FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The NSA and the Rest of Us

Context One: It is 1971 and the United States is mired in a losing war in Vietnam. Thousands of young American soldiers are coming back to the U.S. in coffins or physically and psychologically maimed. Scenes of war can be witnessed nightly on the evening news. In the midst of this mayhem the American military analyst Daniel Ellsberg gives the New York Times a copy of a classified analysis of the war entitled, “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967” aka the “Pentagon Papers.” The Nixon administration then sought to prevent the publication of this report through a court injunction. Ultimately the Supreme Court overturned the injunction in a 6-3 ruling that favored the public’s right to know. The government also attempted to prosecute Ellsberg under the 1917 Espionage Act for releasing classified information to the public. That was thrown out of court because in making their case, government agents had gathered information through an illegal wiretap. Subsequently, the media widely covered the Pentagon Papers and its demoralizing description of how the U.S. was fighting the war. It can be argued that this reporting helped turn the tide of public opinion against the slaughter in Vietnam.

Context Two: It is 2012-2013 and the United States is waging a “War on Terror.” This is the result of highly destructive terrorist attacks that occurred a dozen years earlier on September 11, 2001. Both these attacks, the lies and misplaced aggression of the Bush administration that followed, and the skewed media coverage over the intervening years, have sensitized the country to the issue of security. In this environment the government was able to put in place legislation such as the Patriot Act that allows it to, among other things, broadly increase its powers of surveillance both of American citizens and foreigners, and to develop (with the aid of Israeli companies) a secret, massive information gathering program, code named PRISM, and operated by the National Security Agency (NSA). It is also within this environment that a series of whistleblowers revealed to the public both the brutal nature of U.S. warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the widespread spying regime evolved by the American government. Many of these whistleblowers have been charged with felonies and labeled traitors.

The Whistleblowers Aim: Making the Citizens Aware

Between 1971 and 2012-2013 a lot has changed.  However, the seminal difference is that in 1971 a good number of American citizens were being traumatized by the death and maiming of their relatives in a losing war that was publicized in a relatively objective way.  In 2012-2013 that factor is missing because the “War on Terror” does not entail a military draft, has resulted in relatively few U.S. casualties, and is brought to the American people by a managed media. This allows the public to assume what is, in truth, its “normal” default position:  an everyday indifference to national government behavior. The general citizenry is at once uninterested in what the federal government is doing as long as they feel no immediate negative impact (this is particularly true of foreign policy), and naively ready to accept the government’s protestations that it is acting in their best interests.

Thus, it is no doubt true that heroes (and indeed they are heroes) such as Pvt. Bradley Manning and NSA employee Edward Snowden, decided to release massive amounts of secret government data in order “to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark.” However, what the historical record suggests is that, under most circumstances, only a minority of the general population will care. Thus, in the case of the United States, the effectiveness of whistleblowers may be more successfully tested in the law courts wherein meaningful judgment can be rendered on the behavior of the other branches of government, than in the court of public opinion. However, this judicial arena is also problematic because it depends on the changing mix of politics and ideology of those sitting in judgment rather than any consistent adherence to principles.  In 1971 judicial judgment went for Ellsberg. In 2013, men like Manning and Snowden probably do not have a snowball’s chance in hell.

The Government’s Aim: Maintain the Bureaucratic Rules

The existence of men like Manning, Snowden and a handful of others demonstrates that there are employees of the government who have a superior sense of morality as well as the courage to act on their principles. However, the numbers are very small and they are invariably considered as dangerous mistakes within the system. What of the rest of the government’s personnel?

It is important to understand that the vast majority of government employees do not act, except in the most abstract and idealistic way, as citizens of the United States. They are much more immediately, if you will, citizens of the bureaucracies within which they are embedded. This is not an unusual situation. People tend to identify with their local community and for some this may include a strong identification with their place of employment.  Also, bureaucracies are notable for setting their own rules and enforcing them as if they were forms of law. Employees are regularly “oriented” to their bureaucracy’s institutional worldview.  At one time the union movement provided a potential check to this process because class identity was a viable competitor to bureaucratic identity.  But the union movement within the United States is very weak.  Particularly within secretive organizations such as the CIA or the NSA, competitive points of view are carefully weeded out. Simultaneously, the value set on loyalty to the organization and its rules is very high. Such organizations come first, even before family and friends.

Even most elected politicians are fated to become “organization men or women” wherein their first loyalty lies not with the electorate or the Constitution, but to their political parties. If they are part of the “select” group of Senators and Congresspersons associated with the intelligence agencies they will absorb their secretive orientation as well. Take Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) who is head of the Senate Intelligence Committee.  She has insisted on the need and the worth of massive spying by the NSA whereby the “megadata” of almost everything that goes through the internet, and a lot that goes through the phone lines, is collected and stored, placing all content in a state of ready availability to the government if it chooses to look at it. She, and others like NSA Director James Clapper, claim that this enormous gathering up of personal data has helped “foil multiple terrorist plots” against Americans and others. Those who have made public this secret process are, according to Feinstein, “traitors.”

In a real sense, Feinstein has metamorphosed into the loyal citizen of a bureaucracy that has relegated to itself the right to define both security and the public’s need to know. It does not appear to concern Feinstein that this bureaucracy is determined to function in a way that will allow no viable accountability to anyone beyond its own community.

In contrast to Feinstein, William Binney, former head of the NSA’s global digital data program, claims that having such a huge data base has meant the information overwhelms the analysts, causing the secret PRISM program to become “dysfunctional.” Perhaps that is why a few in the Senate, like Mark Udall of Colorado, say that they are not “convinced that the collection of this vast trove of data has led to disruption of plots against the U.S.” Thus the “protecting the American people” justification is debatable.

Even if it turns out that this information orgy has assisted in foiling a limited number of plots, it is not a practicable approach to threat prevention. What is?  Changing the policies and behaviors that have caused much of the terrorist threats in the first place. Do that, and you won’t need to stockpile everyone’s communications from now to the end of time.

The President  

One of the best examples of the conversion of an American from a servant of the citizenry to a servant of the government bureaucracy is President Barak Obama.  As Glenn Greenwald points out, during President Obama’s 2008 campaign “openness and transparency” were central issues. Obama denounced President Bush’s regime as “one of the most secretive administrations in our nation’s history,” and added “it is no coincidence” that such a secrecy-obsessed presidency “has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight.” He vowed: “as president, I’m going to change that.” To that end he pledged to protect whistleblowers and called them, “the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government,” saying that “such acts of courage and patriotism . . .  should be encouraged rather than stifled.”

Then he won the 2008 election.  All of a sudden his constituents ceased to be the voters and became instead institutionalized aspects of the government system: the bureaucracy, the Democratic Party and a host of special interests. Thus, it did not take long for his tone to change.  Surrounded now by bureaucrats and party men whose devotion was to something other than the Constitution, the massive invasion of privacy represented by the vacuuming up of all information available on web became “necessary for national security and well within the bounds of the law.” That is, the Bush era laws that Obama once deplored. Now Obama is prosecuting the whistleblowers and protecting the George W. Bush era criminals.

This metamorphosis into participants in an amoral system seems to be the fate of most men and women elected to national office. They join an organization assumed wiser then the citizenry because it knows more than they do and, more often than not, it does its learning in secret, clandestine ways. Notions such as transparency and the behaviors of whistleblowers, which sounded so right on the campaign trail, now take on opposite connotations in the environment of bureaucracy. Principles that once were worthy of protection now must be “balanced” against procedures and policies too valuable to be exposed to daylight.

This is a standard scenario for the erosion of the rights, ideals and principles that make a democracy worthy of its name. As Thomas Drake, another whistleblower, recently put it “What does the NSA need with a 100 million phone records? We are losing the foundation of innocence until proven guilty. The assumption of innocence no longer exists in a surveillance state.” Neither does a Constitution with a Fourth Amendment. Neither does habeas corpus or due process. All of those are things of value in the world of democratic men and women. In the world of the National Security Agency, they are all conditional to the needs of a system with very different rules.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.

 

More articles by:

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

July 19, 2018
Rajai R. Masri
The West’s Potential Symbiotic Contributions to Freeing a Closed Muslim Mind
Jennifer Matsui
The Blue Pill Presidency
Ryan LaMothe
The Moral and Spiritual Bankruptcy of White Evangelicals
Paul Tritschler
Negative Capability: a Force for Change?
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: ‘Social Dialogue’ Reform Frustrations
Rev. William Alberts
A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret
Raouf Halaby
Joseph Harsch, Robert Fisk, Franklin Lamb: Three of the Very Best
George Ochenski
He Speaks From Experience: Max Baucus on “Squandered Leadership”
Ted Rall
Right Now, It Looks Like Trump Will Win in 2020
David Swanson
The Intelligence Community Is Neither
Andrew Moss
Chaos or Community in Immigration Policy
Kim Scipes
Where Do We Go From Here? How Do We Get There?
July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail