06/14/2013 08:18 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

Spy America and Its Willing Victims

The latest exposure of the Obama administration's cavalier violation of Americans' civil liberties underscores the audacious challenge that confronts us. That audacity is matched by our leaders' pattern of deceit and dishonesty. The nation has been repeatedly lied to by high officials who do not show a decent respect for the rights and opinions of the citizenry. President Obama's declaration that he "welcomed a debate ...a conversation" on matters that he has moved heaven and earth to keep out of public view - and whose public discussion he has rejected on grounds of overriding national security concerns - is the latest case in point.

At almost the same moment, National Intelligence Director General James R. Clapper was before the Senate Intelligence Committee denouncing with vehemence the revealing of the NSA programs whose mere exposure, he argued, would "cause irreversible harm to national security." Earlier, in March, Clapper had committed perjury before the committee in lying outright that "there was no program to collect information on American citizens."*

The Congressional chorus meanwhile stressed that, anyway, everybody had assumed these activities were going on for years. Logically, if that everyone includes any sentient conspirator, then the practical effect on Americans' security should be zero. Still, Senator Dianne Feinstein - chair of the Intelligence Committee - pronounced the leak "an act of treason" - which, under the law, warrants the death penalty. So did most other solons.

So, we now find ourselves shorn of habeas corpus rights (as stipulated in the National Defense Authorization Act - 2012), liable to assassination by the arbitrary judgment of anonymous officials, the prerogative of journalists to speak with office-holders without explicit prior approval from higher authority branded a criminal activity by the Attorney General, all of our correspondence seized and open to surveillance by intelligence agencies, and legal appeals to test these actions in the courts blocked by specious claims of executive privilege.

This stunning jettisoning of principles and practices we thought ingrained in our political culture, as much as they were hallowed in our Constitution, has met with either approval or acquiescence by overwhelming majority of the political class. That reaction is as serious an indictment of our democracy as is the egregious behavior itself. How did we come to this pass? Unless we answer that question, the cause of resistance is lost since it is crystal clear that we no longer can rely on our instincts to protect and defend American liberties.

Explanations, as best one can discern them, fall into three categories: the political, the structural and the psychological (individual and collective). Politically, enabling conditions along with incentives to infringe on freedoms stem in good part from 9/11. It provoked an hysterical reaction. We lost our bearings, our sense of proportion and our self-confidence. We have yet to regain them. This disorientation opened the way for cynical leaders, first in the Bush administration and now in the Obama administration, to play on feelings of fear and dread to cement their power. They carved out a sacred reserved space insulated from legitimate criticism that allowed them to do pretty much what they wanted - to abuse that power and/or to fail at doing their proper job without being held accountable. In addition, the Bush people in particular used the political capital generated to advance other agendas abroad and at home. Integral to this strategy has been the calculated stoking of emotions by painting in the direst colors a supposed terrorist threat that has been a convenient fiction for them.

Structurally, the United States has experienced the development of a terrorism industry of enormous dimensions. It embraces vast intelligence and police bureaucracies, consumes roughly $100 billion annually, employees millions, enriches dubious business enterprises by tens of billions of dollars, and has established intellectual colonies in think tanks, foundations and universities with vested professional interests in maintaining the climate of threat and fear. So vast is the enterprise that more than 1 million people have been given Top Secret security classifications. The largest share of these monies are spent by the National Security Agency's high-tech operations conducted by the Agency, private consultants and business contractors. It costs a lot to sweep up electronically several billion messages a day. It costs even more to presume to catalogue them so that they may serve some functional purpose.

It is in the domain of psychology that we hit the core of the matter. For we are not dealing with a cool-headed government managed by reasonable people following logical courses of action. There is more emotion than mind at work in setting goals, designing the systems and confecting the justifications. As a necessary prelude to probing this psychology (or, more accurately, psychologies), it is imperative to get straight a few fundamental, objective facts.

The United States has not faced a danger to its territorial integrity, political integrity, economic well-being or safety of its citizenry at large from forces abroad - nor from seditious forces at home. The country is more secure that it has been at any time for more than a century. The shock of 9/11 has sown fear because of its drama and the exposure of vulnerability. But, in truth, al-Qaida got lucky - some of that luck having to do with American intelligence agencies falling down on the job. Al-Qaida never had the capability to even try a repeat, and since being uprooted from its Afghanistan base in 2001 classic al-Qaida has been degraded to little more than a network of small rootless groups who have been unable to mount anything of major consequence. A few amateurish attempts to bring down airplanes does not amount to more than an international police cum intelligence problem. It does not require the response noted above by any stretch of the imagination. We have in fact been victimized by our own unnatural fears fanned by political leaders and professional scaremongers. In simple English, a scam of historic proportions.

A second harsh truth is that the United States' high-tech intelligence/security apparatus is not effective - when measured against results. Most of their product has zero utility. Much of it is flawed. Some of it is counter-productive. There has not been a single significant operation, however minor, that terrorists' have planned to commit on American soil that was prevented or pre-empted by the kinds of massive information gathering indulged in by the NSA or by all the low-grade snooping conducted by local police forces. If there had been any, we surely would have known about it as government leaders have seized every occasion to trumpet the news of how brilliantly they have done their job in protecting Americans. Yes, supporters of the administration have promoted the (could-be subway bomber) Zazi case as such an instance. That proved to be factually incorrect, though. We now are promised by NSA Director General Keith B. Alexander that he'll come up with a few dozen success stories in due course. "O.K. team, get cracking. Hit the archives, dredge your memories, whatever - but make sure you come up with something." This is not earnest and honest address to the public; this is an audition for Saturday Night Live.

More important, the main issue is not court order surveillance of a targeted person suspected of criminal action. It is a mindless dragnet lacking explicit targets or purpose. It frankly is absurd for our national police to be collecting on a daily basis millions of messages sent by citizens ordering pizzas or chatting about last night's ballgame on the off chance that some ultra-sophisticated computer program thereby will turn up signs of a terrorist plot. It hasn't happened, and it likely never will - for reasons that should be obvious.

Abroad, the record is just as devoid of accomplishment - and, there, the United States has suffered greatly from the ineptitude of the CIA and its Pentagon counterparts. Let us recall Raymond Davis, the borderline psychopath, who on contract from Blackwater was given a delicate mission in Lahore which he turned into a diplomatic disaster whose damage is still being felt. His technical incompetence was an embarrassing as his emotional instability. Then there is the CIA undercover operative in Moscow who was caught with a blond wig, a tourist map of the city, and a boy scout compass. Ryan Fogle's easy exposure by the Kremlin did not help to reset Washington's dealings with Putin. Then there was Benghazi. The politically motivated crude lies of the White House are not the story; rather, it is the failed mission of the CIA to establish a spy base to track newly minted Libyan jihadist groups and to monitor their trafficking in ex-Ghadaffi armaments. They were outmaneuvered by one of those groups, Ansar al-Sharia, which inflicted a costly and humiliating political defeat on them. Once is a happenstance; twice is a coincidence; three times is a flawed organization. This is not to say that the CIA is lacking entirely in operational capability; it did well in Afghanistan in phase I back in late 2001. It does mean that it lacks judgment, discipline and leadership. It also is extremely cost ineffective. It and other intelligence bodies have been deformed by the post-9/11 mania.

A word about the killing of Osama bin-Laden. The CIA, the White House, the entire terrorism industry has squeezed enormous mileage out of this success - with the assist of Hollywood and a gullible public that probably also views John Wayne films as documentaries on the Old West. The official story of implacable CIA agents relentlessly following circuitous paths for ten years that led inexorably to the house in Abbottabad is a fable. For most of that period, we had no idea where he was - despite our massive, expensive technology grounded intelligence apparatus. The critical tip came from the Pakistanis who also were responsible for identifying and capturing every other senior al-Qaida leader in the region. What of the supposed skill in conducting the end-game? Think of this: it took more than a year for the CIA just to confirm that someone important was lodged in the house - and still the CIA wasn't sure it was OBL. This despite the absence of any serious impedance on the ground to its spying, the house's upper floors being visible from the street, almost the entire compound being visible from neighbors' houses. Let's remember that the house's residents had to bring in food, to dispose of trash, to pay utility bills, etc.

Who I am to pass judgment on the CIA's performance? What do I know about surveillance techniques? Very little. But I have spent portions of 30 years in another Islamic country, Tunisia, that bears certain similarities to Pakistan. One can manage quite easily in a European language, elites are accessible, locals pay you little regard. How long would it have taken me to confirm that a party of note was living in a similar house in a similar neighborhood in a similar town? Relying on my own resources, with no access to close to half a trillion dollars worth of accumulated data banks? 2 weeks - with time at the beach. Tapping friends and contacts? 2 days. If I were part of a task force numbering in the scores, attending meetings in Tunis, Naples, Stuttgart (Africa Command headquarters), Langley, and scouring voluminous printouts from the Fort Meade data banks - well, a year sounds about right. And I assuredly would have known that OBL was not surrounded by a corps of fanatical al-Qaida commandos that called for an assault by 23 SEALS. There wasn't even space for them in the modest house.

The truth is that the CIA had no human assets in Pakistan worth anything even after flooding the region with literally thousands of American agents over ten years - and their expensive technology didn't compensate.

Let's return to the NSA. Massive spying on American citizens does not pass the test of utility. Does it, though, violate civil liberties? Our leaders from the President on down vehemently deny that it does. They loudly declare that it is LEGAL as derived from the divine mandate given the White House via the Patriot Act. What precisely does this mean? If Congress in another fit of madness passed a law that the first sons of every family (definition of family left to the Oval Office) earning less than $100,000 were to constitute a pool from which would be chosen 13 to be sacrificed on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange each December 21 at high noon, would this to be widely accepted as a LEGAL practice - and therefore justifiable?
'No;' most would say that the law is clearly unconstitutional. Well, the actions discussed here are also clearly unconstitutional. Some are blatant violations of the 4th amendment, the constitution prohibits bills of attainder for execution or other purposes, and - to enter another sphere - due process of the law does not permit the Attorney General to give blanket amnesty to financial criminals because he thinks that prosecution could damage the economy.

The reiterated claim that this is all legal and thereby uncontestable is based on an unjustifiably broad reading of the Patriot Act rejected by one its authors himself - Rep John Sensenbrenner. Nor is that changed by receiving rubber stamp approval from that tame judicial panel housed in the DOJ (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) which never says "no". Then there is the small matter of constitutionality. The clever twist is that it has been exceedingly hard to adjudicate these issues since legal standing is almost impossible for a potential plaintiff to acquire. It appears that only way to do so is to be convicted of a crime, have the prosecutor use evidence obtained through wholesale surveillance and then to appeal the conviction in higher federal courts - assuming that he is still alive and coherent.

Back to the opening question: why do we promote or passively accept this gross trespass on our civil liberties? It does, I believe, come down to psychology. We have become a frightened people. That is one. We live in fear not only of the hobgoblins from out there, but also of the possibility that we do not live under the benediction of Providence. Perhaps, just perhaps, we have not been Chosen by someone or something for a unique destiny. Perhaps we are vulnerable as is anyone else. Perhaps we are not much better than everyone else.

We have become a craven people. That is two. This is meant not in the sense of physical bravery, but rather in the sense of a willingness to face the truth of who we are - in all its ambiguities, and the world around us - in its dismaying complexities. Also, in the sense of meeting our responsibilities as professionals and as citizens to question and to hold accountable our leaders. This craven behavior has been on display in the libelous assault on Snowden's personal character as well as public act by the great-and-good Very Serious People who dominate the electronic airways - and whose own record is devoid of examples of taking a courageous stand on anything.

We have become an insecure people. That is three. Uncertain status and a self-esteem under constant threat from the vagaries of an unstable society always have beset us. We have few rites of passage, few insignia of rank, few fixed places of worth, that can anchor us. Hence, we are prone to be compulsive about proving ourselves. These days, we collectively are compulsive about proving that the mythical America that sustains us is the true America. In an environment that constantly raises questions about that, we feel a compulsion to keep trying. The skeptics who seem to insist on exposing these discomforting truths are viewed as being as bad as the overt enemies against whom we need protection.

We feel in bad need of handholding by a strong protector who will secure us against the terrorists and everything else that their threat evokes. That is four. We need that protector even if he is a cardboard hero from Texas who can't ride a horse or a professor of constitutional law who can't muster the courage to tell us the truth; even if we want him to use the same powers of government we simultaneously see as a diabolical menace to our freedom as Americans.

We find it too easy to live with diametrically contradictory ideas about ourselves. That is five. It is bizarre to witness self stylized rugged individualists who gird themselves to fight attempts to take away their assault rifles or a USPS SWAT team storming their castle for Postage Due meekly relinquish their most basic liberties in the name of security from an unidentifiable shadowy menace. Then there are the Senators who cry havoc at the prospect of background checks for gun purchasers by a tyrannical government yet call for Mr Snowden's head on a platter for warning us of massive intrusion into our private lives.

These traits together naturally produce elected and appointed officials who feel and behave accordingly. Our political elites share these traits even as they manipulate them. What they add is a strong sense of entitlement. They think and act as if they owned the government, that it is theirs to use as they wish. They have somehow abandoned the bedrock idea that they are custodians of the public good authorized to govern on behalf of the citizenry rather than rulers who impose their wants and beliefs on the people. That is a radical transformation with profound implications. It turns citizens into objects to be managed instead of being recognized as the rightful source of legitimacy whose well-being is the ultimate measure of all that the holders of high office do. That tolls the death knell for any meaningful sense of accountability. The abuse of power follows - as we see.

"SENATOR RON WYDEN: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
SENATOR WYDEN: It does not?
GENERAL CLAPPER: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect--but not wittingly."