The NSA and That 1970s Show
The Obama administration and the NSA have claimed domestic spying on Americans is necessary to prevent ‘terrorist’ attacks. From 1970 to 2013 approximately 3,500 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks. That is around 81 deaths per year attributable to terrorism. It is estimated an average 195,000 people per year die from preventable medical errors. And as both the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the recent Boston Marathon bombings illustrate, it was the Federal government’s failure to respond to actionable intelligence gathered through traditional methods that preceded the attacks, not an absence of the information needed to prevent them. This renders the official U.S. storyline around the dangers of terrorism and ‘the government’s’ response to it contrived misdirection. The NSA is conducting increasingly intrusive domestic surveillance, but preventing ‘terrorism’ has nothing to do with its reasons for doing so.
The NSA had been operating for about a quarter century by the time the Church Committee investigations into domestic spying by U.S. intelligence agencies began in 1975. What came out of the Committee was (illegal) domestic spying by intelligence agencies had been carried out against left-leaning dissidents—anti-war groups, civil rights groups and the radical left. The warning issued at the time (1975) was that NSA’s capabilities were intrusive enough that if turned against Americans the capacity for totalitarian control would exist. Current calls for another Church Committee to investigate NSA spying face the challenge of history—the first Church Committee caused a minor interruption, but no substantive changes, in the trajectory toward totalitarian control. And the strategy of ‘official’ Washington is to create the illusion of change through investigation. Enough is already known to arrest and prosecute senior NSA leadership for current abuses.
The relation of ‘terrorist’ threats to spying around the world, including on Americans, is the ‘American’ conundrum—how does the corporate state bent on total domination and control sell all-encompassing surveillance as it also tries to sell ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as both goal and result of Western ‘capitalism?’ Again, in recent decades only 0.04% as many Americans per year have died from terrorist attacks as died from preventable medical errors. Were preventing ‘American’ deaths the true goal of domestic spying, closing the agencies and investing ‘their’ budgets into upgrading healthcare practices would provide hundreds of times greater benefit. The obvious conclusion is preventing ‘terrorism’ has little to nothing to do with the growth of the surveillance state.
The current fear-bomb being trotted out by Democrat loyalists, as if corporate-state fascism weren’t bi-partisan, is the likely consequence of another terrorist attack like ‘9/11’ on remaining civil liberties. In the first place, fear of ‘terrorism’ is only the current marketing strategy for selling surveillance. The Church Committee found U.S. intelligence agencies spying on domestic dissident groups—citizens actively engaged being citizens in a purported democracy. Since then (1975) the surveillance state has grown larger and more intrusive regardless of the contemporaneous marketing strategies used to sell it. The goal of corporate state domination and control of ‘the world’ fits the decades-old trajectory of U.S. intelligence agencies and another ‘terrorist’ attack like ‘9/11’ would most likely support the existing marketing campaign while having no effect on the continuing build-out of surveillance technologies.
In the second place, there already was another terrorist attack– at the 2013 Boston Marathon. It wasn’t as spectacular as ’9/11,’ but the essential elements—a Federal government with broad and intrusive spy capabilities received multiple warnings from traditional intelligence sources but still failed to prevent the attacks, were present. Even the ‘terrorist’s’ rationales shared essential elements—‘blowback’ from botched foreign policies that had caused large numbers of casualties to ‘others.’ And when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred it was the peaceful Occupy Boston the local FBI and ‘fusion’ centers had their eyes on, not the bombers Russian intelligence had warned the FBI multiple times were a threat. Just as the Church Committee had found in 1975, it was spying on domestic dissident groups Federal resources in 2013 were dedicated to.
But the real challenge for ‘bi-partisan’ defenders of domestic spying, or rather partisan defenders of which-ever Party is nominally ‘leading’ the country at any given time, is how an alleged, purported, theoretically, democratic-capitalist political economy can declare its citizens enemies of the state en masse and retain political legitimacy (viability). The premise behind the hypothesized consequences of another ‘9/11’ is of government completely divorced from the consent of the ‘governed.’ The implied threat is: if you think Barack Obama, Jeb Bush, or whomever is nominal leader when another ‘9/11’ occurs, is a dim fascist today, just wait to see what real fascism is. But here is the punch line: ten new ‘9/11s’ at once wouldn’t kill one-fifth as many Americans as die every year from preventable medical errors. The Federal response to ‘terrorism’ is a smoke screen—terrorism isn’t now, nor has it been in modern history, a real threat to the well being of the citizenries of the West.
Again, the focus of the domestic spying uncovered by the Church Committee was on anti-war (Vietnam) groups, civil rights groups and the radical left in the U.S. That the Boston FBI and regional ‘fusion center’ were concentrating their spying efforts on the peaceful Occupy Boston while ignoring credible threats of terrorism when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred fits this history. Government spy efforts weren’t directed at domestic anti-government forces—a/k/a the radical right, they were directed at anti-corporate interests. And tellingly, much of the labeling of domestic ‘terrorists’ in the U.S. relates to economic harms caused by actions against corporations. Animal rights activists, among whom I count myself, become ‘terrorists’ if they cause economic ‘harm’ to the corporate terrorists running factory farms. The struggle between citizens with purported equal rights in a (political) democracy is turned to state power used by corporations against ‘ordinary’ citizens in the corporate state.
The joining of state with corporate power is what makes the argument ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about’ from domestic spying so intrinsically dangerous. The claim is premised on the classical liberal conceit ‘political’ representatives represent the ‘national’ interest when capitalist plutocracy assures they represent the interests of profit-seeking corporations against their competitors, customers and workforces. As antique Scottish economist Adam Smith had it around the time the U.S. Constitution was inked, the rationale for labor unions was to counter the market power industrialists had over labor—it wasn’t to gain undue advantage. And as the recent decades long efforts by bi-partisan Washington to diminish the power of organized labor illustrate, ‘radical’ theories are not required to come to the conclusion government efforts against organized labor favor capitalists over labor. The corporate-state is not a ‘neutral’ actor as reified economic power in the struggle for profits.
Again with the case of animal rights because it so clearly illustrates the issues, it is any economic harm caused corporate ‘farms’ through activism, not simply the destruction of property, which gets activists labeled ‘terrorists.’ This includes accurate portrayal of the practices of factory farms that causes ‘consumers’ not to buy factory-farm products. Under this set of laws the non-violent boycotts of the civil rights movement could have constituted ‘terrorism’—the refusal to buy meals at lunch counters that causes factory-farm suppliers to ‘lose profits’ is the new definition of ‘terrorism.’ And where does this leave labor that demands its share of corporate profits when reducing corporate profits is ‘terrorism?’ The alleged threat of ‘foreign terrorism’ used to justify the surveillance state is laid bare as the threat to capitalist expropriation when the language of fascist law is made public.
The current tactic of corporate-state liars-in-chief, Barack Obama, Keith Alexander and James Clapper, is to confess to the facts of NSA spying effectively brought to light when they must and nothing more. Where this leaves ‘the facts’ is Messrs. Obama, Alexander and Keith are known liars who have lied in the past about domestic spying programs and have only confessed to facts divulged outside their control. The inference is they are still lying about domestic spying programs and will continue to do so until new revelations are made public. What the broader facts reveal is a government that has declared the American (global) people enemies of the state and by inference, the actors in whose interest the state is acting enemies of the people. To be clear, it isn’t the remnants of the American ‘left’ creating this division—it is the corporate-state that is.
Obama administration defenders hide behind the trajectory of domestic spying by the NSA to argue criticism of Mr. Obama’s lawlessness is ‘partisan.’ But it is Mr. Obama’s administration, and in particular ‘his’ Justice Department, which actively interpreted laws the administration inherited in ways described by Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall as radical, meaning significantly more broadly than disinterested interpretation would have it. When combined with administration interpretations of the due process requirements behind Mr. Obama’s ‘kill lists,’ his misuse of the ‘Espionage Act’ to crush ‘whistle blowers,’ and his secret negotiations of trade deals (Trans-Pacific Partnership) designed to shift power from the populace to corporations, Mr. Obama has acted as leader of the rising corporate-fascist state. And the secrecy behind which the administration hides is clear evidence Mr. Obama knows his actions are against the public interest and would be objected to if they were known.
The in-your-face lawlessness of ‘official’ Washington, Wall Street and the global corporate elite rests on this class being above the law and outside public accountability. But as domestic spying and Mr. Obama’s claimed right to murder U.S. citizens without evidence indicate, ‘freedom’ from ‘the law,’ as defined as executive whim, is not being extended to the rest of us by official Washington. And were the difference mere class privilege there would be no need to extend corporate-state power as is being done. Most Americans regard domestic spying being in ‘their’ interest without knowing either the scale or scope of the spy programs or their real intent. The rationale of ‘protection’ from terrorism is demonstrably ludicrous when the microscopic scale of ‘the problem’ is considered. The re-defining of ‘terrorism’ as threat to corporate profits is the most telling of actual rationales. And that definition has dubious history in the fascist state debacles of the twentieth century.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.