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Kabir Helminski Headshot

What's at Stake With the Surveillance State

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There's a fable that has been told for at least seven centuries: A man is seen taking refuge in a dark alley, breathless and frightened. He bumps into another person and says "Shhhhhh."

"What are you afraid of, my friend?"

"Oh, haven't you heard? The police are out to arrest all donkeys."

"But what are you afraid of? You're not a donkey!"

"Well I know that, and you know that, but do they know that?"

Remember when we were young, and the Constitution was explained to us, how our founding fathers created the first form of government that could reasonably protect human beings from tyranny? How noble these principles seemed. How secure we felt, believing that our government was designed to make tyranny impossible. We were the land of the free, the home of the brave.

In the current debate about NSA leaks and the existence of a massive surveillance apparatus, few politicians today are willing to stand on the principle that there are fundamental rights that must absolutely be protected. But perhaps the most shocking realization is how they are willing to sell our rights on the cheap.

The threat of terrorism has been used step by step since 9/11 to dismantle the edifice of constitutional government. The threat of terrorism is one of the oldest tricks in the book to convince people to give up their freedom and accept a police state. Too many people are willing to hand over every bit of information about ourselves, our beliefs and values, our doubts, questions, and critiques of our government to powers we neither understand nor question.

The mindlessness of America today is more terrifying than terrorism itself. Why is it so easy to convince the average American (who probably could not locate Yemen on a map) to go along with the idea that dropping bombs on mud-brick homes in the poorest parts of the world is necessary to protect America? Imagine Iran sending drones to blow up shacks in backwoods Alabama based on evidence that the people there are armed and anti-Iranian!

We think that intelligent people are in charge, all evidence to the contrary. War profiteers are in charge, a marriage of big government and corporate power. Never mind that they've bankrupted the country with pointless wars, or that the financial fraud that wrecked the economy goes unpunished. And too many Americans say, do whatever you want; just protect us from the terror-bogies.

You have to look pretty hard to find evidence of intelligence among our pundits and leaders. For instance, when Fareed Zakaria had a chance to interview former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden and was told that the NSA was only receiving metadata from Verizon, Google, etc., why didn't he ask about the 1,000,000 square foot facility being built in Utah to house the computers of the surveillance state?

William Binney, who Wired magazine describes as a "crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency's worldwide eavesdropping network," left the NSA in 2001 because he felt the wiretapping by the NSA violated the Constitution. 2001! It has been more than a year since Binney shared his alarming conclusion about our current situation in a Wired article: "...he held his thumb and forefinger close together. 'We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state.'"

It is well known by now that emails, web searches, and phone calls are being recorded and will be available in the future for whatever uses various unknown and unsupervised agencies shall determine. The rationale is that we need this surveillance to protect us from another potential 9/11-type threat. Never mind that in the months preceding 9/11 our own government received various alerts and warnings from a number of foreign intelligence services and never acted on them; we now need to know everything about everyone to protect us.

Furthermore, in a time of financial austerity there are no limits to what we're willing to spend on the secret security state; its known budget is at least $75,000,000,000, much of it subcontracted to private companies. A massive industry of surveillance that no one voted for is now normalized. The United States Intelligence Community, comprised of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and 16 other intelligence entities, now have all the tools they need to potentially enslave us. Having seen how President Obama has used this power is not reassuring; imagine the extent of the surveillance powers now available and the possibilities of their use in the future.

Recently one news commentator expressed concern about the 1.4 million people with top-secret security clearance, any one of whom might be in a position to leak information. He seemed to be unaware of the irony that there are more than a million people who require top-secret clearance.

Our Constitution was designed to protect people from government. According to the best American principles, the people are presumed innocent and government by its very nature is to be vigilantly monitored. Citizens have a right to privacy; good government, as a matter of principle, requires transparency. Today the situation is totally inverted: our private lives are being observed from the shadows and the actions of our government are more concealed than ever.

Let's consider a hypothetical situation. Imagined that, for whatever reasons, the United States were one day to be guilty of gross violations of international law, as well as illegal domestic activities. What would happen to the free debate within American Society, knowing that patriotic critics and whistleblowers could be branded as dissenters or even terrorists, subject to legal harassment or worse, indefinite detention without charge as the NDAA now allows? What odds should we give for the survival of our Republic as we have known it?

How strange that Democrats who strongly objected to Bush's warrantless wire-tapping have so little criticism of this administration and it's justification of the national security state. Recently, the NSA has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar and it reassures us that it is not planning to eat the cookie. The cookie, in this case, is our privacy, our freedom of thought, the Constitution, and, thus, finally, the Republic. That's quite a cookie to pinch.

All in all, what will be left of our democracy if people, including whistleblowers, opinion-makers, and private citizens, are no longer free to engage in a real debate and question our government's activities on the basis of legitimate American values, values which have been a shining light in the dark history of political tyrannies.

More terrifying than terrorism is the power that operates without accountability, that is funded by no vote of Congress or the people, that does not respect our Constitutional rights, that appropriates more and more power to itself, and that routinely feels justified in lying to us.

As for those who defend the status quo of the burgeoning security state, murky as it is, all of us and generations to come will be the victims of this machine if we don't make it accountable to the people it is supposedly protecting.

But there is still time to wake up the American people and raise important questions about the massive national security state that has grown exponentially since World War II. And you who are part of this machine, can't we find better uses for your intelligence? Senators Wyden, Sanders, Udall, Leahy, and Paul, and Congressmen, please, raise a debate on Civil Liberties, show America what will be lost if we continue in the direction we're going.