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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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