THE BLOG

The Quiet Coup: No, Not Egypt. Here.

07/09/2013 06:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2013
  • John Tirman Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies

When is a coup d'etat a coup d'etat? A silly debate about the Egyptian military's complete undoing of the state (presidency, constitution, etc.) is grabbing some attention, mainly because those who applaud the military takeover don't want to describe it accurately. But it nonetheless is an interesting question. And it has resonance not just in the beleaguered Middle East. It has high relevance, sadly, to our own battered republic.

The revelations about spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) on American citizens, foreign governments, and just about everyone in between have been aptly treated as a scandal, although the objects of scorn vary. Edward Snowden, the whistleblower or traitor, depending on your predilections, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian to whomSnowden revealed most of his information, have shaken the complacent status quo in Washington by revealing the massive, years-long programs to gather data in the name of national security. It's very doubtful that such spying is necessary to protect U.S. security, but that's a topic for another day. So is the media attention to the actions of Snowden and Greenwald (which I believe are brave and necessary).

What is vastly more important is how the spying has been conducted and justified. It comprises nothing less than a coup d'etat.

It's not the kind of coup we are accustomed to, where the CIA prompts thugs to murder a democratically elected president (Chile, 1973), or oust a democratically elected prime minister for challenging oil interests (Iran, 1953) or other U.S. corporate interests (Guatemala, 1954), or gives the green light to a military for security interests (Turkey, 1980; Egypt, 2013?). The generals aren't marching into the presidential palace; the president doesn't have an airplane waiting to fly him to exile in the south of France. No, this coup d'etat has been accomplished by an accretion of power unchecked by any institutions that are empowered by the Constitution. It is not just a coup d'etat (a "blow to the state"), but a blow to the tradition and authority of constitutional government, the sine qua non of the American political experience.

How so? The revelations and subsequent reporting, what press critic Jay Rosen calls the "Snowden Effect," expose a parallel state, one dedicated to massive surveillance and covert operations, with an untouchable judicial structure that approves the spying. Enabled by the USA Patriot Act that President George W. Bush pushed through Congress in the shadow of 9/11, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court operates by its own rules and procedures, ones not subject to anything resembling constitutionality. The Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment, citizen petitioning -- none of what we have taken for granted as comprising the legal, national state has the power to stop it.

Snowden's and the others' revelations should not be completely surprising, given the work of Dana Priest and William Arkin in their 2011 book, Top Secret America. Many of the most shocking bits were excerpted in the Washington Post, where Priest is a reporter. They uncovered a vast, opaque security bureaucracy, extremely inefficient but aggressively intrusive. "The federal-state-corporate partnership has produced a vast domestic intelligence apparatus that collects, stores, and analyzes information about tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing," they wrote. It involved, they calculated, nearly 4,000 organizations in the United States, "each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions."

So we have had now for at least a dozen years the growth of a parallel state that operates by its own rules, in secret, and in ways that would be considered unconstitutional. (I know we needn't remind our readers of what the Fourth Amendment guarantees, but just to refresh your memories: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.") Again, what's important here is not the mere incidence of the government violating the Constitution, but the creation, nurturing, shielding, and rapid growth of structures that institutionalize an alternative authority, set of rules, and permissible action.

When, years ago, I was researching a book on Turkey, then under the sway of its military, observers would often speak darkly of "the deep state" -- those hidden, powerful, extralegal agencies and cadres that would act on their own authority. Other countries would have them too, usually enabled by police ministries or intelligence agencies. Dissidents, out-of-line newspaper editors, priests and nuns speaking truth to power, union organizers -- these types would come under the scrutiny and often the harsh reprisals of the deep state.

Now we know: the United States of America is partially governed by a deep state, undemocratic, secret, aligned with intelligence agencies, spying on friend and foe, lawless in almost every respect.

If this doesn't constitute a coup d'etat, it's hard to imagine what would. People we barely know of -- the director of NSA, the eleven judges on FISC, who knows who else -- are running the deep state. The actual president seems just fine with everything it's doing, or is so weak-kneed he can't see fit to put an end to it. I'm not sure which is worse.

We have known for many years that corporate money in politics had essentially bought Congress at the expense of the middle class, the environment, and other popular causes. The Israel Lobby owns U.S. policy in the Middle East. Other lobbies -- Big Pharma, military contractors, agribusiness -- have corrupted policy for profiteering through campaign spending and other old tricks of the Washington trade. But the deep state is a different phenomenon -- less about money or corporate privilege, far more about a security pathology that has become embedded, empowered, and rogue, constitutional governance be damned. The seduction of policymakers by corporate money is sad. The psychotic, parallel state is terrifying.