Category Archives: Homeland Security

The United Airlines scandal reveals the hand of corporate authoritarianism

The confluence of corporate demands and police violence has made extremely visible the absolute lack of rights for citizens in planes, in shopping malls, and in allegedly public spaces. Corporations are riding roughshod over consumers because of their relentless drive for cost-cutting to boost profits, driven by equity capital and aggressive hedge funds.

By now, most people have seen the videos of the violent assault on a 69-year-old physician, Dr. David Gao, as three airport police dragged him from his seat on a United Airlines flight due to depart Chicago O’Hare. He was left with a broken nose and two missing teeth, and will need reconstructive facial surgery.

The police were acting on behalf of airline staff who had failed to convince Gao to give up his fully-paid seat for a United crew member. A police spokesman made a vain attempt to blame the victim for bringing his face in violent contact with an armrest: Gao, said the spokesman, “became ‘irate’ after he was asked to disembark and that he ‘fell’ when aviation officers ‘attempted to carry the individual off the flight… His head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face’.”

United’s chief executive, Oscar Muñoz, initially joined the blame game, calling Gao “disruptive and belligerent.” As the videos of the assault went viral, and the company’s share prices plunged, he changed his tune, saying “No one should ever be mistreated this way,” and committed to make sure it never happened again. But all this amounted to was to institute a rule that aircrew had to be allocated seats at least an hour before takeoff; flying aircraft at capacity with little room for maneuver will not change, because it’s central to the company’s strategy to maximize profits.

The flight was not overbooked, as most media have wrongly reported. It had been boarded and was completely full with passengers when, according to an eyewitness, Tyler Bridges, “an airline supervisor walked onto the plane and brusquely announced: “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.”

After a young couple had left the plane, Gao was approached, but refused to move. “He says, ‘Nope. I’m not getting off the flight. I’m a doctor and have to see patients tomorrow morning,’” said Bridges. After staff attempted to argue with him, the airline called the Chicago Department of Aviation, which handles security at O’Hare International. Three officers then boarded. The videos show one of them reaching across two empty seats, yanking Gao up and pulling him into the aisle.

“The man’s face smacked an arm rest as the officer pulled him, according to witnesses and police. ‘It looked like it knocked him out,’ Bridges said. ‘His nose was bloody.’ In any case, in the video, the man goes limp after hitting the floor. Blood trickling from his mouth, his glasses nearly knocked off his face, he clutches his cellphone an officer drags him by both arms down the aisle.”

Other passengers attempted to argue with the police. Another eyewitness, a Kentucky high school teacher, wrote to the Chicago Tribune that one of the officers laughed during the incident.  “Some passengers audibly protested to the officers, some stood and removed themselves from the plane rather than continue to witness the abuse, and one father, while trying to console his 8-year-old daughter, confronted the officer saying, among other things, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’ “

Yves Smith comments that United “is getting a virtual free pass [from the press] as far as its rights to remove a paying passenger with a confirmed seat who has been seated. This seems to reflect the deep internalization in America of deference to authority in the post 9/11 world … The excuse for United’s urgency was that if these crew members didn’t get to their flight, it would create cascading delays. … The FAA tracks flight status of planes by their tail numbers in real time. If the four crew members were in a fix due to a flight delay, United should have known well before they landed and alerted the gate personnel of whatever flight it wanted to put them on as soon as the gate opened. … This in turn reveals the lack of any slack whatsoever in United’s system. Clearly the urgency was due to the four crew members somehow being late; Plan A had failed and the last-minute boarding effort was Plan B or maybe even Plan C. As one experienced passenger said, ‘They can’t come up with four crew members in one of their biggest hubs?’ ”

Wired magazine reports: “The scandal is the predictable byproduct of a relentless obsession with filling planes to absolute maximum capacity coupled with open and invidious discrimination in the treatment of customers. It is a strategy that (along with those nasty baggage and change fees) yielded almost $10 billion in profit over the last two years. …

“United’s 2010 merger with Continental marks the turning point. Before then, United had been, variously, a regulated carrier; the world’s largest firm owned by its employees; and, from 2002 to 2006, in bankruptcy. All the while, it operated in a relatively normal, if not particularly profitable, way. The merger changed that. … Among the unstated goals of the merger was the systematic reduction of capacity, to ensure the major airlines’ flights would always be full, or, better yet, overfilled. … United and Continental had been competitors along many routes, especially out of New York. The merger let them decrease supply so that there would be fewer seats to sell, making possible higher prices and fewer money-losing empty spaces.”

Although over a billion dollars were wiped off its share value when the news broke, United regained its trading position the next day. The Washington Post explained: “The reason is the same for why any of our country’s other oligopolistic powerhouses can treat their fellow Americans with such crass indifference: Shareholders don’t really care about consumer opinion or even a company’s larger public image. They care about profits. If there is no competitor to whom consumers can turn, who really cares what they think? The 2013 merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways — the biggest and last in a series of dramatic consolidations that federal regulators did little to stop — left the United States with only four major airlines.”

It’s this kind of aggressive industrial consolidation, driven by predatory finance and accompanied by outsourcing of jobs and attacks on pensions, that created the authoritarian social climate behind Trump’s administration – more obvious now that he has ditched the pseudo-populism that won him presidential votes.

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Filed under aggressive policing, donald trump, Homeland Security, Neoliberalism, Uncategorized, United Airlines

Salon misses the point: Feinstein’s speech on the CIA is a big deal

The crisis in relations between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee has blown up with Sen. Diane Feinstein’s speech in the Senate last week, accusing the CIA of breaking the law and the constitution. The clash has put an unwelcome spotlight on the role of the White House, where Obama is refusing to intervene while still backing CIA director John Brennan.

Feinstein, chair of the Committee and until now the security agencies’ staunchest defender, has concluded the CIA is bent on intimidating the committee and is determined to evade Congressional oversight. The antagonism has been building for some years while the senate committee compiled a report on the CIA’s use of torture under the Bush administration.

She confirmed publicly that the CIA had been monitoring computers used by senate staff, and that documents detailing evidence of torture had been removed from the network. The Guardian reported: “In her speech, Feinstein described repeated attempts by the CIA to frustrate the work of Senate investigators, including providing the committee staff with a ‘document dump’ of millions of non-indexed pages, requiring years of work to sort through – a necessity, Feinstein said, after former senior CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed nearly 100 videotapes showing brutal interrogations of detainees in CIA custody.”

Without naming him, Feinstein said CIA acting general counsel Robert Eatinger had been closely involved in the torture program. Eatinger had reported her staff’s removal of a CIA document from a classified facility to the Justice Department, a move she called an intimidation tactic, but late last week the senate struck back by removing him as general counsel and confirming his replacement.

The CIA has always carried out dirty tricks abroad, but is constitutionally prevented from spying within the US. Its operatives have always acted under the assumption there would be no consequences for illegal actions, while Americans have been led to believe that their undercover operations were necessary for defense against the country’s enemies. The security agencies were emboldened by Bush after the 9/11 attack – the impact of which is now wearing off – to abandon international and constitutional legalities.

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who publicly criticized the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, told Amy Goodman: “People always say, ‘After 9/11, everything changed.’ Well, it did change. The president, on the evening of 9/11, said, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We’re going to kick some ass.’ … Well, they took some prisoners in Afghanistan, and the first person tortured was John Walker Lindh, an American citizen.”

The legislature is finally responding to five years of obstruction from the agency over reporting the extent of torture it carried out because the spying has been turned on them, after senate aides discovered internal memos contradicting Brennan’s official rebuttal of the Intelligence Committee’s findings. However, the committee’s demand that the senate report be published represents a threat to the CIA’ s ideological justification for its activities.

Is the clash mere “hypocrisy, posturing, face-saving and obfuscation,” as Natasha Lennard claims in Salon? Or is Washington Post correspondent Eugene Robinson closer to the mark when he says: “This is not just a bunch of rhetoric. It’s a very big deal.”

Whatever Feinstein’s motives – and we can agree with Edward Snowden when he calls her hypocritical – by campaigning to make public the activities of the security agencies, other members of the senate committee like Mark Udall and Ron Wyden are challenging authoritarians within those agencies who want to override popular sovereignty.

Robinson notes the expansion of the security state: “Look at how the CIA’s role has expanded to include what most of us would consider military operations, including flying and firing armed drones. Look at the breathtaking revelations about the NSA’s collection of phone-call data. Look at how the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in a series of secret rulings, has stretched the Fourth Amendment and the Patriot Act beyond all recognition.”

The paralysis of Congress by the Republicans has created a political space for the extension of executive power and security agencies to assert their will against the legislative bodies charged with representing the people’s interests. However, Snowden’s revelations have changed the political context by alerting the public to the extent of state surveillance in the US and worldwide. Feinstein’s speech is significant not so much because of the constitutional principles involved but because, despite her previous support of the NSA, her accusations resonate with the public which has become aware of the fact that repression abroad will come home to be used against Americans.

Now the crisis has reached the White House. Although Obama is trying to stay aloof, senators on the Intelligence Committee are challenging him to defend legislative oversight and to declassify the committee’s report. His administration is also refusing to hand over documents in its possession which relate to the torture program.

Some of my readers have asked why I would make so much of this conflict. After all, the senate and the security agencies are all part of the same capitalist state, they say; differences between them are merely tactical, they agree on the fundamentals of capitalist rule.

But these conflicts are one form in which the class struggle is being fought out in America today, a struggle to defend popular sovereignty. Far from being autonomous, state bureaucracies reflect the tensions within society, refracted through the particular configuration of the US state. Increasingly, protest is uniting political demands with economic issues, since divisions within the political elite are preventing legislation that might ameliorate growing poverty.

Even “managed democracy” needs to maintain the illusion of reflecting the popular will.  While still dominated by the corporate elite, the state’s fragmentation is undermining its legitimacy in the eyes of Americans.

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Filed under CIA, Homeland Security, Mark Udall, Obama, political analysis, Republicans, US policy

Power to the People or Power to Our Masters? King’s Legacy and Obama’s Presidency

We seem to be living in a bizarro alternate universe where Republican politicians are against another imperial military adventure in the Middle East and Nancy Pelosi is all for it. Donald Rumsfeld – who ten years ago wanted to invade the whole of the region, one country after another – now vocally opposes a strike on Syria.

Obama will seek approval from Congress after losing British support and coming under pressure from the Senate and the House, but his success is by no means certain. Like Cameron’s failure to get backing from British MPs, this signals the undermining of executive power as a consequence of its over-reach over the last ten years. Juan Cole points out that the legacy of the false justification for the Iraq war hung over the British parliament; in Washington, the legacy includes an ongoing military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the further revelations of NSA spying.

Obama is prepared to use executive power to launch wars on the other side of the world, but he shows no sign of using it to further the fight against social inequality in the US. This dissonance made Wednesday’s commemoration of the March on Washington an embarrassing travesty: while Martin Luther King preached nonviolence to achieve social change, the president who was elected on the back of the achievements of the civil rights movement channeled the outlook of the military-cyber-industrial complex.

Dana Milbank noted the corporate atmosphere of the event: “The original march was a challenge to the established order. The sequel was a rally of the powerful, including three presidents. There were special entrances for ‘ticketed guests.’ There was a $132-per-person ‘I Have a Dream’ brunch at the Willard Hotel (with ‘commemorative Martin Luther King keepsake’).”

Obama berated the desire for government support as “denying agency in our own liberation,” but told ordinary citizens that just by being good citizens (or businessmen paying a fair wage) they were changing the world for the better. He praised the original marchers in terms of dutiful citizenship but minimized the legacy of civil disobedience. “Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship – you are marching,” he declaimed.

In contrast to King, who sought to inspire his supporters to empower themselves through political struggle, Obama recast protest as obeying the law rather than questioning the basis of its fairness. By divorcing social issues from government he urged citizens to leave politics to the political elite – a “trust us” message that buttresses the role of centralized executive power and furthers the agenda for a security state.

The genius of Martin Luther King lay in his ability to connect all the strands of the movement for social justice and simultaneously inspire and give it direction. He had realized how the struggle for civil rights could be translated into a mass political movement that put pressure on the Kennedy administration. The confrontations he led in Alabama were aimed at impacting the political consciousness of the nation.

The 1963 March on Washington is remembered today as a march over civil rights, but it was originally planned by union activists to protest growing unemployment and discrimination against African-Americans in northern cities. It was only after Bull Connor used attack dogs and high-pressure hoses against children in Birmingham that civil rights got national attention and rose to the top of the agenda.

According to historian Taylor Branch,  “[King] took a stupefying risk in Birmingham to allow not only high school students, but elementary school students, to take the place of a dwindling number of adult volunteers who were discouraged. And instead of 10 or 15, which is what the daily quota had finally dwindled down to be, they had over a thousand students march, downtown Birmingham, and were met with dogs and fire hoses on May 2nd and May 3rd. It was a stupefying gamble in his career … before that breakthrough, the sides were in gridlock over segregation in America. … After Birmingham, everybody was raising questions.”

King’s leading role in transforming the political discourse is made clear in a phone call that was recorded by the FBI, cited in a New York Times book review. “ ‘We are on the threshold of a significant breakthrough, and the greatest weapon is the mass demonstration,’ King told his close friend Levison… Because of Birmingham, King went on, ‘we are at the point where we can mobilize all of this righteous indignation into a powerful mass movement,’ and even the mere threat of a march on Washington might so ‘frighten’ President Kennedy that he would send a meaningful civil rights bill to Congress.”

King’s articulation of his dream – that all men are created equal – was a triumph of imagination, an ideal that succeeded in strengthening and encouraging civil rights campaigners who daily confronted jail or death, making it a moral imperative by couching it in the language of the Declaration of Independence and of the Gospels. This language spanned the racial divide to inspire whites as well as blacks and isolate segregationists.

His speech was addressed directly to those who had come “fresh from narrow jail cells,” the “veterans of creative suffering.” He told them to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

The substance of King’s rhetoric, and what still resonates today, is the ideal of justice that mobilized the tremendous sacrifices involved in carrying out this campaign of civil disobedience in the most difficult conditions in 1963. The substance of Obama’s rhetoric, on the other hand, is support for the status quo. He seeks to undermine popular sovereignty by telling citizens to go about their business without protesting the authority of the executive to authorize NSA surveillance, the jailing of whistleblowers, and force-feeding foreign nationals imprisoned in Guantanamo.

King’s dream persists not because of the grandiose ceremonies last week, but because of the struggles of ordinary workers throughout the country for a living wage, and the struggle of Chicago teachers to defend the right to education. It lives in the actions of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and the growing popular resistance to the security state and military intervention in Syria. The ideal of justice is alive in the people, and that is why freedom will ring.

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Filed under African Americans, Bradley Manning, chicago teachers, Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, Martin Luther King, National Security Agency, Obama, political analysis

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.

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

“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

Keep America a beacon of hope on Independence Day: Fight for the Fourth Amendment

Just days after Obama (“I’m not going to scramble jets”) and incoming National Security Advisor Susan Rice downplayed the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations, a desperate behind-the-scenes manhunt to apprehend the whistleblower has led to a major crisis in relations with Latin America.

The forced diversion of Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane on suspicion that Snowden was aboard has rekindled resentment against the legacy of European and US colonialism, and an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations convenes today to discuss what diplomatic action can be taken. This is much more serious than the posturing of European leaders like Merkel.

The issue for Obama’s administration is not just the embarrassment Snowden might cause if he is able to reach Bolivia or Venezuela, whose people are sick and tired of US bullying and would no doubt give him a hero’s welcome, but that it needs to intimidate other potential whistleblowers by visibly extreme government sanctions.

There have been serious misgivings in Congress about the information Snowden released. 26 senators signed a letter to intelligence chiefs complaining that the administration is relying on secret interpretations of law to collect massive amounts of data on US citizens. “This and misleading statements by intelligence officials have prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making,” they wrote, demanding that director of intelligence James Clapper answer a series of specific questions on the scale of domestic surveillance.

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall also challenged the administration’s claim that internet surveillance was ended in 2011 as a result of “interagency review.” According to the New York Times, they said the program was abandoned “only after they repeatedly questioned its usefulness and criticized its impact on the privacy of American citizens.” Coming as close as possible to calling senior intelligence officials liars, they described the administration’s public statements about the scope of surveillance as “not always accurate.” “It is up to Congress, the courts and the public to ask the tough questions and press even experienced intelligence officials to back their assertions up with actual evidence,” they said.

Legal scholars Jennifer Granick and Christopher Sprigman commented on the government’s “criminal” evasion of statutory protections in a New York Times op-ed: “The Fourth Amendment obliges the government to demonstrate probable cause before conducting invasive surveillance. … The government has made a mockery of that protection by relying on select Supreme Court cases, decided before the era of the public Internet and cellphones, to argue that citizens have no expectation of privacy in either phone metadata or in e-mails or other private electronic messages that it stores with third parties. This hairsplitting is inimical to privacy and contrary to what at least five justices ruled just last year …”

The authors speculate that Snowden’s revelations have not enraged most Americans because they have been lulled by “the Obama administration’s claims that these ‘modest encroachments on privacy’ were approved by Congress and by federal judges,” and because Congressional leaders like Dianne Feinstein and liberal commentators have called the surveillance “legal.”

So far, there have not been widespread protests against the spying, although Obama’s approval has dropped, especially among the young, and a “Restore the Fourth” campaign in defense of the Fourth Amendment staged demonstrations in 100 cities throughout the US today. Mainstream media have focused on denouncing Snowden rather than on the substance of his leaks.

However, an article written in defense of the NSA by union organizer Louis Nayman throws some light on the thinking behind public acceptance of these claims. He writes: “From what we know, the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata on telephone and Internet records has been effective in keeping us safe. … the lack of attacks during the long stretch between 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings speaks for itself.” This kind of unconscious magical reasoning – “If I vote Republican, it will keep tigers away from my neighborhood.  There have been no tigers sighted recently, so voting Republican must be effective” – does give some insight as to why many Americans are not exercised about being spied on.

He has a more important argument when he goes on: “As people who believe in government, we cannot simply assume that officials are abusing their lawfully granted responsibility and authority to defend our people from violence and harm. … But the more the Left aids and abets the reactionary Right’s cynical critique of government, the more both sides make the case to replace collective mission and accountability with the free hand of the market.”

The problem here is that Nayman portrays government as an abstract principle, as an opposite to the principle of privatization. This is imposing a false binary on a complex situation.

Yes, we do need state institutions to enforce labor laws, health and safety laws, keep our lives and property safe from criminals, regulate traffic and dispense social security checks. We would like them to keep us safe from gun shooting deaths and offer universal health care, as well, but this is not happening. All of these functions, especially the courts, are arenas of political struggle, as any union organizer knows well. And that includes struggles over privatization.

The role of the military is another story. The executive branch is not using its power to keep Americans safe, but endangering them with a covert drone strike program which is creating thousands of potential suicide bombers daily. Author Fred Branfman told the Real News Network: “What we’ve got to understand is that the United States government is today failing to protect America and endangering national security because of its assassination strikes, both from the air with drones and on the ground with the first unit of American assassins in American history, called the Joint Special Operations Command … Let me just quote to you General McChrystal, our previous commander in Afghanistan. He says: ‘What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world.’ ‘The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one’.”

The US public has historically ignored foreign policy as long as they could improve their social situation and live the American dream. The executive branch has therefore been able to keep foreign wars as its fiefdom. But the Boston bombings demonstrated forcefully how the domestic and international functions of US policy intersect.

NSA spying is a technology that can – and has – been used against domestic dissent and against investigative journalists, intended to intimidate questioning of the dominant neoliberal ideology. And Obama is only telling half-truths when he says that your calls are not being overheard: they can be gathered digitally and listened to at some future date. So even if you are apolitical today, if tomorrow you decide to oppose government policies, the authorities can trawl through all your old phone calls and emails until they find something they can silence you with.

This is also the technology used to assess and judge assassination targets through signature strikes abroad. In These Times writer David Sirota points out: “That was the key discovery in NBC News correspondent Richard Engel’s report finding that ‘the CIA did not always know who it was targeting and killing in drone strikes’ approved by the president. Employing so-called ‘signature strikes,’ the president has been authorizing the assassination of people ‘based on their patterns of behavior’ according to Engel—that is, based simply on where a person ‘meets individuals, makes phone calls and sends emails’.”

Obama has continued and expanded the framework of a potential totalitarian government. But we are not today living in a police state. Investigative journalists going about their work and people fighting for their constitutional rights (no thanks to the supreme court) keep America a beacon of hope on Independence Day.

UPDATE: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have all offered Snowden asylum following the forced downing of Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane. Juan Cole, as ever, sums it up pithily: “Morales implied that the Europeans disrespected him because he is an indigenous Bolivian, and said they sought to humiliate his country after 500 years of looting it. They cannot, he said, because its people have gained a sense of sovereignty and dignity….  The US intelligence bright idea of telling Western European allies that Snowden was on the Bolivian jet has therefore backfired. France has hinted that the CIA misled Paris by not telling them it was Morales’s plane they wanted searched.”

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Edward Snowden: Will NSA spying revelations end the left’s uncritical support for Obama?

The Obama administration’s decision to charge Edward Snowden with treason marks a watershed moment for Democratic supporters. There are signs of a weakening of Obama’s hold on the left: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was booed from the floor by progressive activists at the Netroots Nation conference when she accused Snowden of breaking the law. One man shouted: “You suck!”

Far from encouraging public discussion of the balance between security and privacy, as he claims, Obama wants to suppress the leaks that informed the electorate, for the first time, about the extent of the National Security Agency’s monitoring of their phone calls and emails. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald has relentlessly disproved claims that there is effective legal oversight of this spying and has documented the legalistic sophistries employed to avoid statutory regulation.

Greenwald comments on alleged oversight: “There are some legal constraints governing [the NSA’s] power to examine the content of those communications, but there are no technical limits on the ability either of the agency or its analysts to do so. The fact that there is so little external oversight is what makes this sweeping, suspicion-less surveillance system so dangerous. It’s also what makes the assurances from government officials and their media allies so dubious.”

This has undercut Obama’s repeated assurance that the public has nothing to fear from being subject to extensive surveillance. In practice, the important decisions about whether or not to monitor the content of conversations are left to NSA analysts, the reports show, under blanket authorization from FISA judges. Greenwald writes: “What has been ‘harmed’ [by Snowden’s disclosures] is not the national security of the US but the ability of its political leaders to work against their own citizens and citizens around the world in the dark, with zero transparency or real accountability.”

Obama, the security agencies, and former Republican officials agree on the same talking points: mass surveillance follows the law and is overseen by the three branches of government. As well as claims for its alleged effectiveness in stopping terrorist attacks, this is simply propaganda intended to secure public support for spying. Even the New York Times was moved to comment editorially on Obama’s remark that the FISA court made internet monitoring “transparent.” “Perhaps the court is transparent to him and the intelligence agencies,” it wrote, “but it is utterly opaque to the public. All decisions by the court are top secret. The court has refused to release its interpretations of federal law, even in summary form, and without identifying details.”

Until Snowden’s revelations, most members of Congress had little idea about what was happening. Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez said after a classified briefing last Wednesday that she and other Congressional representatives were “astounded” by what they had learned. Lawmakers who sit on committees supposedly overseeing the security agencies are caught up in their conspiratorial mentality. Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post that at a public hearing on NSA spying, after praising security officials, legislators “yielded the floor for an hour so the officials could make statements about how responsible and restrained they’ve been. The congressional overseers of the intelligence agencies quite clearly are captivated by — if not captives of — the people they are supposed to be supervising … it’s a mystery why more lawmakers don’t question the intelligence officials’ just-trust-us assurances.”

Obama’s transformation from upholder of civil liberties to the commander-in-chief responsible for continuing and expanding state spying indicates how the intersection of the trajectory of the militarized US state with that of the Democratic party’s political elite has strengthened its sense of technocratic superiority over the uninformed public. Obama and the security agencies consider themselves perfectly justified in misleading the American people in the name of national security – in case they object when they find out.

Daniel Ellsberg believes Edward Snowden’s revelations to be far more important than the Pentagon Papers.  He says: “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. … what is not legitimate is to use a secrecy system to hide programs that are blatantly unconstitutional in their breadth and potential abuse. Neither the president nor Congress as a whole may by themselves revoke the fourth amendment – and that’s why what Snowden has revealed so far was secret from the American people.”

In a modern world, citizens are sucked into a web of consumer use of smartphones and the internet and the development of technologies to process information about their browsing activities. On the one hand, it has created and fulfills new needs; on the other, it provides the opportunity for digital surveillance. Undoubtedly, most Americans don’t want to think they are being spied on. But they believe they are safe if they are innocent, which is why there have not been large-scale demonstrations against the NSA’s activities. They believe they are still assured of their rights by the Constitution, and that the executive branch’s violation of the Constitution is justified by “national security.” The threat of “terrorism” has the effect of keeping citizens the passive recipients of safety provided by the state. Citizens are reduced to the role of consumers whose lives are totally monitored.

However, even some establishment commentators have their misgivings. Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson remarked: “It’s one thing if the NSA looks for patterns in the data that suggest a nascent overseas terrorist group or an imminent attack. It’s another thing altogether if the agency observes, say, patterns that suggest the birth of the next tea party or Occupy Wall Street movement.” Of course, Homeland Security agencies have already been active in suppressing Occupy Wall Street, in a politically-directed campaign which not only monitored phone calls and social media, but coordinated law enforcement and judicial agencies.

Greenwald has vociferously criticized Obama supporters who opposed Bush’s national security state but have now become the biggest proponents of NSA surveillance.  Political commentator Dana Milbank has noticed this as well: “progressive lawmakers and the liberal commentariat have been passive and acquiescent toward the secret spying programs, which would have infuriated the left had they been the work of a Republican administration. … There are a few Democrats who have upheld the party’s tradition of championing civil liberties — such as John Conyers (Mich.), who is introducing a bill with conservative Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) to curtail the program, and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation backed by eight senators requiring more disclosure of secret court rulings.But the Conyers bill is likely to go nowhere in the House, and Reid was cool to the Merkley proposal …”

The upshot is that Obama’s grip on the left has been weakened but not broken because mass political movements have not yet emerged. Although he is losing trust from the general public, delegates to the Netroots conference tended to blame the surveillance scandal as a legacy from the Bush administration. They are clinging to wishful thinking about Obama in order to avoid recognizing his responsibility for extending and legitimating the security state.

Obama was able to head off and then derail the social movement which mobilized to sweep Bush from office. But there are other movements in America today that won’t be diverted by his political rhetoric, like the campaign among the low-paid for a living wage. Conflict between these movements and government spying has the potential to undermine and divide the cohesion of the secret surveillance apparatus itself. Julian Assange warned that the US government will lose if it tries to take on the tech-savvy people now calling its actions into question. “Edward Snowden is one of us. Bradley Manning is one of us. They are young, technically minded people from the generation that Barack Obama betrayed,” he said.

And inevitably new whistleblowers will emerge: the Constitution is a potent ideal that vitalizes the fight for rights and freedoms.

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Filed under Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, low-waged, National Security Agency, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, We are the 99 percent