Noel Ignatiev's Blog

NSA and FBI: Their Bite Is Worse Than Their Bark

By Noel Ignatiev

Dear Friends,

Glenn Greenwald’s discovery that the FBI and other U.S. secret police agencies are now using the Internet to play the same ‘dirty tricks’ tactics to discredit, subvert and incriminate targeted individuals and radical organizations as they did in the Sixties through COINTELPRO, comes as no surprise to me.[1] The difference today is that back then they would send a human ‘investigator’ to talk to your boss and get you fired, whereas now they can ruin you on Facebook. Nor, as an activist from the J. Edgar Hoover era whose phone was tapped and mail opened as far back as the Fifties, am I particularly appalled that the NSA is collecting trillions of random emails and phone conversations every day from just about everyone on the planet.

In the first place, these indiscriminate intrusions have universally discredited the U.S. so-called ‘intelligence community,’ bringing protests from Angel Merkel to Jimmy Carter. And in the second place, how will theses bozos ever find the subversive needle in that humongous digital haystack of Mega-Mega-Megabytes stored in that giant new complex out in Utah (?) Especially since they don’t have people competent in foreign languages to interpret them anymore? One is again reminded that ‘military intelligence’ is to intelligence as military music is to music.

Don’t blame the Net

Nonetheless, all this electronic surveillance has given the Internet a bad name and encouraged digital paranoia on the Left. However, the adaptation of classic forms of police provocation to the 21st century digital world do not discredit the Internet or social media per se — any more than the wire-tapping and steaming-open of envelopes discredited the telephone or the post office.  On the contrary, Ben Franklin’s creation of the Colonial Post Office allowed the American Committees of Correspondence to organize the revolution, and it was the Internet that allowed our 21st Century patriots and heroes Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to turn the tables on the imperialist security establishment by hacking their dirty secrets and then publicizing them where the whole world could see! (Why the military bozos let Privates — even First Class — like Manning have access to all that secret information beats me. Did I already mention that ‘military intelligence’ is to intelligence as military music is to music?)

So if we look at the Internet as a weapon in the class struggle, it has clearly been more useful to the watchdogs of the 99% than to the police dogs of the 1%. Speaking of the 99%, let’s not forget that Occupy and the Arab Spring would not have been possible without the Internet and social media. The proof of their advantage to the 99% is obvious in the fear the Internet inspires in the Chinese police state and in the fury with which the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has gone after Twitter and Facebook.

 Spy Hysteria a Distraction

 In any case, all this hullabaloo about electronic spying by the national security state is to me a distraction from the real danger: the actual, physical police state violence being unleashed day after day on an unprecedented scale in the U.S. and around the world. This is the story that should be on page one, the real totalitarian threat. No one seems to have noticed that local and state police departments in the U.S. have now been thoroughly militarized and supplied with combat weapons, up to and including drones, to use on civilians. Alabama’s Bull Conner with his water cannon and snapping police dogs were nothing compared to the souped-up near-lethal forms of pepper-spray, tear gas and percussion bombs are now routinely used for ‘crowd control.’ And like kids with a new toy, the cops love to use them — even when there is no threat — for example against peaceful students sitting down on the college lawn.

 Moreover, forms of civil disobedience that used to be sanctioned by fines or by a few days or weeks in jail are now treated as acts of ‘terrorism’ and punished by long prison terms. Indeed, since the FBI has apparently run out of Moslems dumb enough to be entrapped in phony terrorist ‘conspiracies’, they have invented a new crime called ‘ecoterrorism’ in order to send to prison for decades green and animal rights activists guilty of nothing more than trespassing and/or sabotage (for example Marie Mason, 46-year-old mother of two, sentenced to 22 years for trashing an OGM lab at Michigan State).[2] So ‘Green is the new Red’, and the mass demonstrations that we in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements got away with in the Sixties would probably be repressed by brutal military force and harsh sentences today – if they ever could break out the police-ringed ghettos designated as ‘free speech zones.’

  Spy and Punish

‘Spy and Punish’ (Surveille et Punir) not ‘Discipline and Punish’ was the actual title of Michel Foucault’s famous 1975 book on the modern prison with its ‘panopticon’ total surveillance and isolated solitary cells — a combination designed to produce maximum control of the population. Today’s combination of universal state surveillance with militarized policing and massive incarceration has the same totalitarian aim on the level of the society at large.  Will it succeed? As we have seen, the massive and indiscriminate quality of NSA electronic spying has arguably undermined its usefulness to the state by discrediting the government and rendering marginal the chances of retrieving useful information in real time. Similarly, one is tempted to argue that the massive and indiscriminate quality of state violence, punishing the ‘innocent’ along with the ‘guilty,’ may also be counterproductive.

 A long-suppressed U.S. government report now reveals what the government must always have known: that the use of torture has foiled no plots and fingered no high-level ‘terrorists,’ although it has sharply curtailed favorable opinion of the U.S. among people around the world. Guantanamo remains a glaringly visible cancer on American ‘democracy,’ yet the U.S. won’t close it. Meanwhile, Obama’s inhuman policy of indiscriminate assassination-by-drone on the basis of profiling, with its inevitable civilian casualties, has certainly done more to recruit new fighters to Al Qaeda than a thousand fanatical Islamic preachers. U.S. imperialism is visibly losing both the ‘war for the hearts and minds of men (sic)’ and the ‘war on terror,’ and its ‘victories’ in Iraq and Afghanistan have left nothing but ruin and resentment in their wake. Nearly a century ago, during the Russian Revolution, a former prisoner named Victor Serge was put in charge the archives of the Czarist secret police, the dreaded Okhrana, which had fallen into the hands of the revolutionaries. He discovered that all the revolutionary groups, including Lenin’s Bolshevik underground, were thoroughly riddled with double agents. However, rather than turning paranoid, Serge concluded that the Czar’s all-knowing Okhrana and vast Siberian prison system wereultimately impotent – unable to defend an indefensible, decadent empire based on extreme social inequality. His little book What Everyone Should Know About State Repression [3]  is still worth reading, and includes ‘simple rules for activists’ (like don’t conspire on the phone).

 Their Power and Ours

 Which brings us back to the Internet and social media. Faced with today’s vast concentration of police-state violence directed against dissident individuals and organizations, the only way we of the 99% can ever fight back is to come together in such great numbers and with such speed that we are literally able to overwhelm the forces of repression. Only tactics like flash-mobs, mass sit-down strikes and other large-scale outpourings of popular indignation can defeat the forces of preventive counter-revolution that the capitalist police state has now assembled. And only the Internet and social media can potentially coordinate and spread them in real time.

 One more point. ‘Violence’ versus ‘non-violence’ is no longer the question. The massed fire-power of even local police departments today has rendered any thought of Che Guevara-type armed insurrection obsolete because suicidal. Indeed, the Black Panthers already warned against left-wing ‘Custerism.’ This simple recognition of fact does not mean that we necessarily submit meekly to arrest in ritualized non-violent civil disobedience, although the Ghandian tactic of ‘filling the jails’ may at one point prove productive.

 What it does mean is that we must eschew ritualized small-group violence, however satisfying to our enraged individuality, in favor of tactics that have the potential of effectively bringing together the maximum force of numbers of ordinary people in ways that will paralyze the forces of repression and induce even more ‘civilians’ – normal working people — to join the struggle. As the poet Shelley put it, “We are many; they are few.” Simply by uniting to withdraw our labor-power through massive non-cooperation, we the 99% can bring the whole world economy to a grinding halt, and there isn’t fuckall their spies nor police-dogs can do to make it go. Thanks to the Internet and instant translation, there’s now a planetary platform where the working people of all lands CAN unite![4]

 Best wishes, Richard Greeman




[4] For more about my ‘modern Archimedes hypothesis’ — the Internet as a platform for revolutionary organizing — please go to

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