Tag Archives: glenn greenwald

Pulling Back the Curtain on Wizards, Plutocrats, and the Secret Police State

Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning’s appeal for a presidential pardon casts a spotlight on the role Obama himself had in Manning’s conviction. He was not a bystander in the process; as Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir pointed out, the military commander-in-chief had declared his certainty of Manning’s guilt before the trial had even begun.

The prosecution was closely guided by the government, which demanded a sentence of 60 years, or a lifetime in jail. The judge gave him 35 years, but even with remission he will be dishonorably discharged, losing pay and pension rights, so will presumably be condemned to a life of homelessness after release. Meanwhile those responsible for actual crimes and military atrocities remain at liberty.

David Coombs, Manning’s defense lawyer, told journalist Alexa O’Brien on Democracy Now that not only was the government’s unprecedented charge of aiding the enemy presented without supporting evidence, “in every other charging decision that they made, they pushed the envelope of, and even strained, any realistic reading of what the law is. … It was almost a win-at-all-costs mentality. … every day we had a group of people behind the prosecution, that just sat there. Occasionally they would pass notes to the trial counsel … clearly there were outside influences. … They never deviated from pushing the envelope.”

Does the punitive sentence justify Chris Hedges’ conclusion that “There are no institutional mechanisms left to halt the shredding of our most fundamental civil liberties … State power is to be, from now on, unchecked, unfettered and unregulated”? To assume the defeat of democracy is premature, although Hedges’ frustration at the apparent public docility over these STASI-like stratagems is understandable. It may be that, as Juan Cole says, “the government took us another step down the road to authoritarian government by convicting [Manning] on espionage charges, confusing leaking with spying for the enemy,” but this step hasn’t yet brought us to a police state. The real issue is, where are we on this road?

The detention of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, by the British government at Heathrow was intended to send a message of intimidation to the journalist and his publisher, but another message got sent instead. As Greenwald wrote: “every time the US and UK governments show their true character to the world – when they prevent the Bolivian President’s plane from flying safely home, when they threaten journalists with prosecution, when they engage in behavior like what they did today – all they do is helpfully underscore why it’s so dangerous to allow them to exercise vast, unchecked spying power in the dark.”

The Guardian added: “The detention of Mr Miranda subverts the benefit of the doubt that liberal democracies ask for when they arm themselves against terrorism.” While the White House distanced itself from the heavy-handed way British authorities acted, it did so because their ineptness makes it too clear that the security state does not exist to protect its citizens but to pursue the political agendas of its global masters.

In other words, the extreme nature of the security state’s reaction to Snowden and Manning’s revelations indicates its vulnerability to exposure. This would be unimportant if the public had already accepted the existence of unfettered state power, if its democratic spirit had already been crushed. The threat to state power comes from the possibility that increased scrutiny will lose it popular acceptance of its authority to govern.

Some argue that nation-states are being transformed into “globalized states that serve the interests of transnational capital above the interests of national populations.” A strengthening of the executive branch, in this view, corresponds to relatively autonomous elite rule, weakening the state’s connection with citizens “as the state follows capital into a new global economic system.”

However, there is a tension between this trend and the actual source of governmental legitimacy in popular sovereignty. To avoid major unrest, it is vital for a state to hide from its population how much of its independence has been sacrificed to international capital; in the case of the US, it means concealing the extent to which democratic rights have been superseded by strategic moves towards authoritarian rule. This may go some way to explain why Obama, elected on a platform of transparency, has been so active in defending state secrecy.

Yves Smith suggests that these moves have been exposed to the public before the plutocracy is ready to enforce them. “It isn’t just that the economic rights for ordinary workers and the social safety nets of the New Deal and the earlier labor movements here and abroad are being demolished. … ordinary people are increasingly aware of [the program], and the folks behind it didn’t want to be caught out at this delicate stage. Imagine if you were executing a coup and got exposed, before you had seized all the critical installations you needed to capture for your victory to be complete. The collective awareness of the degree of loss of economic and political rights we had all taken for granted has risen considerably as a result of the Snowden/ Greenwald/ Poitras revelations.”

Apart from domestic surveillance of its citizens, what else does the US government want to hide? Two secret agreements currently being negotiated are the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the US-EU “Free Trade” agreement. Just like the NSA, Congress has nominal oversight of the negotiations while in practice legislators cannot examine the details because the text is classified. Corporations, on the other hand, have participated in the drafting of the agreements.

According to economist Dean Baker, the deals are about securing regulatory gains for major corporate interests, enforcing patent and copyright protection across national borders which threaten to increase prices on specific items like patented drugs by a factor of thousands above the market price. He says: “The Obama administration is negotiating these pacts in secret. It has made almost nothing about the negotiating process public and has shared none of the proposed text with the relevant committees in Congress. … This is yet another case where the government is working for a tiny elite against the interests of the bulk of the population.”

The administration’s close identification with corporate rent-enforcing is confirmed by the political orientation of Obama’s top advisors. One of them, Jim Messina, the campaign manager of his 2012 reelection campaign and chairman of his ongoing grass-roots lobbying operation, has become a consultant to the reelection of the austerity-enforcing, anti-public sector and anti-immigrant party of British prime minister David Cameron.

Harold Meyerson commented that this ideological side-step “reflects an emerging set of political beliefs among some younger Democratic Party leaders who have grown close to Wall Street, Silicon Valley or both – as Messina did while bringing both big money and technological wizardry to Obama’s reelection campaign. This umpteenth iteration of the New Democrats believes in such socially liberal causes as gay marriage but is skeptical of unions and appalled at economic populism.”

The “technological wizardry” of Obama’s reelection campaign treated voters in the same way that Amazon or Google treats consumers – as data points in a spreadsheet to be manipulated. There is a convergence in outlook between the security state, the corporate elite, and leading corporate Democrats like Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Newark mayor Cory Booker, who defended Wall Street during the election controversy over Bain Capital’s plant closings.

But senators like Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, and Representative Justin Amash, who have fought to reveal the extent of state surveillance are leveraging a bipartisan popular mood of resistance that is increasingly in opposition to corporate Democrats – all of whose Congressional representatives voted against the Amash bill to defund the NSA. They reflect a Congressional leadership increasingly losing its trust in Obama’s credibility. They are catching up with the rest of us.


1 Comment

Filed under Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Obama, political analysis, Rahm Emanuel

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

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.

Leave a comment

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

Obama called to pay his political debts by the low-waged

Obama made a major speech at the National Defense University last Thursday, in which he stated that the United States cannot continue waging an endless global war on terror, and called on Congress to allow Guantanamo to be closed. “A perpetual war – through drones or special forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways,” he said.

Although the speech called for a return to American values and the rule of law, appearing to make concessions to liberal critics, Obama’s rhetoric repeated Bush’s claim of a just war of self-defense, and appeared to broaden the scope of drone strikes. It contained no commitment to any practical limits on executive power to target individuals for extra-judicial killing.

Glenn Greenwald explains in detail how the purpose of the speech “was to comfort progressives who are growing progressively more uncomfortable with his extreme secrecy, wars on press freedom, seemingly endless militarism and the like … to see Barack Obama as they have always wanted to see him, his policies notwithstanding: as a deeply thoughtful, moral, complex leader who is doing his level best, despite often insurmountable obstacles …”

Obama wants to retain the support of the liberal left while continuing the militarization of the state he inherited from Bush. Essentially, he was arguing for the rationalization of the legacy of Bush’s war on terror, by closing Guantanamo and bringing the detainees into the US justice system.

Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes commented: “It was an effort to align himself as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration’s operational flexibility. To put it crassly, the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has — but also to make sure that it could continue to do so.”

Whatever his original intentions, he has accepted and articulated the ideology of the security state. Washington Post correspondent Greg Sargent noted that “Obama defined his own role — that of commander in chief — as one that requires him to ultimately compromise core values and principles if he deems it necessary to maintain security. … ‘These decisions must be made, given my responsibility to protect the American people,’ he said — implicitly prioritizing security in the end above all as necessary to his role.”

Significantly, Obama was repeatedly challenged from the floor by CodePink activist Medea Benjamin, who called on him to use his presidential power to close Guantanamo immediately. She was eventually removed by security personnel while shouting several further questions, including: “Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? You are commander-in-chief. You can close Guantanamo today! You can release those 86 prisoners.” Clearly discomfited, Obama was applauded by a section of the audience when he said: “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to” (although he did nothing to prevent her being removed).

Benjamin told Democracy Now: “What you didn’t see [on the event’s video] is what was happening behind the scenes, of the Secret Service, the FBI, the people from the base coming over and saying, ‘You must come with us immediately, or you’ll be under arrest,’ and trying to grab me. And I was saying, ‘Don’t touch me. I’ll scream. You don’t want to make a scene in front of the president. You will regret this if you do it.’ And they were really confused about what to do.”

Their confusion reflected Obama’s reaction to being publicly challenged from the liberal left.  Increasingly, his failure to use his presidential power on behalf of the Democratic party’s traditional constituency is coming under fire from his frustrated supporters and he risks more vocal public opposition from the constituency that got him elected.

In the legislative branch, the government is hamstrung by the tea-party dominated Congress. But that doesn’t stop Obama from exercising executive privilege in favor of military control of global resources and enforcing government secrecy by prosecuting whistle-blowers and hackers. He uses the powers of his office to shield corporations and law enforcement, but appears paralyzed when it comes to altering the trajectory of the security state or assisting the struggles of the 99 percent.

The Washington Post recently pointed out: “Obama has been willing to push the bounds of executive power when it comes to making life-and-death decisions about drone strikes on suspected terrorists or instituting new greenhouse gas emission standards for cars. But at other times he has been skittish. When immigration activists first urged him to halt deportations of many illegal immigrants, for instance, Obama said he didn’t have the authority to do so. He eventually gave in after months of public protest and private pressure from immigrant and Hispanic advocates … Obama has forced changes in state-level education policy in a way past presidents have not. His Race to the Top program awarded billions of dollars in federal grants to select states that agreed to seek reforms based on administration standards.”

The marked contrast between Obama’s rhetoric and what he is prepared to use executive power for is straining his supporters’ credibility. After Thursday’s speech, Juan Cole commented: “He will continue to target journalists for intrusive surveillance until, he said, Congress passes a shield law (why can’t he just issue an executive order that journalists are not to be targeted)? … Obama could unilaterally put enormous pressure on Israel to change its policy of stealing Palestinian land and resources simply by declining to use his veto at the UN …”

Now the movement of the low-waged for a $15 minimum wage and an end to wage theft has intensified and is also making demands on the president they elected. Hundreds of non-union workers employed at the Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office and Ronald Reagan buildings and Union Station in Washington, DC, went on strike Tuesday to draw attention to their low pay, demanding that Obama take executive action to improve labor standards for workers who are employed by private companies to do jobs backed by public spending.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus had earlier pledged support for their campaign, after hearing that the federal government indirectly employs nearly 2 million “low-wage” workers, defined as those making less than $12 an hour or $24,000 a year. A study by the labor-funded think tank Demos concluded that the federal government employs more low-wage workers than Walmart and McDonalds combined.

A minimum wage is set by the Service Contract Act for workers employed by government contractors in certain low-wage positions, such as janitors, food service workers and security guards. But those who work in concession spaces leased in federal buildings or museums are not covered. At the hearing, advocates called on President Obama to issue an executive order raising the act’s minimums and expanding it to cover more workers.

However, In These Times reports DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton told workers at the hearing that Obama could change the system immediately by adjusting the point system used to award federal contracts, giving extra points to companies that pay better wages.

A convergence of Obama’s liberal critics and the movement of the low-waged, calling on him to honor his political debts, signifies that he cannot for long maintain his balancing act between the plutocracy for whom he acts and his social support. That means it will be harder for him to put a liberal face on the cuts in entitlements he proposes in order to strike a “grand bargain” with Republicans, creating a political space for concerted opposition to the plan from within the Democratic party itself; this in turn will legitimize other movements of resistance.

Leave a comment

Filed under African Americans, health care, low-waged, Obama, political analysis, poverty, US policy, Walmart, We are the 99 percent