, and nuance, even sweet sarcasm, hard to convey.” True. I’m terrible at it, coming across as more of a dick than anything else. “Maybe in the next world,” as Morrissey sang.

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