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Secret Surveillance in the Age of Obama


[CORRECTION: The original version of this essay incorrectly stated that Obama and Congress passed a bill outlawing any and all communication with officially designated terrorist organizations.  No such bill was passed.  What actually occurred is that the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that such communication – even communication advocating nonviolence – constituted illegal "material support" to terrorists under the terms of the Patriot Act. A correction has been made in the second sentence of this essay's eighth paragraph.* P.S., June 13, 2013]

Three or so weeks ago I read a mainstream news commentary on how the Obama administration was challenged by “three big scandals this spring”: (1) the Internal Revenue Service’s alleged special targeting of Tea Party organizations; (2) the continuing brouhaha over the State Department and White House’s early statements about the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya last year; (3) revelations that the FBI secretly seized phone records for more than 20 telephone lines (including cell and home phones) of reporters and editors at the Associated Press (AP) – this in pursuit of government leaks regarding the administration’s dirty war in Yemen. 

I could not help but note the disparity in scale between the last of these scandals and the first two. The IRS and Benghazi dramas are grossly inflated affairs, created and kept alive to a large degree by the powerful right wing media echo chamber. The AP story, by contrast, is gigantic – or at least it ought to be. It reflects a massive and indiscriminate executive branch assault on the nation’s much ballyhooed free press liberties. That assault is linked to Obama’s ongoing arch-Nixonian war on whistleblowers (seen in the administration’s court martial crucifixion of Bradley Manning). It is all-too-chillingly consistent with Obama’s long record of continuing the George W. Bush administration’s expansion of the federal government’s repressive and intrusive power. 

Little did I know that the AP scandal was just the tip of the iceberg of what was coming in regard to the U.S. surveillance and police state. Stories in the British paper The Guardian and in The Washington Post over the last two weeks have exposed two gigantic Orwellian “data collection” programs running out of the National Security Agency (NSA). Under the first program, the NSA collects the phone records of millions of Verizon customers “to detect suspicious patterns,” constructing a database through which it claims it can detect terrorist plots. Under the second program, code-named PRISM, the NSA and FBI are permitted to tap directly into nine U.S. Internet companies to assemble all Internet usage – emails, video, photographs, searches, audio, etc. – by any and all users. The companies caught up in this epic Web dragnet include Google, Facebook, and Apple. A related NSA program called “Boundless Informant” maps, catalogues, and tracks the geographical source of all the personal data the agency collects worldwide. 

According to Edward Snowden, the heroic whistleblower who left his job as a federal security contractor to expose these authoritarian programs (and who the Obama administration is certainly hunting down for rendition as I write), the NSA “targets the communications of everyone,” U.S. citizens included. “Any analyst at any time can target anyone. I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authority to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal e-mail.” 

The intrusive practices exposed by Snowden involve the executive branch arrogating to itself the right to spy 24-7 on every American in the name of “national security.” Reflecting on the recent revelations, the editors of the New York Times note “there is every reason to believe that the federal government has been collecting every bit of information about Americans’ phone calls except the words actually exchanged in those calls.” Such secret surveillance “fundamentally shifts power between the individual and the state, and it repudiates constitutional principles governing search, seizure and privacy.” (New York Times Editors, “President Obama’s Dragnet,” New York Times, June 7, 2013, A26) 

Almost as bad as the programs themselves from a civil liberties perspective are the creepy justifications offered for them by Barack Obama and his defenders. A senior administration official insults the public by saying that the Verizon data collection shouldn’t raise concerns since it didn’t include the names of callers – as if the government couldn’t easily match numbers with names. Obama himself claims the intrusions are modest because the data collection does not involve actually listening to phone calls or reading e-mails. But, as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley points out:

 

“If basic information about who, when and from where you call and e-mail is available, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out things about you that are hidden from all but your closest friends and now a few thousand government monitors. When you call an abortion clinic repeatedly or a medical marijuana resource line, the likely purpose of the call is self-evident. If you are married and making late-night phone calls to a former lover, suspicion is natural. For citizens with unpopular political or religious views, calls or e-mails to certain churches or groups indicate an affiliation” (Jonathan Turley “Creeping Surveillance State, Creepy Conclusions,” USA TODAY, June 10, 2013, 8A).

 

Turley might have added something here. *Under the Supreme Court's 2010 Holder v. Humanitatian Law Project ruling, sought and applauded by the Obama adminstration, it is illegal under the Patriot Act to communicate at all – even to advocate nonviolence – with any among the large number of groups the administration has officially designated as “terrorist organizations.” By this terrible standard, communication content is beside the point. Mere contact is sufficient for investigation and possible prosecution. 

The booby prize for absurd defense of the administration’s Orwellian data collection goes to Senator and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). She informs concerned citizens that the state needs to monitor all of our communications because some of us might become terrorists at some point in the future. Does Feinstein favor pre-emptive incarceration of all Americans since some of us might someday commit a felony offense? 

Meanwhile, the president, CIA, and Pentagon continue to generate untold thousands of recruits to al Qaeda and like-minded outfits through deadly drone attacks – this, surreally enough, as Obama declares his solemn duty to protect us from terrorism by rolling back our civil liberties. 

Beneath all the blather and bullshit, the administration and its defenders are giving the three basic and longstanding authoritarian justifications of secret state surveillance:

 

“This is how we get the bad guys.” 

“You don’t have any reason to be threatened by our snooping unless you are associated with the bad guys.” 

“While these powers are great, know that they will not be abused because our motives are benevolent because. We are good.” 

 

It is less ironic than simply instructive to get this line from a former “liberal” constitutional law professor who said in 2007 that George W. Bush’s surveillance program “puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.” The imperial police state remains a richly bipartisan affair. 

Obama’s pledges of continuing concern for constitutional liberties should not be taken seriously this deep into a presidency that has consistently thrown every major progressive principle and constituency group it claimed (most loudly at election time) to value under the bus of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. 

In any event, a genuine democracy does not rely on smiling promises of good intent and character on the part of the chief executive – on his own self-interested claim that he will not abuse his awesome and secretly expanded police state prerogatives. A democracy sets up and maintains effective legal and political checks and balances to executive “overreach.” 

Sadly, it appears from recent polling data that many Americans are willing to tolerate the recently exposed Orwellian practices because of a deeply childish faith in Big Brother Barack’s good-sounding intentions. They might want to talk to talk about that to the surviving relatives of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen unjustly killed without trial (along with his teenage son) by one of the president’s many secret drone hits. They might also want to consult the wisdom of some of the nation’s founders, including Ben Franklin, who warned that “those who give up essential liberties to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.” 

“The fetters imposed on liberty at home,” James Madison noted in 1799, “have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.” 

“Of all the enemies of public liberty,” Madison noted four years earlier, “war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the seeds of every other….No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” 

The warnings have been born out in the “homeland” during Obama’s reign no less than during the long Cheney-Bush-Orwell nightmare Obama disingenuously promised to erase. 

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). Street can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com. His Website: www.paulstreet.org. 

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