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Obama’s Empty Gesture


Sometimes you get the feeling that President Obama is just mailing it in. That he has wearied of his stewardship of the American empire and has little energy left to vigorously maintain the pretense of Democratic virtues that he was originally paid to espouse. Such was the case last week, when he offered up, like a token souvenir to departing tourists, a half-hearted defense of NSA spy programs. The propaganda, the spin, the lip service to civil liberties, all rang hollow in the mouth of this increasingly disengaged Commander in Chief.

After a brief and futile attempt to justify surveillance by situating it in the context of American history, he moved onto the endlessly rehearsed, tiresome pantomime of ‘hard choices’. Obama and his armies of wiretappers and data baggers, would have us believe that they, like so many other political charlatans and counterfeits, conscientiously work to strike that oh-so delicate balance between liberty and security, making “important decisions” with our best interests in mind.

Could any argument be less persuasive, not least for its overuse? Picture the moral professionalism of the NSA drone—sleeves rolled, bent over the digital troves, assiduously conducting batch keyword searches, combing the data for threat signals. How he so selflessly “labor(s) in obscurity,” to use the President’s own phrase. How he pines to protect our families of four, our green lawns and double-car garages, our porches with their patriot’s flags hanging still in the warm August air.

So Incremental as to be Meaningless

The picture sketched, Obama moved on to the so-called changes. Out of fortysomething recommendations, the President marginally addressed three or four. Notably the bizarre and pointless decision to store illegally collected phone metadata off-site, so to speak. Was this an ironic attempt to privatize more government activity? Or was it what it so transparently appeared to be at first glance—an attempt to deflect attention from the illegality of the practice by emphasizing changes in the process by which it happens. We’ll still hoover up your records, but we’ll outsource their storage to private companies (who, by the way, will charge us a premium, which we’ll happily pay by siphoning off more tax dollars to corporate interests. Surely, one asks, if there was ever an opportunity for a bulk discount…).

This feckless tweaking of an odious violation of the Fourth Amendment was meant to be the signal action by which the Obama administration assured us that it was guarding our liberties. Even as it guaranteed our security from a threat four times less imminent than a lightning bolt to the brain. Epic fail.

This fatuity was swiftly seconded by another. From now on, intoned our Spymaster in Chief, the NSA shall be required to obtain court approval. This ‘reform’ hardly merits the label, even parenthetically. Why? Because the F.I.S.A. court that has been issuing blanket approvals to the phone records program has denied NSA requests 0.03 percent of the time. It will now simply have to rubber-stamp its craven acquiescence more frequently (given that our phone records are scraped daily). Naturally, as with all Obama legislation or reform, a loophole has been added, this one for “emergency” situations. Forgive me, but I thought every terror threat was an emergency? Are we thus to conclude that the emergency clause will be permanently invoked?

Also, National Security Letters, delivered by the F.B.I. to businesses demanding they turn over their customer records, will—wait for it—not be altered or subjected to court sanction (explicitly rejected by Obama). However, gag orders on petitioned businesses will be shortened in length, permitting those companies to complain that their hands were tied, not five years after the fact, but perhaps three?

Then, in a reform that truly deserved its own press conference: Angela Merkel’s phone will not be tapped. Now Europe’s first lady can safely resume destroying the European economy.

A panel of advocates would also be created to represent the privacy interests of the public. This nominal attempt to balance privacy interests with security concerns, on investigation, is revealed as another public relations sham. These latter-day tribunes, as it were, will have zero visibility into the F.I.S.A. caseload, and only be permitted to weigh in on privacy concerns when invited into the room by F.I.S.A. itself.

Nothing of note was mentioned in regards to the PRISM program, which sifts Internet data for signs of terrorist intent (as opposed to the phone data collection program, this one appears to focus more on computer web traffic, although the two are increasingly indistinguishable).

An Enforced Consensus

Of course, it would be remiss to close without commenting on the impact of mass surveillance on the public—the very reasons unreasonable searches and seizures were banned in the rosy-fingered dawn of the republic. A recent survey by the venerable PEN organization reported that one in six respondent authors had seriously considered or actually constrained their speech, whether written or spoken, due to fears of NSA spying.

This is precisely the effect revelations of the Edward Snowden kind can be predicted to produce. Surveillance itself has a two-fold character: first, to externally monitor a population; second, to make the population internally monitor itself. The goal of both is censure. Whether police state censorship or the self-censorship of an apprehensive and disquieted conscience, it comes to the same—everyone sticks to the official narrative.

A decreed consensus, in other words. Interestingly, by my count, President Obama used the word “debate” nine times in his speech. How the President takes such comfort in that word. So often in public venues he’ll concede the very thing he is enabling or preventing: a multiplication of inequality, the offshoring of jobs, the right to privacy. It seems for him enough to believe that he is raising the issue in public—that acknowledgment is tantamount to reform. But it isn’t.

There is not debate happening between the government and the public. Obama noted that, “we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time America has this debate.” Perhaps America is having this debate—he called it a “public debate” at least three times. But it is the public debating privacy and spying amongst itself. The government is sitting this one out. These cynical and bootless alterations give the lie to the government’s intransigence, its fundamental disinterest in change, and to the administration’s obsequiousness in enabling system injustices to proceed apace.

The Circle of Censorship

Noam Chomsky has countless times referred to the democracy deficit, that fundamental gap between public wishes and the policies they receive. Obama’s fraudulent notion of debate lays this gap in plain sight. Since the government is no longer meaningfully responsive—beyond calculated PR gestures—to public interests, the next step in the dismantling of democracy is to bring the population into alignment with elite rule. Surveillance is the tool; self-censorship is the desired outcome.

Jeremy Bentham, the famous social theorist, devised the ingenious prison system known as the Panopticon, which later formed a key lens in Michel Foucault’s examination of discipline. The Panopticon was designed to physically realize the totalitarian dream of perpetual surveillance. In Bentham’s mind, the prison would form a complete circle, with an open yard in the middle. At the center of the yard would be a guard tower. From there, guards could peer through shuttered shades at any and all prisoners, whose cells all faced the open yard and the forbidding tower. Evidently, authorities saw fit to realize Bentham’s cracked concept in, at the very least, the Illinois penal system and in the Netherlands.

Unlike those brickwork replicas of Bentham’s sketch, we have realized a far more pervasive system through digital means—one that spies on our physical whereabouts, but also inhabits the spaces where we think and form our views. The digital Panopticon not as visible as Foucault would have expected—you can’t see it except as tiny roving eyes atop traffic lights. But it perfectly satisfies one of Foucault’s other criteria for “panopticism”, that of unverifiability. By being suspected but never verified, the system instills self-censorship in the minds of men. We act differently if we think we’re being watched, even if we aren’t. Often, we hew to the nominal values of the society we believe is watching us. We internalize the ethics of power.

As President Obama demonstrated with his easy casuistry last Friday, the administration is nothing if not cavalier about intrusion into the private lives of its citizenry. Its apparent—if not stated—goal is to circumscribe how the population thinks, and what it feels permitted to think about, enforceable by clandestine agencies, and wrapped in the fulsome banner of security, by which we are made to feel less secure.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire: Unmasking American Imperialism. He lives in New York City and can be reached at

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