“We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident”: Edward Snowden Reminds Us of the Purpose of Government


Edward Snowden has won worldwide popular support for his self-described “moral decision” to reveal how the US intelligence services monitor its own citizens’ as well as all countries’ emails and phone calls.

Americans accusing him of treason should dust off their copy of the Declaration of Independence, where the second paragraph states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

As Snowden goes into his fourth week of being stateless and stranded in Moscow Airport thanks to the Obama administration’s persecution, we cannot lose sight of his clear moral courage, political maturity, and the vision of citizens in the United States and around the world who have embraced Snowden as a hero for our times.

In his remarks at the airport, reported by The Guardian, Snowden praised Venezuela, Russia, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador for “being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless” and for “refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation.”

“The government and intelligence services of the United States of America have attempted to make an example of me, a warning to all others who might speak out as I have,” he said. “I have been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression.”

The public reaction in Latin America is extremely important to help Snowden gain political asylum from governments prepared to stand up to US diplomatic and economic pressure. US progressives should stand in solidarity with the anti-colonial sentiments of the global South and condemn their own government’s efforts at persecution.

A Quinnipiac poll released last week notes a clear shift in the US public’s mood since Snowden began his revelations: “by 45 percent to 40 percent, respondents said the government goes too far in restricting civil liberties as part of the war on terrorism. That was a reversal from January 2010, when in a similar survey 63 percent said anti-terrorism activities didn’t go far enough to protect the US from attacks, compared with 25 percent who disagreed.” This is huge, because sacrificing liberties for security is the ideological underpinning of the national security state.

By a clear majority of 55 to 34 percent across political affiliations, interviewees considered Snowden a whistleblower and not a traitor. Peter Brown, the poll’s assistant director, said: “The massive swing in public opinion about civil liberties and governmental anti-terrorism efforts, and the public view that Edward Snowden is more whistle-blower than traitor, are the public reaction and apparent shock at the extent to which the government has gone in trying to prevent future terrorist incidents … The verdict that Snowden is not a traitor goes against almost the unified view of the nation’s political establishment.”

Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that Democrats are the most vociferous in condemning Snowden, whereas they would have condemned Bush if the revelations had come under his presidency. “I can tell you that, by far, the most vehement and vicious attacks on our reporting and the stories that we’ve been writing come not from Republicans, but from Democratic partisans, both in politics and in the media,” Greenwald told Democracy Now.

Not only have they bought into the security state’s ideological justifications, many Democrats also conflate the executive wing with the state’s social functions, claiming that the state is essential to protect minorities and achieve social justice.  The official left has been coopted by Obama into supporting “their” president as the best alternative to Republicans.

Activist Jessica Bernstein pointed out: “During a recent interview on KPFA, Norman Solomon, former congressional candidate and co-founder of RootsAction, questioned why MoveOn, the largest online progressive group, has not taken action, asking, ‘Where are their clarion calls to defend and support Edward Snowden? Or for that matter Bradley Manning? They’re not happening’. … Solomon points out that when MoveOn began 15 years ago, it was largely around an anti-war platform, but if one were to look at what has happened on a policy level since, there has been a tremendous avoidance of not only anti-war efforts but almost any issue that does not function in tandem with the agendas of the Democratic National Committee.”

Some Obama supporters defend the government by citing Greenwald’s support for libertarian positions, reiterating some Washington insiders’ argument that libertarianism is akin to Confederate white supremacy, and aims to undermine the federal government whose intervention has been responsible for protecting the rights of minorities. “Confederate Libertarianism may oppose both big banks and Federal authority, but it is not doing so in the cause of social justice,” argues rootless_e in comments on an In These Times article defending PRISM.

This misguided analysis ignores the fact that it took great social movements to achieve steps toward social justice in the US, using all available political freedoms to challenge Jim Crow laws and force federal intervention in the South. The actual experience of living social movements today is that the federal state intervened to curtail these freedoms by using NSA and Homeland Security monitoring of cellphones and emails as a tool to suppress the Occupy movement, when open expression of hostility to big banks and the plutocracy threatened to gain mass support.

Political commentator Josh Marshall argues that Snowden is substituting his personal judgment for those of legislators who were democratically elected to make decisions about the US intelligence apparatus. He says: “… for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. … I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way.”

However, it has become clear that sections of the judiciary, acting in concert with the Supreme Court and the executive, have been secretly revising the laws that govern the US intelligence apparatus, with no input whatsoever from democratically-elected representatives. The New York Times reported that FISA judges have broadened the use of the “special needs” doctrine, intended as a narrow exception from privacy laws to allow drug testing of railway workers, to exempt NSA monitoring from the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures.

And government officials have consistently lied to legislators. According to the Washington Post: “On three occasions since 2009, top Justice Department officials said the government’s ability to collect business records in terrorism cases is generally similar to that of law enforcement officials during a grand jury investigation. That comparison, some lawmakers now say, signaled to them that data was being gathered on a case-by-case basis, rather than the records of millions of Americans’ daily communications being vacuumed up in bulk.”

“[Republican congressman Jim] Sensenbrenner, who had access to multiple classified briefings as a member of the Judiciary Committee, called the practice of classified briefings a ‘rope-a-dope operation’ in which lawmakers are given information and then forbidden from speaking out about it. … Referring to public testimony from officials, Sensenbrenner added: ‘How can we do good oversight if we don’t get truthful and non-misleading testimony?’.”

Whistleblowers like Snowden and Bradley Manning are now regarded as heroes by many Americans, in sharp contrast to the fury of the Obama administration and the political establishment. The government’s emphasis on secrecy that has led it to carry out the largest number of prosecutions of leakers in history stems from its alignment with major corporations and the security apparatus.

However, its overreach in prosecuting Manning and charging Snowden under the Espionage Act has backfired and eroded its own legitimacy with the public, who are still deeply committed to government of, for, and by the people.

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Filed under Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, National Security Agency, occupy wall street, political analysis, Supreme Court, US policy, We are the 99 percent

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