Mission Statement

Mission Statement

Sunday, January 21, 2018

GOP Can Release the Memo Anytime


We therefore regard as inherently serious strident warnings from public officials alleging that the FBI and Department of Justice have abused their spying power for political purposes. Social media last night and today have been flooded with inflammatory and quite dramatic claims now being made by congressional Republicans about a four-page memo alleging abuses of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act spying processes during the 2016 election. This memo, which remains secret, was reportedly written under the direction of the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, and has been read by dozens of members of Congress after the committee voted to make the memo available to all members of the House of Representatives to examine in a room specially designated for reviewing classified material.

The rhetoric issuing from GOP members who read the memo is notably extreme. North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, chair of the House Freedom Caucus, called the memo “troubling” and “shocking” and said, “Part of me wishes that I didn’t read it because I don’t want to believe that those kinds of things could be happening in this country that I call home and love so much.” GOP Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania stated: “You think about, ‘Is this happening in America or is this the KGB?’ That’s how alarming it is.”

This has led to a ferocious outcry on the right to “release the memo” – and presumably thereby prove that the Obama administration conducted unlawful surveillance on the Trump campaign and transition. On Thursday night, Fox News host and stalwart Trump ally Sean Hannity claimed that the memo described “the systematic abuse of power, the weaponizing of those powerful tools of intelligence and the shredding of our Fourth Amendment constitutional rights.”

Given the significance of this issue, it is absolutely true that the memo should be declassified and released to the public — and not just the memo itself. The House Intelligence Committee generally and Nunes specifically have a history of making unreliable and untrue claims (its report about Edward Snowden was full of falsehoods, as Bart Gellman amply documented, and prior claims from Nunes about “unmasking” have been discredited). Thus, mere assertions from Nunes — or anyone else — are largely worthless; Republicans should provide American citizens not merely with the memo they claim reveals pervasive criminality and abuse of power, but also with all of the evidence underlying its conclusions. 

President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have the power, working together or separately, to immediately declassify all the relevant information. And if indeed the GOP’s explosive claims are accurate – if, as HPSCI member Steve King, R-Iowa, says, this is “worse than Watergate” — they obviously have every incentive to get it into the public’s hands as soon as possible. Indeed, one could argue that they have the duty to do so.

On the other hand, if the GOP’s claims are false or significantly misleading – if they are, with the deepest cynicism imaginable, simply using these crucial issues to whip up their base or discredit the Mueller investigation, or exaggerating or making claims that lack any evidentiary support, or trying to have the best of all worlds by making explosive claims about the memo but never having to prove their truth — then they will either not release the memo or they will release it without any supporting documentation, making it impossible for Americans to judge its accuracy for themselves.

Anyone who is genuinely concerned about the claims being made about eavesdropping abuses should understand why the issue of evidence is so critical. After all, the House, Senate, and FBI investigations into any Trump collusion with Russia have so far proceeded with many startling claims in the media, but to date little hard evidence for the public to judge. Nobody rational should be assuming any claims or assertions from partisan actors about the 2016 election are true without seeing evidence to substantiate those claims.

The good news is there are at least four easy ways for congressional Republicans and/or Trump to definitively prove that all the right’s darkest suspicions about the Obama administration are true. If this memo and the underlying documents prove even a fraction of what GOP politicians and media figures are claiming about them, then what could possibly justify its ongoing concealment? Any or all of these methods should be promptly invoked to ensure that the public sees this evidence:

1. Trump can declassify anything he wants.


All classification by the U.S. government has no basis in laws passed by Congress (with one tiny exception that is irrelevant here). Rather, all classification is based on presidential executive orders, which rely on the president’s constitutional role as commander in chief of the armed forces. According to the Supreme Court, the presidential power “to classify and control access to information bearing on national security … flows primarily from the constitutional investment of power in the president.”

That means presidents can also declassify anything they chose to — for any reason or no reason — as they have done in the past. George W. Bush, under pressure in 2004, declassified the section of the 2001 presidential daily brief headlined “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Barack Obama declassified the Justice Department memos produced during the Bush presidency on the legality of torture.

Thus if the House Intelligence Committee merely releases a version of its memo without the supporting documentation, that won’t be just because they don’t want Americans to see it – it will be because Trump doesn’t want us to see it either. Note that GOP House members are insistent that releasing the memo and the underlying source material would not remotely harm national security:

So what possible justification is there for Trump to continue to conceal this alleged evidence of massive criminality from the American people by hiding it behind “classified” designations? Indeed, it is illegal to abuse classified designations to hide evidence of official criminality: so not only can Trump declassify such evidence, one could argue that he must, or at least should.

2. The House (and Senate) intelligence committees can declassify any material they possess.


According to the procedural rules of both houses of Congress, their intelligence committees can declassify material in their possession if the committee votes that such declassification would be in the public interest. It is then declassified after five days unless the president formally objects. If the president does object, the full chamber votes on the question.

It is true that – in a measure of how embarrassingly deferential Congress is to the executive branch – neither the House nor the Senate intelligence committees has ever utilized this power, so it’s impossible to know how this gambit would play out in practice. But if Trump refused to release proof of the Obama administration’s misdeeds, congressional Republicans should have a straightforward way to overrule him.

3. The Constitution protects members of Congress from prosecution for “any speech or debate in either House.”


Members of Congress have legal immunity for acts they commit as part of the legislative process. Article I, Section 6, clause 1 of the Constitution states that “for any speech or debate in either House, [Senators and Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other place.” It is this constitutional shield that protected Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska from legal consequences in 1971 when he read sections of the Pentagon Papers during a meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, and then placed the rest of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record.

It’s true that members could face legal consequences for ancillary acts — perhaps if they unlawfully removed the relevant material from the congressional SCIF. But they could go to the House floor and describe both the memo’s revelations and the underlying evidence for it without any fear of legal consequences.

If the memo really proves what they claim, it would seem to be their patriotic duty would compel them do this. Ordinary citizens — like Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning — have risked prison in order to expose what they believed were serious official crimes; these members of Congress can do this without any of those consequences. So what justifies their failure to do this?

4. Republicans can leak everything to the news media.


If for some reason Trump and the congressional leadership refuse to use any of the above options to vindicate themselves, a brave member of Congress could turn whistleblower and transmit the classified proof of the GOP’s claims about the memo to the news media.

Many outlets now have secure methods of sending sensitive material to them, such as Secure Drop. Those for The Intercept can be found here. (All leaking entails risks, as we describe in our manual for whistleblowers.)

So that’s that. All Americans, particularly conservatives, should ask every Republican making spectacular assertions about this memo when they will be using the above ways to conclusively demonstrate that everything they’ve said is based in rock-solid fact.

If they do not, Republicans will conclusively demonstrate something else. They will prove conclusively that all of this is about them shamelessly making claims they do not actually believe, fraudulently posturing as caring about one of the most vital, fundamental issues facing the United States: how the U.S. government uses the vast surveillance powers with which it has been vested.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

ICE Targets Immigrant Rrights Activists


When word came down from the upper floors of Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was taking custody of Ravidath Ragbir and intended to deport him, hundreds of his supporters, standing outside on the cold sidewalk, raised up their hands to the monolithic building and screamed.

Ragbir had entered the building willingly, on his own steam, accompanied by his wife and family, his legal team, and a handful of elected officials. Now, his friends outside learned, Ravi — as everyone knows him — wouldn’t be coming back to them. They had planned for this possibility even as they hoped it wouldn’t come, but the plans soon gave way to a spontaneous gesture of resistance. As the ambulance carrying a handcuffed Ragbir — he had briefly fainted when he was taken into custody — pulled out of the Federal Plaza garage, supporters attempted to stop its progress. Friends, colleagues, clergy, and city council members put their bodies in front of the vehicle, blocking it with their lives.

The resulting chaos was exacerbated by law enforcement officers who pushed, yanked, and choked the nonviolent protesters. By the time the melee had died down outside the gates of New York City Hall, 18 people had been arrested and the ambulance had gotten away.

The EMT vehicle dropped Ragbir’s wife off at the front door of the hospital, but then sped off, transporting him to a different hospital. Ragbir was briefly examined before being taken in quick succession to immigration detention centers in Manhattan and New Jersey. By that evening, he was at the Krome Detention Center in Florida, awaiting final deportation to the country of his birth, Trinidad.

Ragbir moved to the United States more than 20 years ago and became a legal permanent resident. In 2001, he was convicted of wire fraud conspiracy for his role in a mortgage business that came under criminal investigation. After 2 1/2 years in prison, he was ordered to be deported. Throughout years of ongoing appeals, he was incarcerated first in New Jersey and then in Alabama. When he finally won his release pending the appeal’s outcome, Ragbir devoted his energies to helping people like himself: immigrants in danger of deportation.

The New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, where Ragbir is the executive director, emphasizes the power of illuminating the dark and confusing workings of the federal immigration machine. The coalition runs workshops to help immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries to apply for asylum. It sends groups of friendly volunteers to accompany people called to hearings in immigration court or mandatory check-ins with ICE officials. It builds a community of trust and mutual aid among New York’s most vulnerable and isolated immigrants.

The New Sanctuary Coalition’s work builds on a movement begun by religious congregations in the 1980s to support Central American refugees in defiance of Reagan-era immigration policies. Grounded in religious congregations, the movement relies in part on the government’s reluctance to send law enforcement into houses of worship. The concept of sanctuary — that people inside houses of worship enjoy some special protection from agents of the state — goes back centuries. But it doesn’t rest on any firm legal footing. While certain actions, like disrupting religious ceremonies, are illegal, the force keeping ICE officers from raiding churches has more to do with optics, said Rev. Michael Ellick, a former pastor at Judson Memorial Church and a friend of Ragbir. “It’s like, ‘OK, you can come and do that, but we’re going to have cameras rolling and everyone’s going to see you storming a church,’” he said. “Previous administrations, we thought they wouldn’t do that. But this administration? Who knows?”

Ragbir’s detention was the second such arrest of a New Sanctuary Coalition leader by ICE in the space of a week. It was only the most recent and public in a series of developments that advocates believe is part of a concerted effort to intimidate and dismantle the immigration rights movement in New York City. Coalition members say unmarked cars with heavily tinted windows have begun surveilling churches and movement leaders’ homes. Clergy who work with New York’s immigrant communities say that ICE agents have repeatedly entered church property and interrogated people as they come and go from houses of worship.

The events in New York are taking place against a national backdrop of escalating actions against prominent immigrant rights figures. On December 20, ICE agents in Washington state began deportation proceedings against Maru Mora-Villalpando, founder of an organization that leads weekly rallies and vigils outside the gates of Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. In Colorado, ICE detained the husband of Ingrid Encalada Latorre, an undocumented Peruvian mother who has been taking sanctuary in Denver-area churches since 2016.

“It seems like they’re trying to create an atmosphere of uncertainty where nobody feels safe,” said Nathan Yaffe, a lawyer who works with the New Sanctuary Coalition to help people file asylum applications. “At the same time, they’re trying to exile our moral leaders in order to break the movement.”
“ICE thinks that by removing the leaders,” Yaffe added, “they can destroy the movement.”

Jeffrey Sterling Released from Prison


Jeffrey Sterling, the former CIA agent convicted under the Espionage Act for talking to a New York Times reporter, has been released from prison after serving more than two years of his 42-month sentence, and is now in a halfway house.

Sterling’s case drew nationwide attention because the Obama-era Department of Justice unsuccessfully tried to force the reporter, James Risen, to divulge the identity of his sources for “State of War,” a book in which he revealed the CIA had botched a covert operation against Iran’s nuclear program. Risen reported that instead of undermining the Iranians, the CIA had provided them with useful information on how to build a nuclear bomb. (Risen is now The Intercept’s senior national security correspondent and directs First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund.)

The case had a racial dimension, too. Sterling, who had joined the agency in 1993, was one of the few black undercover operatives at the CIA. After several years of what he believed was discriminatory treatment, he filed a complaint against the agency, and then a lawsuit. The CIA fired Sterling in 2002, and his lawsuit was blocked by the courts after the government argued successfully that proceeding with the suit would expose state secrets.

Sterling subsequently met with Senate investigators as a whistleblower about the mismanagement of a classified program he worked on at the agency, the same Iranian program that Risen wrote about in his book. Risen had interviewed Sterling in 2002 for an article about his discrimination lawsuit — but Sterling has denied talking to Risen about the Iranian program. In 2011, when Sterling was arrested, the government’s indictment accused him of leaking about Iran out of “anger and resentment.”

The key evidence that persuaded a jury to convict Sterling on nine felony counts consisted of phone records and emails that showed Sterling and Risen had communicated with each other. However, those records did not disclose anything about the content of their conversations. All the government knew, and all the jury knew, is that they had communicated. At Sterling’s sentencing in 2015, Judge Leonie Brinkema acknowledged that “in a perfect world, you’d only have direct evidence, but many times that’s not the case in a criminal case.” She described the phone and email records as “very powerful circumstantial evidence.”

After the guilty verdict, Sterling requested that he serve his sentence at a prison near St. Louis, where he lived with his wife. The government sent him to a prison in Colorado. Earlier this week, he was released from that prison and has been assigned to a halfway house in St. Louis.

Voice Communication and the NSA Part 1

Documents published with this article:

Voice Communication and the NSA Part 2


Classified documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA has developed technology not just to record and transcribe private conversations but to automatically identify the speakers.

Americans most regularly encounter this technology, known as speaker recognition, or speaker identification, when they wake up Amazon’s Alexa or call their bank. But a decade before voice commands like “Hello Siri” and “OK Google” became common household phrases, the NSA was using speaker recognition to monitor terrorists, politicians, drug lords, spies, and even agency employees.

The technology works by analyzing the physical and behavioral features that make each person’s voice distinctive, such as the pitch, shape of the mouth, and length of the larynx. An algorithm then creates a dynamic computer model of the individual’s vocal characteristics. This is what’s popularly referred to as a “voiceprint.” The entire process — capturing a few spoken words, turning those words into a voiceprint, and comparing that representation to other “voiceprints” already stored in the database — can happen almost instantaneously. Although the NSA is known to rely on finger and face prints to identify targets, voiceprints, according to a 2008 agency document, are “where NSA reigns supreme.”

It’s not difficult to see why. By intercepting and recording millions of overseas telephone conversations, video teleconferences, and internet calls — in addition to capturing, with or without warrants, the domestic conversations of Americans — the NSA has built an unrivaled collection of distinct voices. Documents from the Snowden archive reveal that analysts fed some of these recordings to speaker recognition algorithms that could connect individuals to their past utterances, even when they had used unknown phone numbers, secret code words, or multiple languages.

As early as Operation Iraqi Freedom, analysts were using speaker recognition to verify that audio which “appeared to be of deposed leader Saddam Hussein was indeed his, contrary to prevalent beliefs.” Memos further show that NSA analysts created voiceprints for Osama bin Laden, whose voice was “unmistakable and remarkably consistent across several transmissions;” for Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s current leader; and for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the group’s third in command. They used Zarqawi’s voiceprint to identify him as the speaker in audio files posted online.

The classified documents, dating from 2004 to 2012, show the NSA refining increasingly sophisticated iterations of its speaker recognition technology. They confirm the uses of speaker recognition in counterterrorism operations and overseas drug busts. And they suggest that the agency planned to deploy the technology not just to retroactively identify spies like Pelton but to prevent whistleblowers like Snowden.

Always Listening
Civil liberties experts are worried that these and other expanding uses of speaker recognition imperil the right to privacy. “This creates a new intelligence capability and a new capability for abuse,” explained Timothy Edgar, a former White House adviser to the Director of National Intelligence. “Our voice is traveling across all sorts of communication channels where we’re not there. In an age of mass surveillance, this kind of capability has profound implications for all of our privacy.”

Edgar and other experts pointed to the relatively stable nature of the human voice, which is far more difficult to change or disguise than a name, address, password, phone number, or PIN. This makes it “far easier” to track people, according to Jamie Williams, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “As soon as you can identify someone’s voice,” she said, “you can immediately find them whenever they’re having a conversation, assuming you are recording or listening to it.”

The voice is a unique and readily accessible biometric: Unlike DNA, it can be collected passively and from a great distance, without a subject’s knowledge or consent. Accuracy varies considerably depending on how closely the conditions of the collected voice match those of previous recordings. But in controlled settings — with low background noise, a familiar acoustic environment, and good signal quality — the technology can use a few spoken sentences to precisely match individuals. And the more samples of a given voice that are fed into the computer’s model, the stronger and more “mature” that model becomes.

In commercial settings, speaker recognition is most popularly associated with screening fraud at call centers, talking to voice assistants like Siri, and verifying passwords for personal banking. And its uses are growing. According to Tractica, a market research firm, revenue from the voice biometrics industry is poised to reach nearly $5 billion a year by 2024, with applications expanding to border checkpoints, health care, credit card payments, and wearable devices.

A major concern of civil libertarians is the potential to chill speech. Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, noted how the NSA’s speaker recognition technology could hypothetically be used to track journalists, unmask sources, and discourage anonymous tips. While people handling sensitive materials know they should encrypt their phone calls, Timm pointed to the many avenues — from televisions to headphones to internet-enabled devices — through which voices might be surreptitiously recorded. “There are microphones all around us all the time. We all carry around a microphone 24 hours a day, in the form of our cellphones,” Timm said. “And we know that there are ways for the government to hack into phones and computers to turn those devices on.”

“Despite the many [legislative] changes that have happened since the Snowden revelations,” he continued, “the American people only have a partial understanding of the tools the government can use to conduct surveillance on millions of people worldwide. It’s important that this type of information be debated in the public sphere.” But debate is difficult, he noted, if the public lacks a meaningful sense of the technology’s uses — let alone its existence.
A former defense intelligence official, who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified material, believes the technology’s low profile is not an accident. “The government avoids discussing this technology because it raises serious questions they would prefer not to answer,” the official said. “This is a critical piece of what has happened to us and our rights since 9/11.” For the technology to work, the official noted, “you don’t need to do anything else but open your mouth.”

These advocates fear that without any public discussion or oversight of the government’s secret collection of our speech patterns, we may be entering a world in which more and more voices fall silent.

The New Voice Tools

While Americans have been aware since 2013 of the NSA’s bulk collection of domestic and overseas phone data, the process by which that raw data is converted into meaningful intelligence has remained largely classified. In 2015, The Intercept reported that the NSA had built a suite of “human language technologies” to make sense of the extraordinary amount of audio the government was collecting. By developing programs to automatically translate speech into text — what analysts called “Google for voice” — the agency could use keywords and “selectors” to search, read, and index recordings that would have otherwise required an infinite number of human listeners to listen to them.
Speaker recognition emerged alongside these speech-to-text programs as an additional technique to help analysts sort through the countless hours of intercepts streaming in from war zones. Much of its growth and reliability can be traced to the NSA and Department of Defense’s investments. Before the digital era, speaker recognition was primarily practiced as a forensic science. During World War II, human analysts compared visual printouts of vocal frequencies from the radio. According to Harry Hollien, author of “Forensic Voice Identification,” these “visible speech” machines, known as spectrograms, were even used to disprove a rumor that Adolf Hitler had been assassinated and replaced by a double.

“Voiceprints were something you could look at,” explained James Wayman, a leading voice recognition expert who chairs federal efforts to recommend standards for forensic speaker recognition. He pointed out that the term “voiceprint,” though widely used by commercial vendors, can be misleading, since it implies that the information captured is physical, rather than behavioral. “What you have now is an equation built into a software program that spits out numbers,” he said.

Those equations have evolved from simple averages to dynamic algorithmic models. Since 1996, the NSA has funded the National Institute of Standards and Technology Speech Group to cultivate and test what it calls the “most dominant and promising algorithmic approach to the problems facing speaker recognition.” Participants testing their systems with NIST include leading biometric companies and academics, some of whom receive funding from the NSA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

The NSA’s silence around its speaker recognition program makes it difficult to determine its current powers. But given the close ties between NSA-funded academic research and private corporations, a good approximation of the NSA’s capabilities can be gleaned from what other countries are doing — and what vendors are selling them.

For instance, Nuance, an industry leader, advertises to governments, military, and intelligence services “a country-wide voice biometric system, capable of rapidly and accurately identifying and segmenting individuals within systems comprising millions of voiceprints.” In 2014, the Associated Press reported that Nuance’s technology had been used by Turkey’s largest mobile phone company to collect voice data from approximately 10 million customers.

In October, Human Rights Watch reported that the Chinese government has been building a national database of voiceprints so that it could automatically identify people talking on the phone. The government is aiming to link the voice biometrics of tens of thousands of people to their identity number, ethnicity, and home address. According to HRW, the vendor that manufactures China’s voice software has even patented a system to pinpoint audio files for “monitoring public opinion.”

In November, a major international speaker recognition effort funded by the European Union passed its final test, according to an Interpol press release. More than 100 intelligence analysts, researchers, and law enforcement agents from over 50 countries — among them, Interpol, the U.K.’s Metropolitan Police Service, and the Portuguese Polícia Judiciária — attended the demonstration, in which researchers proved that their program could identify “unknown speakers talking in different languages … through social media or lawfully intercepted audios.”

NSA documents reviewed by The Intercept outline the contours of a similarly expansive system — one that, in the years following 9/11, grew to allow “language analysts to sift through hundreds of hours of voice cuts in a matter of seconds and selects items of potential interest based on keywords or speaker voice recognition.”

“Dramatic” Results

A partial history of the NSA’s development of speaker recognition technology can be reconstructed from nearly a decade’s worth of internal newsletters from the Signals Intelligence Directorate, or SID. By turns boastful and terse, the SIDtoday memos detail the transformation of voice recognition from a shaky forensic science conducted by human examiners into an automated algorithmic program drawing on massive troves of voice data. In particular, the memos highlight the ways in which U.S. analysts worked closely alongside British counterparts at the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, to process bulk voice recordings from counterterrorism efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. GCHQ, which declined to answer detailed questions for this article, praised its systems in internal newsletters for “playing an important part in our relationship with NSA.”

While it can occasionally be difficult to distinguish between SIDtoday’s anticipatory announcements and the technology’s actual capabilities, it’s clear that the NSA has been using automated speaker recognition technology to locate and label “voice messages where a speaker of interest is talking” since at least 2003. Anytime a voice was intercepted, a SIDtoday memo explains, voice recognition technology could model and compare it to others in order to answer the question: “Is that the terrorist we’ve been following? Is that Usama bin Laden?”

But the NSA’s system did far more than answer yes-or-no questions. In a series of newsletters from 2006 that spotlight a program called Voice in Real Time, or Voice RT, the agency describes its ability to automatically identify not just the speaker in a voice intercept, but also their language, gender, and dialect. Analysts could sort intercepts by these categories, search them for keywords in real time, and set up automatic alerts to notify them when incoming intercepts met certain flagged criteria. An NSA PowerPoint further confirms that the Voice RT program turned its “ingestion” of Iraqi voice data into voiceprints.

The NSA memos provided by Snowden do not indicate how widely Voice RT was deployed at the time, but minutes from the GCHQ’s Voice/Fax User Group do. Notes from British agents provide a detailed account of how the NSA’s speaker recognition program was deployed against foreign targets. When its Voice/Fax User Group met with NSA agents in the fall of 2007, members described seeing an active Voice RT system providing NSA’s linguists and analysts with speaker and language identification, speech-to-text transcription, and phonetic search abilities. “Essentially,” the minutes say of Voice RT, “it’s a one stop shop. … [A] massive effort has been extended to improve deployability of the system.” By 2010, the NSA’s Voice RT program could process recordings in more than 25 foreign languages. And it did: In Afghanistan, the NSA paired voice analytics with mapping software to locate cell-tower clusters where Arabic was spoken — a technique that appeared to lead them to discover new Al Qaeda training camps.

The GCHQ, for its part, used a program called Broad Oak, among others, to identify targets based on their voices. The U.K. government set up speaker recognition systems in the Middle East against Saudi, Pakistani, Georgian, and Iraqi leaders, among others. “Seriously though,” GCHQ minutes advise, “if you believe we can help you with identifying your target of interest amongst the deluge of traffic that you have to wade through, feel free to approach us and we will happily discuss your requirements and hopefully offer a swift and accurate solution.”

It was not an empty offer. Minutes from 2009 boast of GCHQ agents outperforming their NSA counterparts when targeting Adil Abdul Mahdi, one of the vice presidents of Iraq at the time. “Since we have been consistently reporting on him [the vice president] faster than they, NSA have dropped their involvement. … This good performance has enhanced our reputation at NSA.” And a 2010 GCHQ research summary shows both agencies collaborating to conduct joint experiments with their voice analytics programs.

But the development of speaker recognition tools was not always seamless. In its early stages, the technology was nowhere near as powerful or effective as it is today. The former defense intelligence official recalls that while analysts were able to play voice samples at their workstations, searching for an important sample was a challenge, since the audio was not indexed. In a 2006 letter to the editor published in SIDtoday, one analyst complains of the introduction of the voice tools being “plagued by crashes” and compares their initial speed to “molasses in January in Juneau.”

By the next year, however, it was clear that speaker recognition had significantly matured. A memo celebrating the NSA’s special collection for then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s New York City trip for the United Nations General Assembly provides a detailed study of the technology in action. After obtaining legal authorization, analysts configured a special system to target the phones of as many of the 143 Iranian delegates as possible. On all of this incoming traffic, they ran speech activity detection algorithms to avoid having analysts listen to dead air; keyword searches to uncover “the passing of email addresses and discussion of prominent individuals;” and speaker recognition to successfully locate the conversations of “people of significant interest, including the Iranian foreign minister.”

In an announcement for a new NSA audio-forensics lab that opened in Georgia that year, the agency notes plans to make these speech technologies available to more analysts across the agency. And a SIDtoday memo from the following year reported system upgrades that would allow analysts to “find new voice cuts for a target that match the target’s past recordings.”

When targets developed strategies to evade speaker recognition technologies, the tools evolved in response. In 2007, analysts noticed that the frequencies of the intercepts of two targets they had identified as Al Qaeda associates were out of normal human ranges. Over the next several years, analysts picked up on other targets modulating their voices in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, “most likely to avoid identification by intelligence agencies.” Some of the audio cuts they observed twisted the speaker’s vocal pitches so that they sounded like “a character from Alvin and the Chipmunks.” This led analysts to speculate that AQAP members involved in the December 2009 bombing attempt in Detroit had escaped government recognition by masking their voices on new phone numbers.

By 2010, agency technologists had developed a solution for “unmasking” these modulated voices. Called HLT Lite, the new software searched through recordings for modified or anomalous voices. According to SIDtoday, the program found at least 80 examples of modified voice in Yemen after scanning over 1 million pieces of audio. This reportedly led agents to uncover persons of interest speaking on several new phone numbers.

As these systems’ technical capabilities expanded, so too did their purview. A newsletter from September 2010 details “dramatic” results from an upgraded voice identification system in Mexico City — improvements that the site’s chief compared to “a cadre of extra scanners.” Analysts were able to isolate and detect a conversation pertaining to a bomb threat by searching across audio intercepts for the word “bomba.”

Voice recognition systems could also be readily reconfigured for uses beyond their original functions. GCHQ minutes from October 2008 describe how a system set up for “a network of high level individuals involved with the Afghan narcotics trade” was later “put to imaginative use.” To identify further targets, analysts ran the system “against a whole zip code that brings in a large amount of traffic.”

From the Battlefield to the Agency

The NSA soon realized that its ability to process voice recordings could be used to identify employees within the NSA itself. As the January 2006 memo that discussed Ronald Pelton’s audio explained, “Voice matching technologies are being applied to the emerging Insider Threat initiative, an attempt to catch the ‘spy among us.’”

The Insider Threat initiative, which closely monitors the lives of government employees, was publicly launched by the Obama administration, following the leaks of U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. But this document seems to indicate that the initiative was well under way before Obama’s 2011 executive order.

It’s not surprising that the NSA might turn the same biometric technologies used to detect external threats onto dissenters within its ranks, according to Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm. “We’ve seen example after example in the last 15 years of law enforcement taking invasive anti-terror tools — whether it’s location tracking or face recognition or this technology used to identify people’s voices — and using them for all sorts of other criminal investigations.”

Timm noted that in the last several years, whistleblowers, sources, and journalists have taken greater security precautions to avoid exposing themselves. But that “if reporters are using telephone numbers not associated with their identity, and the government is scanning their phone calls via a warrant or otherwise, the technology could also be used to potentially stifle journalism.”

For Timothy Edgar, who worked as the intelligence community’s first deputy for civil liberties, these risks “come down to the question: Are they looking for valid targets or doing something abusive, like trying to monitor journalists or whistleblowers?”

In some respects, Edgar said, speaker recognition may help to protect an individual’s privacy. The technology allows analysts to select and filter calls so that they can home in on a person of interest’s voice and screen out those of others. A 2010 SIDtoday memo emphasizes how the technology can reduce the volume of calls agents need to listen to by ensuring that “the speaker is a Chinese leader and not a guy from the doughnut shop.”

This level of precision is “actually one of the justifications the NSA gave for bulk collection of metadata in the first place,” Edgar explained. “One of the ways its program was defended was that it didn’t collect everything; instead, it collected information through selectors.”

At the same time, the very goal of identifying specific individuals from large patterns of data often justifies the need to keep collecting more of it. While speaker recognition can help analysts narrow down the calls they listen to, the technology would seem to encourage them to sweep up an ever-greater number of calls, since its purpose is to find every instantiation of a target’s voice, no matter what number it’s attached to. Or as the Pelton memo puts it, the technology gives analysts the ability to “know that voice anywhere.”

While these documents indicate that the agency sought to apply the technology to its employees, the documents reviewed by The Intercept do not explicitly indicate whether the agency has created voiceprints from the conversations of ordinary U.S. citizens.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA, gives the agency broad latitude to collect audio transmitted over foreign servers, foreign infrastructure, or from Americans communicating with foreigners. Because of this mandate, Edgar calls it “very conceivable” that voiceprints are being made from overseas calls. “It would surprise me if they weren’t deriving whatever intelligence they can from that data. It’s kind of their job.”

Experts strongly disagree, however, about whether the NSA would claim the legal authority to make voiceprints from the calls of American citizens on American soil, whose voices might be deliberately or accidentally swept up without a warrant. Part of this disagreement stems from the inadequacy of surveillance law, which has failed to keep pace with advances in digital technologies, like speaker and speech recognition.

While the U.S. has developed strict laws to prohibit recording the content of calls on U.S. soil without a warrant, no federal statues govern the harvesting and processing of voice data.

In part, this comes down to whether voiceprints count as content, which the government would need a warrant to obtain, or whether the NSA views voiceprints as metadata — that is, information about the content that is less subject to legal protection. The law is largely silent on this question, leading some experts to speculate that the NSA is exploiting this legal gray zone.
In response to a detailed list of questions, the NSA provided the following response: “In accordance with longstanding policy, NSA will neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the purported U.S. government information referenced in the article.”

A “Full Arsenal” Approach

On Thursday the Senate voted to extend Section 702 of FISA, which gives the NSA the power to spy, without a warrant, on Americans who are communicating with foreign targets. This reauthorization, which followed similar action in the House last week, has confirmed the views of critics who see the NSA taking an increasingly assertive — and ambiguous — interpretation of its legal powers.

Andrew Clement, a computer scientist and expert in surveillance studies, has been mapping the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping activities since before Snowden’s disclosures. He strongly believes the agency would not be restrained in their uses of speaker recognition on U.S. citizens. The agency has often chosen to classify all of the information collected up until the point that a human analyst listens to it or reads it as metadata, he explained. “That’s just a huge loophole,” he said. “It appears that anything they can derive algorithmically from content they would classify simply as metadata.”

As an analogy to how the NSA might justify creating voiceprints, Clement pointed to the ways in which the agency has treated phone numbers and email addresses. The XKeyscore program, which Snowden revealed in 2013, allowed agents to pull email addresses — which they classified as metadata — out of the body of intercepted emails. Agents also conducted full-text searches for keywords, which they likewise classified as context rather than content.

Edgar, on the other hand, says he would be taken aback if the government was making an argument that our voices count as metadata. “You could try to argue that the characteristics of a voice are different than what a person is saying,” Edgar said, “But in order to do voice recognition, you still have to collect the content of a domestic call and analyze it in order to extract the voice.”

It is not publicly known how many domestic communication records the NSA has collected, sampled, or retained. But the EFF’s Jamie Williams pointed out that the NSA would not necessarily have to collect recordings of Americans to make American voiceprints, since private corporations constantly record us. Their sources of audio are only growing. Cars, thermostats, fridges, lightbulbs, and even trash cans have been turning into “intelligent” (that is, internet-equipped) listening devices. The consumer research group Gartner has predicted that a third of our interactions with technology this year will take place through conversations with voice-based systems. Both Google’s and Amazon’s “smart speakers” have recently introduced speaker recognition systems that distinguish between the voices of family members. “Once the companies have it,” Williams said, “law enforcement, in theory, will be able to get it, so long as they have a valid legal process.”

The former government official noted that raw voice data could be stored with private companies and accessed by the NSA through secret agreements, like the Fairview program, the agency’s partnership with AT&T. Despite congressional attempts to reign in the NSA’s collection of domestic phone records, the agency has long sought access to the raw data we proffer to corporate databases. (Partnerships with Verizon and AT&T, infiltration of Xbox gaming systems, and surreptitious collection of the online metadata of millions of internet users are just a few recent examples.) “The telecommunications companies hold the data. There’s nothing to prevent them from running an algorithm,” the former official said.

Clement wonders whether the NSA’s ability to identify a voice might even be more important to them than the ability to listen to what it’s saying. “It allows them to connect you to other instances of yourself and to identify your relationship to other people,” he said.

This appears to be the NSA’s eventual goal. At a 2010 conference — described as an “unprecedented opportunity to understand how the NSA is bringing all its creative energies to bear on tracking an individual” — top directors spoke about how to take a “whole life” strategy to their targets. They described the need to integrate biometric data, like voiceprints, with biographic information, like social networks and personal history. In the agency’s own words, “It is all about locating, tracking, and maintaining continuity on individuals across space and time. It’s not just the traditional communications we’re after — It’s taking a ‘full arsenal’ approach.”

Classified documents from the Snowden archive reveal the NSA has been developing technology to automatically identify a speaker from the sound of their voice.


Thursday, February 9, 2017



When the uninitiated think of the “Deep State,” they tend to imagine a group of men getting together in a room, smoking cigars and plotting world domination. But the Deep State is not one coordinated network of people controlling the government from the shadows. 

Instead, it refers to individuals and groups that have the resources to shape the direction of the world to their benefit and don’t hesitate to make use of them. At times, the interests of different factions of the Deep State collide. That often happens when the direction of the world is rapidly changing, as is the case now after the election of Donald Trump. 

Nobody knows this better than Peter Dale Scott, the foremost expert on the US Deep State. Below, you will find a new introduction to the paperback version of The American Deep State: Big Money, Big Oil, and the Struggle for U.S. Democracy, Updated Edition (copyright 2017), (with permission of the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved).

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Please go here to read Part 2.

  Peter Dale Scott, is a former Canadian diplomat, Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, co-founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at Berkeley, poet, and 2002 recipient of the Lannan Poetry Award. 

  The following is Part 2 of a two-part series, excerpted from The American Deep State: Big Money, Big Oil, and the Struggle for U.S. Democracy, Updated Edition (copyright 2017) (paperback); by Peter Dale Scott with permission of the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.
Please go here to see Part 1.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017




This is the third of a five-part series exploring the Iran-Contra Affair and its consequences. Part 1 described the Reagan Administration’s secret wars and illegal arms deals exposed in the scandal. Part 2 explained how the constitutional crisis unfolded as a result of Congress’s failure to address the CIA’s power to wage secret wars in the name of avoiding a world-ending nuclear confrontation between the Superpowers. Part 3 exposes the roots of Iran-Contra in the Watergate scandal, but congressional abdication of responsibility and judicial deference backfired in the restoration of the Imperial Presidency, suppressing civil liberties and expanding wars justified as necessary to fighting the Cold War, even as the Cold War ended with collapse of the Soviet Union. Part 4 will survey the era of global insecurity we entered in the second Bush and Obama Administrations, while Part 5 examines the role key members of the incoming Trump team played in creating this permanent state of war by immunizing themselves from the consequences of past criminality.

The author, Doug Vaughan, spent years as an investigative reporter in Latin America covering the horrors of the 1970s and 80s. In this series, he connects the secret wars and warriors past and present to their most recent incarnation as architects of an aggressive approach to re-impose their will on the world that has escaped their control.

— Russ Baker, Editor in Chief

Tuesday, February 7, 2017



"Ignorance is Strength" -- George Orwell

In a strange but revealing way, popular culture and politics intersected soon after Trump first assumed the presidency of the United States. On the side of popular culture, George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984, surged as the number one best seller on Amazon both in the United States and Canada. This followed two significant political events. First, Kellyanne Conway, Trump's advisor, echoing the linguistic inventions of Orwell's Ministry of Truth, coined the term "alternative facts" to justify why press secretary Sean Spicer lied in advancing disproved claims about the size of Trump's inauguration crowd. Second, almost within hours of his presidency, Trump penned a series of executive orders that compelled Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker, to rethink the relevance of 1984. He had to go back to Orwell's book, he writes, "Because the single most striking thing about [Trump's] matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump's brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be."

In this amalgam of Trump's blatant contempt for the truth, his willingness to embrace a blend of taunts and threats in his inaugural address, and his eagerness to enact a surge of regressive executive orders, the ghost of fascism reasserts itself with a familiar blend of fear and revenge. Unleashing promises he had made to his angry, die-hard ultranationalist and white supremacist supporters, Trump targeted a range of groups whom he believes have no place in American society. These include Muslims, Syrian refugees and undocumented immigrants, whom he has targeted with a number of harsh discriminatory policies. The underlying cruelty, ignorance and punishing, if not criminogenic, intent behind such policies was made all the clearer when Trump suggested that he intended to roll back a wide range of environmental protections. He asserted his willingness to resume the practice of state-sponsored torture and deny funding to those cities willing to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.
Trump reaffirmed his promise to lift the US ban on torture by appointing Gina Haspel as the new CIA deputy director. Haspel not only played a direct role in overseeing the torture of detainees at a black site in Thailand, she also participated in the destruction of videotapes documenting their brutal interrogations. Trump's enthusiasm for committing war crimes was matched by his willingness to roll back many of the regulatory restrictions put in place by the Obama administration in order to prevent the financial industries from repeating the economic crisis of 2008. In Trump's worldview, there exists no contradiction between the principles and ideals of a democracy, on the one hand, and implementing state-sponsored torture, running "black sites" and waging an assault on poor people, immigrants, health care and the environment.

And this is just the beginning. The ruling elites, banks and other major financial institutions now find their savior in Trump as they will receive more tax cuts and happily embrace the loosening of government regulations, while their greed spins out of control. Should we be surprised?
The memory of totalitarianism, with its demand for simplistic answers, intoxication with spectacles of vulgarity, and a desire for strong leaders, has faded in a society beset by a culture of immediacy, sensations and civic illiteracy. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to underestimate the depth and tragedy of the collapse of civic culture and democratic public spheres, especially given the profound influences of a permanent war culture that trades in fear, and the ever-present seductions of consumerism, which breeds depoliticization and infantilism.

Another shocking and revelatory indication of the repressive fist of neo-fascism in the Trump regime took place when Trump's chief White House right-wing strategist, Steve Bannon, stated in an interview that "the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.... You're the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party.... The media is the opposition party. They don't understand the country." This is more than an off-the-cuff angry comment. It is a blatant refusal to see the essential role of a robust and critical media in a democracy. Such comments suggest not only a war on the press, but the very real threat of suppressing dissent, if not democracy itself. Unsurprisingly, Bannon referred to himself in the interview as "Darth Vader." A more appropriate comparison would have been to Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in the Third Reich.

What is clear is that the dire times that haunt the current age no longer appear as merely an impending threat. They have materialized with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump and his administration of extremists epitomize the dire dangers posed by those who longed to rule American society without resistance, dominate its major political parties, and secure uncontested control of its commanding political, cultural and economic institutions. The consolidation of power and wealth in the hands of the financial elite along with the savagery and misery that signifies their politics is no longer the stuff of Hollywood films, such as Wall Street and American Psycho. If George W. Bush's reign of fearmongering, greed and war on terror embodied the values of a kind of militarized Gordon Gekko, Trump represents the metamorphosis of Gekko into the ethically neutered Patrick Bateman. Yet, Trump's ascent to the highest office in America is already being normalized by numerous pundits and politicians who are asking the American public to give Trump a chance or are suggesting that the power and demands of the presidency will place some restraints on his unrestrained impetuousness and often unpredictable behavior. Those members of Congress who railed against both Obama's alleged imperial use of executive orders and later, during the Republican primaries, denounced Trump as unfit for office now exhibit a level of passivity and lack of moral courage that testifies to their complicity with the dark shadow of authoritarianism.

Wrongheaded Calls to "Give Trump a Chance"

As might be expected, a range of supine politicians, media pundits and mainstream journalists are already tying themselves in what Tom Engelhardt calls "apologetic knots" while they "desperately look for signs that Donald Trump will be a pragmatic, recognizable American president once he takes the mantle of power."As comedian John Oliver pointed out on his show, "Last Week Tonight," Trump is not ordinary and his politics forebode the storm clouds of an American version of authoritarianism. Oliver brought his point home by shouting repeatedly "This is not normal," and, of course, he is right! It is even more surprising that Lesley Stahl's "60 Minutes" interview with Trump portrayed him less as a demagogue than as a transformed politician who was "subdued and serious." In addition, NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported approvingly upon the transition, as if proposed White House counselor Steve Bannon and proposed attorney general Jeff Sessions, two men with racism in their pasts, were ordinary appointments. High-profile celebrity, Oprah Winfrey, stated without irony, in an interview with "Entertainment Tonight" that "I just saw President-elect Trump with President Obama in the White House, and it gave me hope." This is quite a stretch given Trump's history of racist practices, his racist remarks about Blacks, Muslims and Mexican immigrants during the primary and the presidential campaigns, and his appointment of a number of cabinet members who embrace a white nationalist ideology. The New York Times's opinion writer, Nicholas Kristof, sabotaged his self-proclaimed liberal belief system by noting, in what appears to be acute lapse of judgment, that Americans should "Grit [their] teeth and give Trump a chance." Bill Gates made clear his own and often hidden reactionary worldview when speaking on CNBC's "Squawk Box." The Microsoft cofounder slipped into a fog of self-delusion by stating that Trump had the potential to emulate JFK by establishing an upbeat and desirable mode of "leadership through innovation."

Such actions by the mainstream media and such highly visible pundits not only point to a retreat from responsible reporting and discourse, and a flight from any vestige of social responsibility, they also further the collapse of serious journalism and thoughtful reasoning into the corrupt world of a corporate-controlled media empire and an infantilizing celebrity culture. Normalizing the Trump regime does more than sabotage the truth, moral responsibility and justice; it also diminishes and sidelines the democratic institutions necessary for a future of well-being and economic and political justice. New York Times columnist Charles Blow observes insightfully that under a Trump administration:
The nation is soon to be under the aegis of an unstable, unqualified, undignified demagogue [who surrounds] himself with a rogue's gallery of white supremacy sympathizers, anti-Muslim extremists, devout conspiracy theorists, anti-science doctrinaires and climate change deniers.... This is not normal [and] I happen to believe that history will judge kindly those who continued to shout, from the rooftops, through own weariness and against the corrosive drift of conformity.
Blow is right. Any talk of working with a president who has surrounded himself with militarists, racists, neo-fascists, anti-intellectuals and neoliberal fundamentalists should be resisted at all cost. It is well worth remembering that Trump chose Steve Bannon, a notorious anti-Semite and white supremacist to occupy the center of power in the White House. As Reuters reported, "White supremacists and neo-Nazis have rarely, if ever, in recent history been so enthusiastic about a presidential appointment as Donald Trump's choice of Steve Bannon to be his chief White House strategist." Trump has also surrounded himself with militarists and corporate ideologues who fantasize about destroying all vestiges of the welfare state and the institutions that produce the public values that support the social contract. Neal Gabler argues that the normalizing of Trump by the mainstream media is about more than the dereliction of journalistic duty. In his piece "And So It Begins: Normalizing the Election," he writes:
Far more serious is their normalization not of Trump but of his voters. The former is typical cowardice under threat of reactionary populism. The latter is an endorsement of reactionary populism that may have far-reaching consequences for whether the country can ever be reunited after having been torn asunder.
Normalization is code for a retreat from any sense of moral and political responsibility, and it should be viewed as an act of political complicity with authoritarianism and condemned outright. What is being propagated by Trump's apologists is not only a reactionary popularism and some fundamental tenets of an American-style authoritarianism, but also a shameless whitewashing of the racism and authoritarianism at the center of Trump's politics. In addition, little has been said about how Trump and his coterie of semi-delusional, if not heartless, advisors embrace a version of Ayn Rand's view that selfishness, war against all competition and unchecked self-interest are the highest human ideals. In addition, arguments in defense of such normalization appear to overlook with facile indifference how the rhetoric of authoritarianism has become normalized in many parts of the world, to grave effect, and that the Trump administration has clearly demonstrated an affinity with that sort of hateful rhetoric. How else to explain the support that Trump has received from a number of ruthless dictators who head reactionary governments, such as the Philippines, Turkey and Egypt, among others? Such a danger is all the more ominous given the current collapse of civic literacy and the general public's increasing inability to deal with complex issues on one hand, and the attempt, on the other hand, by those who maintain power to ruthlessly promote a depoliticizing discourse of lies, simplicity and  manufactured distortions.

Ominous Echoes of a Totalitarian Past

The United States has entered a new historical conjuncture that echoes elements of a totalitarian past. Hannah Arendt, Sheldon Wolin and Robert Paxton, the great theorists of totalitarianism, believed that the fluctuating elements of fascism are still with us and that as long as they are, they will crystalize in different forms. Far from being fixed in a frozen moment of historical terror, these theorists believed that totalitarianism not only "heralds as a possible model for the future" but that its "protean origins are still with us." Arendt, in particular, was keenly aware that a culture of fear, the dismantling of civil and political rights, the ongoing militarization of society, the attack on labor, an obsession with national security, human rights abuses, the emergence of a police state, a deeply rooted racism and the attempts by demagogues to undermine education as a foundation for producing critical citizenry were all at work in American society. Historical conjunctures produce different forms of authoritarianism, though they all share a hatred for democracy, dissent and human rights. More recently, Robert Paxton in his seminal work, The Anatomy of Fascism, provides a working definition of fascism that points to both its anti-democratic moments and those elements that link it to both the past and the present. Paxton's point is not to provide a precise definition of fascism but to understand the conditions that enabled fascism to work and make possible its development in the future. Accordingly, he argues that fascism is:
A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
It is too easy to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic and leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a mixture of both systems. American politics today suggests a more updated if not different form of authoritarianism or what might be called the curse of totalitarianism. In Trump's America, there are strong echoes of the fascism that developed in Europe in the 1920s and 30s. For instance, there are resemblances to a fascist script in Trump's scapegoating of the "other;" his claim that the United States is in a period of decline;  his call to "Make America Great Again;" his blatant appeal to ultra-nationalism;  his portrayal of himself as a strongman who alone can save the country; his appeal to aggression and violence aimed at those who disagree with him; his contempt for dissent; his deep-rooted anti-intellectualism, or what Arendt called "thoughtlessness" (i.e., denial that climate change is produced by humans) coupled with his  elevation of instinct and emotion over reason; his appeal to xenophobia, national greatness and support for a politics of disposability; his courting of anti-Semites and white supremacists; his flirtation with the discourse of racial purity; his support for a white Christian public sphere; his use of a kind of verbal waterboarding to denigrate Muslims, Blacks, undocumented immigrants and women's reproductive rights; his contempt for weakness and his enthusiasm for hyper-masculinity.

Trump's totalitarian mindset was on full display both during his inaugural speech and in his actions during his first few days in office. In the first instance, he presented a dystopian view of American society laced with racist stereotyping, xenophobia and the discourse of ultra- nationalism. Frank Rich called the language of the speech "violent and angry -- 'This American carnage stops right here' -- reeking of animosity, if not outright hatred [and that] the tone was one of retribution and revenge." As soon as the speech ended, the normalizing process began with the expected tortured clichés from various Fox News commentators calling it "muscular," "unifying," "very forceful," "just masterful," and Charles Krauthammer stating that it was "completely nonpartisan." The fog of self-delusion and denial was in full swing at CNN when the historian Douglas Brinkley called Trump's inaugural address not only "presidential" but "solid and well-written" and the "best speech" Trump has made "in his life."
Once in the Oval Office, Trump not only enacted measures to facilitate building a wall on the Mexican border and prevent people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, he also cleared the way for resurrecting the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Trump's broader assault on environmental protections is indicative of his disregard for the rights of the Native Americans who protested the building of a pipeline that both crossed their sacred burial lands and posed a risk to contaminating the Missouri River, which is the primary water source for the Standing Rock Sioux. In response to Trump's inaugural address and early policy measures, Roger Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote a forceful commentary suggesting that Trump's neo-fascist tendencies were on full display and that his presence in American politics contains echoes of former dictators and augurs badly for American democracy. He argued:
But the first days of the Trump presidency ... pushed me over the top. The president is playing with fire. To say, as he did, that the elected representatives of American democracy are worthless and that the people are everything is to lay the foundations of totalitarianism. It is to say that democratic institutions are irrelevant and all that counts is the great leader and the masses he arouses. To speak of "American carnage" is to deploy the dangerous lexicon of blood, soil and nation. To boast of "a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before" is to demonstrate consuming megalomania. To declaim "America first" and again, "America first," is to recall the darkest clarion calls of nationalist dictators. To exalt protectionism is to risk a return to a world of barriers and confrontation. To utter falsehood after falsehood, directly or through a spokesman, is to foster the disorientation that makes crowds susceptible to the delusions of strongmen.
The grave period Americans are about to enter into under a Trump regime cannot be understood without an acknowledgement of the echoes of a totalitarian past. With Trump's election, the crisis of politics is accompanied by a crisis of historical conscience, memory, ethics and agency exacerbated by an appeal to a notion of common sense in which facts are regarded with disdain, words reduced to slogans, and science confused with pseudo-science. Under such circumstances, language is emptied of any meaning and constitutes a flight from ethics, justice and social responsibility. As language rapidly loses meaning, the American public is inundated with empty slogans such as "post-truth" and "fake news." This culture is part of what Todd Gitlin calls "an interlocking ecology of falsification that has driven the country around the bend." Against the background of an infantilizing culture of immediacy, spectacle and sensationalism, Trump will govern as if he is running a reality TV show, endlessly performing for an increasingly depoliticized public. But there are more dangers ahead than the toxic seduction of politics as theater and the transformation of the mainstream media as an adjunct of the entertainment industry or for that matter, a growing distrust of democracy itself.

The Complicity of the Media and Attacks on the Press

Under casino capital, the alleged celebration of the principle of a free press hides more than it promises. Noam Chomsky, Bill Moyers and Robert McChesney, among others, have observed that the mainstream media now work in conjunction with the financial elite and the military-industrial-academic complex as an echo chamber while further indulging in the rituals of shock, celebrity culture and spectacularized violence in order to increase their ratings. Earlier this year, CBS CEO Les Moonves stated that his network's inordinate and disastrous coverage of Trump "may not be good for America but it's damn good for CBS." Moonves openly gloated not only because the network was pumping up its ratings but was also getting rich by inordinately covering Trump's presidential campaign. As he put it, [T]he money's rolling in ... [T]his is going to be a very good year for us.... It's a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Go ahead. Keep going." Moonves made it clear that the power of mainstream media in general has little to do with either pursuing the truth or holding power accountable. On the contrary, its real purpose was to normalize corruption, lies, misrepresentation, accumulate capital and allow the transformation of the press to become an adjunct of authoritarian ideologies, policies, interests and commodified values -- if that is what it takes to increase their profit margins.

Normalization is about more than dominant media outlets being complicit with corrupt power or willfully retreating from any sense of social responsibility; it is also about aiding and abetting power in order to increase the bottom line and accumulate other cowardly forms of power and recognition. This is evident in the fact that some powerful elements of the mainstream press not only refused to take Trump seriously, they also concocted embarrassing rationales for not holding him to any viable sense of accountability. For instance, Gerard Baker, the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, publicly announced that in the future he would not allow his reporters to use the word "lie" in their coverage. NPR also issued a statement arguing that it would not use the word "lie" on the grounds that "the minute you start branding things with a word like 'lie,' you push people away from you." In this truly Orwellian comment, NPR is suggesting that calling out lies on the part of governments and politicians should be avoided by the media on the grounds that people might be annoyed by having to face the contradiction between the truth and misinformation. This is more than a retreat from journalism's goal of holding people, institutions and power to some measure of justice; it also legitimizes the kind of political and moral cowardice that undermines informed resistance, the first amendment and the truth. While such actions may not rise to the level of book burning that was characteristic of various fascist and authoritarian regimes in the past, it does mark a distinctive retreat from historical memory and civic courage that serves to normalize such actions by making dissent appear, at best, unreasonable and at worst, an act of treason.

Such actions become apparent in efforts by the mainstream press to rage against the rise of "fake news," suggesting that by doing so, their integrity cannot be questioned. Of course, the term "fake news" is slippery and can be deployed to political ends -- a maneuver which is on full display particularly when used by Trump and his merry band of liars to dismiss anyone or any organization that holds him accountable for his fabrications. Hence, there were no surprises when Trump at his first president-elect press conference refused not only to take questions from a CNN reporter because his network had published material critical of Trump but also justified his refusal by labeling CNN as fake news -- reducing the term to a slogan used to silence the press. Clearly, we will see more of this type of bullying repression and censorship, and traditional democratic public spheres, such as higher education, will also feel the brunt of such an attack.

Any analysis of the forces behind the normalization of the Trump administration and its assault on the truth, if not democracy itself, must include the powerful role of the conservative media in the United States. Former conservative radio talk show host Charles Sykes recently published a remarkable op-ed arguing that over the last few decades, right-wing media played a major role in discrediting and delegitimizing the fact-based media. In doing so, it destroyed "much of the right's immunity to false information." According to Sykes, conservatives, including himself, created a "new post-factual political culture" that has become so powerful that even when the Trump administration is caught lying, it does so with impunity because it believes that "the alternative-reality media will provide air cover" that allows it to pollute "political discourse" and discredit "independent sources of information."
Evidence of this major assault on truth can be measured in part by the magnitude of the lies the administration produces, which are truly Orwellian. For instance, Kellyanne Conway attempted recently to justify Trump's executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries by referring to what she called the "Bowling Green massacre, an alleged terrorist attack by Iraqi refugees that was to have taken place in 2011. According to Conway, Obama instituted a six-month ban on Iraqi resettlements. The attack never happened, no Iraqis were involved and the Obama administration never instituted such a ban. It gets worse. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently claimed that Iran had committed an act of war by attacking a US Naval vessel. That never happened. What did happen is that a Saudi ship off the coast of Yemen was attacked by Houthi rebels.

Normalization has many registers and one of the most important is the control by the financial elite over commanding cultural apparatuses that produce, legitimize and distribute highly selective media narratives that shore up the most reactionary ideologies and financial interests. The mainstream press says little about how such actions serve as an apology for the egregiously reactionary nature of Trump's ideology and policies. Moreover, they fail to note how distortions of the truth, the endless production of lies by governments, politicians and corporations, along with the media's flight from civic literacy, serve to bolster authoritarian societies willing to distort the truth while simultaneously suppressing dissent. Under such circumstances, it should not be surprising that Trump's authoritarian and hateful discourse, threats of violence, loathing of dissent and racist attitudes toward Muslims, Blacks and Mexican immigrants are downplayed in the mainstream media. These structured silences have become more and more apparent given the benign manner in which the supine press and its legion of enervated anti-public intellectuals and pundits treat Trump's endless nighttime Twitter outpourings and his incessant choreographed public fabrications.

For instance, The Wall Street Journal's refusal to address critically Trump's endless lies and insults is matched by the highbrow New Yorker's publishing of a piece on Trump that largely celebrates uncritically how he is viewed by conservative intellectuals, such as Hillsdale College president, Larry Arnn. Arnn supports Trump because he shares his view that "the government has become dangerous." If Arnn were referring to the rise of the surveillance and permanent war state, it would be hard to disagree with him. Instead, he was referring to the government's enforcement of "runaway regulations." What Arnn and Kelefa Sanneh, the author of the New Yorker article, ignore or conveniently forget is the fact that the real danger the government poses is the result of it being in the hands of demagogues, such as Trump, who are truly dangerous and threaten the planet, American society and the rest of the world. When Kelefa Sanneh mentions Trump's connection to the "alt-right," he underplays the group's fascist ideology and refuses to use the term "white supremacist" in talking about such groups, reverting instead to the innocuous-sounding term, "white identity politics." Trump's misogyny, racism, anti-intellectualism, Islamophobia and hatred of democracy are barely mentioned. Sanneh even goes so far as to suggest that since Trump has disavowed the "alt-right," his connection to neo-fascist groups is tenuous. This is more than an apology dressed up in the discourse of ambiguity; such reporting is a shameful retreat from journalistic integrity -- an assault on the truth that constitutes an egregious act of normalization. This is only one example of what is surely to come in the future under Trump's rule.

The Hard Road Ahead          

Under Trump's regime of economic, religious, educational and political fundamentalism, compassion and respect for the other will almost certainly be viewed with contempt while society will increasingly become more militarized and financial capital will likely be deregulated in order to be free to engage in behaviors that put the American public and planet in danger. A form of social and historical amnesia appears set to descend over American society. A culture of civic illiteracy will likely be produced and legitimated along with a culture of fear that will enable a harsh law and order regime.

Policies will almost certainly be enacted in which public goods, such as schools, will be privatized, and a culture of greed and selfishness will be elevated to new heights of celebration. There will likely be a further retreat from civic literacy, civic courage and social responsibility, one matched by a growing abandonment by the state of any allegiance to the common good. Fear and the threat of state violence are threatening to shape how problems are addressed, and a growing culture of dissent may soon be ruthlessly suppressed in all of the public spheres in which it has functioned in the past. The free-market mentality that gained prominence under the presidency of Ronald Reagan will likely accelerate under the Trump administration and continue to drive politics, destroy many social protections, celebrate a hyper-competitiveness and deregulate economic activity. Under Donald Trump's reign, almost all human activities, practices and institutions are at risk of becoming subject to market principles and militarized. The only relations that matter will likely be defined in commercial terms, just as civil society will be organized for the production of violence.

It is most likely that the most dangerous powers of the state will be unleashed under Trump against protesters, Black people, Muslims and undocumented immigrants. They will also be unleashed against the environment and against public and higher education. Surely, all the signs are in place given the coterie of billionaires, generals, warmongers, Islamophobes, neoliberal cheerleaders and anti-public demagogues Trump has appointed to high-ranking government positions. Americans may be on the verge of witnessing how democracy ends and this is precisely why Trump's election as the president of the United States must not be normalized.

Trump's repressive and poisonous attitudes and authoritarian policies will not change his role as president. If his first two weeks in office are any indication, he plans to consolidate his power and will be more reckless than he was during the primaries and presidential campaigns. Trump's narcissism, indifference to the truth and intensive use of the spectacle will further increase his view of himself and his policies as unaccountable, especially as he institutes a mode of governance that suppresses the opposition and deals with his audience directly through the social media.

Fortunately, a number of diverse groups, including unions, immigrant rights groups, anti-fascist organizations, Black liberation groups, congregations and faith-based organizations, legal coalitions and reproductive rights groups, along with teachers, actors and artists are organizing to protest Trump's neo-fascist ideology and policies. As George Yancy pointed out to me in a personal correspondence, such actions are unique in that they make the political more pedagogical by elevating protests, modes of resistance and criticism to the level of the cultural rather than allowing such criticism to reside in the voice and presence of isolated, prophetic intellectuals. Moreover, a number of independent publications, along with various public intellectuals, such as Anthony DiMaggio, Robin Kelley and members of the Black Lives Matter Movement, are producing instructive articles on both the nature of resistance and what forms it might take.

The current onslaught of revenge and destruction produced by Trump's updated version of authoritarianism is glaringly visible and deeply brutal, and points to a bleak future in the most immediate sense. We live at a time in which totalitarian forms are with us again. US society is no longer at the tipping point of authoritarianism; we are in the midst of what Hannah Arendt called "dark times." Individual and collective resistance is the only hope we have to move beyond this ominous moment in our history. Fortunately, the arrogant presence of this neo-fascist regime is not going entirely unchecked: The great collective power of resistance has ignited. Hope and a sense of humanity are in the air and the relevance of mass action has a renewed urgency. Demonstrations are taking place every day; some mayors are refusing to allow their cities to be placed under Nazi influence; and marginalized people and their co-strugglers are marching in record-breaking numbers to protect their rights. This resistance will continue to grow until it becomes a movement whose power is on the side of justice not injustice, bridges not walls, dignity not disrespect, compassion not hate. Let's hope this resistance will dispel Orwell's nightmarish vision of the future in our own time.

Note: This piece draws on some ideas that appeared first in "Normalizing Trump's Authoritarianism Is Not an Option," an article published by Tikkun Magazine on January 19, 2017.
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Henry A. Giroux

Henry A. Giroux currently is the McMaster University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest and The Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books include The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City Lights, 2014), Dangerous Thinking in the Age of the New Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2015),  coauthored with Brad Evans, Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle (City Lights, 2015), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2016). Giroux is also a member of Truthout's Board of Directors. His website is www.henryagiroux.com.