Ted Rall: On PRISM and Passwords, Why Aren’t Americans Freaking?

On news around US agencies gathering email passwords — and on the heels of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on the NSA PRISM e-surveillance of millions worldwide– our Ted Rall:asks the question no one else is. Why aren’t Americans more pissed off? Is it learned helplessness? Apathy?

aNewDomain.net — They’ve got our passwords. Why don’t you care? Original to aNewDomain, our award-winning columnist Ted Rall asks the question no one else seems to be asking on news that the U.S. government routinely asks Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and other major free email and cloud storage providers for passwords. And where are the anti-PRISM protests? The outraged headlines? Is everyone too numb and jaded to care anymore? If you’re not, read on.

By TED RALL 00 Four decades ago, the biggest political scandal in American history forced the President of the United States to resign.

It all began with a botched attempt to steal campaign strategy notes from the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which led to revelations of slush funds and other financial improprieties by the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), and U.S. President Nixon didn’t do anything about it.

But for the most part, what disgusted Americans most about the so-called Watergate scandal wasn’t just the outright stealing and theft going on.

It was the Nixon administration’s flagrant disregard for privacy rights. Installing bugs at the DNC was sleazy. Breaking into the offices of the psychiatrist who treated Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg shocked even loyal Republicans.

Asking the FBI, CIA and IRS to dig up dirt on antiwar protesters, black activists and other enemies of the state led to serious criminal charges, including obstruction of justice, against Nixon aides, staff and supporters.

But it was the existence of the wiretaps — all that secret recording — that wounded the public trust most.

There were roughly 200 people on the official White House Enemies List: journalists, Democratic politicians and leftist activists. According to the Church Commission, a committee created to examine intelligence abuses, the goverment was routinely tapping the phones and reading the mail of New Left and Black Panther members.

At least four journalists were violated similarly.

This was the late 1960s and early 1970s, bear in mind. All the President’s men used primitive technology: alligator clips, guys in trench coats in rented rooms listening from across the hall, using steam to open letters, and rifling through of trash.

We’ll never know how many victims of illegal domestic surveillance there were under Nixon, but it’s hard to dispute this recent comment from outspoken conservative Rush Limbaugh:

You think about Nixon and Watergate, Nixon is a piker compared to what’s happening here with Obama. Literally. I’m not even speaking to you politically. Nixon didn’t even dream of the stuff that’s happening. Nixon did not use the IRS against people.”

Though Limbaugh was wrong on the last count — evidence shows Nixon definitely abused the IRS — his broader point holds true.

Under Nixon, the government violated the privacy of hundreds of people. That led to impeachment proceedings supported by members of both parties — and Nixon’s ultimate resignation in 1974.

Now consider. Under U.S. President Barack Obama, who began his term promising transparency, hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens have been stripped of the basic right to communicate with others without anyone listening in — on a grand scale.

Obama inherited the program, but he knew about it. The Supreme Court has historically and repeatedly inferred a right to privacy from the Bill of Rights, and that stands. You have a right as an American citizen, per the Bill of Rights and such decisions as the 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Griswold vs. Connecticut, to privacy from governmental intrusion.

But get this. The NSA collects and stores detailed metadata on every phone call made by each and every one of us, every single day.

Thanks to the U.S.-demonized yet heroic acts of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that the agency’s PRISM program intercepts and stores for reading and analysis every email, text message, video conference and other digital communication in the United States — and, as much as is possible, abroad.

Yes, there have been political repercussions. These include a vote last week in the House of Representatives on a measure backed by liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans that would have limited NSA spying to the people it purports to be targeting — suspected terrorists.

It came close to passage.

Overall, though, public reaction has fallen far short of what you’d expect when you remember what happened to Richard Nixon.

Where are the protesters? The banner headlines?

Not even Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, torchbearer of the GOP’s libertarian faction and a target of vitriol by old-school fascists like Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, is calling for Obama to step down. Why?

And now there’s more. It isn’t enough, it turns out, for the government to read everything you write and listen to everything you say. And yes, I said listen. Despite official denials, the NSA has been intercepting Americans’ phone calls via a well-documented, decades-old program called ECHELON.

Now we learn government agencies routinely demand the passwords to your accounts, mostly so they can impersonate you.

You read that right: Uncle Sam is a phisher.

This reveals a nearly-reassuring level of incompetence.

Is it possible that NSA hackers are so lame that they need Internet companies to turn over our passwords?

Apparently so

Reported CNET in its coverage:

Some of the government orders demand not only a user’s password but also the encryption algorithm and the so-called salt, according to a person familiar with the requests. A salt is a random string of letters or numbers used to make it more difficult to reverse the encryption process and determine the original password. Other orders demand the secret question codes often associated with user accounts …”

Even then, the poor, hapless dears can’t always access the accounts of their victims.

How else to explain the lack of public outrage in response to an invasion of privacy that scales to one million Watergates?

Are we seeing an illustration of the dictum usually mistakenly attributed to Stalin, that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic? Or that it was easier to relate to what happened to Daniel Ellsberg than for our brains to process the fact that the digital lives of every human being on the planet are being downloaded and saved to millions of servers in a massive data farm in Utah?

Or is this another manifestation of politically-learned helplessness — the conscious decision not to get agitated or to suppress anger because it won’t do any good anyway?

Though there hasn’t been an organized Left in the United States since the Vietnam era, there have been periodic street protests. Against Reaganism in the 1980s. Against globalization like in the 1999 Battle of Seattle. Against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Or in the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011.

All came to naught.

The calculus of apathy versus action always outweighs the costs of protest — time, energy, a surprise tax audit — against the ever-shrinking chances of success. Especially given the lack of space for dissent within the halls of government and mass media under this system.

Where did our civic virtue go? Why don’t people care anymore?

The most one can expect — and, if you care about privacy, let’s say hope — is that Americans are biding their time and nursing their collective outrage, waiting for a moment when they can express their anger.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in Boston, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, his upcoming book, After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Find all his work at rall.com.