Glenn Greenwald’s disclosure of a court order allowing the US National Security Agency to collect data on all Verizon customers’ phone records has opened up a Pandora’s box of revelations. The additional news that the agency has routine backdoor access to audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs from the central servers of nine top internet companies (PRISM) has compounded the political fallout. Even the New York Times editorialized that the administration had lost all credibility, and mocked Senate Intelligence Chair Diane Feinstein’s defense of the program.
The public seems to be shocked but not surprised by the disclosures. Although many recognize that their constitutional rights are being violated, they don’t see any clear way to oppose the government. But Obama’s hold on the political left has been fractured; in marketing terms, his brand has been tarnished – along with that of Apple, Google and Facebook. His usefulness to the plutocracy lay in being able to leverage the language and symbolism of the civil rights movement to establish confidence in his integrity while supporting corporate-friendly legislation. That strategy has now become unviable.
Northeastern University student Paul Bologna told the New York Times that the news had shaken his confidence in Obama. “I expected a change in domestic surveillance from the Bush administration,” he said. “So this is really disappointing. We all heard about this six or seven years ago, and now we are finding out the details.”
Obama was elected by a popular movement that expected him to reverse Bush’s policies. He even campaigned against Bush’s domestic spying in 2008. In practice, however, he has continued and expanded it. This contradiction is resolved by an extremely broad legal interpretation of congressional decisions to justify support for whatever the security agencies want to do.
Obama repeats this legalistic mode of argumentation when he says that nobody is listening to citizens’ phone calls or reading their emails. “They are not looking at peoples’ names and they’re not looking at content,” he claimed. But intelligence agencies can find out nearly everything about an individual’s life activities and connections by monitoring their cellphone metadata.
Juan Cole points out that when Obama criticized Bush for illegal wiretapping of US citizens, he chose his words carefully: what he really meant was that he intended to pass new laws to make domestic surveillance legal. “He also was being dishonest in saying that no one is listening to our phone calls. He wasn’t accused of listening to our phone calls. He was accused of monitoring who we call, without a warrant, which is private information as he well knows. When you deny the charge that hasn’t been made and ignore the one that was, you are in Donald Rumsfeld territory.”
Thomas Drake, the National Security Agency whistleblower who was charged with violating the Espionage Act by the Obama administration, told Democracy Now: “I think what people are now realizing is that this isn’t just a terrorist issue. This is simply the ability of the government in secret, on a vast scale, to collect any and all phone call records, including domestic to domestic, local, as well as location information. … It’s become institutionalized in this country, in the greatest of secrecy, for the government to classify, conceal not only the facts of the surveillance, but also the secret laws that are supporting surveillance.”
The ongoing prosecution of Bradley Manning and the trawl through Associated Press phone records was intended to frighten whistleblowers and threaten journalists. But these tactics now appear to be having the opposite effect, signaling that a tipping point has been reached.
Glenn Greenwald told Democracy Now: “I think it’s starting to backfire, because it shows [the government’s] true character and exactly why they can’t be trusted to operate with power in secret. And we’re certainly not going to be deterred by it in any way. The people who are going to be investigated are not the people reporting on this, but are people like Dianne Feinstein and her friends in the National Security Agency, who need investigation and transparency for all the things that they’ve been doing.”
Whistleblowers are prepared to face down government intimidation, even knowing that they are going to be unmasked. Edward Snowden, who leaked the information about the NSA, wrote in a note accompanying the first set of documents he released: “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions,” but “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.”
He told the Guardian that he had hoped Obama would reform the spy system, but saw him advance the very policies he thought would be reined in. What the NSA is doing poses “an existential threat to democracy,” he said. “It’s important to send a message to government that people will not be intimidated.”
In a phone interview with the Washington Post he said: “Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest.” He described the lack of accountability of Bush administration officials as setting an example “that when powerful figures are suspected of wrongdoing, releasing them from the accountability of law is ‘for our own good.’ That’s corrosive to the basic fairness of society.”
Within the Democratic party surveillance has its critics, but it is unclear if it will lead to a break with the administration. Senators Mark Udell and Ron Wyden, who have attempted in the past to warn about secret government interpretations of the Patriot Act, strongly criticized administration officials: “After years of review, we believe statements that this very broad Patriot Act collection has been ‘a critical tool in protecting the nation’ do not appear to hold up under close scrutiny,” they said. “We remain unconvinced that the secret Patriot Act collection has actually provided any uniquely valuable intelligence.”
“It’s unclear to me that we’ve developed any intelligence through the metadata program that has led to the disruption of plots that we couldn’t have developed through other data and other intelligence,” Udall said on the CNN program “State of the Union.”
“Did I know about it? No, I didn’t,” said Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democratic congressman, who said he was unconvinced by the president’s assurances that surveillance efforts are constrained by congressional oversight and the federal courts. “That’s the lawyer in him speaking. … The way bureaucracies work, we stumble into invasions of privacy. We want information it’s unwise to seek or to possess.”
Wyden is now questioning the administration’s truthfulness. He issued a statement to the Guardian following the paper’s latest revelations about an NSA data-mining program, called Boundless Informant, that enables analysts to process billions of data events culled from internet monitoring. “Since government officials have repeatedly told the public and Congress that Patriot Act authorities are simply analogous to a grand jury subpoena, and that intelligence agencies do not collect information or dossiers on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans, I think the executive branch has an obligation to explain whether or not these statements are actually true,” he said.
Apart from those who have been consistently raising civil liberties issues, the left has been relatively quiet. Obama has been successful in coopting and heading off many liberal activists, marshaling them behind the corporate wing of his party. One reason why there have been no overt political campaigns against his presidency is that the social basis of the political left in the professional and managerial classes made it susceptible to Obama’s top-down corporate perspective and made it turn a blind eye to his actual practice.
There are those who argue that Americans will meekly accept the trampling of our constitution. But just as millions in the NRA fight fiercely for the Second Amendment, the cases of Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden signal a readiness to defy the largest security bureaucracy in history and stand up for the Fourth. Obama’s pragmatism has been revealed as cynicism as he has sought to provide cover for the security state by using a rhetoric of hope and justice. But he underestimated the real demand for hope and justice among Americans today.
UPDATE: Snowden told Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill of the Guardian: “I have been surprised and pleased to see the public has reacted so strongly in defence of these rights that are being suppressed in the name of security. It is not like Occupy Wall Street but there is a grassroots movement to take to the streets on July 4 in defence of the Fourth Amendment called Restore The Fourth Amendment and it grew out of Reddit. The response over the internet has been huge and supportive.”
While Republicans are calling for Snowden to be extradited, Thomas Drake called him “extraordinarily brave and courageous,” and Russell Tice, a former NSA analyst who accused the agency in the mid-2000s of overstepping the bounds of its legal surveillance mandate, said: “This guy has more courage than anyone I know.” Tice encouraged more NSA employees to leak evidence of impropriety in the wake of Snowden’s disclosure. “I encourage everyone to read the constitution, especially about Probable Cause and the fourth amendment, and to do the right thing,” he said. “I’d say this young man stood up and abided by his oath and the rest are just spinmeisters.”
UPDATE 2: Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation tweeted: “I was just with Dan Ellsberg as he learned out about Edward Snowden. He called Snowden a hero, said he’s been waiting for him for 40 years.”