Obama’s Fanaticism Over Secrecy, Surveillance and Repression
If the US were not engaged in actions and policies that are illegal, immoral, aggressive, war-provoking, and therefore, it is fair to say, evil, the issue of leaks would never arise, there being no rhyme or reason for them and the increasingly widening effects of government’s stringent, escalating, and still counting, countermeasures, for suffocating a public consciousness of wrongdoing through a campaign of massive surveillance in order to prevent further revelations and ensure continued societal blindness to, and even the endorsement of, interventions, assassinations, cyberwarfare, indefinite detentions, a global system of military bases poised for purposes of internal espionage leading to regime change, the enforcement of a favorable climate for trade, investment, and the extraction of resources, and much else which can be subsumed under the heading of national self-interest (always taken for granted and non-negotiable), all in violation, or skirting the edges, of international law, itself largely crafted to serve American needs, and implemented largely through active support of world financial institutions, trading blocs, military organizations, of essentially kept nations seemingly anxious to do our bidding. With a framework like that, no wonder the desire to keep the lid on. Secrecy is not a nervous twitch, nor an excess of zeal in the promotion of a misconstrued American Innocence (saving the world for democracy, humanitarian interventionism, or similar self-advantaged formulas), but a central enabling mechanism in the use of power, primarily military-oriented, for ends capitalistic and nationalist encompassed in a single system defining the US’s Exceptionalist drive for unilateral dominance of the global structure. Ideology alone doesn’t do the job (it never did!), nor do exports magically traverse the sea lanes, greeted at foreign ports with hosannas; capitalism is a fractionated international order, inclined to trade rivalries and the forcible settlement of differences. War determines outcomes, and in turn requires the regimentation of thought on the home front. Obama’s fanaticism about secrecy is therefore perfectly reasonable and rational, if one happens to subscribe to ruling-groups’ ends (along with an added dash of sadism, which he applies by diverting resources from a sound social safety net to satisfy the military appetite) of a government-assisted unrestrained capitalism, government itself, of course, simultaneously invisible in its subventionary function while whipped in place unmercifully when performing any sort of welfare or ameliorative function.
Secrecy is the ideal camouflage for surrounding, covering, and protecting the class-state, its system of power, its elites’ hidden agenda, and the political-cultural mechanisms which engineer consent to the national purpose as defined from above, not so much to hide ordinary hanky-panky–favoritism to contractors, political contributors, etc.– but war crimes real time, which seldom result in the internal democratization of the offending power, and instead contribute to wealth-and-power differentiation among the populace, which bears the brunt of such policies, whether drafted to fight in wars to enforce US capitalist objectives or placed in vulnerable positions domestically so as not to be in position to press for systemic reforms (essentially moderate, as measured by democratic theory and practice) such as the demand for collective bargaining rights, freedom of expression, and the curbing of the maldistribution of wealth. For capitalism, especially in America, where political and economic democracy are disconnected so that pro forma electoral freedom coexists with corporate monopolization and the concentration of wealth, the ballot box somehow becomes an exhaustive remedy for ruling groups’ hegemonic purposes abroad and the instilling of institutional-cultural docility at home. These goals are mutually dependent; one cannot be fulfilled without the other. Which suggests that a pattern of convergence is in process of formation, secrecy providing the bridge, or better, connecting rod, between foreign intervention and domestic surveillance, now becoming conflated into a singular mode of repression intended to bring into question, amenable to prosecution, whatever is considered to be politically-economically-militarily unacceptable, whether this means questioning either domestic or foreign policy and activity, with each sharing the other’s identity, and no doubt soon, degree of penalization.
In this light, a radical, whose social protest extends beyond the aforementioned moderate demands of the reformer (themselves stopping short of systemic overhaul, but nonetheless worth contesting in the absence of their achievement), is in the cross-hairs of a government unused to substantive criticism in either the domestic- or foreign-policy realms, hence under Obama the acceleration of countermeasures to stifle—again, the import of surveillance, even as a dark shadow making individuals think twice about holding, still less communicating, suspicious thoughts—a potentially awakened political consciousness, “awakened” given the Snowden and Manning Revelations on a unified US government pressing the total integration of military, capitalistic, and geostrategic assumptions, and behind that, the integration as well of structure, ideology, and policy making, to the end of maximizing State power both in its own right and the better to promote and service the political economy of capitalism, nay, an advanced mode of capitalism facing the strains of a changing, now multipolar, context of international politics. Gaps in the integrative process leave room, i.e., mental space, for popular resistance through the perception of the forced joining of parts, integration as per se repression, whereby everything must be brought into conformity with an homogenous composition of forces focused on promoting expansionist-aggressive systemic tendencies (particularly the mature stage of capitalism warns of senility, and therefore, the resort to extreme measures even to remain in place) while also promoting silence and/or complicity at home. In this way, intervention (and with it, targeted assassination, regime change, global political and economic influence, counterrevolution as a generalized posture) neatly dovetails with surveillance (and the further splintering of traditional civil liberties, presumably mandated by a counterterrorism policy), so that when we return to the radical, be it on either front, the lines between foreign and domestic “criminal” activity is starting to blur—the further conflation, facing the individual directly, so that our hypothetical whistleblower of the future in whichever realm is left open to the charge of treasonous conduct, as indeed is being contemplated or already decided with respect to Snowden and Manning.
The preceding overview, especially the overall convergence of structure, ideology, and policy, transcending narrow fields of operation, or boundaries of scope and practice (e.g., the CIA, contrary to its charter, is as much an operational as intelligence force, and perhaps as much involved in domestic as in foreign theaters of activity), speaks to Obama’s elaboration, inheriting much of, thence adding still more to, the work of his predecessors dating from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War through his own presidency, of a Secretive, National-Security, Militarized State, whose monolithic façade is beginning to seriously break down, thanks in equal parts to overextension unsupported by sufficient political-economic (but not military) resources, a globalization process, ostensibly American-led yet actually witnessing the dispersion of power, with China and Russia independent centers, and peripheral nations, like Brazil, shaping into no-longer dependent industrializing countries, and finally, in a by no means exhaustive listing, the revelations themselves, in which, to Obama, Snowden is the Anti-Christ, and Manning, the Mephistophelian figure, upsetting expectations of an hypostatized democratic leadership phony in fact from the start. Thus, with cracks showing in Leviathan’s armor, matters are tensing up; Obama is getting antsy. The heavy-handed, until now still secretive, program of surveillance, which I initially took to be a means for scaring Americans into regimented, compliant mode, actually also is unwitting admission on the part of Obama, the National-Security State, and Authority in general of an unremitting fear at the top as well, both that the tightly coiled structure of power is becoming unstuck, and that as layer upon layer of obfuscation is cleared away it will be seen that our political and military high-and-mighty trusted leaders, i.e., themselves, are merely run-of-the-mill war criminals. Certainly, armed drones for targeted assassination, as one example, must have crossed their minds, if not troubled their sleep, that international-law violations stood on the horizon. Nor did waterboarding comport well with democratic leadership, nor mass surveillance and data mining, nor indefinite detention, nor a 1000-and-1 daily favors to American business, banking, and industry, which makes the infliction of suffering on others worthwhile.
Turning, then, to the highlights of surveillance, just as occurring over the last few days (for anyone who questions the importance of Snowden, this heightened government activity, generously termed damage control, should put the issue to rest, for his revelations had and will continue to have an implosive force showing a central core naked of moral scruple, the vacuum to be filled with capitalist-military strivings for undisputed global power), I must quickly note that, first, counterterrorism has been the screen for the preliminaries of internal regimentation for some time (an implicit domestic antiradicalism gained through creating a climate of superpatriotism—present already, though less organized—and obedience to regulations designed to stimulate respect for emergency powers and the whole concept of prevailing danger, and second, Obama is not a Johnny-come-lately to the use of repression, with purported threats from outside serving as a rationale, for we see from the earliest days of his administration the smooth transition from Bush II, with no inner qualms publicly manifested, that appeared to many—myself also fooled—as mere political inertia, when in reality it represented a purposeful, vital continuity which, in short order, blossomed into a full-scale qualitative escalation, so that by 2011 at the latest he had in place the secrecy-element, the determined prosecution of whistleblowers (under Bush there were no successful convictions, or even cases reaching that stage), a National-Security Team second-to-none in its interventionist, war-making, brook-no-opposition, at home or abroad, proclivities, in sum, a newly-articulated design and framework in which the intervention-surveillance duopoly was ready to spring forward in writing a new chapter in American capitalist-military expansion.
Ah, the Aspen Security Forum, an annual event: we think of Tea Party nutcakes running around decrying big government, when it is the “respectables,” in such meetings as this, who represent the thinking and planning of Pentagon officials and interested citizens (aka, defense contractors, war-inspired think-tank fellows, consultants and lobbyists of every stripe anxious to push their ideological agendas and/or their military hardware and products), who are the aspirant, more sophisticated, better connected, and thus more dangerous power-wielders, adjuncts of, and sometimes, as now, members in good standing of, a practically-speaking ruling class of capitalist-military-(and slightly to the side) economic elites, whose names, such as General Keith B. Alexander, head of NSA, and Ashton B. Carter, from Harvard professor to deputy secretary of defense, need to be fleshed out and made familiar. An unfailing barometer for determining the national-defense/national-security atmosphere, the Forum, last Thursday (July 18), bore witness to the Snowden Phenomenon, forcing a scrambling around to maintain the machinery of war—here, the magnification of cyberwar in the nation’s arsenal—and the continued institutionalization of government secrecy, both signifying a further convergence of unitary purpose. Sanger and Schmitt write in the New York Times on the 18th that NSA “has imposed new rules designed to sharply restrict the sharing and downloading of top-secret material from its computer networks” following Snowden, as related by “two of the Pentagon’s most senior officials” at the Forum that day. Discussing the “two-man rule,” applied to the handling of nuclear weapons (“two computer systems administrators [working] simultaneously when they are inside systems that contain highly classified material”), Alexander said that in future “the most sensitive data” will be put “in a highly encrypted form” and made limited in accessibility, to prevent its being moved “throughout the nation’s intelligence agencies and the Defense Department.”
So far, pretty obvious. Alexander defended massive surveillance, his “You need a haystack to find a needle” statement perhaps vying with George Tenet’s “slam dunk” one for contemporary imbecilic honors, but he redeems himself by revealing for the first time that Obama, soon after taking office, was informed of Bush’s NSA-surveillance operations—specifically “the number of errors the agency made,” which the General termed, according to the reporters, “the inadvertent collection of information about American citizens.” Inadvertent? Here the account becomes intensely interesting. Even Sanger and Schmitt want to get Obama off the hook. Alexander continues: “When the president first came on board, we had a huge set of mistakes that we were working through in 2009. He [Obama] said essentially, ‘I can see the value of these [italics, mine], but how do we ensure that we get these within compliance and that everything is exactly right?’” At first, one—and the reporters—think a critical view of the Bush surveillance programs is being expressed. Yet, Obama’s concern is not termination but legitimation, and here he called for an NSA self-policing of its actions, a “directorate of compliance,” and subsequently, ensuring the favorable approval of the FISA Court. He did the same with the armed drone for targeted assassination: cover the government’s (and his own) rear via in-house legal justifications, including secret White House Counsel memos and secret FISA Court decisions. Inadvertence = legalized criminal activity, whether massive surveillance or killing women and children as “collateral damage.”
The Forum breaks further new ground, Alexander and Carter revealing the formalization of cyberwarfare as “a new mission” using “a class of weapons that the Obama administration has rarely discussed in public,” with 4,000 military personnel deployed to the Pentagon to start operations. Secrecy, thou art wondrous! Obama “accelerated” Bush’s “Olympic Games” program, and then, as the purpose of our whole discussion, instigated (more politely, inaugurated), as here, programs of his own, more elaborate and devastating. From targeted assassination to cyberwarfare, perhaps a new signature weapon to which he is committed, with Carter excitedly saying, as proof of its importance (never mind accusations leveled against China in this realm, our Exceptionalism is our badge of honor): “I wanted to start this fast. Fundamentally, we’re spending everything we can think about spending intelligently for, notwithstanding our budget hassles, because this is an area we are protecting even as our military capabilities will be cut.” Cyberteams are planned, under Alexander’s command, a revealing of details of “one of the military’s most closely held projects.” The focus on teams, “in addition to the N.S.A. work force,” enables planning to start from scratch, with the possibility of modeling them after Special Ops units. In all of this, Obama is not a passive onlooker. Make it legit, but make it work: cyberwarfare, another feather in his cap.
On July 19, Charlie Savage reported in The Times that the US Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit (Richmond, Va.), by a 2-1 vote, ruled that James Risen of the paper “must testify in the criminal trial” of a former CIA agent “charged with providing him with classified information.” The majority opinion held that the First Amendment did not protect a reporter receiving “unauthorized leaks” from divulging his source—a clear test of freedom of the press, and, to the dissenting judge (Savage’s paraphrase) “a serious threat to investigative journalism.” The judge stated, “The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.” Apparently, the Supreme Court, 40 years before, had delineated a precedent applicable only to grand jury investigations, leaving the issue of trials up in the air; still, the Obama administration (here DOJ) immediately stated, “We agree with the decision,” as well they might, for Justice has prosecuted more than twice the number of leak cases under Obama than under previous president’s combined. AG Holder, given the criticism over “subpoenaing Associated Press reporters’ phone records and portraying a Fox News reporter as a criminal conspirator [a serious charge] in order to obtain a warrant for his e-mails,” in response “announced new guidelines for leak investigations,” which hardly alters my characterization: Obama’s fanaticism about leaks. Risen’s case was first tried in a lower court, the decision held in his favor on the ground that he was protected “by a limited ‘reporter’s privilege’” under the First, the Obama administration then appealing, arguing “that such a reporter’s privilege did not exist,” and now, on July 19th, the Appeals Court reversed the decision of the lower court and Risen is compelled to testify or go to jail. The Obama people play hard ball; Risen “has vowed to go to prison,” rather than comply.
The flurry of activity of July18-19 is not happenstance, but a direct response to Snowden, his revelations, and the frustration on Obama’s part that he remains out there, seeking asylum world opinion on his side and in effect thumbing his nose at the Leviathan. Towering America meets it match; a government that is afraid of its own transparency, is not a democratic government. Slowly the wheels are turning against the US, not just because of the outrage over surveillance, but a proper understanding if not in America then globally that surveillance is not cops-and-robbers child’s play but the linchpin of a repressive social order capable of striking out viciously against all who oppose it. Why else surveillance? The momentum continues, so long as Snowden remains free and capable of releasing further documents, fittingly, the fascistic state-secrets doctrine, USG’s favorite defense against judicial and/or public oversight, and launching pad for the Obama-Holder-DOJ prosecutions using the Espionage Act against whistleblowers, now being turned inside out and upside down. Stripped of the state-secrets doctrine, i.e., of no avail when the information becomes revealed, America looks quite totalitarian in its pursuit of national policy (and pretty shabby in its need for conformity at home, deference, abroad). Hegemony loses its luster, as do militarism and capitalism, when it is realized by others that US fine pronouncements are the cover for dominance: over the global structure, markets, capital flows, and, the human underside, cheap, docile labor abroad (and increasingly, at home), all predicated on a compliant American public, consumerism their bread-and-circuses to ensure absolute devotion to the System of Enterprise, as meanwhile, the defense budget and the culture of militarization expand. Yes, why else surveillance?
Then, on July 20th, another article in the New York Times, by Sharon LaFraniere, providing context for the Obamaean (i.e., the whole administration, in military lockstep about self-protection, whether national-security advisers, CIA, Pentagon, FDA, Interior, all having something to hide) fanaticism about secrecy—and the president’s own frenetic urge to strike out at leakers, masking a profound insecurity about being found out as a potential/actual war criminal, platitudinous leader, and simple careerist. The title of the article, “Math Behind Leak Crackdown: 153 Cases, 4 Years, 0 Indictments,” superbly captures the reality, for it refers to the record of the Bush administration, not Obama’s, who would strain every muscle to rectify the situation. Once again, in the Bush-Obama relationship, we see, first, overlap and continuity, second, the latter’s intensification of policy and program, and third, the progression from intensification to a qualitative leap: Obama on surveillance and prosecutions leaves Bush in swaddling clothes. Here’s another name to remember in the White House cast of characters: Dennis C. Blair, Obama’s national intelligence director until 2010, who, examining the Bush record (as in the article’s title) “was dismayed by what he found.” He said it “was pretty shocking to all of us,” which led to “a series of phone calls and meetings” with AG Holder to work out “a more aggressive strategy to punish anyone” leaking national-security secrets. Blair put the matter well: “My background is in the Navy, and it is good to hang an admiral once in a while as an example to the others. We were hoping to get somebody and make people realize that there are consequences to this and it needed to stop.”
This was precisely the mindset that, subsequent to his comment, would lead to the prosecution (along with solitary confinement) of Manning, and represent administration thinking and policy in the attempt to capture Snowden. But, ironically, it is not “an admiral once in a while,” but retired General James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (until mid-summer 2011) who is being investigated for leaking classified information. More on this momentarily, but we see right away the self-devouring nature of surveillance, the passion for secrecy, the fear of leaks—the net is cast ever wider, now a top-ranking general. The reporter, picking up on Blair’s remark about consequences, gives us a convenient summary, including the preceding day’s Appeals Court decision: “The Obama administration has done its best to define those consequences, with an aggressive focus on leaks and leakers that has led to more than twice as many prosecutions as there were in all previous administrations combined. It also led to a significant legal victory on Friday when a federal appeals court accepted the Justice Department’s argument that the First Amendment does not protect reporters from having to reveal the sources suspected of leaking information to them.” (Italics, mine) So much for Obama’s respect for the First Amendment and for freedom of the press.
Whether, as the reporter, citing “present and former government officials,” claims the focus on leaks at the highest levels of the administration “was driven by pressure from the intelligence agencies and members of Congress,” or the reverse, Obama’s desire to prove himself in spirit one of the former and to placate conservatives and war hawks of both parties of the latter, the fact remains that he has drawn very close to the CIA (and CIA-JSOC paramilitary operations) and the Democratic head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Dianne Feinstein, has carried water for him in demanding the zealous prosecution of leakers, chastising in closed hearings, as early as 2009, Holder, Blair, and FBI Director Mueller, for not doing enough. To critics of the Manning-Snowden revelations (Snowden incidentally acknowledged Manning as a source of inspiration), things were getting out of hand; secrecy must be preserved in the national interest and at all costs. To critics of the critics, perhaps, with the Cartwright case, things are getting out of hand the other way (a distinctly minority view, both in government and the nation as a whole, sold on national security as the holy of holies). In his case, it was revelation of Obama’s new love—cyberwarfare, the attack on Iran’s nuclear program, that brought him to Coventry courtesy the DOJ. (The case against Risen of The Times also had to do with his revealing information about Iran, “a covert operation to deceive” its nuclear scientists.) Cartwright, though, by definition, “represents an escalation of effort,” in the reporter’s words, compared with previous prosecutions of officials, never above mid-level in ranking, and in the words of a member of the Federation of American Scientists, “The Cartwright case stands alone. It is a sign that the administration is not backing off its anti-leak crusade. It is still going full-tilt.”
Putting all of this together, Ms. LaFraniere also discusses administration procedural matters, such as DOJ imposition of “a tight deadline to decide whether to open criminal inquiries into leaks, shortening to just three weeks a review process that had often dragged on for months,” one finds overwhelming support for the idea that Obama’s actions have had a chilling effect on public scrutiny of all areas of government, a tightening both of rhetoric and practice, in which surveillance, prosecution, condemnation of divulging documents pointing to illegality and worse, indicate to me the advent of fascism in America. The term “fascism” should not be bandied about. I think it fits structurally (the high degree of concentration in the economic sector , along with the more significant marker, the interpenetration government and business), militarily (not only aggressive conduct of foreign policy, but the militarization of capitalism), culturally (a profound disregard for the valuing of equality, whether in race relations or in deference shown business, political, and military leaders as part of an hierarchical ordering of economic and social relations), and now, more overt signposts, as seen above, when a government resorts to massive surveillance, to hide its dirty linen. A fitting close to these thoughts can be found in the excellent article by Carlos Borrero in today’s (July 23) CounterPunch, when he writes: “Systematic surveillance can only be understood as an essential part of state repression, the purpose of which is to intimidate those that question the status quo by promoting a culture of fear. One can never be separated from the other.” His reference is to US repression of anticolonist forces in Puerto Rico, yet the statement is equally valid for America (that which has been inflicted on the exploited comes back with equal force to the exploiter, fearful his pathological quest for dominance will someday prove his undoing). If further indictment of Obama and the liberalization of militaristic capitalism to make it palatable to the American people is required, I cite the drone campaign for targeted assassination, a scenario for permanent war—the advent (arrival on the scene) of fascism, dressed in the fashion of humanitarian interventionism and domestic silence concerning the atrocities practiced at home, on the poor and the dissidents of every stripe and persuasion.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch/AK Press in the fall of 2013.