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The Tipping Point

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that when a garment gets so old, attempting to patch it with new cloth will just tear it up worse. The authoritarian state seems to be reaching that point, beyond which any attempt to patch it up or prolong its life just inflict new damage and hasten its demise.

The interesting thing about the federal prosecutions of Aaron Swartz and Chelsea Manning is that the vindictive approach to piling up charges and seeking maximum sentences were calculated attempts to send a message to anyone else contemplating sabotage against the information control regime. But those attempts have done more to inspire sympathy among the uncommitted and galvanize the information freedom movement than to terrify would-be leakers. The only effect the state’s terror tactics against Swartz and Manning had on Edward Snowden was to spur him to get out of the U.S. government’s reach and seek overseas protection, and to make sure his data was dispersed to multiple secure locations, before showing his hand.

Among the general public, the prominence of the NSA and Snowden in the media has sparked increased interest in encryption. Leak websites are putting increased effort into adopting more distributed p2p architectures and better anonymization, making leaking anonymously from within the system increasingly safe. And we’re probably seeing the beginning of a mass wave of cloud-related businesses migrating to servers outside of U.S. jurisdiction.

Thanks to an endless series of leaks about the U.S. spying on its supposedly allied countries and international agencies like the IAEA and UN Secretary General’s office, the affection of erstwhile allies is cooling considerably toward the U.S. and some regional trade deals are in jeopardy. The U.S. expended enormous political capital to have Evo Morales’s plane forced down in Europe — all for nothing — and in the process lost whatever South American public affection not already permanently alienated by Yanqui arrogance.

Most recently, public outrage in the UK over harassment of Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, and the destruction of the Guardian‘s hard drives, in the ongoing NSA saga, probably had a lot to do with Parliament’s unprecedented decision not to carry water for an American attack on Syria. And security analyst Bruce Schneier believes (“Detaining David Miranda,” Schneier on Security, August 27) the public backlash in Britain over Miranda’s detention will make that government a lot more hesitant to do Washington’s bidding in the future.

In the meantime,the U.S. intelligence community’s morale is devastated. NSA campus recruiters have already been blindsided by hostile student questioning that fell short only of driving the recruiters away with actual pitchforks and torches. And now, with the continuing negative exposure in the press, NSA employees around the water cooler reportedly (“If NSA Workers Feel Unloved, Why Don’t They Quit?” Reason, August 26) sound like a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and the Maytag Repairman.

This public cynicism and internal demoralization are further heightened by the death of a thousand cuts Glenn Greenwald and Snowden have inflicted on the NSA and Obama administration. Greenwald’s strategy seems to be to wait until Obama or Alexander make another claim in defense of the NSA, then release another damning document proving it to be a lie.

This, boys and girls, is what we call a tipping point: Everything the state does to suppress leakers and whistleblowers further undermines its moral authority with the public and its own internal morale, leads to disaffection and defection by allies and inspires leaking and whistleblowing on an even bigger scale.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.

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Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

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