Sunday, June 23, 2013

Of Course We Can Trust Them. They're The Government

One of the things I find most fascinating about whistleblower Edward Snowden's NSA revelations is the way so many Americans reflexively defend the very government that has been caught illegally, unconstitutionally spying on them.  Doubtless, some of the defensiveness is produced more by partisan identification with Obama than by identification with the government generally (can you imagine how much differently the Democratic leadership and rank and file would be reacting had Snowden blown the whistle under a Republican president?).  But I also sense that a good deal of the defensiveness comes from a reflexive identification with the government generally.  As Digby has repeatedly observed, many Americans would rather be subjects than citizens.

What's so revealing about the hostile reactions to Snowden's revelations is the way many people try to articulate a principle to justify their hostility, but then immediately selectively apply it.  For example, has even one of the people crying out some version of "Snowden broke the law, he should be punished!" ever made the same argument about Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for lying to Congress?  How can people be concerned about the consequences to our safety and freedom of a contractor leaking secrets about a massive domestic spying operation, but sanguine about the head of America's entire intelligence apparatus perjuring himself in denying such a program exists?

Let's talk about Clapper for a moment.  The fact that Congress is so in thrall to the intelligence industrial complex that it can't muster the balls even to *complain* about being lied to by an intelligence bureaucrat tells us a lot about the current fragile state of our democracy.  And in the face of this, many Americans are more upset that someone has revealed the NSA is spying on them than they are about the spying.  That's not good.

And it gets worse.  Have you read about Obama's Insider Threat Program?  The Most Transparent Administration Ever has figured out that the best way to foster greater transparency is to "Hammer this fact home… leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States;" to get coworkers to inform on each other; and to gin up suspicion of anyone who's going through a divorce, facing financial problems, or even just under stress.  It sounds like a pretty good idea… in fact, wait, I think it's been tried before!

And worse still.  The Obama Justice Department has now charged Snowden with espionage.  However you want to characterize what Snowden did -- whistleblowing, leaking, whatever -- what he did was selectively provide secret information to the press (The Guardian and The Washington Post).  He had much more information he could have turned over but didn't because he thought the harm of releasing that additional information would outweigh the good.  And he asked the Guardian and the Post to also take care to edit the information he provided so as to minimize any potential harm.  What he did *not* do was secretly sell the information to which he had access to a foreign government.  He could have made millions had he chosen to do so.  Instead, he provided the information openly to the American people.  You can call his actions various different things, but you can't coherently call them "espionage."  Not unless you're Humpty Dumpty, and words mean whatever you want them to mean.

On the other hand, we do call it the "Justice" Department -- a name that becomes more akin to Ministry of Love by the day.  So maybe the government *can* just make words mean whatever it wants them to mean.  Obama claims to be running The Most Transparent Administration Ever, after all, even as he prosecutes his eighth whistleblower for espionage -- compared to a grand total of three people charged under the Espionage Act under all previous administrations combined (including those of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, naturally).

Look, so far as I know, no one is claiming Snowden didn't violate a contractual and legal obligation to preserve secrecy (though the rhetoric about his violating some secrecy "oath" is propagandistic bullshit suggestive of a weirdly authoritarian mentality).  But what kind of person -- what kind of citizen -- thinks Snowden's NDA violation is more important, more consequential, more deserving of discussion and debate than the fact that the government has constructed a massive, unaccountable, domestic spying operation totally in secret?  Or that the head of America's intelligence apparatus was just caught lying to Congress about the existence of this program?  Which is the greater potential threat to democracy -- one guy leaking secrets to the press (given the self-glorifying ongoing flood of such leaks coming from the Obama administration, you better hope that's the wrong answer)?  Or a massive intelligence organization spying on the American people, and the head of that organization lying to Congress about it?

The answer is obvious.  And if in spite of that obvious answer, you find yourself more exercised about Snowden than about the NSA and Clapper, I respectfully submit that you have a bit of soul-searching to do.

Fortunately, the establishment media has all the right priorities.  Here's courageous truth-seeker David Gregory of Meet the Press, suggesting that The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who along with The Washington Post's Bart Gellman broke the NSA story, should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting the enemy.  If you can find a more docile, subservient, bootlicking, Stockholm Syndrome level of pseudo-journalistic cravenness than Gregory's, please let me know.

And for the "I don't care of anyone is reading my mail or listening to my calls or compiling my metadata, I have nothing to hide" people out there, I want you to consider this:

The patterns the NSA is searching for as it scours domestic communications aren't patterns exclusive to terrorism.  They are patterns of clandestine behavior (in particular, we now know the NSA is heavily focussed on encrypted email).  Some such clandestine behavior might involve terrorism.  Some will involve other types of crime.  A lot of it will involve communications between, say, lawyers and clients.  And most of it, probably nearly all, will involve things that are embarrassing or illicit, such as closeted homosexuality, sexual affairs, and other personal matters people would prefer to keep private.

I wonder what a massive intelligence organization might do with information it uncovered about embarrassing or illegal activities on the part of politicians, journalists, and other powerful and influential people.  It's enough to make you wonder why Congress is acting so blasé about Clapper's baldfaced lie.

Nah, that's crazy talk.  It could never happen here.

But just in case it could happen here… just in case an operation like PRISM, even if you don't think it's being misused today, might provide a turnkey program for totalitarian control tomorrow... isn't it important that we as citizens have the opportunity and means to discuss it openly and intelligently?  And can you come up with some other realistic opportunity and means beyond the actions of Edward Snowden and the rare people like him?

Put all these things together.  The president is prosecuting all non-Obama-glorifying leaks as espionage.  Congress is so captured and craven it shrugs when intelligence bureaucrats lie to it under oath about the scope of domestic spying operations.  The establishment media so identifies with the government that it wants journalists prosecuted for doing core First Amendment journalism.

Oh, and the NSA is spying on us, and what's been revealed of that spying so far is probably just a fraction of the reality.

If you find any of this, let alone all, acceptable, you have more faith in the inherent resiliency of American democracy than I do.  But if Congress is craven, and the establishment media is complicit, and even average citizens are eager to let the government do whatever it wants as long as it claims It's For Your Own Safety and/or as long as someone from the citizen's favored wing of the war party occupies the Oval Office, who is left to guard the guardians?

Or maybe we can just let the NSA guard itself.  They're the government, after all.  I'm sure they mean well.


Mardra Sikora said...

All of these latest going on's...almost crazier than fiction.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I find it all very disturbing. I've been saying King Obama almost from the beginning. Snowden broke his contract. He didn't betray his country any more than you are by criticizing them.

PaulC said...

Putting aside partisan political arguments here's my question; if eMail and the Telephone existed when the 4th Amendment was being drafted would it have said 'except for eMail and Telephone Calls"?

I doubt it very much.

My father fought to preserve freedoms and always told me that as a democracy we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must lead by example and if we don't we have lost the moral law that Sun Tzu speaks of in The Art of War.

Ambon Pereira said...

To paraphrase Pynchon: Because the empire can never close its eyes, and never sleep, its nightmares will walk in the broad light of day.

Quick, somebody grab the empire an ambien or a lunesta, maybe a warm glass of milk-- perhaps we can lull the empire back to sleep, by reading at length from Herodotus. Something about the persian court, with its cruelty and hubris and its epic miscalculations-- sure, we can crush those pesky greeks, why our army is vast, it numbers in the myriads and can only grow as we are on the march, we'll sweep up entire cities before us and press them into our force--

Strange that empires never seem to realize that simply being very big is not automatically a virtue-- the NSA's empire of data might suffer the same fate as Xerxes' overwrought army of pressed-force "allies"-- too many mouths to feed, too many would-be captains getting in each other's way, constantly stabbing one another in the back to better curry favor with a supremely clueless supreme commander. Not that I'm suggesting that the executive branch is innately clueless, in this instance-- I'm sure the daily powerpoint presentations are very informative, albeit not necessarily in a useful way. Herodotus frequently describes Xerxes as having been the most worthy of kings-- something else to think about. Emperors are inherently "deciders", but they are also choke-points and (unintentional) distorters of the truth which they are deciding-- for example, China put itself into an uncontrollable famine during the Mao years, simply because all of the "cadre commanders" at every level of the communist hierarchy were exaggerating their regional harvests, out of their genuine desire to please the Leader.

The current administration's fetish for classifying everything, while pursing draconian punishments for whistleblowers and actively encouraging Stasi-like levels of paranoia and back-stabbing among gov't employees, seems like a recipe for disaster-- the Supreme Leader/Emperor will receive bad information, and he will (regardless of his personal virtue) make bad and possibly catastrophic decisions.

(Last lines delivered in a whisper, in the hopes that we've at least bored some part of the empire to sleep. Tiptoe out of the bedroom, flick off the light.)

A.Rosaria said...

Isn't the USA supposed to be a Federal Republic and not a Democracy? Stressing that the USA is a democracy and swooning over democracy itself, has this made the people more docile? And being docile, made them apt to accept the government for all its flaws?

Looking in from the outside it baffles me how people are so focused on the messenger instead of the message, because if they read the message and understood it for what it was, there would be a revolt right now. Though most seem not to want to know and instead keep themselves hidden in their shell of utopian democracy full of freedoms they believe they have.

Alex Larsen said...

Just a clarification; Snowden allowed someone in the Chinese government to pull a data dump on his laptop, which is why he was charged with espionage. And here's a thought: the totalitarianism of the Obama administration will be measured by whether or not they try him in abstentia with the stated purpose of stripping him of his citizenship upon conviction. And yes, that's an actual punishment for capital crimes like espionage and treason and in abstentia trials can be done if life and liberty are not in jeopardy (at least according to the strict letter of the Constitution).

Yes, Clapper perjuring himself before Congress should earn him time in the Clinker. Also, while we're on the subject of totalitarian governments, I would dearly love to see an amendment to the Constitution which states that an elected or appointed government official putting into effect a law or regulation is treason.

Barry Eisler said...

Alex, you've stated as a fact that "Snowden allowed someone in the Chinese government to pull a data dump on his laptop." Can you please share your evidence for this charge? That is, your basis for know this to be true. Thanks.

You also state, "[to] try him in abstentia with the stated purpose of stripping him of his citizenship upon conviction [is] an actual punishment for capital crimes like espionage and treason and in abstentia trials can be done if life and liberty are not in jeopardy (at least according to the strict letter of the Constitution)."

It's weird -- I like to think I know the Constitution reasonably well, but I'm not aware of whatever provision you're referring to. Article III, Section 3 does provide, "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court. The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted."

So are you referring to some federal law passed pursuant to Article III, Section 3, rather than to what you describe as "the strict letter of the Constitution" itself? If so, I'd be grateful if you would share a citation.

The last thing you wrote doesn't make sense to me... did you misspeak? You want all laws to be treason?