Real Democracy Promotion: Lord Acton and Tom Clancy vs John Yoo

05/29/2015 10:54 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

Lord Acton is famous for his insights on how power corrupts but he also figured out that "everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice." The creators of democratic forms of government throughout the ages, including America's Founding Fathers knew these things too so they tried to ensure governmental transparency, in part through constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

Sadly however, we've allowed our excessively secret government to take away almost all the privacy of ordinary citizens. As I wrote here a couple months ago, "when a powerful government like 'Top Secret America' enjoys maximum 'privacy' while private individuals are subjected to full transparency, it might be time to turn that boat around!" It will be telling if Congress can start the turn-around by allowing Section 215 of the Patriot Act to sunset, especially after a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously told them that the Bush and Obama Administrations' secret interpretation of this provision was and is completely illegal.

Until it gets righted, the topsy turvy situation that now exists is the antithesis of democracy. As Tom Clancy put it: "The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people."

Here just one example: it's supposed to be illegal to classify information evidencing illegality yet ironically, whistleblowers who disclose government illegality are the ones who are threatened with imprisonment and they don't even get a chance to explain any of this or their righteous motivation to a jury. Maybe poor Richard Nixon, with his theory of being above the law, just missed his time?!

This currently anti-democratic system can likely be traced to a couple of weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when a top secret memo was written by Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) Attorney John Yoo, (who would also write the "torture memo" a year later). The OLC memo stated, among other things: "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully. 'When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.'" This OLC opinion--see full article by retired Army Major Todd Pierce--claimed authority of the President as the Commander in Chief to use the military both inside and outside of the U.S., and was probably the authority for the National Security Agency's (NSA's) military operation within the U.S., spying on Americans.

In the years that followed, we learned, due to the courage of whistleblowers, culminating with the numerous documentary disclosures of Edward Snowden, that the NSA and other US intelligence agencies secretly implemented various massive data collection projects, vacuuming up trillions of pieces of info on people all over the world, in a counter-productive effort to achieve a kind of "Total Information Awareness."

With its omnipresent surveillance, the US Government also began aggressively targeting and prosecuting whistleblowers and other sources, putting renowned journalists and publishers worldwide, even mainstream media like Associated Press, directly or incidentally in their surveillance crosshairs.

For example, the U.S. case against WikiLeaks is widely believed to be the largest-ever investigation into a publisher. It is setting expansive new precedents about the ability of the U.S. government to prosecute any media publisher extraterritorially in Europe or the rest of the world. This, despite WikiLeaks and its sharing of information with the public constituting the answer to more ably detecting and thwarting terrorism, see "WikiLeaks and 9-11: What If?"

Even more recently, news reports have mounted about a closed parliamentary inquiry in Berlin learning of a secret NSA-BND (Germany's foreign intelligence agency) "spy pact" that has existed for more than a decade, with its operation veering out of control. According to German media reports, the BND used its biggest eavesdropping complex in Bavaria to monitor communications at the Elysée Palace, the office of the French president, the French foreign ministry, and the European Commission in Brussels and then passed on the information to the Americans. German MPs examining the surveillance activities of the NSA have found a legal loophole that allows the BND to spy on its own German citizens. These NSA-BND revelations came, significantly, after a BND employee was arrested in July on suspicion of selling secret documents to a CIA contact.

German intelligence is reported to have "drastically reduced its cooperation with the US National Security Agency in response to the growing fallout over their alleged joint surveillance of European officials and companies" pending the German investigation into the scandal. True to form, the U.S. is reported to have stopped sharing information with the Germans due to its anger over German media learning of the BND-NSA pact's scandalous activities spying on EU colleagues.

Thousands have already signed but we need tens of thousands more to quickly sign and share our Roots Action petition telling the U.S. and German Governments to end mass surveillance and due process-free killing by drones. Daniel Ellsberg, Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack, Norman Solomon and myself will present this petition, signatures and comments in Berlin on the final day of the June 1-7 Stand Up For Truth week of actions in support of whistleblowers.

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Ordinary people insisting that their basic human and civil rights be upheld and not sacrificed to pernicious secrecy, the "law of war" or a false sense of security constitute the best hope of reform. Join the various Stand Up for Truth events and webinars to send a message to armchair warmongers like John Yoo that our basic human and civil rights and our democracy itself must cease being sacrificed on the false altar of what is "needed to wage war successfully."