Give us your rights and no one gets hurt

June 19, 2013

The NSA doesn't keep us safe. It makes the world more dangerous by the day.

DEFENDERS OF the American surveillance state have a simple response to the criticisms they've faced in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency's (NSA) lying and spying: You should be happy we've violated your rights because the world is a safer place for it.

"The events of September 11, 2001, occurred, in part, because of a failure to connect the dots," said Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA. "I would rather be here explaining these programs than explaining why it is we failed to prevent another 9/11."

Alexander went on to claim that the NSA's spying on telephone records and Internet communications foiled 50 terror plots in 20 countries, including the U.S.

The political establishment's campaign to defend its formerly top-secret surveillance programs has followed a predictable pattern: frighten people with claims about the constant threat of terrorist attacks; reassure them that our "leaders" will protect "us" so long as we accept some "modest encroachments" on our constitutional rights--and, of course, demonize the whistleblower who exposed their dirty secrets.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

Former Vice President Dick Cheney took to the airwaves to slander Edward Snowden, the source of the leaks about the NSA spying programs, as a "traitor" and possible spy for China. Of course, given Cheney's own record of circumventing the Constitution and openly advocating torture, Snowden was absolutely right to see Cheney's denunciation as "the highest honor."

But if Cheney's return to scaremongering and scapegoating was laughable, the Obama administration's response has been simultaneously chilling and more potent.

The Democratic White House has already distinguished itself as the most aggressive administration in history in its pursuit of government officials who turn to the press to expose corruption or lawbreaking. Before 2009, the Espionage Act of 1917 had only been used three times in the previous century to prosecute government officials accused of leaking classified information. The Obama administration has used it six times--so far.

The same administration insists it's accountable to Congress and the courts. But in truth, the powers of the U.S. state are wielded with almost no real accountability to the majority of the U.S. population. There's no guarantee that officeholders will respond to popular opinion, rather than the interests of corporations and the rich, as we know from any number of political questions in the last few years. And that's to speak of elected officials--when a large part of the U.S. government, particularly its national security apparatus, never even has to face an election.

Thus, the government's police and spies--not to mention its generals and bureaucrats and politicians--are empowered to carry out policies that are directly contrary to the beliefs and convictions of most people in the U.S., whether they're violating our constitutional right to privacy or our human right to health care or a job or a comfortable retirement.

FEAR IS a powerful motivator--and politicians know it. As Noam Chomsky explained, a frightened populace is more easily manipulated into accepting policies it would otherwise oppose. That explains why so many political leaders are invoking the tragedy of September 11, 2001, as they struggle to defend the NSA surveillance programs a dozen years later.

Thus, Republican Sen. John McCain--after claiming that terrorism is "getting worse," though he offered no evidence--delivered what he obviously considers his trump card: "If this was September 12, 2001, we might not be having the argument that we are having today."

At the same time, political leaders say they should be trusted that the proper checks and balances are in place to prevent the NSA and FBI and CIA and the rest from abusing our rights. But the record of the U.S. government clearly shows that these statements are precisely the ones that should be most distrusted.

Back in March, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper's answer: "No, sir."

Today, Clapper says he was giving the "least untruthful" answer he could.

Okay, so "least untruthful" is another way of saying he lied to the Senate. But at least the NSA's Prism program for spying on Internet communications successfully foiled a 2009 plot to bomb a subway in New York City, right? That's one of the many claims made by intelligence officials, openly and anonymously, in recent days.

This is the fallback position when ordinary people seem hesitant to trust the government with their rights--claim instead that the national security apparatus has kept us all safe from terrorism.

Only the chief "success" claimed for the Prism program is disputed. According to BuzzFeed's Ben Smith, "British and American legal documents from 2010 and 2011 contradict [the claim that NSA spying helped expose the subway plot], which appears to be the latest in a long line of attempts to defend secret programs by making, at best, misleading claims that they were central to stopping terror plots."

As legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote in USA Today, referring specifically to a plan in Chicago to install even more surveillance cameras in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings:

We need to resist the calls for a greater security state and put this attack into perspective...[P]rivacy is dying in the United States by a thousand paper cuts from countless new laws and surveillance systems. Before we plunge ahead in creating a fishbowl society of surveillance, we might want to ask whether such new measures or devices will actually make us safer or just make us appear safer.

BUT THE idea that all this surveillance is directed at "preventing terrorism" is itself a deception. Writing in the Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed reports:

Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of U.S. defense planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis--or all three.

Ahmed cites several military strategy documents, including a report by the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute that states:

DoD [Department of Defense] might be forced by circumstances to put its broad resources at the disposal of civil authorities to contain and reverse violent threats to domestic tranquility. Under the most extreme circumstances, this might include use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States. Further, DoD would be, by necessity, an essential enabling hub for the continuity of political authority in a multi-state or nationwide civil conflict or disturbance.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security is already working with local law enforcement agencies on pre-emptive efforts to derail "civil disturbances"--even in the case of nonviolent, legal protest. Despite the denials of intelligence officials, this is an essential component--rather than an inadvertent consequence--of the U.S. surveillance apparatus.

Government officials want to reduce the issue of NSA surveillance to a simple proposition: the terrorists want to get us, but we can get them first by employing advanced technological methods for gathering intelligence on them.

But among other things, this ignores how the "war on terror" itself--the use of torture and indefinite detention, drone strikes and Barack Obama's secret kill lists, Special Forces operations and NSA surveillance--keeps stoking more bitterness and hatred toward the U.S., potentially the source of future violence.

The government's spies and soldiers don't keep us safe. They are making the world more unstable, more dangerous and more violent by the day. That's glaringly obvious in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen--but it's also true in the U.S. itself.

As Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers some 40 years ago, exposing U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, wrote in the Guardian:

In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material...Snowden's whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an "executive coup" against the U.S. Constitution.

Since 9/11, there has been, at first secretly but increasingly openly, a revocation of the Bill of Rights for which this country fought over 200 years ago. In particular, the Fourth and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which safeguard citizens from unwarranted intrusion by the government into their private lives, have been virtually suspended...

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people's privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a war that led to a large-scale antiwar movement--like the one we had against the war in Vietnam--or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely dangerous.

The first step in challenging all this is to expose the surveillance state to the light of day. The second is to state in no uncertain terms: We don't accept the national security shakedown that trades our rights for a safer--and in reality, a far more dangerous--world.

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