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Shaping the Totalitarian Mindset

Techno-Fascism (NSA) and the Obama Administration

by NORMAN POLLACK

History is a holistic political-structural process, Marx’s dialectical framework notwithstanding, because even allowing for contradiction there are successive stages of integration, from each of which conflicting tendencies are generated. There is nothing deterministic here, merely the assertion that reality has a unified character, whether or not experiencing social struggle. And in America, regrettably not, upper groups maintaining internal economic-ideological supremacy, beginning, I suspect, from the late-19th century, and progressively tightening its control over society through time up to and including the present. This is not an empty formula that radicals have learned through rote—the experience of gradually shrinking boundaries within which to achieve social change becomes apparent on an almost daily basis, the rapidity of the process now sufficient cause for alarm—yet met with false consciousness below, constant movements toward confrontation and war both to instill among the populace loyalty, consensus, silence, and among upper groups, the impetus for militarism and capitalist expansion (themselves structurally integrated), false consciousness above of another sort: a pathological quest for global dominance of the international system when that system itself no longer fears America.

America in decline, or even in not absolute terms, but rather, within a world system that in power terms is becoming de-centered (a multipolar framework), is losing its way, becoming desperate, striking out at real and imagined enemies (some from the past, as in an anticommunism never put to rest), tempted to manufacture crises as a way of preserving domestic cohesion, paramount for clinging to the unilateral military dominance to which it had been accustomed since World War 2, or at least its symbols if not its substance. Decline is never hospitable ground for democracy, particularly a democracy that requires, as a condition of its functioning, a permanent state of war—where we have been since perhaps the Korean War; and hence, a questionable democracy at best, and since the Bush-Obama years no longer subject to debate. I say, the shrinking boundaries on a daily basis for achieving social change: Therefore, let’s go back several days to three separate signs bearing out the foregoing discussion, all, I believe, interrelated, because rooted in the needs of an American capitalism struggling to protect its hegemonic status on top the global pyramid.

I

In my CounterPunch article, “FBI Authorized Cyberattacks: Further Signs of Unfolding Fascism,” (May 6), we met Hector Monsegur, a true American PATRIOT, as advertised by, and from the standpoint of, the US government, one whom, because the FBI, through harsh threats of criminal prosecution against the hacker group, Anonymous, had been turned (gleefully, it would seem) him into an informer helping to direct the Bureau’s cyberwarfare campaign against foreign governments and corporations. In the USG’s telling, i.e., the federal prosecutor’s drawn indictment to the Court (praising him to the hilt for his cooperation in implicating the other members of the group—Jeffrey Hammond, for one, serving a 10-year sentence), he moves from Patriot to National Hero for the big snitch and tech-savvy assistance in what amounts to highly illegal attacks, not least because obviously stretching the FBI’s actions beyond US boundaries as well as the nature of the espionage (although possibly cleansed through the Patriot Act responsible for still more gross violations of civil liberties and international law).

With this background, we move to last week in illustration of Obama’s full-court press toward incipient if not also actualized fascism. I say “Obama,” because in this case the FBI but more important a discussion to follow on NSA, one finds a direct projection of/from the government; neither one, again, especially NSA, can be dismissed simply as a “rogue” agency, and instead reflect the pith of Administration policy: pursuit of continued global hegemony through solidification, beyond obviously powerful military forces, of a National Security State, a prime requirement being the practice of surveillance at home and abroad. One of the tests of a democratic polity is accountability at the very top—and regrettably America has neither, the lack of the latter testifying to the absence of the former.

Conversely, the situation now worsens, each daily flagrancy, as in the violation and near-destruction of privacy, equally, rule of law, in government’s working toward that end, reveals the deadly metastasizing of American institutions in general, the courts, Congress, ultimately the people: ramifying consequences of cynicism, corruption, and, to be more charitable than the situation warrants, false consciousness, all in the service of ruling groups integrated in the form of financial-industrial-commercial-military elites, with what is now termed the political class (a designation I find, as to its role and independent power, a nifty slogan yet wholly inadequate ) merely their man/maid servants, for an older generation of radicals, then, following Veblen, the Swiss Guards of the Vested Interests, servicing their needs in domestic and foreign policy.

Take the last week in May (let’s skip over the “political class” in favor of the institutionalized structure of power, starting with POTUS in collaboration with the FBI and CIA), here our friend Monsegur (known by the alias “Sabu”), the Guardian (June 1) in its subhead saying it all: “Authorities credit Hector Xavier Monsegur with helping them cripple Anonymous in lenient sentence of time served.” He gets off—the corruption of the courts noted above. Monsegur, the Guardian reports, “who by the US government’s calculations participated in computer hacker attacks on more than 250 public and private entities at a cost of up to $50m in damages, was released from a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday after the judge saluted his ‘extraordinary cooperation’ with the FBI.”

Who is more guilty in this farce, Monsegur, or Loretta Preska, chief judge of the federal district court of the southern district of New York, is a moot question, and, standing behind her, the FBI’s crass practices of intimidation from which the federal court system looks away or actively praises. Monsegur had faced “a maximum sentence according to official guidelines of more than 26 years.” Nope. In pronouncing sentence the judge “repeatedly praised what she called his ‘truly extraordinary cooperation,” providing USG “sophisticated and complex assistance” enabling it “to pierce the secrecy surrounding LutzSec [a UK and US hacker group that had broken away from Anonymous] and successfully prosecute its members.” Informant on others, FBI cyberwarrior par excellence—not a hero, however, to members of Anonymous, which, as one told the Guardian: “Monsegur is, first and foremost a criminal; the FBI’s cyber crime task force are his co-conspirators. While operating under their supervision, Monsegur committed numerous felonies which should in no way be excused due to his protected informant status.”

Well-put, and to me, chalk up another score for fascism, the leading domestic federal law-enforcement agency in the commission of crimes, turning those it prosecutes for criminal punishment into informants in exchange for leniency—while in addition pursuing more sinister ends, to wit, seeking (as does mass surveillance itself) to cow the populace into submission. Here the Anonymous spokesperson is right on target: “The FBI continues to use captured informants, who commit egregious crimes in pursuit of reduced sentences, for the sole purpose of creating ‘examples’ to frighten the public. They do this with the hope of pacifying online dissent and snuffing out journalistic investigations into the US government’s misconduct.” This is what I meant by the metastasizing effects of government policy on behalf of global hegemony and domestic social control, both defining a unified whole. (Hammond, convicted, operated under Monsegur’s direction, “launch[ing] cyber-attacks around the world,” and then sentenced because failing to be turned. In addressing the court, he told Preska: “The government celebrates my conviction and imprisonment, hoping that it will close the door on the full story. I took responsibility for my actions, by pleading guilty, but WHEN WILL THE GOVERNMENT BE MADE TO ANSWER FOR ITS CRIMES?” (my caps.)

Monsegur went on to secure convictions of others. In the court memorandum disclosing how Hammond was caught, an obvious case of entrapment, it becomes clear that Monsegur “had been put at the hub of a vast web of surveillance,” for it was revealed that while he remained in New York, he “’engaged in online chats with Hammond (who was then in Chicago), while coordinating with FBI agents in New York, physical surveillance teams deployed in Chicago, and an electric surveillance unit in Washington DC.’” When in June 2011 the FBI came knocking on his door, “[h]is transformation from a hacker legend into an informant was instantaneous—he agreed to cooperate with the government immediately,” to which, at sentencing, Preska was in fulsome praise, the quickness allowing the FBI to move against LutzSec before its members could be warned. As a UC Hastings law professor (obviously not John Yoo of White House Counsel torture-authorization fame), summarizing Monsegur’s work for the FBI in launching attacks against foreign governments, stated: a sting operation for a crime already in motion was one thing, but it was quite another, “’when you contribute to the creation, inducement and execution of a crime that never was. Particularly when those crimes may very well affect our foreign policy.’” Welcome Team FBI USA, Obama coach-cheerleader, etc.

II

Turning next to the NSA, one sees techno-fascism in full parade-dress, massive surveillance, here, facial recognition data, now combined with practically every other conceivable means of collecting and storing information on Americans—and as much as possible, globally. (Hayden, Alexander, Clapper, the whole leadership crew, past, present, future, listen up: how about the measurement, via forced registration, of men’s private parts—in millimeters, of course, to ensure accuracy in order to intimidate against dissent, facilitate government prosecution, induce apathy toward and complicity with public policy, therefore carrying further the purposes of massive surveillance? Seemingly, no stone can be left unturned in discovering and uprooting subversion.) Here, James Risen and Laura Poitras—both of whom deserve and have earned the respect of those committed to civil liberties—in their New York Times article, “N.S.A. Collecting Millions of Faces from Web Images,” (May 31), present a breaking story in what one might call a chapter in runaway fascism, particularly odious on top of everything else, including, if I may digress to establish the spirit of government making facial recognition a viable tool of the megalomaniac NSA in its quest to obliterate privacy in world-dimensional terms.

I press for small details to illumine the institutional core of repression, here a societal pattern, if we keep to the short-term, which has been well-established since the enshrinement of Sect. 25 of the Patriot Act (with that Act legitimating so much of government policy, one wonders why any demurral about naming fascism for what it is—the signs, from militarism, to surveillance, to financial-corporate concentration, to xenophobic and ethnocentric mental patterns, all around us and germane to the public acceptance of hegemonic goals). Charlie Savage’s NYT article, “U.S. Seeks to Censor More of Memo That Approved Drone Strike on American,” (May 28), refers both to Obama’s personally authorized assassination of a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki—drone assassination, as I see it, itself a form of, even prime example of, techno-fascism, the pressing of a button halfway around the world to leave a blood spat where a human being once stood—and the white-collar version of techno-fascism of the more routine kind, REDACTION, as a means of protecting government from the charge of, and evidence demonstrating, war crimes. He does not call either, a war crime; emphasis is on cover-up as a general proposition of hiding illegality.

Obama-Holden, the Castor-Pollux of Censorship, have, short of rewriting the Constitution, done all in their power to forestall condemnation for the killing of an American citizen without an indictment, the right to counsel, a jury trial of his/her peers, due process in all its manifold accordance of rights, and instead—no boots on the ground—murder via impersonal technological magic, an Obama favorite, given his usage far exceeding that of his predecessor (metastasizing, in this case, down to the nitty-gritty of conducting warfare, already plagued with atrocities enough). Savage writes: “One week after the Obama administration said it would comply with a federal appeals court ruling ordering it to make public portions of a Justice Department memo that signed off on the targeted killing of a United States citizen, the administration is now asking the court for permission to censor additional passages of the document.” Disgraceful, no, nauseating—why? Not only the stall-tactic, but that the death-authorization was a SECRET MEMO, only seeing the light of day through being forced through an FIA lawsuit. Suppose the memo were allowed to stand, and then gather motion as binding precedent: the killing of citizens, whether on grounds of national security or, say, anticommunism, or counterterrorism, would be standard operating procedure. Hide the memo, it stinks to high heaven!

The designated driver/culprit, the memo’s principal author, fresh from Harvard Law (an ideal soul mate of Obama, who as president of the Law Review had not written an article for it—HLS, what a staggering decline since the days of Holmes and Roscoe Pound), is David Barron, confirmed the week before “to an appeals court judgeship,” what he had been to DOJ Monsegur had been to FBI, complicit through direct involvement in murder. The memo, July 16, 2010, al-Awlaki struck down in Yemen September 2011, it was only the ACLU-NYT suit seeking the memo’s public disclosure that got us this far. Savage: “The Justice Department said it would soon disclose a version of the memo with the additional passages it wants to keep redacted blocked out. It said the additional passages discussed classified fact not legal reasoning.” Classification, the mother of all redactions, has been the handy device behind which the Obama government hides, and the basis for its forays into somewhat clumsy storm-trooper-like attacks on whistleblowers via the Espionage Act. This is truly an embarrassment, if not outright sign of fascism.

In January 2013 a Federal District Court judge “ruled that the government could withhold the memo from the public entirely,” which was overturned this past April by a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (NY), ruling “that the government must make public portions of the memo that lay out legal analysis, though not facts based on classified intelligence.” Even this did not satisfy USG which in a new filing claimed that what “the court had designated for public release contained further information that should be exempt from disclosure.” An assistant US attorney—DOJ at all times up to its neck in fighting disclosure—chastised the higher court, essentially for its stupidity (its decision based on “inadvertence or mistake”) and moved “to keep its entire motion seeking additional redactions SECRET” (my caps.), a nerviness I should think beyond the pale, to which the court denied “that request” and said “that as much of the motion as possible would have to be made public.” The court then went one step further, revealing “new details about several previous rounds of then-secret negotiations between the court and the government, dating back to February [2014], over what would be redacted.”

The National Security State can be seen here to vitiate the rule of law, secrecy being in the DNA of the Executive permeating through all its agencies and bureaus, not least, DOJ. Will we ever get the truth? A week ago Solicitor General Verrilli Jr. said with release of the memo another appeal for redaction would follow, including the identity of the agency responsible for al-Awlaki’s killing—which everyone knows was the CIA. A disheartening conclusion: “Although it is widely known that the C.I.A. operates drones, including from a base in Saudi Arabia, and that it participated in the operation that killed Mr. Awlaki, the Obama administration still officially treats that information as secret.”

III

Nor is it especially forthcoming about the mass collection of facial recognition data. We return to Risen and Proteus and the discussion of an NSA practice that is not really new, only newly revealed—be it noted–through the Snowden disclosures (their import, more vital, in exposing government usurpation than ever thought possible). The reporters state that NSA “is harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications that it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, according to top-secret documents.” As indicated before, no area of human identity is safe from government spying. To see a brief list of sources is to gain a sense of the range of surveillance. They write: “The spy agency’s reliance on facial recognition technology has grown significantly over the last four years as the agency has turned to new software to exploit the flood of images included in emails, text messages, social media, videoconferences and other communications, the N.S.A. documents reveal.” (Without Snowden’s revelations, here as with so much else, we would be in the dark, which government, demonstrated by its actions, prefers, the attacks on him from Obama down showing the fear of revelations.) For NSA, technology summons the future—perhaps why I thought of the title, techno-fascism, as though a window had been opened to the utter destruction of privacy, and for Obama, particularly, a pseudo-sophisticated concept of warfare, in effect, that pushing buttons can rule the world. They observe further: “Agency officials believe that technological advances could revolutionize the way that the N.S.A. finds intelligence targets around the world, the documents show. The agency’s ambitions for this highly sensitive ability and the scale of its effort have not previously been disclosed.”

What are we speaking of? “The agency intercepts ‘millions of images per day’—including about 55,000 ‘facial recognition quality images,’” an NSA document summarizes from 2011, as part of enlarging “its mission of tracking suspected terrorists” in what amounts to a dystopian wave-of-the-future position. A 2010 document calls for adopting a “full-arsenal approach,” beyond “traditional communications,” so as to include “biographic and biometric information,” the latter especially not unlike what had been heard in the eugenics movement at the turn of the last century. Whatever the surveillance methods of choice, the act itself does not change, nor the permissiveness of acting: “It is not clear how many people around the world, and how many Americans, might have been caught up in the effort. Neither federal privacy laws nor the nation’s surveillance laws provide specific protections for facial images.” But the phrase of choice in these operations, from whatever source, is SCOOP UP, in turn giving on to a sense of range and scope: “Given the N.S.A.’s foreign intelligence mission, much of the imagery would involve people overseas whose data was scooped up through cable taps, Internet hubs and satellite transmissions.” We expect this from the bulk collection of metadata, but THIS is somehow different, a stripping away of identity per se. A wondrous world of possibilities for repression awaits, as a Carnegie Mellon researcher perhaps unwittingly describes: “’There are still technical limitations [on the total erosion of privacy], but the computational power keeps growing, and the databases keep growing, and the algorithms keep improving.’”

It is fair to say that NSA joins CIA, FBI, FISA Court–but why stop there?—president, Congress, judiciary (with few exceptions), in hunting down human aspiration and social democracy as threats to an America determined to keep its priorities straight: the greatest military the world has ever seen, increasing class differentiation with concentrated wealth confined to a numerically infinitesimal upper group matched symmetrically by a disproportionately growing underclass (a perfect pyramid in the making), and to fill in what is becoming essentially a moral void, a flourishing authoritarianism taking form and expression in global hegemony, intervention, counterrevolution. Painless, at least to the American people, should techno-fascism have its way—with, of course, one catch: fascism of every sort becomes self-devouring, hatred of others, either because they’re different or fail to see the splendiferous light about America, is finally channeled inward as self-hatred, something all of the surveillance and images cannot prevent and probably only accelerate.
MY New York Times Comment on the Risen-Poitras article, same date, follows:

Facial recognition data–in the words of Joseph Welch to Joe McCarthy, “Have you no shame, sir?”, applies equally today, if not more so, addressed to NSA under precisely the same circumstances: the abrogation of American civil liberties.

What is this country coming to? A Surveillance State, National Security State, and, if a may, proto-Totalitarian State–for what else can be said of a government sponsoring the total destruction of privacy of its own people, and attempting the same for the world?

In a society where such destruction is passively accepted–an outrageous assault on human dignity, people simply taking it, is another useful description of totalitarianism. All three branches of government are complicit, each in its own way, in this assault on human dignity. Political party, here bipartisan consensus; Executive, integral part of Obama’s enlargement of power; judiciary, FISAC a travesty, Supreme Court culpable in allowing an/or promoting the invasion of rights.

Facial recognition data merely the next step in a cumulative series of abuses accompanied by the supineness of government to check its own USURPATION. There appear to be no checks left, leaving the nation defenseless against its own inner devils, starting from a pathological anticommunism that has morphed into counterterrorism, with a heavy dose of militarism, xenophobia, and resentment about facing the challenges of a now multipolar world.
A decentralized world structure is seen as abhorrent.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.