Surveillance Reaffirmed

The scene: January 17, Obama is speaking at the Department of Justice, a solid bank of American flags behind him. In the front row sit Comey, Brennan, Clapper, and Johnson, his cheering section, the High Command of US Intelligence and insurance policy for certified patriotism. The moment is long awaited, POTUS in damage-control mode to answer sporadic yet rising criticism of the National Security Agency’s campaign of massive surveillance at home, eavesdropping on world leaders including “friends and allies” abroad, presumably the occasion for a forthright declaration reconciling privacy and security, honoring and safeguarding the former. He delivers instead a landmark address of casuistical slime, flippant as to content and tone in which he fabricates a narrative of American Innocence, received by a public in deep denial that the celebrated National Security State is on the edge of becoming–massive surveillance its clear indicator–a Police State pure and simple.

Subterfuge, obfuscation, nothing can hide what is happening, for America, under Obama, is on course to silence all dissent, evidenced already in the government’s attitude toward, and Espionage-Act treatment of, whistleblowers. Surveillance represents the traditional methodology to that end, or, if not an overt policy of suppression, then it is realized as the more sophisticated effort of encouraging self-repression, internalizing the obedience and ultimately fear that come from constant monitoring by a technologically adept and watchful Authority.

This primal act of social control, with a view to the micromanaging of the political culture, has for its purpose, alternatively, can be seen as building toward, the militarization and financialization of American capitalism, a perhaps new stage of systemic integration made imperative by the problems associated with an advanced capitalist formation. America may not be quite over the hill as a viable political economy, true to its ideological foundations of exceptionalism and the unrestrained accumulation of capital, but the perception of crisis is widespread in ruling circles, themselves making room for the military component, so that increasingly drastic measures, domestic and international, are coming into play.

Notably, America is in hot pursuit of global counterrevolutionary stabilization intended to maintain its status as the unilateral superpower founded on military superiority, the claimed right of intervention on a worldwide basis, actuated in practice through an extensive network of military bases, alliance systems, renewed emphasis on naval power, and the like, all for the purpose of controlling world market forces, the flow of trade and investment activities, and patterns of economic development in general congenial to American ideology and compatible with its interests. That is a big order.

Why, surveillance? And why now, in such epic proportions? There are no easy answers, although the foregoing is a start. The aging hegemon proves no longer capable of enforcing its absolute will, nor is it fully in receipt of the expected deference it formerly enjoyed. Paradoxically, the very determination and resources that have led to military superiority have also sucked the vitals out of American society, drying up the juices (in Strangelovian terms) of productive energy and wealth, leaving an empty shell of mega-banks and –corporations on one hand, a populace in straitened circumstances, facing unemployment, wage stagnation, mortgage foreclosure, and a deteriorating life-situation, on the other hand.

The latter, especially, more important than signifying the widening disparities of class, status, and wealth, reveals the physical and psychological pressures having an effect of enforced submission to authority, which in America means a unitary formation, the business system and the military, the political framework the executive-legislative vehicle ratifying their decisions.

Why, surveillance? Take no chances; furthermore, take no prisoners. As American capitalism reaches a structural impasse, declining rates of profit (except through the creation of artificial value, confined to the financial sector as emblemed by hedge funds, and the realm of government-nourished protection for monopolism, subsidies, and trade agreements), the bipartisan concerted attack on and shrinkage of the social safety net, crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating standards of education and health, in sum, these and other consequences of economic maldistribution of wealth and resultant underconsumption, it seeks through more desperate measures for gaining or re-gaining global ascendancy. Surveillance at home, intervention, special ops, regime change, Trans-Pacific Partnership, drone assassination, abroad, as the formula for staying in the ball-game.

Conceivably, if American capitalism was not irrevocably joined to hegemonic expansion in aggressive mode, assorted fears would hardly arise. As it is, counterterrorism, imbuing the populace with a war mentality, rendering the trampling of civil liberties more acceptable (if even noticed), is now becoming increasingly turned inward, the dissenter, the radical, the whistleblower, soon the labor activist, the contrary educator, perhaps the consumer advocate, racial militant, abortion-rights defender, all ripe for candidacy as the New Terrorist in our midst. Surveillance is the psychopathology of resistance to social change and the internal democratization of the polity.

But why, surveillance now in epic proportions? For any politically sentient being during McCarthyism (I include myself here), it is obvious that surveillance was present, but qualitatively disadvantaged given the technology of the time, as compared with the present. NSA, Obama standing behind it in full battle armor, is another story. The present may be a logical and practical evolution of the past, but the leap forward in scope and application may well signify the changing position of American capitalism in the world today. Encountering difficulties correlates with enhanced domestic social control.

The “now” in our query refers to the condition of America losing its grip on power in world affairs, partly because of its own systemic atrophy (the siphoning off of social wealth to military purposes and ends; the focus on a top-heavy internal structure of corporatism, facilitating wealth concentration, distortions in the social base of capitalism—the aforementioned underconsumption—and increased business-cycle volatility) and partly because of the fundamental rearrangement of power in international affairs.

America faces a de-centered world system of power politics, rivals of formidable proportions, emergent industrial economies, even semiautonomous trading blocs, a situation perhaps magnified in US eyes by its proclivities to ethnocentrism and xenophobia, so that the former ideological shibboleths, capitalism vs. communism, no longer hold or are altogether convincing. Other means of identification have to be invented, to maintain a steeled hostility to Russia and China, the now ubiquitous counterterrorism as a generalized appeal allowed to spill over by means of the conjuring of older associations. In this context, a changing international system, in which acting as the unilateral determinant of the full range of global affairs is no longer an option, America has made militarism the chosen solution for recouping its former position—and, the immediate point, also the chosen solution for avoiding another Great Depression, a not unreasonable fear (although hardly the constructive way to address the situation) in light of current circumstances. Here militarism and surveillance are reciprocally related, not only because the latter provides the ideological climate of opinion for the former, and vice versa, but also because, in serving as an implementer of, or even code/surrogate for, counterterrorism itself, surveillance mutes the dissent over (and distracts attention from) American capitalism’s own poor performance.

What better tool in the arsenal of the demagogue, Obama the talking head for American capitalism, in this case presiding over its reconfiguration to ensure further growth via the deconstruction of the New Deal, a steadily diminished public sector, an equally steady trend of political-structural deregulation, and, the erosion of the manufacturing base an accomplished fact, greater dependence on the financial sector for economic stimulus. Militarization, financialization, surveillance: For our purposes a new form has come into being to meet existing exigencies, a Three-Headed Cyclops heralding the American Way of Strife, integrating a mature if not altogether sclerotic stage of capitalism as it prepares quite literally to wage war against all comers deemed noncooperative in recognizing, or otherwise offering resistance to, the assumed divine-right hegemony of the United States. Sclerosis is associated with hardening, in this case, the ideology of exceptionalism: the US can do no wrong at home or abroad, domestic repression and foreign aggression as the magical formula for sustained growth, rejuvenated power, and popular contentment.

Lest we forget the occasion, Obama’s speech on surveillance at DOJ before a select audience, January 17, made necessary in the first place because of Edward Snowden’s revelations of consummate political gangsterism (how else describe the blatant violation of the Constitution?) of NSA and its enablers, from POTUS to the FISA Court, Attorney General Holder, national security advisers, FBI and CIA personnel, and, critically important to the legitimation of the whole enterprise of surveillance, the eavesdropping on foreign leaders, and cooptation of servers, the Bobbsy Twins, in the tradition of Cohen and Schine of McCarthy fame, Feinstein and Rogers, chairs of the respective Intelligence Committees, rank apologists for illegal operations the more venal the more salutary.

The speech is a corker, deserving more careful analysis of technique and assumption than merely the straightforward recommendations which concede absolutely nothing. If anything, Obama’s shadow boxing, giving the semblance of compromise, not even the glimmer of contrition for having materially weakened the rule of law, has established surveillance on still firmer ground. His protestations of virtue, particularly when caught red-handed, as Snowden has done, makes one ashamed for America, for a political culture which engenders false consciousness in its people, and for a capitalist system which requires war, intervention, and repression, simply to operate.

The surveillance speech is an ode to inchoate or nascent fascism, glossing over the crime, praising the perpetrators, casting the invasion of privacy as the patriotic duty of safeguarding the Homeland, a new cliché in the lexicon of counterterrorism (aka domestic-antiradicalism-in-preparation). I shall term the overall setting, long in the making, but here, under liberal auspices, which makes the destructiveness less detectible yet more bitter to swallow, taking on inceptive and protean form, and hence devastating for the future, a prefascist configuration of societal development in process of near-term actualization. Interspersed in the discussion I shall include three of my New York Times Comments, which appeared therein shortly before the speech, after its deliverance, the complete text in hand, and finally, January 24, the dust having seemingly settled.

For historical perspective, I reiterate, one finds not an abrupt transformation of American capitalism, Obama some towering innovator or villain (as you please), but a century-old developmental-structural phase of corporate capitalism, i.e., a pattern of strict capitalism, fully experiencing both monopolization and industrial violence, and a floating substratum of reactionary ideology and values, but not yet explicit fascistic dimensions emanating from the structural base.

Capitalism in America or elsewhere has never been a tea party for working people, nor has America’s political leadership, including FDR, and including also wartime, been immune to the appeals of market penetration and informal global hegemony, which is to say, that within certain constraints the repression/aggression syndrome (as, e.g., labor exploitation) was fully evident. Capitalism is capitalism. But I would maintain that with this speech Obama crosses the line to a more overt political-social formation in which fascism is identifiable, the blatant dissembling pressed in the service of a National Security State, militarism, surveillance, drone assassination forming a convenient cluster for seeing its transformation into a domestic police state as a work in progress. I view the speech as a watershed moment, its general reception in the media, Congress, and among civil-liberties advocates notwithstanding.

First, my NYT Comment on Lander and Savage’s article, “Obama Outlines Calibrated Curbs on Phone Spying,” (Jan. 17), appearing before the speech, provides an introduction to the analysis which follows. Confessedly, because Obama is Obama, and the reporters had some helpful information about content (although “calibrated cuts” doesn’t cut it for me), I had reason, given his record of the abridgement of civil liberties, targeted assassination, etc., to anticipate damage control, a snow job, the celebration of flag and country. Here is my initial take which sketches a background affording one ample grounds for skepticism:

Obama’s record of abridgment of civil liberties cannot be erased by whatever issues from the DOJ speech, itself, from reports, concerned with damage control and cosmetics. Constitutional law training? HLS and U of C should be ashamed; massive surveillance, contempt for privacy, drone assassination of innocents hardly bodes well for respect of the law. DOJ itself under Holder has been a disgrace, as in briefs submitted to deny detainees habeas corpus rights. Obama has dragged the Constitution into the dirt, not least via his obsession with secrecy, a secrecy whose only function is the cover up of commission of war crimes abroad, and extreme favoritism to the business community at home.

How expect changes when FISC remains secret and its partiality to NSA is obvious? How expect disavowal of surveillance when Obama’s mind-set is to use counterterrorism as a ploy to rearrange the status quo in still greater favor to corporate interests? POTUS has become the chief architect of the National Security State, which, under his watch, raises the prospect of nascent fascism–ultimately, as drone assassination typifies, its fruition under a liberal rather than conservative banner.

American freedoms are menaced by out-of-control Executive Power, closely aligned with the intelligence and military communities. The half-trillion dollar defense budget, juxtaposed to a shrinking social safety net, testifies to his “leadership” and the direction of society.

Then, immediately following the speech, its full text, found in The Times, makes possible its explication, revealing content which befits an administration shrouded in secrecy and hunkered down in the fusion of militarism and monopoly capital. Obama invests the NSA with the lineal heritage of the American Revolution (an astonishing feat of his speechwriters), becoming a latter-day Paul Revere riding to save the Republic. Spying expresses, and helps to achieve, liberty: “At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of ‘The Sons of Liberty’ was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere. At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.”

His high praise of spying implies the honorable roots of the NSA in the American experience, more, that intelligence, with its presumed favorable connotations, becomes the surrogate for, indeed is identical with, surveillance, the object of present concern: “Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms. In the Civil War, Union balloon reconnaissance tracked the size of Confederate armies….In World War II, code-breakers gave us insights into Japanese war plans….After the war, the rise of the Iron Curtain and nuclear weapons only increased the need for sustained intelligence gathering.” Too, Patton “march[ing] across Europe” is invoked, all as introduction to the NSA: “And so, in the early days of the Cold War, President Truman created the National Security Agency, or NSA, to give us insights into the Soviet bloc, and provide our leaders with information they needed to confront aggression and avert catastrophe.”

Having wrapped himself in the mantle of the Cold War, with an assist from the Sons of Liberty, Obama reassures the American public of his and the intelligence community’s purity of motives: “Throughout this evolution, we benefited from both our Constitution and our traditions of limited government. U.S. intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of checks and balances—with oversight from elected leaders, and protections for ordinary citizens.” Not so, however, those who did not enjoy our freedoms and oversight: “Meanwhile, totalitarian states like East Germany offered a cautionary tale of what could happen when vast, unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers, and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes.”

What splendid gall, for one who meets on Terror Tuesdays, with one or more of the men sitting in the front row, to plan the assassination of those on the hit list—no indictment, right to counsel, just a blood splat where a human being once stood. His reference to East Germany (“vast, unchecked surveillance”) aptly describes present-day America, and as for checks and balances and/or oversight, the FISA Court, if one were frank, is beyond the pale.

Given the realities as revealed by Snowden, a response was needed, in this case, a step backward whilst pushing forward, ensuring the continuance of massive surveillance aided by gimmicks which leave the structure otherwise intact. Yes, there were abuses in the past: “[I]n the 1960s, government spied on civil rights leaders and critics of the Vietnam War.” No mention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. He is equally vague on the remedies: “And partly in response to these revelations, additional laws were established in the 1970s to ensure that our intelligence capabilities could not be misused against our citizens.”

Obama makes repeated references to “the long, twilight struggle against Communism,” as planting the germ of fear of a generalized terrorism—America, forever confronting some enemy at the gates: “If the fall of the Soviet Union left America without a competing superpower, emerging threats from terrorist groups, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction [shades of Iraq] placed new and in some ways more complicated demands on our intelligence agencies.”

Hence, “Globalization and the Internet made these threats more acute, as technology erased borders and empowered individuals to project great violence, as well as great good.” Ergo, the justification for massive surveillance, and because “our framework of laws was not fully adapted to prevent terrorist attacks” we presumably had no other choice. Naturally, “The horror of September 11th brought all these issues to the fore”—issues about safeguarding the Homeland, still no admission about trampling civil liberties and creating a massive security apparatus, as well as using the climate of fear to enlarge the military budget and establish a Pacific-first strategy directed against China.

Conjuring the image of making bombs in basements, he continues: “Americans recognized that we had to adapt” to new threats, so that “our intelligence community [had to] improve its capabilities,” in order to “identify and target plotters” as well as “anticipate the actions of networks” whatever the location. Thankfully, America has risen to the occasion, Obama here saluting the intelligence community itself (those responsible for spying on us): “And it is testimony to the hard work and dedication of the men and women of our intelligence community that over the past decade we’ve made enormous strides in fulfilling this mission.”

This paean to surveillance opens exciting vistas on the enormous strides made: “new capabilities” for tracking terrorists, “new laws” for collecting and sharing information, expanding cooperation with “foreign intelligence services,”—all having “prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives,” to this day an unproven assertion.

There follows the false confession to calm the waters, which, once stated and reiterated, clears the air for further abusiveness. He identifies “the risk of government overreach,” given the seriousness of the threat facing America and the technological gains outpacing the laws, yet offers unspecified assurances of respect for citizens’ rights: “Through a combination of action by the courts, increased congressional oversight, and adjustments by the previous administration, some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I took office.”

Some work remains because of the advancement of technology, leaving “fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do.” Then, in a sentence widely quoted in the media, Obama states: “That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.” One waits in vain for the tough questions, including, Why massive surveillance in the first place? And why secrecy, until Snowden blew the lid? And why, then, treat him like a criminal or traitor, for his defense of the US Constitution?

Obama, still operating in damage-control mode, claims: “I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became President.” Healthy skepticism equals closed in-house discussion, agreement, secretiveness, with unspecified “reforms”: “I ordered that our programs be reviewed by my national security team and our lawyers, and in some cases I ordered changes in how we did business.”

The record suggests otherwise—a FISA Court rendering secret decisions, acceding to practically all government requests, and denying the adversarial process (only the prosecution is heard), as meanwhile the Office of Legal Counsel refuses to disclose the legal rationale for massive surveillance. Still, he goes on: “Improved rules were proposed by the government and approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And we sought to keep Congress continually updated on these activities.” FISC and the Rogers/Feinstein team in Congress have written a new chapter in the history, meaning, and practice of oversight. To a person, they are honorary members in good standing of NSA, along with the FBI, CIA, and intelligence community at large!

Finally, we see his full-court press, ensuring, even after supposedly mounting criticisms of the potential risks in intelligence gathering, the continuance of business as usual: “What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale—not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.” Nor did he stop them retail.

Massive surveillance is taken off the table; it is hardly a violation of civil liberties, and in fact becomes necessary to their preservation, as his immediately following tribute to the people of NSA strongly suggests: “To the contrary, in an extraordinarily difficult job—one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic—the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people… What sustains those who work at NSA and other intelligence agencies through all these pressures is the knowledge that their professionalism and dedication play a central role in the defense of our nation.”

The man is incorrigible. Nothing penetrates his hard shell, from ringing the changes of patriotism (in the process cozying up to the intelligence and military communities) to presenting targeted assassination as just another day at the office: “Now, to say that our intelligence community follows the law, and is staffed by patriots, is not to suggest that I or others in my administration felt complacent about the potential impact of these programs.” No, indeed. “Moreover, after an extended review of our use of drones in the fight against terrorist networks, I believed a fresh examination of our surveillance programs was a necessary next step in our effort to get off the open-ended war footing that we’ve maintained since 9/11.” Like surveillance, collateral damage is taken off the table.

If his extended review of drone warfare is any indication, surveillance too becomes immune to criticism. Here, fittingly, he introduces Snowden as the Quisling-Trotsky in our midst, whose “avalanche of unauthorized disclosures would spark controversies at home and abroad that have continued to this day.” Obama might have added, had it not been for Snowden, his own speech would not have been necessary.

Snowden is the imputed Red Menace; the character assassination is obvious. Because there is “an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations,” which he promptly does, presenting him as a danger to America’s safety: “I will say that our nation‘s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their [sic] own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”

The theme about “revealing methods to our adversaries” continues, and yet Obama publicly claims time and again Snowden would receive a fair trial if he returned home. From this point, the speech’s presumed remedies have been amply covered in the media, except that, generally speaking, they have been taken at face value as though substantively corrective in nature.

To introduce his “reforms” of the intelligence framework, he loads the analysis from the start: All agree, “including skeptics of existing programs,” that “we have real enemies and threats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them…. We are expected to protect the American people; that requires us to have capabilities in this field. Moreover, we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.” Too, “a number of countries, including some who have loudly criticized the NSA, privately acknowledge that America has special responsibilities as the world’s only superpower,” our “intelligence capabilities” being critical to meeting them. The skillful stonewalling on massive surveillance continues, as in this passage on critic and practitioner alike being in basic agreement, a supposed overlapping in attitude: “Just as ardent civil libertarians recognize the need for robust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse as intelligence capabilities advance.”

Do the former accept “robust” measures, do his front-row auditors acknowledge the potential for abuse? From there, it is a short step to a maudlin display of sentiment in order to gain favor: “After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors. They’re our friends and family.” Their kids are on Facebook. As a nation, we therefore share “basic values” and bring to convergence questions of surveillance and privacy, so that “those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties.”

The proposed reforms, including “executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities,” “greater transparency to our surveillance activities,” and release of some secret FISC decisions as well as further declassification, with exceptions and loopholes, of FISC opinions having “broad policy implications,” are be overseen by the Director of National Intelligence in consultation with the Attorney General, hardly independent advocates (and as mentioned, FISC itself has usually granted USG what it wanted, operates in secret, and abandons the adversarial process, USG alone being represented in argumentation).

Given the legal machinery of duplicity, one wonders how much has changed. Most egregious, Section 702, which targets foreign individuals overseas, is left to the tender mercies of the same two, the DNI and AG, for instituting “reforms,” and Section 215, on gathering telephone metadata, is brazenly defended, with slight leeway for the providers going public about their compliance with the program, and Obama’s vague claim that the use of 215 is under advisement.

My New York Times Comment to the editorial, “The President on Mass Surveillance,” Jan. 18, the next morning after the speech, follows:

Damage control, a mere palliative designed to bamboozle the American public. Obama’s speech was frighteningly manipulative, pulling out all stops on Patriotism, really, a more subtle and adroit Joe McCarthy. I have never been so ashamed of a POTUS. The editorial raises significant questions, but stops short of calling Obama’s bluff: the continuance of massive surveillance, as the most striking deprivation of civil liberties in American history. And tossing the ball to Congress is, of course, a phony, given that Congress is equally in favor of repression as his own coterie.

Who is the traitor to American freedom? Barack Obama or Edward Snowden? Regrettably, most Americans will trade their freedom for the pottage of global hegemony. Obama has us eating out of his hand, so low has critical awareness sunk in the US. (Even now, from out of the woodwork, occasioned by the speech, there is actual talk of Michelle Obama as a presidential candidate!) The speech, probably crafted by Rhodes, with an assist from Axelrod, is worthy of Joseph Goebbels in content (e.g., retention of the secret FISC) and technique (raising the specter of Nameless Terror to encourage submission to the spying regimen). This is serious. I would like to see more vocal opposition, but doubt its forthcoming. To see Sen. Wyden’s response is disheartening.

I fear for my country’s welfare.

Epilogue: My New York Times Comment to the editorial, “End the Phone Data Sweeps,” Jan. 24, one week after the speech, follows:

Tepid criticism; insufficient to the wrong committed by Obama’s scurrilous attack on civil liberties in the name of counterterrorism. The premise that the surveillance policy is ill-considered and over-zealous neglects the obvious consequences of what we are witnessing: a tremendous boost to the National Security State as an end-in-itself, opening prospects for a police state the better to promote the militarization and financialization of capitalism. Why austerity? widespread un- and under-employment? systemic increases in class differentiation? mammoth defense spending, Pacific-first strategy of confronting China, drone assassination?

America under Obama is on the march–call it hegemony, or whatever one will, but the course is self-destructive, fascistic in direction, and namby-pamby NYT wrist-slapping fails to meet the deteriorating condition of the American polity. Massive surveillance, any way you slice it, is a direct affront at the US Constitution. By not standing up to the administration and an essentially bipartisan consensus in Congress on the path toward suppression of dissent, NYT will find that, because a beacon of press freedom, it too will become the victim of policies leading to the stiflement of free thought. Surveillance, on the scale already practiced, confirms the disconnection between USG and the citizenry. Under Obama, this is a new ball game, data-bundling being the least of what we can expect.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism.  His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at