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Bush, Obama and the National Surveillance State

Glenn Greenwald reacts to the recent episode of Democracy Now that featured an NSA whistleblower (William Binney) and two people who have been the victims of serious harassment from the government over their activism against the unconstitutional anti-terror measures from both the Bush and Obama administrations. And he recalls this quote from Sen. Frank Church, who chaired the famous Church committee hearings about the CIA and NSA in the 1970s:

“Th[e National Security Agency's] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. [If a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A.] could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.“

Church was an optimist, as it turns out. In fact, we do not need a dictator to bring such things about. Bush was not a dictator and neither is Obama; Bush left office when Obama was elected and Obama will do the same when his successor is elected, either in November or in 2016. But the National Surveillance State transcends the identity of our elected leaders even while it was built up and strengthened by both of them, giving themselves and future presidents ever more power to invade our privacy with no recourse at all, no check on that authority.

We love to tell ourselves that there are robust political freedoms and a thriving free political press in the U.S. because you’re allowed to have an MSNBC show or blog in order to proclaim every day how awesome and magnanimous the President of the United States is and how terrible his GOP political adversaries are — how brave, cutting and edgy! — or to go on Fox News and do the opposite. But people who are engaged in actual dissent, outside the tiny and narrow permissible boundaries of pom-pom waving for one of the two political parties — those who are focused on the truly significant acts which the government and its owners are doing in secret — are subjected to this type of intimidation, threats, surveillance, and climate of fear, all without a whiff of illegal conduct (as even The New York Times‘ most celebrated investigative reporter, James Risen, will tell you).

Whether a country is actually free is determined not by how well-rewarded its convention-affirming media elites are and how ignored its passive citizens are but by how it treats its dissidents, those posing authentic challenges to what the government does. The stories of the three Democracy Now guests — and so many others — provide that answer loudly and clearly.

Reacting to Binney’s claim that the NSA has collected some 20 trillion electronic transactions, Greenwald writes:

That sounds like a number so large as to be fantastical, but it’s entirely consistent with what The Washington Post, in its 2010 “Top Secret America” series, reported: “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.” Read that sentence again and I defy anyone to deny that the U.S. has become the type of full-fledged, limitless Surveillance State about which Sen. Church warned.

Note, too, how this weapon has been not just maintained, but — as Binney said — aggressively expanded under President Obama. Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowing has been, in large part, designed to shield from the American public any knowledge of just how invasive this Surveillance State has become. Two Obama-loyal Democratic Senators — Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado — have spent two full years warning that the Obama administration is “interpreting” its spying powers under the Patriot Act in ways so “twisted” and broad that it would shock the American public if it learned of what was being done, and have even been accusing the DOJ and Attorney General Holder of actively misleading the public in material ways about its spying powers (unlike brave whistleblowers who have risked their own interests to bring corruption and illegality to the public’s attention — Binney, Drake, Bradley Manning, etc — Wyden and Udall have failed to tell the public about this illegal spying (even though they could do so on the Senate floor and be immune from prosecution) because they apparently fear losing their precious seat on the Intelligence Committee, but what’s the point of having a seat on the Intelligence Committee if you render yourself completely impotent even when you learn of systematic surveillance lawbreaking?).

None of this should be surprising: Obama — in direct violation of his primary campaign pledge — infamously voted for the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that not only immunized lawbreaking telecoms, but also legalized much of the NSA domestic spying program Bush had ordered in the aftermath of 9/11. At the time, he and his acolytes insisted that Obama was doing so only so that he could win the election and then use his power to fix these spying abuses, yet another Obama-glorifying claim that has turned out to be laughable in its unreliability. The Obama administration also advocated for full-scale renewal of the Patriot Act last year, and it was Harry Reid who attacked Rand Paul for urging reforms to that law by accusing him of helping the Terrorists with his interference.

While there are still progressive interest groups that protest this massive and unconstitutional power grab — the ACLU, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Center for Constitutional Rights — the Democratic leadership, from Obama to Reid, Pelosi and Feinstein, have been absolutely complicit in the creation, maintenance and expansion of the National Surveillance State. And the Republicans have, predictably, been leading the way, from Bush to Boehner to David Addington. It has, as Greenwald has pointed out so many times, now a bipartisan consensus.

In ancient Rome, the early emperors were wise enough to keep the structure of the Senate in place even while stripping it of any real authority. By keeping the structure of the old republic in place, they could pretend that Rome was something other than a dictatorship. We now have something quite similar. We still go through the motions of holding elections, and there are genuine differences in policy on many important issues depending on which one is in power, but on the most foundational question of the limits of the government’s ability to surveil and detain us, they are in agreement. That is how freedom dies.

Comments

  1. theguy says

    “The early emperors were wise enough to keep the structure of the Senate in place even while stripping it of any real authority. By keeping the structure of the old republic in place, they could pretend that Rome was something other than a dictatorship.”

    The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local states in line. Fear of this NSA. – Tarkin (paraphrased)

  2. says

    But remember, vote Democrat because it would be SO MUCH WORSE if the Republicans win!

    We had an election in Alberta yesterday where the polls were telling us there was a very good chance a new far right party (essentially the Tea Party North) could form the next government. There was talk about voting strategically for the incumbent Progressive Conservatives because as bad as they are, they wouldn’t be as bad as the Wildrose.
    No. I would NOT vote for a party that had policies and did things I don’t like, even if it meant the alternative would be worse.

    Things are going to continue like this south of the border as long as the “BUT… REPUBLICANS!” boogeyman keeps people voting for Obama and the Democrats.

  3. says

    I think the argument that things could — would — be worse if a Republican wins the White House is absolutely correct. It would be worse, in many ways, but most especially in the judiciary. But I don’t think that fact compels anyone to vote for Obama.

  4. Stevarious says

    But I don’t think that fact compels anyone to vote for Obama.

    Really? I think it’s where a great many of his votes will come from.

  5. slc1 says

    It would certainly be nice if Mr. Greenwald would get as bent out of shape over the transgressions of Iran and Syria as he does over the transgressions of the US and Israel.

  6. corkscrew says

    Re slc1 @#6

    I expect he does, he just doesn’t bother to report on it because lots of people are already doing that.

    By comparison, very few people are reporting on the transgressions of the US government. This is a gap worth filling because:

    a) The US is a hell of a lot more powerful than Iran or Syria, so it is potentially a hell of a lot more scary.

    b) Unlike Iran or Syria, Westerners don’t tend to think of the US as being outright evil (“one of us” syndrome – also applies to Israel), so evidence to the contrary is more significant.

    c) The US is in a much better position to hassle Western reporters. Not all reporters can afford to be courageous in their reporting, so it makes sense for the ones who can to do so.

  7. paul says

    I think the argument that things could — would — be worse if a Republican wins the White House is absolutely correct. It would be worse, in many ways, but most especially in the judiciary. But I don’t think that fact compels anyone to vote for Obama.

    It’s the only reason I’ll be voting for him.

  8. says

    slc1 wrote:

    Apparently, Mr. Brayton has forgotten about his post of just yesterday about the relationship of Romney with Robert Bork.

    No I haven’t. I even have another post coming up about Romney and the Supreme Court. I think this is by far the best argument for keeping Romney, and any Republican, out of the White House. It is absolutely true, in my view, that a Republican in the White House would be worse than Obama, even as terrible as Obama has been in so many ways. But I don’t think that necessarily means that I, or anyone else, should vote for Obama. I think every person has to decide for themselves how to vote and there can be lots of different bases for that decision beyond that simple “this guy is better than that guy” reasoning.

  9. says

    slc1 wrote:
    It would certainly be nice if Mr. Greenwald would get as bent out of shape over the transgressions of Iran and Syria as he does over the transgressions of the US and Israel.

    If Iran and Syria’s transgressions were as severe, maybe he would.

    Neither Iran nor Syria have launched wars of aggression. Neither Iran nor Syria are engaging in drone wars and assassinations. Neither Iran nor Syria are displacing populations into camps and colonizing their land. Neither Iran nor Syria have trumped up excuses to invade other countries in which they are engaging in area bombing. Neither Iran nor Syria are publicly talking about forcing regime change on the US or Israel. Neither Iran not Syria are proliferators of nuclear weapons. The list goes on…

    Oh, and neither Iran nor Syria have crazed racist apologists like slc1 on this list publicly recommending that the US or Israel would benefit from a couple 15mt warheads being used on them. But Greenwald, rightly, doesn’t pay attention to douchenozzles like that.

  10. says

    BTW, the casualty rates in Syria are lower than they are in Afghanistan or Iraq. They’re just being reported as a more important humanitarian disaster because, uh, fuck the Afghans.

  11. slc1 says

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #12

    Mr. Ranum is seriously in error.

    1. Iran is carrying out a war of aggression against Israel via its puppets in Hizbollah and Hamas, assisted by its pals in Syria.

    2. Iran has threatened to remove Israel from the face of the earth. I haven’t noted that either the US or Israel has threatened to remove Iran from the face of the earth.

    3. The casualty rates in Syria are lower then in Iraq and Afghanistan because they lack the firepower of the US. If they had that kind of firepower, the casualty rates would be much higher (they would have killed everybody in Homs by this time).

    4. There are thousands of refugees from Syria in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The only reason why there aren’t any, so far, in the Golan Highths is because the cease fire line there is heavily mined on both sides.

  12. eigenperson says

    I think the reason the national surveillance state exists is that the public does not give a shit. Go out on the street and see how many people you can get to even care.

  13. Infophile says

    @14 slc1:

    2. Iran has threatened to remove Israel from the face of the earth. I haven’t noted that either the US or Israel has threatened to remove Iran from the face of the earth.

    No one with power in Iran seriously thinks it’s a good idea now – or likely at any time in the future – to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Of course, there are nutjobs there that say they should do that, but if your argument is that because nutjobs in one country think another country should be nuked, then…

    Wait, who was it who was saying that there was nothing wrong with Iran that a few 15 megaton bombs couldn’t solve? And where do you live again? Tch. Damn… there goes another country.

  14. Ichthyic says

    Harry Reid who attacked Rand Paul for urging reforms to that law by accusing him of helping the Terrorists with his interference.

    I no longer have a duck in this hunt, but will remember this the next time someone claims the demos don’t utilize the fear tactics typically ascribed to the right.

    I mean, seriously, “If you aren’t with us, you’re with the terrorists!”

    really??

    fuck me, that’s idiotic even for Reid.

    It’s much worse there than even I expected it would get when I decided to become an EX-patriot.

    I’m biting my nails for your future.

  15. Ichthyic says

    I haven’t noted that either the US or Israel has threatened to remove Iran from the face of the earth.

    Then you don’t live in Israel.

  16. F says

    Here’s the earliest version I could find. For people who like to complain about what the subject of an article should have been.

    Welcome to 1979 and the Eighties, jingoistic warmongers.

  17. slc1 says

    Re Infofile @ #16 & Ichthyic @ #18

    I don’t live in Israel, I have never been to Israel, and I have no plans to visit Israel.

  18. KG says

    It’s truly amazing how the genocidal maniac slc1 manages to turn so many threads into a discussion of his own obsessions.

    In the UK we have very similar issues to those Ed describes. The previous New Labour government put through a range of measures for increasing the legal scope of surveillance and decreasing civil liberties, including imprisonment of terrorist suspects without trial, and new powers for the police to stop and search people without reasonable suspicion (sold, of course as an anti-terrorist measure; used, of course, to search young black men in large numbers), and the Orwellian “Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act”, which extended (rather than curtaile,d as “Regulation” of powers suggests) powers of electronic surveillance to a remarkably wide range of public bodies. It also signed a ludicrously one-sided extradition agreement with the USA, under which the flimsiest connection of alleged criminal activity with the USA (e.g., incidental use of a US-based server) is sufficient to get British citizens extradited without any evidential requirements.

    Further plans included introducing identity cards (these existed in the UK during and for a short time after WWII, but were abolished and are generally regarded as oppressive), extending the national DNA database so anyone ever arrested would be on it permanently, and most important, an integrated government database of information on all residents. Both the parties now forming the coalition denounced these further measures; the coalition has done nothing positive apart from scrapping identity card plans, and is now intent on introducing a new version of the integrated database, in the thin disguise of a measure to make it easier for citizens to interact with public agencies online, and is also pressing for passenger details of all flights within Europe to be retained.

  19. says

    You can’t elect someone to dismantle the empire from the top, that hard work must be done from the ground up.

    No matter what Obama’s intentions upon entering office, no matter what he promised on the campaign trail, I think it’s naive to believe that there is much Obama could do about it if he wished. Prosecute the Bush administration? Political suicide, not just for him but his entire party. Shut down the surveillance state? Theoretically he could, but I’m sure that there would be an immediate reaction from the entrenched bureaucracy, and of course FOX News would paint him as a traitor who let our national guard down.

    I’m not trying to excuse the Pres, I wish he were doing better not worse, but I think there are political and structural realities that would prevent him from waving a magic wand and ending the empire even if he wanted to.

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