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The media and protest

'If there is a government agent electronically peering over your shoulder ... will you step up and challenge authority?'

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The vast government spy program overseen by President Barack Obama, ostensibly to protect "national security," may well destroy investigative journalism, as well as the spirit and practice of nonviolent dissent, two foundational aspects of our society.

The first major protest organized with the help of the Internet was against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in late 1999. The protesters represented many interests, nationalities, and sectors, and shut down the meeting that many believed threatened a massive advance of corporate globalization.

"Teamsters and Turtles" became the protest's catchphrase, reflecting the unusually broad coalition in the streets, with unionized workers and environmentalists in sea turtle costumes joining forces, protesting nonviolently. The authorities were caught off guard. Amid what many rightly characterized as a massive police riot, with tens of thousands of rubber-coated steel bullets fired, canisters of tear gas released, endless streams of pepper spray unleashed point-blank into protestors' faces, and to the staccato explosions of flash-bang grenades, then-President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and thousands of officials from around the globe were trapped in their hotels. The meetings collapsed in total failure.

That same week, the New Yorker magazine published the article "The Intelligence Gap: How the digital age left our spies out in the cold" by Pulitzer Prize-winner Seymour Hersh. Hersh wrote, "The National Security Agency, whose Cold War research into code breaking and electronic eavesdropping spurred the American computer revolution, has become a victim of the high-tech world it helped to create ... [failing] to prepare fully for today's high-volume flow of E-mail and fibre-optic transmissions."

Hersh's piece was, at the time, one of the few detailed journalistic exposés on the NSA (the other being the groundbreaking 1982 book by James Bamford, The Puzzle Palace, since updated). By late 1999, the democratizing power of the Internet was empowering people at the grassroots level. It allowed people to communicate instantly across the globe at almost no cost, and widely available encryption technology allowed such communication free from government snooping. Government eavesdroppers couldn't keep pace with the new wave of democratic communication.

Close to a decade and a half later, it seems the NSA has caught up. As the leaks from whistle-blower Edward Snowden have demonstrated, the United States government's spy apparatus apparently knows no bounds. It seems all electronic communications within the U.S., to and from the U.S. abroad, and those within countries around the world, are being vacuumed up and processed by an ever-expanding web of city-size data processing centers.

How will contemporary protest organizers manage under this regime of constant and universal surveillance? What effect will it have on the willingness of individuals to voice dissent?

On March 8, 1971, documents were stolen from the small FBI office in the Philadelphia suburb of Media, Penn. These documents, leaked to newspapers such as the New York Times, as well as to members of Congress, exposed the FBI's COINTELPRO program, which targeted antiwar activists, civil rights groups, and others with surveillance, infiltration, and disruption, including attempts to provoke violence within groups. One of the documents revealed an FBI policy to increase the frequency of interviews with dissenters, as such FBI scrutiny, the memo noted, "will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."

Forty years later, switch "mailbox" with "email inbox." The Obama administration's spy program is without precedent in history, judging by the documents released so far by Snowden. Effective organizing like that in the "Battle in Seattle" in 1999 could well be impossible, or at least far more difficult, with the incredible (and very likely unconstitutional) reach of the surveillance. Emails, phone calls, GPS tracking of our movements, metadata of all sorts, can be collected and analyzed. Individuals with vulnerabilities can be identified (On parole? Hiding an affair? Cooperate and your secrets will remain secret.), then targeted for intimidation or recruitment by agencies like the FBI, to infiltrate, disrupt, or spy on constitutionally protected groups. What effect will dissent against corporations and governments have, when efforts to organize dissent can be disrupted at their inception?

Obama's spy programs will have an especially pernicious impact on investigative journalism. Alternative media like "Democracy Now!" and Creative Loafing are the very outlets most likely to report on dissent, on social movements. There is a reason "Democracy Now!" was on the ground at the Seattle WTO protest — because we follow social movements, we receive, and take seriously, press releases from protest organizers. We were covering Occupy Wall Street before the first protests even began. Now, we learn, constitutional privacy protections are virtually nonexistent. Journalists are being forced under court order to reveal sources.

Will organizers feel safe communicating with the press in the future? Will we be able to develop sources in dissenting groups? More importantly, perhaps, will people be frightened away from dissenting to begin with? If there is a government agent electronically peering over your shoulder while you read about a protest on your laptop, or if an automated surveillance program is sifting through your emails, will you step up and challenge authority? Or will you quiet down and get in line, and mind your business like a good citizen?

In 1775, Ben Franklin wrote, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Twelve years later, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." These founders could not have predicted the immense powers of privacy invasion now wielded by the former constitutional law professor occupying the White House.

One of the great journalists of the 20th century, I.F. Stone, famously said, "Governments lie." This is true, here in the U.S., now more than ever. The Orwellian surveillance state being built and defended by Obama is the most significant threat to our democracy today. A Congressional effort to shut down the worst of the NSA spying narrowly failed in the House of Representatives, with an unusual but potent coalition between Republican libertarians, led by Justin Amash, and progressive Democrats, led by John Conyers, both of Michigan. A flurry of lawsuits from groups including the ACLU and the Electronic Freedom Foundation seek to accomplish the same goal. Social movements are growing to confront and reverse the spying as well. Our job in the media is to report on these movements, to expose government and corporate lies, and to do so fairly, without fear or favor.

Amy Goodman is host of independent news program "Democracy Now!." Denis Moynihan is special projects coordinator for "Democracy Now!."

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