Who's watching Big Brother?

Vocal opposition to state power--not silence--is what will make the world a safer place.

Protesters gathered in New York City to show support for Edward Snowden (Michael Fleshman)Protesters gathered in New York City to show support for Edward Snowden (Michael Fleshman)

IT'S THE only thing standing between us and the tyranny of terrorism, they say. But the "it" is more tyranny--carried out by the most powerful government in the history of the world, capable of inflicting terror in every corner of the globe.

When the exposés broke last week documenting the top-secret programs of the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect the telephone records of countless millions and eavesdrop on Internet communications--regardless of whether anyone was suspected of even jaywalking--the Obama administration had a response ready.

The president and former constitutional law lecturer assured reporters that these "modest encroachments on privacy"--that's right, the "modest" collection of data about probably the large majority of telephone users in the United States, without their knowledge--were "worth us doing" to keep us all safe.

"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama added. "We're going have to make some choices as a society."

Really? Choices? When did anyone ask you if you wanted the world's biggest spy agency snooping through your phone calls or e-mails or Facebook photos or Skype chats?

And if the Obama administration had its way, we still wouldn't know anything. It was only because of a whistleblower brave enough to stand up against the Big Brother state that we've discovered we've been making this "choice" to hand over our freedoms.

The message from Barack Obama and his administration is clear: No price is too great for us to pay in the "war on terror." The threat is urgent enough to rationalize any spying operation, any shredding of civil liberties, any breach of freedom and democracy by the U.S. government.

Thus, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned darkly: "[W]hile we're having this debate, this discussion, and all this media explosion...our adversaries, whether nation-state adversaries or nefarious groups, benefit from that transparency."

Translation: If you aren't happy with the "war on terror"--if you want a few questions answered about why the government thinks it needs to pick through your e-mails and phone calls--then you're helping "our adversaries." George W. Bush couldn't have said it better: "You're either with us or against us."

This makes NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden public enemy number one in the eyes of the intelligence "community" and the White House--a very dangerous position for him personally, which is why he needs all the support we can organize for him. As for the rest of us, we've been sent a message: Time to fall in line.

Despite the incessent rhetoric to the contrary, the simple fact is that state repression and violence don't protect us from a dangerous world. On the contrary, they help make the world a much more dangerous place.

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THE REVELATIONS about NSA spying are the latest in a litany of abuses by the Obama administration that includes indefinite detention of prisoners in the "war on terror," escalation of drone warfare around the world, racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims, and, yes, the use of torture. This from a Democrat who decried the ruthlessness and arrogance of the Bush administration. In office, Obama has become Bigger Brother.

"From a civil liberties perspective, the [NSA spying] program could hardly be any more alarming," Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Guardian. "It's a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents. It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence agencies."

Yet Obama had no problem chastising Chinese President Xi Jinping for alleged cyber-espionage--within days of the revelations that the Obama administration had okayed a massive campaign of NSA surveillance, and lied about it to the American public the whole time.

Now these hypocrites want to rationalize spying in the name of security and safety. It's the upside-down world of Orwell's 1984--the government carries out an assault on our freedoms in the name of freedom, and it lies in the interest of truth.

Then again, Obama and his administration wouldn't get very far if they told the truth. Imagine that speech: "We're invading your privacy and curtailing your freedoms so that it's easier to further U.S. imperial domination around the world and assure the abilities of American corporations to make the most profits possible. And while we're at it, let's spy on the opposition at home because they only make things more difficult."

Exposés about the Big Brother state shine a light on the hard facts about U.S. democracy. George Bush claimed that al-Qaeda had attacked the U.S. because they "hate our freedoms." But the truth is that our government hates our freedoms if they pose the slightest threat to the status quo--and they'll dispense with those freedoms as necessary, if they think they can get away with it.

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BARACK OBAMA claims that some "minor encroachments" on our rights to assure our safety is a trade worth making. But that assumes the safety and security of all people in the U.S. are priorities for the U.S. government.

They aren't. The huge edifice of laws, and people to enforce, administer and adjudicate them, perpetuates the illusion that the state works for the common good of all its citizens. But you only need to visit a courtroom in a major city for one day to see that some people don't seem to be equal before the law at all. Meanwhile, a few people at the top of society have the power to bend the rules at will, or ditch them altogether.

The U.S. socialist Eugene Debs, who served several years in prison for opposing the First World War, had this to say about "equality before the law":

And how does it happen and why does it happen that corporations are never restrained? Are they absolutely law-abiding? Are they always right? Do they never transgress the law or is it because the federal judges are their creatures? Certain it is that the united voice of labor in this country would be insufficient to name a federal judge. If all the common people united and asked for the appointment of a federal judge, their voice would not be heeded any more than if it were the chirp of a cricket. Money talks...

There is something wrong in this country; the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through, and the federal judge is as far removed from the common people as if he inhabited another planet.

The revelations about the NSA are showing millions of people that things aren't so very different to what Debs described nearly a century ago. That in itself is an important step, as Edward Snowden recognized when asked by a Washington Post reporter whether his revelations would change anything. Snowden replied:

I think they already have. Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten--and they're talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state.

Snowden is right that the first important step is to expose the NSA's crimes. But that's only the first step.

In the 1960s and '70s, rising social movements shone a spotlight on the atrocities of the U.S. government, both international and domestic. The antiwar movement helped expose the barbarism of Washington's war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and the wider imperialist agenda, carried out overtly and covertly from Latin America to Europe to Asia. Within the U.S., the civil rights and Black Power movements revealed the violence of the U.S. state machine domestically.

Under pressure from widespread discontent and activism, the Senate established a committee, chaired by Idaho Sen. Frank Church, to investigate the federal government's intelligence-gathering activities. The Church Committee found that the CIA, NSA, FBI and various other federal bodies were engaged in a secret campaign of surveillance, sabotage and other dirty tricks against U.S. citizens--and worse abroad.

In the aftermath, new controls were imposed on the secret, unaccountable and unelected side of the U.S. government. It wasn't just the Church Committee that was responsible, but the social movements that exposed and drew attention to the crimes of the U.S. government--at home and abroad.

Today, it will be the same kind of vocal and active opposition, not silence, that will make our world a safer, more democratic place--with all the whistleblowers, all the left-wing journalists, and all the dissenters and demonstrators working together to expose American democracy for the lie that it is.