Watching Watchbirds: On Surveillance, Watch Lists, Disinformation, and Secrecy

Image from Barking Moonbat
“This is a watchbird watching you.” Helium drone balloon from Aerotain


Watchbird, spotted at FishDucky

Watchbirds were those annoying little stick-figure birds who perched in some Munro Leaf children’s stories, always ready to instruct kids in proper protocols when they were misbehaving. Our current flock of watchbirds rarely have to instruct us because we mostly maintain civil decorum knowing they’re there. Talk about the nanny state.


Here’s an example. I have this stupid little prepaid G3 phone with a stupid little screen and a stupid little browser that’s inert thanks to no data plan. It texts of course but doesn’t do email. I can’t follow Facebook, post to Instagram, or tweet. And nobody but my family and a few friends know my number, so no robocalls. As it also lacks GPS, I need to pay attention to the real world when in motion and ask for directions if I get lost, which I consider a useful feature. No known spyware, but read on. It’s a phone I don’t diddle with and doesn’t diddle me.

And here’s why: I think of smartphone abstinence as an invisible, portable isolation chamber that bestows peace and quiet and saves me a bunch of time in the bargain. Rather than making me feel left behind, my mobile minority status gives me comfort, knowing that I’m less likely to get run over and my mood doesn’t depend on random electronic urgencies of no significance to the cosmos. Somehow, really important news manages to trickle in, even with crappy ten-year-old technology. For instance, my dumbphone certainly would have received that all-state emergency alert urging Hawaiians to have a nice day while awaiting incoming ICBMs to vaporize their happy paradise.

Even without GPS, certain authorities can track my general whereabouts anytime my phone is on and rummage through my call records. I’m pretty sure they are listening in too. See, my stupid phone works in almost every country thanks to its international SIM from a provider based in Estonia, giving me a country code of 372. My traffic is routed through a local number so that callers don’t need to pay international rates, but all our conversations get sent to Estonia and back. And as the NSA reportedly listens in on all non-encrypted international telephony, everything we discuss can potentially be overheard or recorded. I should beep at the start of a call to alert the other party to the watchbirds.

Of course, the NSA’s minions don’t tediously monitor all that traffic like gumshoes on wiretap duty did in the old days. The agency uses voice recognition software to scan conversations for actionable keywords, so I still need to guard what I say. They will check my counterparty’s number against a database of bad guys. If there’s a match, they will scrutinize the conversation for sure and then become obliged to look into my affairs. The government maintains so many lists of potential evildoers that nobody knows their number, who is on them, or why. Just on some third party’s say-so, names of people one would never suspect of subversion can find their way into one database or another, pretty much once and for all.

All this naming of names went on for decades before there were databases. The all-time champion namer was J. Edgar Hoover, who started keeping tabs on anarchists, socialists, unionists and communists post WWI, redoubling his efforts in WWII and doubling down again during the red scare years. His prize list was called DETCOM (short for Detain Communists), a subset of his extensive cross-tabulated indexes of subversives. DETCOM supposedly named close to 20,000 potential perps, 95% of whom supposedly had communist affiliations, friends, or relatives. A related list, called COMSAB (guess why), identified government workers with suspect loyalties. From the beginning, Hoover kept the existence of his lists a closely guarded secret and proceeded to compile files on their members’ activities.

His hope was that if ever he could coax the president to declare a state of emergency, these folks would become eligible for a staycation at taxpayer expense. There weren’t enough prison cells to house them all, so Hoover and his minions cajoled the army to retrofit a dozen or two closed bases and ready the facilities they had used to imprison Japanese-Americans in 1942. Most of them are probably still around.

Justifying his strategy, Hoover wrote to Truman, “In the event of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, every communist will do everything possible to injure this country.” For example, “a large attack of suicide paratroopers” would surely come and be aided by local communists. Hoover must have been disappointed that neither Truman nor his successors chose to gin up an emergency until legal authority enabling preventive detention of communists was withdrawn under President Nixon (!) in 1971. So why is the government keeping bigger and better lists now? Oh yeah, the PATRIOT Act and the NSA. I forgot for a moment.

Hoover is history, but not his mission. The government remains at the ready to pick up troublemakers whenever operational circumstances suit their needs. And those needs are pivoting. The Washington Examiner (1/24/18) reported:

The Pentagon’s new national defense strategy identifies China and Russia as major strategic competitors, and prioritizes them over terrorist groups in a bid to ensure the U.S. remains “the preeminent military power in the world.”

The mostly-classified strategy document, the first under the Trump administration, was unveiled Friday by its chief architect Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Mattis said as he lamented what he sees as a decline of U.S. military strength under the previous administration without mentioning President Obama by name.

You know whom he was talking about asserting preeminence over. All you Russia and China sympathizers take heed. Express your admiration at your peril. Big brother is watching. And if you are an investigative reporter, you might really want to know what policy changes and expectations underlie Mattis’s words.

It’s not easy to plumb into the bowels of the beast if you aren’t affiliated with an influential platform, and to receive more than press releases you need to be vetted. If potential Administration or Pentagon sources don’t consider you a reliable mouthpiece, it can make it difficult to publish stories at major media outlets or be sought after by network news for your opinion. Despite that, should you manage to attract a following, they may still try to use you as their propagandist. Working through back channels, they may wind you up with documents and off-the-record comments that spin things in certain directions. If you play along, soon you’re a gyroscope they carefully position, overriding your own compass.

Perhaps you recall the case of New York Times’ star reporter Judith Miller who, having been spun into a mouthpiece for the Pentagon and CIA under Bush/Cheney, was imprisoned for refusing to name her official sources of disinformation. But few journalists will face similar persecution as long as they remain mindful of what not to say, as most seem to be doing, sorry to say.

You’ve got to root for the home team to file past the gatekeepers. Cheerleader Judith Miller is the most notorious but hardly the only member of the mainstream media to have been misled to support disastrous foreign policies and asinine military adventures. Throughout our fourth estate, official stories, disinformation, and talking points are readily assimilated. And when an alternative news outlet (such as The Intercept) that doesn’t hew to conventional wisdom publishes scandalous revelations of official misconduct, it takes a lot of buzz for them to show up in the MSM news hole.

Congress just passed, and Trump will sign, an extension of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that legitimizes government monitoring of our communications without a warrant. Going forward, only active criminal investigations will require search warrants. If they’re just fishing, they don’t need to get a license.

Think of what that might mean for journalists. Activists and whistle-blowers will have to take greater risks to bring forward evidence of official conspiracies and high crimes and misdemeanors knowing that, without a court order, the government can be privy to communications privileged under the First and Fourth Amendments. In response, news organizations have set up “secure drop boxes” to which sources can upload information anonymously, as pioneered by WikiLeaks. That technology, first commercially deployed at the New Yorker in 2014 as StrongBox and since renamed SecureDrop, was conceived by media activist Aaron Schwarz, who partnered with digital security experts James Dolan and Kevin Poulson to develop it.

Soon after completing proof-of-concept software for StrongBox, a federally-indicted Aaron Schwartz committed suicide after facing trumped-up charges from DOJ prosecutors for illegally downloading 4.8M academic papers at MIT. Just recently, almost five years to the day since, collaborator James Dolan took his own life at 36. Dolan was a reclusive Iraqi vet with his own demons, but who knows what others may have beset him.

Team member Poulson, now 52, had once been imprisoned for hacking and banned from using the Internet for four years. Now he’s at large, an editor at Wired in fact, reporting on threats to data security. Let’s hope he doesn’t face threats to his security.

Just in case you happen to have some inside information to publicize, know that SecureDrop has been adopted by many news organizations, including the Guardian, New York Times, and Washington Post. It is also used by filmmaker Laura Poitras’ documentary unit Field of Vision to solicit proposals and material for movies and podcasts that speak truth to power. Having been close to both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, it only makes sense for Poitras to use dead drops.

To the extent that our spy agencies haven’t managed to compromise SecureDrop sites (after all, its source code is open source, as Aaron insisted), it must exist as a great source of frustration for them. More than toxic malware from abroad and radical conspiracies, what sleep-deprives them are the potential Snowdens; people among them who know what they’re up to, disapprove of it, and want to say why. I’ve written about certain mechanisms the government uses to throttle whistleblowers, which generally do the trick but that was before things like SecureDrop started popping up everywhere.

Attempts to hack SecureDrop have been reported and more surely will come. Even were it to work perfectly, its usefulness is limited because there’s no return address. The sources of unsolicited tips and documents received may be unknown. Senders may choose to remain anonymous or to establish contact by phone, email, post, or in person, but that exposes both parties to potential surveillance. Too, the information may be a red herring, a fake leak planted by officials to mislead investigators; the vast majority of leaks reported by news media are probably “approved,” so how is a journalist to know? Sharing a scandalous document does not a bond of trust make; a lot of back-and-forth may be required.

Despite all impediments, leaks are more vitally needed today than ever. We see the Executive Branch under the Trump Regime upping its insulation from public scrutiny, opinion, and input. The Interior Department told its National Parks Advisory Board it wouldn’t be listening to it and 10 of its 12 members resigned. In Congress as well, policies are announced, not debated. A million people petitioning the House or Senate leaves no impression on those bodies. The GOP’s health insurance “reform” and tax overhaul were rammed through Congress without a single public hearing or a decent leak. The military pursues ill-advised wars most of us don’t want and all of us have to pay for. They just do what they wanna do, and what and why that is we urgently need to know.

Insiders and outsiders have to partner to convey to the public what the hell “they” are thinking and saying to each other when they make policy, enforce it, or or ignore it, and who is coaching them from the sidelines. So, if you have inside dope, drop a dime.

Be a watchbird.

Just don’t call my phone.


Earlier versions of this article appear in CounterPunch and Medium.

Author: admin

I'm an ex-this-and-that, including software developer, computer graphics researcher, geospatial analyst, market manager, and technical writer, who now writes full-time when not reading, running a household, foraging for edible mushrooms, pushing progressive politics, or volunteering fsomewhere. I live near Boston with my wife, daughter, two cats and two old cars.