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.”