The National Security Agency's data mining and domestic spying program that the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald has exposed should concern anyone who cares about our Fourth Amendment privacy rights. The revelations of government spying that Greenwald's source, the former CIA employee Edward Snowden, leaked deserve to be seriously evaluated and put in their historical context.
Edward Snowden was apparently careful not to leak anything that would get someone hurt or killed and he took care to reach out to respected journalists from well-known publications to vet the materials. "If you realize that's the world you helped create," he told Greenwald, "and it is going to get worse with the next generation and next generation and extend the capabilities of this architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risks and it doesn't matter what the outcome is." President Barack Obama's team seems to pride itself for looking at the long term and playing the "long game" (we've heard that cliché for years). But Obama's decision to pursue the Bush-era policies of domestic surveillance shows he's far less capable than Snowden of seeing what his actions could portend for the future.
The WikiLeaks case is instructive. The mainstream press generally focused on WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, picking apart his private life, his motives for leaking, and the legal wrangling over whether he could be prosecuted. Lost in the din was the substance of the information that was leaked pertaining to the shocking misconduct in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Edward Snowden we're seeing a similar news frame develop that seeks to obscure the more damaging revelations.
The mainstream press and cable news shows have already directed a lot of their reportage around the question: "Is Snowden a hero or a traitor?" This device serves multiple purposes. It shifts the story from the NSA's domestic spying program and its potential effects on law-abiding citizens to Edward Snowden himself. These kinds of stories make the leaker the issue instead of what has been leaked and sidestep the Fourth Amendment implications. Pundits have begun blowing smoke around the core issue by hyperventilating on side matters like the possibility of prosecuting Snowden, the problem of "over-classifying" documents, and the many arcane legal maneuvers associated with extraditing someone from Hong Kong for criminal prosecution.
Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker calls Snowden "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison." Politico offered ten reasons why we shouldn't like Snowden, including that he "wasn't a friendly neighbor" and you can't find him on Facebook. James Woolsey, George W. Bush's intel guy who never met a war he didn't love, said on the Piers Morgan Show on CNN that Snowden should "spend the rest of his life in prison." Director of National Intelligence James Clapper serves up the old boilerplate that any leak of government secrecy imperils our safety. There are even calls for giving Snowden the death penalty. These talking points take us back to the era of the Bush Administration's color-coded threat warning system.
We hear pundits tell us that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) provides an adequate "check" on the NSA's data mining and domestic spying. But any panel of 15 judges that squashes so few requests for wiretap warrants is clearly not providing diligent oversight. Obama Administration talking points tell us that the government can't spy on Americans without first getting a "warrant" from the FISA court. But the FISA court has become a rubber stamp for just about anything the NSA wants to do. And, ironically, many of those who are now pointing to the court for our salvation are more often than not closer on the ideological scale to the right-wingers in the late-1970s who opposed the establishment of the FISA court in the first place.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have failed in their charge to act as checks on arbitrary secret power. The members of these Congressional committees, (like the FISA judges), are people who are embedded in the "intelligence community" to the point of being indistinguishable from the agencies they're supposed to be "overseeing." Many of them (given the astronomical increase in tax dollars going to private "security" contractors) are more concerned with winning contracts for the companies they plan to work for when they leave office, or for those that have financed their campaigns, than they are concerned with the privacy rights of American citizens. The intelligence committees are also stacked with true believers in the Patriot Act and its many spin-offs. To top it off they are sworn to secrecy and required by law not to share their classified information with the public. Somewhere languishes a 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report that might shed light on some of these programs, but of course it's classified and even in redacted form cannot be shown to us Plebeians.
Back in 2002, President George W. Bush placed the disgraced Iran-Contra figure, John Poindexter, in charge of a NSA program they called "Total Information Awareness" (TIA). Its logo even included an all-seeing eye signifying an omniscient government. The NSA's "PRISM" program and others like it look a lot like "Total Information Awareness" but under a new brand. The public outrage was so great that Bush backtracked on TIA and Poindexter was out of a job. Now we know that the program has not only continued but expanded under the Obama Administration.
Ever since the Republican Party blistered President Harry Truman for "losing" China, subsequent Democratic presidents have overcompensated in trying to prove themselves on national security issues fearing political attacks from the Republican Right. Today, a Democratic president has acquired the power to kill American citizens (and anybody else) with drones, has prosecuted more whistle blowers than any administration, and apparently manages a vast unchecked data mining apparatus that works in the dark.
It's pretty easy given our history to see that this kind of surveillance capability, at some point, will be used politically (if it isn't already). All of the abuses of COINTELPRO in the 1960s, and those that the Church Committee unearthed in the 1970s, should lead us to tread carefully in handing over to the NSA this god-like power over our modern lives as mediated through computers. Secrecy was often used then not to protect the American people, but to ensure that the identities of the political actors who were responsible for the abuses remained hidden.
It's fitting that Edward Snowden's last job was with Booz Allen Hamilton, the company that represents some of the worst aspects of the privatized government fetishized during the Bush-Cheney years. Corporations have become the spine of the intelligence "community." They have the highest security clearances and an army of lawyers; they scoop up lucrative government contracts, lobby Congress, and contribute to campaigns. As we move through the first decades of the 21st century, the last thing this country needs is a constellation of private corporations fused with the national security state.
What if a hyper-partisan who works in management of one of these companies wants to use the data to help his or her party's candidates win elections? What if this data is used to slime innocent people barring them from government employment like was done during the McCarthy era? What if a technology worker with one of these companies wants to spy on his ex-wife? Where are the checks against the arbitrary use of this data? In 2008 it was exposed that guys at the NSA were tapping into soldiers' communications with their wives for no other reason than their own prurient pleasure.
And where are all those rich and powerful right-wing libertarians? We've heard a lot of hype about how the Affordable Care Act and gun control are signs that the federal government is out to strip us of our Constitutionally protected freedoms. But when wholesale government spying on innocent American citizens is exposed many of these same voices turn into national security hawks and call for throwing the book at the people who are blowing the whistles.
Some pundits have implied that since people learned about the NSA's data mining program in 2006 we should greet the new revelations with a collective yawn. But one of the biggest stories here is that the "liberal" Democratic Obama Administration has decided to continue the Bush-era program rather than rein it in and has even expanded it. Obama's decision to continue with the Bush-era "Total Information Awareness" scheme has normalized warrantless domestic spying. The courts and the Congress should have stopped them in their tracks these brazen violations of the Constitutional protections against the government invading our privacy. If the NSA domestic spying activities are "legal" then let the government prove it in open court.
Our political leaders and courts are clearly incapable of providing the needed "check" on the inevitable abuses that will occur when the government chooses to keep a domestic spying behemoth behind a veil of state secrecy. It's up to the people to force the politicians to reform this system and without the leaks and courageous insiders willing to become leakers the people are kept in the dark.