Last year, when the Obama Administration was forced by whistleblower Edward Snowden to admit that it had, in contradiction to its previous testimony to Congress, been conducting extensive surveillance and seizure of millions of Americans’ private communications, there was a convenient excuse brought out by Democratic and Republican apologists for the unconstitutional spying. “It’s only metadata,” they said, advising us not to get worked up about the story.
Since that time, we’ve learned that the government spying programs begun under George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama were not at all limited to metadata. Audio of Americans’ telephone calls has been seized. Photographic images of Americans, including naked pictures of people engaged in private, consensual sexual encounters, have been grabbed. The text content of emails has been taken. Even our passwords have been stolen by the Big Brother electronic dragnet.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s go back to the “It’s only metadata” excuse. What if the Bush-Obama spy network unleashed against us had been limited to merely metadata?
Given information newly uncovered by Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept, the NSA’s use of metadata espionage alone raises serious alarms. Gallagher reports that U.S. government documents released by Edward Snowden show that it was metadata obtained by online spying that was often “the deciding factor” in U.S. government decisions to target individuals for what it called “extraordinary rendition”. In extraordinary rendition, targeted individuals were illegally kidnapped by U.S. government agents, or their proxies, shipped across international boundaries in defiance of national laws and international treaties, put into prisons that the International Red Cross was given no knowledge of, and tortured.
The U.S. government has admitted that many of the people it put through the extraordinary rendition process were totally uninvolved with any terrorist conspiracies. They were victims of mistaken identity. Now, with Gallagher’s revelations, it seems quite possible that our government’s use of metadata as “the deciding factor” in selecting targets may have been a significant contribution to the rendition of innocent people.
This kind of autocratic blunder was foretold in the 1985 film Brazil, in which a simple data error leads to the imprisonment of a Mr. Buttle instead of the intended target, Mr. Tuttle. This echo of totalitarian themes from art into reality ought to serve as a warning to us that the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance program is not only thoroughly unconstitutional and unethical, but inept as well.