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Workers Vanguard No. 871

26 May 2006

Big Brother and Ma Bell's Brood

Government Spy Network Exposed, Again

Correction Appended

Recent revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been working in collusion with several major telecommunications companies to “data mine” the phone records of tens of millions of people are another instance of the massive assault on the democratic rights being carried out in the name of the “war on terror.” For the U.S. capitalist rulers, the September 11 attacks were a pretext to launch new imperialist rampages around the globe, brutally occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, imprisoning and torturing “terror suspects” in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and secret prisons elsewhere. Even U.S. citizens declared “enemy combatants” can be held indefinitely with no legal rights.

Domestically, the government seized the opportunity to intensify repression of the population, introducing measures the rulers had long sought. As we warned immediately after the September 11 events, the repressive measures directed initially at Muslims and immigrants have led to attacks on political dissent and civil liberties across the board, not least against black people and the labor movement. From “rendition” of “terror suspects” to domestic spying, the government claims legal justification for its crimes abroad and at home.

As the Spartacist League and the Partisan Defense Committee wrote in our 2003 amici curiae (friends of the court) brief on behalf of Jose Padilla, a citizen seized and detained by the government as an “enemy combatant” in the “war on terror”: “Like the ‘war against communism’ and the ‘war against drugs,’ this ‘war’ is a pretext to increase the state’s police powers and repressive apparatus, constricting the democratic rights of the population.” From the beginning, the “war on terror” has been a bipartisan affair. Democrats in Congress overwhelmingly joined in voting Bush authority to “use all necessary and appropriate force” after the September 11 attacks, a vote Bush points to as giving him legal authority for warrantless wiretapping, communications “data mining” and the like.

With the advances in digital technology, the NSA is amassing a huge pool of personal data to fish in, aiming to snare those the government deems guilty of “conspiring” with “terrorists.” It’s computerized guilt-by-association. These big-brother efforts to examine the intimate details of everyone’s life are causing concern even in the capitalist class, whose rule the NSA and the whole machinery of government repression exist to defend.

The New York Times, a major ruling-class mouthpiece, expressed such worries in an editorial (12 May): “What we have here is a clandestine surveillance program of enormous size, which is being operated by members of the administration who are subject to no limits or scrutiny beyond what they deem to impose on one another. If the White House had gotten its way, the program would have run secretly until the war on terror ended—that is, forever.” Albeit a little less secretly, the surveillance program continues. As for scrutiny, while the Senate Judiciary Committee held some hearings on the NSA’s domestic spying, earlier this month an investigation by the Justice Department ethics office into the conduct of department lawyers who approved the NSA program was closed when investigators were denied security clearances.

The latest revelations of NSA spying can be added to the list of factors causing the Bush administration’s public approval rating to tank. On top of growing popular disillusionment with the brutal U.S. occupation of Iraq, the huge increase in gas prices is hitting working-class families hard, and even better-off suburbanites are screaming. Meanwhile, the musical-chair scandals continue to rock Bush’s cronies. The Republican Party is itself deeply divided over immigration policy, while the NSA, CIA and Pentagon are embroiled in turf battles.

With their eye toward the November Congressional elections, the Democrats raised a bit of a flap over the sinister NSA/phone company spy network. But their main objection is to the unfocused targeting by the program. Whatever dismay the Democrats are expressing has something of the character of the corrupt police chief in the movie Casablanca who suddenly announces he is “shocked” to find gambling going on in Rick’s café. Far from being a plot by the Bush gang, government spying on the population—be it by the NSA, FBI, CIA or other such agencies, past and present—has been carried out by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. In fact, the likely outcome of the publicity over NSA domestic surveillance is a new law codifying such practices.

It is no accident that the Democrats are allowing the confirmation of Air Force general and former NSA chief Michael Hayden as head of the CIA to sail through the Senate. This is even after a USA Today (11 May) story exposed the extent of the NSA-telecom spy network. According to the New York Times (14 May), Hayden was the “principal architect” of the domestic wiretapping program. Like Bush, he publicly insisted that the program was strictly limited to monitoring Al Qaeda types.

Senate Minority leader Harry Reid and other leading Democrats praise Hayden as the right man to lead the CIA, which has spent over half a century assassinating people, overthrowing governments, torturing and murdering people on behalf of U.S. imperialism. The Democrats are pushing for more effective spy agencies. Not wanting to be outdone on the “security” issue, the Democrats have made their theme in the Hayden confirmation hearings the charming thought that the CIA should “speak truth to power,” as California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein, a police and security groupie, put it. The Democrats want the CIA to give good advice to the government, rather than making things up (like the mythical Iraqi weapons of mass destruction) at the behest of a particularly demented administration averse to “reality-based” policy.

Especially with the Democrats posturing as the party better suited to prosecute the “war on terror,” which Bush has invoked to launch pre-emptive, unilateral predatory wars, there hasn’t been much in the way of public outcry over the government’s snooping into the intimate details of everyone’s life. Indeed, both capitalist parties aim to cow the population into accepting blatant attacks on their rights as necessary for “national security.” This underscores the need for the labor movement, black people, immigrants and other minorities to break from the Democratic Party in order to fight against the increasingly repressive measures of the capitalist state.

Yes, They Can “Hear You Now”

The NSA’s current “data mining” project goes far beyond its warrantless tapping of phone and Internet communications. These practices are in addition to monitoring international communications, as the agency has done since its inception in 1952. NSA spooks are also prying into all electronic messages passing through key points in the communications grid. The NSA—the largest agency in the capitalist state’s espionage apparatus—quite literally aims to spy on the entire population.

The New York Times (24 December 2005) reported that the NSA had “gained the cooperation” of phone companies “to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications.” A business executive told the Los Angeles Times (25 December 2005) that the NSA has a direct hookup into AT&T’s massive database, codenamed Daytona, of nearly two trillion phone records. The next month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched a class-action lawsuit against AT&T, charging the company with illegally giving the government access to its customers’ communications and records. The EFF is also seeking an injunction against the spying. USA Today subsequently reported that these companies include not only AT&T but MCI (now part of Verizon) and Sprint.

Following the announcement of lawsuits against several of the companies, USA Today (11 May) reported that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth had contracted to give the NSA access to records of every phone call made through their systems. BellSouth has since denied that it provided any such records, while a number of wireless companies have either denied handing over records to the NSA or refused to comment. But USA Today is sticking by its story. And now, in a New Yorker (29 May) article titled “Listening In,” Seymour Hersh cites a security consultant working with a major telecommunications company that had “set up a top-secret high-speed circuit between its main computer complex and Quantico, Virginia, the site of a government-intelligence computer center.” The source said, “What the companies are doing is worse than turning over records.” He continued, “They’re providing total access to all the data.”

The government is tracking phone calls made by journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post and ABC News as part of “investigations” into such leaks as those that exposed the NSA’s domestic spying. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is threatening to prosecute journalists for revealing government secrets.

NSA, Telecom Old Tricks

So secretive that it was nicknamed “No Such Agency,” the NSA is by far the largest of the U.S. spy agencies, with some 40,000 employees and operations that span the globe. The NSA’s partnership with the recombinant offspring of Ma Bell—the Bell Telephone monopoly broken up in the 1980s and now recoalescing in a series of mergers—brings to mind the 1967 satirical movie The President’s Analyst, starring James Coburn and Godfrey Cambridge. In the movie, it turns out that The Phone Company runs the world and its robotic executives scheme to implant devices in everyone’s brain. Exemplifying the tight relationship between the phone companies and the state, in 1994 under Clinton the FBI successfully pushed for the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which requires that digitally switched telephone networks be built with “back doors” to allow wiretapping.

Documents filed by the EFF in its suit against AT&T give us a glimpse into how the NSA-telecom partnership operates. The documents were courageously provided by Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician with more than 22 years’ experience. After Klein submitted an April 6 statement summarizing his evidence in the lawsuit, Wired News published it on its Web site, along with a document Klein wrote in January 2004 detailing what he saw while working in AT&T’s downtown San Francisco hub.

According to Klein, in 2002 an NSA agent visited his worksite to interview a management-level technician for a “secret job.” The following January, Klein witnessed the construction of a new room in the company’s downtown central office, off-limits to the regular workforce of union technicians, where equipment was installed by the person interviewed by the NSA. Klein observed in his 2004 document, “The telltale sign of an illicit government spy operation is the fact that only people with security clearance from the National Security Agency can enter this room” (emphasis in original).

Klein writes that later in 2003, “I learned that fiber optic cables from the secret room were tapping into the WorldNet [AT&T’s Internet service] circuits by splitting off a portion of the light signal.” Klein explained that in order to monitor fiber-optic signals, which conduct light rather than electricity, devices called splitters must be installed. For this purpose, a special cabinet was built. Circuits from the “Peering Links” that connect WorldNet to the rest of the Internet are fed into the cabinet, where the light signal is split into two signals, one of which is diverted to the secret room. Among the links tapped is “Mae West,” one of two key Internet nodes in the U.S. According to Klein, this means that “it’s not just WorldNet customers who are being spied on—it’s the entire internet.” In the course of his work, Klein learned of similar cabinets in other cities, including Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Klein obtained an equipment list for the secret room, which was submitted as part of the lawsuit and is posted on the Wired News Web site. The list includes an item called the Narus STA 6400—equipment and associated software designed to sift rapidly through vast quantities of Internet traffic, select Web pages, e-mail or other content based on pre-programmed criteria, and play back the content of those communications. According to the manufacturer, Narus, its product is designed to help “law enforcement agencies to conduct authorized electronic surveillance.” On Narus’ board sits William P. Crowell, a former deputy director of the NSA. According to the Narus Web site, Crowell has served on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Task Force on Terrorism and Deterrence since the September 11 attacks.

Klein noted that these devices were installed by AT&T at the time of the notorious Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which was run by convicted Contragate criminal John Poindexter, operating out of DARPA. As Poindexter described it, the TIA would give the government “instant access to information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant” (New York Times, 9 November 2002).

Following a public outcry, Poindexter resigned and Congress made a show of cutting off funding for the project. But as is now abundantly confirmed, the core of the TIA is alive and well. Funding has simply been shunted to other agencies, including the NSA. Congress went through the pretense of cutting off funding for another TIA-type project, CAPPS II, which aimed to “data mine” commercial databases of personal information on airline passengers (see “Big Brother in the Skies,” WV No. 818, 23 January 2004). That program has continued under another name, “Secure Flight.” These programs add a number of new installations, such as at the AT&T site in San Francisco, to the NSA’s vast, global network of satellites, listening stations and supercomputers. The NSA even has at its disposal the nuclear-powered submarine USS Jimmy Carter, specially retrofitted for tapping other countries’ undersea fiber-optic cables.

The government and AT&T are doing their best to quash the EFF lawsuit. AT&T moved to suppress the Klein documents on the grounds that they are “proprietary.” On May 17, a judge in San Francisco denied AT&T’s claim but kept the documents under seal. Wired News, however, has just published a complete set of Klein’s documents online. Meanwhile, the government seeks to dismiss the whole suit on the grounds that even to consider it would jeopardize “national security.” A hearing on the issue is scheduled for June 23.

Government lawyers rely on a legal doctrine of “state secrets” that the Bush administration seeks to greatly expand. That doctrine has been applied in the past to try to suppress evidence of the government’s surveillance and dirty tricks against its opponents, from the NSA’s spying on pediatrician and Vietnam antiwar figure Dr. Benjamin Spock to the Nixon administration’s warrantless wiretapping of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, and FBI programs directed against leftists. A recent chilling example was the dismissal earlier this month of a lawsuit against the CIA and private security companies by Khaled al-Masri. A victim of the government’s rendition of “terror suspects,” al-Masri, a Lebanese-born German national, was seized in late 2003 and imprisoned and tortured for nearly five months in Afghanistan before being released in Albania without explanation. In dismissing the suit, the court intoned that “in the present circumstances, al-Masri’s private interests must give way to the national interest in preserving state secrets.”

In the defining 1953 Supreme Court case United States v. Reynolds, the court ruled that “state secrets” prevented a lawsuit by the widows of civilians killed when the Air Force bomber they were on crashed. According to the ruling, the relevant Air Force documents could not even be examined by a judge to determine if any state secrets were involved. When the documents were declassified and released 47 years later, they contained no secrets but much evidence of negligence (Federation of American Scientists Secrecy News, 26 January 2004).

Government Surveillance and the Imperial Presidency

The cozy relationship between government snoops and the communications industry goes back to one of the NSA’s ancestors—a secret outfit known as the Black Chamber that worked under military intelligence—which got Western Union to turn over copies of international telegrams in 1919. Following World War II, the Signal Security Agency, the NSA’s direct predecessor, arranged for Western Union and International Telephone and Telegraph to do likewise in a project codenamed Operation Shamrock that soon extended to all the big telecom companies. The NSA itself was founded in 1952 by secret order of Democratic president Harry Truman primarily to spy on the USSR during the Cold War, part of U.S. imperialism’s drive to destroy the Soviet degenerated workers state. An immediate precipitant for its formation was the complaint from military and government leaders about the quality of communications intelligence during the Korean War.

The NSA’s domestic spying underwent a big expansion under the Johnson administration in 1967 and again under Nixon, as the government targeted radicals, Vietnam antiwar activists and black militants, based on “watch lists” of citizens given to the NSA by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. Following the Watergate scandal, and under the impact of the social struggles of the 1960s and early ’70s, some of this history came out in the investigation and hearings of the Senate’s 1975-76 Church Committee. President Ford extended executive privilege to shield those involved from testifying on the recommendation of his chief of staff, one Dick Cheney, and his Secretary of Defense, one Donald Rumsfeld (Baltimore Sun, 12 May). Spying continued, with some cosmetic changes. In 1978, the Carter administration signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Billed as a barrier to NSA/CIA domestic spying, FISA in fact codified such surveillance by adding a veneer of legality. While FISA is now invoked by liberals as a check on the nation’s secret police, in 27 years, the secret FISA court that is supposed to vet requests for wiretap warrants has turned down only five of nearly 20,000 wiretap applications!

The current expansion of the government’s repressive apparatus is a significant escalation in the war against the rights of working people and the oppressed. The NSA’s invasion of privacy can carry drastic consequences. Now, if you are singled out and labeled a terrorist based on “classified” evidence, the government claims the right to “disappear” you as an “enemy combatant” with no legal recourse. The “war on terror” has accelerated the drive toward unfettered power by the executive branch. Much of the constitutional power originally vested in Congress has increasingly been transferred to the “imperial presidency,” corresponding to the needs of U.S. imperialism to assert itself as cop of the world.

Whether the capitalist rulers prevail in their attempts to shred the rights of the population will be determined in the final analysis by the level of class and social struggle. The working class, due to its relationship to the means of production, has enormous potential social power that must be brought to bear in struggle against the capitalist class. But the current misleadership of the U.S. labor movement is an internal obstacle to such struggle. Wedded to the capitalist politicians who pose as “friends of labor,” the union bureaucrats have signed on as auxiliaries in the “war on terror,” whose ultimate domestic target is the organized working class. The spearhead of this “war” is abroad; at home, the population gets the shaft.

Instead of organizing the largely immigrant port truckers, the Teamsters tops are rallying for increased “port security,” one of whose targets would be just such immigrant workers. The “progressive” International Longshore and Warehouse Union bureaucrats call for implementing the Maritime Transportation Security Act and its mandated “background checks” of waterfront workers, which would directly threaten blacks and Latinos who have been on the receiving end of racist cop harassment. Such chauvinist class collaboration is in the sordid tradition of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy’s embrace of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. An instrumental part of that decades-long campaign was the notorious American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which worked with the CIA to destroy militant, left-led unions, especially in Latin America. The AIFLD was the brainchild of Joe Beirne, longtime president of the Communications Workers of America, the main telecom union.

As Marxists, we expect that the capitalist state will continue to eavesdrop on “persons of interest” to them—mainly those who oppose bloodsoaked capitalist rule. “Illegal” or not, spying, harassment and repression are the norm for the capitalist state, whose function is to defend capitalist profits and rule. As we wrote in “NSA/FBI Spying and the War on Our Rights” (WV No. 861, 6 January): “Short of the overthrow of capitalist rule, none of the rights and gains that working people hold dear are secure. What’s needed is a thoroughgoing socialist revolution led by a multiracial workers party to establish the rule of the working class and usher in a society based on production for human needs not profit.”


In “Government Spy Network Exposed, Again” (WV No. 871, 26 May), WV editorial introduced a factual error, which was drawn to our attention by a reader on the West Coast. In the article, we wrote: “The ‘progressive’ International Longshore and Warehouse Union [ILWU] bureaucrats call for implementing the Maritime Transportation Security Act [MTSA] and its mandated ‘background checks’ of waterfront workers, which would directly threaten blacks and Latinos who have been on the receiving end of racist cop harassment.” In fact, while the ILWU leadership calls for the implementation of particular sections of the MTSA, it opposes background checks of longshore workers “on the grounds that employers might dismiss longshoremen because of previous convictions that have no bearing on security,” as a 24 April Journal of Commerce article put it.


Workers Vanguard No. 871

WV 871

26 May 2006


Big Brother and Ma Bell's Brood

Government Spy Network Exposed, Again


Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!

Labor and the Fight for Immigrant Rights

Break with the Democrats! Build a Revolutionary Workers Party!


Anti-Polygamy Witchhunt

Feds Hands Off Mormon Fundamentalists!


The Communist International and the Struggle for Black Liberation

(Quote of the Week)


From Death Row, This Is Mumia Abu-Jamal

Immigration Blues


Trade Unions Say: Free Mumia Now!


U.S. Out of Iraq Now!

The U.S. Occupation and the Kurdish Question

For a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan!


Against Capitalists' Divide-and-Rule

Immigrant Rights and Black Liberation