Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and the crisis in government legitimacy

The events of the past few weeks have vindicated Edward Snowden many times over. A public discussion is now taking place about NSA surveillance that would never have happened without his revelations; Glenn Greenwald has proved his claim that any NSA analyst could access anyone’s keystrokes by detailing the XKeyscore software that will do this; and Snowden’s own father has supported his decision to seek asylum in Russia because the US “cannot guarantee a fair court,” given the vindictive prosecution of Bradley Manning.

At the same time, limits to the power of the US security state have become apparent. Russia has given Snowden asylum – as a strong state it will not allow any attempts at rendition – and the Obama administration is losing its grip on Congress.

In his latest article, Glenn Greenwald reports how legislators, who theoretically have oversight of the security forces, are furious at having been denied information about the domestic spying program even when they have specifically requested it. He concludes: “members of Congress in general clearly know next to nothing about the NSA and the FISA court beyond what they read in the media, and those who try to rectify that are being actively blocked from finding out.”

An unprecedented Congressional revolt came within seven votes of ending NSA surveillance of US phone calls altogether by cutting off funding. The bill panicked the White House, which used some serious arm-twisting to prevent it from passing. Amy Goodman reported on Democracy Now: “NSA director, General Keith Alexander, personally lobbied House members, reportedly calling their cellphones and opening with a joke that, yes, he already had their number.”

According to the Guardian, “Justin Amash, the Republican congressman whose measure to terminate the indiscriminate collection of phone data was narrowly defeated 10 days ago, said he was certain the next legislative push will succeed. … In the Senate, Democrat Ron Wyden said there was similarly ‘strong bipartisan support for fundamental reforms’, a direct consequence of revelations about the nature and power of NSA surveillance. ‘Eight weeks ago, we wouldn’t have had this debate in the Congress,’ he said. ‘Eight weeks ago there wouldn’t have been this extraordinary vote’.”

At the same time, the executive branch is continuing its offensive against whistleblowers and publishers. At least five government departments, if not more, participated in preparing the case for Bradley Manning’s prosecution, charging him with espionage rather than whistleblowing. The framing of their case made it clear that Julian Assange and Wikileaks is next.

Assange himself pointed out that the investigation against Wikileaks “is the largest investigation and prosecution against a publisher in United States history and, arguably, … anywhere in the world. … The tender for the DOJ to manage the documents related to the prosecution—the broader prosecution against WikiLeaks and myself, and not just the Manning case—is $1 [million] to $2 million per year just to maintain the computer system that manages the prosecution’s documents.”

Although the government failed to convict Manning of the capital crime of aiding the enemy, he still faces a potential lifetime in jail. The judge backed away from the aiding the enemy charge not only because of its possible implications in criminalizing investigative journalism and the media but also because of the public reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations. A Pew poll found that 47% of those polled considered that anti-terrorism policies had gone too far, while only 35% thought they didn’t go far enough. This is the first time that Pew has found more people expressing concern over civil liberties than terrorism since 2004.

It’s worth pondering the implications of the poll results. The shift in attitudes spreads over political and ideological lines, showing that privacy concerns are not confined to a fringe element of libertarians. What characterizes the political situation is the growing awareness of the US population to sensitive political issues like race and state invasion of privacy.

Veteran journalist Chris Hedges seems to have misjudged the changed political landscape, telling Paul Jay of the Real News Network: “We have shifted, I think, from a democratic state to a species of corporate totalitarianism.” He argues that “the mechanisms of control, as any Walmart worker will tell you, are quite severe. … We are the most surveilled, monitored, eavesdropped, controlled, watched population in human history, and I speak as somebody who covered the Stasi state in East Germany.”

Although it’s true that the Obama administration has extended the framework of a police state, we are not there yet. The signs are of an increasingly fractured society, whose governing systems are under strain. Certain forms of resistance like unions and the radical left have indeed been undermined, but Americans have not been cowed and defeated.

More evidence that this is true is given by the largest strike of fast-food workers in the history of the US. Hundreds of workers walked out in major cities in the Midwest as well as New York City to demand a living wage. Josh Eidelson commented on Democracy Now: “We have seen that having these workers out on strike has created momentum that politicians have jumped onto. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has been rallying and picketing with these workers. It’s shifted the national debate, in much the way that, organizers note, didn’t happen when labor was pushing for labor law reform a few years ago.”

Terrance Wise, who works two jobs at Pizza Hut and Burger King, said on the program: “we’re already dying slowly in our day-to-day lives, so why not speak up and stand up and let the nation know that we’re suffering? And this is really a cry for help. And this great nation shouldn’t turn their back on working-class people who need help.”

As fast-food workers join those intervening in the political discourse, it is clear there are fissures opening in US society’s ideological underpinnings. There may not be mass demonstrations out on the streets, but the decisions and statements of the government and courts are shaped with an eye to keeping control of public opinion, underlining the tenuousness of government legitimacy.


1 Comment

Filed under Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, National Security Agency, Obama, political analysis, US policy

One response to “Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and the crisis in government legitimacy

  1. Jim Cook

    And now we have embassies closing and the biggest “terrorist” scare for years – what a coincidence. Unfortunately the current furore would also tend to suggest further tactics for any terrorist; enough said.

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