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  • NSA spying — latest twist on an invasive, growing web

  • My friend, who'd retired to Mexico, was upset.
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  • My friend, who'd retired to Mexico, was upset.
    "I just can't stand the news," she said. "I hate what's going on."
    We were on Skype. She was talking about revelations that our government has been spying on us on a massive scale. She mentioned the National Security Agency's PRISM, which has been scooping up our personal information from the servers of Google, Facebook, Yahoo and, yes, Skype.
    "Big Brother is watching," she said.
    "Well, they are trying to protect us from terrorism," I said to my friend and any FBI/CIA/NSA agents and/or contractors who were listening.
    "They're storing records of billions of phone calls a day, not to mention records of purchases, emails, texts, Internet searches, social-media interactions, medical history, job history, travel, student records and God knows what else," she said.
    "But what's really crazy is that a Pew poll found that 56 percent of Americans support being spied on if the government claims it makes them safer."
    "I think a more recent a Gallup poll found only 37 percent approved," I said. "Maybe it takes some time to sink in."
    "Ha," she said. "Before Edward Snowden there was Mark Klein."
    "Who's he?"
    "The telecommunications tech who blew the whistle on AT&T for allowing U.S. spies to siphon customer data — without warrants — back in 2006."
    "Wasn't that illegal?"
    "Sure, and AT&T could've been in trouble, but Congress put the fix in."
    "What did they do?"
    "In 2008, they granted the telecommunications industry 'retroactive immunity' from legal challenges," she said.
    "So this has been going on since 2008?"
    "No," she said. "Don't you remember in 2005 when a secret Pentagon program called Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) was revealed? They were compiling databases on anybody who questioned the invasion of Iraq."
    "I forgot that," I said.
    "That was after the Bush Administration came up with Operation TIPS, the Terrorist Information and Prevention System. They wanted U.S. workers who go into people's homes, like TV cable and telephone workers, to report anything they thought was 'suspicious.' "
    "I guess it all started with the Internet," I said.
    "Ha again," said my friend. "In the mid-'70s the Church Committee reported, 'Domestic intelligence activity has threatened and undermined the constitutional rights of Americans to free speech, association and privacy ... because the constitutional system for checking abuse of power has not been applied.'
    "From 1967 to 1975, the CIA's Operation CHAOS spied on anti-war activists and the women's movement. Both President Johnson and President Nixon pressed the CIA Director Richard Helms to do it."
    She was on a roll.
    "In 1969, the NSA organized Project Minaret to spy on U.S. citizens who wound up on 'watch lists' with no warrants or judicial oversight. The project tried to link the civil rights movement and anti-war protests with Communists.
    "In the 1950s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover started COINTEL PRO, a secret FBI program aimed at radicals and minorities, whose tactics included psychological warfare, planting false reports in the news, forged letters, harassment and wrongful imprisonment."
    "They say if you're not talking to terrorists you don't have to worry," I said. "House Speaker Boehner said there are 'clear safeguards.' Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Congress will 'try to make it better.' "
    "Hahahahahahahahaha," replied my friend.
    "Are you willing to take their word?" she said. "Look, under both Democrats and Republicans, national security laws supposedly passed to protect us from bad guys always wind up being used to snoop and to stifle dissent.
    "William Binney, the former head of the NSA's global digital data-gathering program, said that not doing anything wrong doesn't guarantee you'll stay out of trouble. If somebody in the spying apparatus doesn't cotton to you, your data may be analyzed."
    "The Stasi would have loved it," I said, referring to the notorious secret police of Communist East Germany.
    "And now there's SAR," she said. "Programs to encourage officials and even the public to inform on their neighbors for 'suspicious' activities.' "
    "Like Stalin," I said.
    "Yup. But enough already. How are things in good little Oregon?"
    "Well," I said, "the Oregon Legislature just passed a bill (House Bill 2601) expanding the use of red-light cameras. It lets the cops use images that happen to be captured by the cameras to catch people whose offenses have nothing to do with traffic."
    My friend was silent for a moment.
    "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," she said.
    "Who said that?"
    "Ben Franklin. And he's not just rolling over, he's kicking and screaming."
    Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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