Surveillance, Cyberspying, and the Fig Leaf of Democracy

NSA deservedly takes its place with the CIA (like the New Deal in one respect, there are a number of agencies in the alphabet soup, here FBI, JSOC, FISAC, DNI, etc. etc. stand ready for admission into the Cathedral of Repression—let’s add, POTUS) at the foundations of the internal subversion of American democracy, such as it is, with its long history of racism, xenophobia, intervention, and wealth-inequality, already for centuries adding up to a modification or qualification of the uncritical use of the term. Like billboards on the highway for painless dentistry, the liberalization of fascism in America does not change substance and structure, only perception of substance and structure. The anesthetic (a cocktail of sport, consumerism, patriotism from every quarter, a cowardly MSM) places the patient—us, you and me—in a state of narcotization, as traditional liberties, more, the rule of law itself, are being gradually whittled away. Waking up, we feel nothing has changed, as meanwhile our intimate lives are placed on the table (slab?) for inspection and examination of “subversive” thinking and association.

From the late-18th century Alien and Sedition Acts through the Palmer Red Raids through McCarthyism and HUAC, right up to now, the continuum of thought control has been inscribed in the nation’s DNA, only today, having by now become the normalization of repression, we pay little or no heed. Jim Clapper is our Joe McCarthy, but for that matter, so is Barack Obama, John Brennan, and the whole merry band of White House nutcakes, except that they are not nuts, they’re very efficient and methodical, and it is we who are nuts for letting them get away with stealing our freedoms.

Methodical grounding down of the political consciousness of all that counts, or should count: peace, social justice, equality, transparency of government, the fearless conduct of the press, the simple right to be different in one’s life from popular and governing norms. I once related, in a CounterPunch article, “Education of a (Sometime) Radical,” my conversation with Isaac Deutscher, celebrating my passing my “generals” in Am Civ at Harvard, sitting with him on a couch in our two-room apartment in the Boston suburbs, he, among the most distinguished historians and biographers of the 20th century, and he related to me his current impressions of America, circa 1959-60. Coming from England, he was working at Houghton off Harvard Yard on the biography, probably of Trotsky, I don’t remember, whose Papers were there. Everyone was cordial.

Known throughout the academic and literary world as sympathetic to Marx and Marxism, he was surprised at the reception, surprised yet wary. For when he came to Houghton years before, to work on (probably) the Stalin biography, he was treated like the carrier of a virulent disease. Not cordiality, more like contempt and fear. “But you know,” he said, “I found the present more frightening, disturbing” (rough paraphrase after 55 years—even to remember shows, especially with my poor memory, the impression he made on me), because now the fear, the spirit of anticommunism, i.e., red-baiting, often having little to do with communism one way or the other, and instead, racial justice, peace, opposition to the Cold War, labor rights, support of progressive candidates (yes, like Henry Wallace and Claude Pepper, they were still around) had gone underground, so completely internalized by the society, its institutions, educational system from top to bottom, the everyday Joe as well as in the board room, that the LIMITS on one’s thought and action were completely accepted, a silent interior wall of restraint.

We’re there today, hardly a murmur over the degradation of civil liberties. Massive surveillance becomes standard operating procedure. Now, the National Security State. Orwell’s Big Brother is now, presumably, an avuncular distant relative, ready for assisted living. Deutscher was not fooled. Repression wearing a liberal face (if even that) is still repression. The Obama smile, in this case, hides a war apparatus hungry for the kill, and a “defense” budget to match. My point: the indictment of China for cyberespionage, neglecting all questions of America’s disproportionately heavier involvement in such activities, is PHONY, not only a way to hide America’s record, but also what I termed a “stalking horse” to suck China into a vortex of mutual recriminations raising the temperature of the American public to a boiling point, so as to make armed conflict with China thinkable—and, as has already started, the deployment of armed forces, naval power, the whole gamut of weaponry options to the Pacific.

Edward Wong’s New York Times article, “U.S. Case Offers Glimpse Into China’s Hacker Army,” (May 23), the title somewhat loaded (for would we call NSA America’s Hacker Army?), and leaving unsaid that we could not get, until, of course, Edward Snowden, even a “glimpse” into Washington’s nether world of cyberspying, much less the dimensions of domestic surveillance and foreign eavesdropping, nonetheless imparts, albeit one-sided, some interesting information. Wong discusses the five individuals on DOJ’s “Wanted” Posters, each under indictment by a Pennsylvania grand jury for hacking “the computers of prominent American companies to steal commercial secrets, presumably for the benefit of Chinese companies.”

“China’s hacking culture,” he writes, “is a complex mosaic of shifting motivations, employers and allegiances,” the hackers “trained at universities run by the People’s Liberation Army,” many of whom are free-lance operators after working hours. This part should obviously not be fudged, despite that his informants are think-tank and Council of Foreign Relations sources, for PLA involvement and an extensive hacking culture are both present in China.

However, Wong also makes the point, though not pursuing it further, that USG makes an arbitrary (he doesn’t call it that) distinction, which it uses to hide and justify the framework for its own cyberspying (which he also ignores): “The Obama administration makes a distinction between hacking to protect national security, which it calls fair play, and hacking to obtain trade secrets that would give an edge to corporations, which it says is illegal. China and other nations accuse the United States of being the biggest perpetrator of both kinds of espionage.”

I say Amen to the latter, except that in fact the fetishism of National Security allows the US to do both as though a unified field of permissible activity. Worshipping the god of national security throws a mantle over the corporation per se, not only needful for national security, but also what makes America distinctive, good, benign—capitalism, which must enjoy the full protection of the State. Following Chinese hackers has become an American cottage industry, as Wong is good enough to list several private contractors, e.g., FireEye, who have a hand in the game. What this says of the accuracy of the charges made, remains to be determined.

My New York Times Comment on Wong’s article, same date, follows:

Thank you Mr. Wong for the China dimension; now, to balance the account, I should like The Times to examine US activities. Problem: NYT does not seek balance, and rather gives Obama favored treatment; how compare China’s record with the present massive surveillance of NSA?What importance attaches to US eavesdropping of foreign leaders, or FBI use of informants for cyberspying? Fair is fair. US wanted posters for Chinese hackers (assuming the charges are valid) would merit, conversely, an International Criminal Court indictment of Obama for war crimes, starting with targeted assassination, regime change, covert operations, rendition, torture–the list goes on, far more egregious practices than charged against China.

The whole cyber dispute between the US and China, especially given the American record, is a sham, i.e., pretext for moving closer to outright military confrontation with China. Why else the “pivot,” the whole Pacific-first strategy, along with TPP, and naval-and-air power to the region? The US by Obama’s encirclement (e.g., via military alliances, joint-maneuvers, increased troop presence, etc.) is a threat to world peace. China however will not be intimidated. Nor will the world, outside of the US’s immediate power orbit, sit still. Open condemnation is not far behind, if not already raised, and the clumsiness of US hegemonic moves will hardly halt the formation of a Eurasian trading bloc, the thing America wants to prevent yet by its actions fosters.

Then we have, bless their hearts, The Times editorial board’s thoughts, usually in disconnect from the even gingerly reporting of its investigative reporters, the editorial entitled, “A Surveillance Bill That Falls Short,” (May 23), which references a House bill “to curtail the government’s abusive surveillance practices” the Times itself admits is inadequate. Here we see Establishment Centrism teetering on the brink, fearing that basic criticism would compromise the paper’s reputation for “objective” (read, pro-administration) reporting. Yet, be thankful for small openings. The editorial states, “Unfortunately, the bill passed by the House on Thursday [May 22] falls far short of those promises, and does not live up to its title, the U.S.A. Freedom Act.” (With a title like that, one instinctively runs for cover.) It continues: “Because of last-minute pressure from a recalcitrant Obama administration, the bill contains loopholes that dilute the strong restrictions in an earlier version, potentially allowing the spy agencies to continue much of their phone-data collection.” A rare phrase, “a recalcitrant Obama administration,” which should be savored—before it is retracted, or, as here, compromised by The Times’s own improvements.

Thus, “The bill moves the collection of phone data from the government to the phone companies, where it belongs.” But the collection continues. Thus again, “It limits the ability of the National Security Agency to request calling records more than two contacts away from a terrorism suspect…” Two contacts too many, an already wide connective chain scooping in others. Finally, “It requires that opinions or orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court be made public, unless they would clearly expose intelligence sources or harm national security. Even then, summaries of the opinions would have to be provided.” Given the Court’s sordid record, e.g., no adversarial procedure allowed, why not abolish rather than gussy up this obnoxious judicial instrument? Harming national security: a capacious umbrella under which to hide all manner of abuses. Redaction, thy name is holy.

The Times, after all, has something of a conscience, for in looking at a version of the bill that this one replaced, it admits that “after those committee votes, administration officials went behind closed doors and demanded changes. The new bill adds more search terms, and makes it clear that the list is no longer limited.” Obama vs. civil liberties, there NYT should go. Bravo, The Times persists: “The changes demanded by the White House [i.e., Obama] would also weaken the provision allowing Internet companies to report how often the government made requests of their data…. And the role of declassifying court decisions would go from the attorney general to the director of national intelligence, the last person who should do it.” Good, but not good enough, the difference between Holder and Clapper being negligible.

Still, on this legislation, The Times instinctively may have sensed that America—thank you, all three branches of government, each making its own special contribution—is moving almost ineluctably to fascism. My Comment on the editorial, same date, follows:

Finally The Times at least partially concedes Obama’s savage record on civil liberties, and even then, in still allowing for bulk data collections, simply shifts location from government to phone companies. Not good enough. How say, “Because of last-minute pressure from a recalcitrant Obama administration, the [House] bill contains loopholes…,” and still have any sort of confidence Obama will do right? Again, “The changes demanded by the White House would also weaken the provision allowing Internet companies…”, yet no outright condemnation in face of the resultant emasculation.

Why keep up the charade? Why defend the abrogation of civil liberties? Why carry water for a POTUS whose record, as in denying habeas corpus rights to detainees, along with the authorization of the massive surveillance of the American people in the first place, and the targeted ASSASSINATION of individuals, including US citizens, without charges, counsel, etc., merits the contempt of all who value (if there are still some of us) traditional principles of the rule of law.

By his actions, Obama is lawless. The Times here prettifies a critique by avoiding the center of power responsible for the excesses committed.

Instructive reply (reaction of NYT reader to criticism of USG and Obama) to my comment, name deleted, same date:

NY Times with the help of Mr. Snowden has been quite prolific in exposing US activities.

Now if Mr. Snowden or others could expose the surveillance efforts of China, then we could compare the efforts of the two countries.

It could be that the Chinese at this point don’t lack the desire but do lack the technology.

My reply to the reply (illustrative of need to clarify issues), same date:

Rita thanks for your reply, but you evade the challenge, shifting to China while ignoring US behavior. Cyberwarfare is a means to an end, not an end. Face–and here answer–the criticism directed to Obama’s record and present practices. Global hegemony is not a catch-phrase, but an accurate description of a world posture claiming unilateral dominance–military, political, economic, ideological. Even TPP deserves analysis, rather than implied dismissal. I’m afraid the US is embarked on a fascist course under liberal auspices: liberal fascism, starting with massive surveillance of the American people.

Rita, if you value the rule of law, Obama is not worth defending or apologizing for–whatever might be said about China’s role in cyberespionage. Obama can’t claim he’s protecting us when his and USG’s practices are still worse. You invoke Snowden, but fail to credit the seriousness of his revelations. I too would like to see the light turned on China, but that does not excuse US conduct. Let’s start with drone assassination, those clubby Tuesday evening meetings replete with hit lists, national security advisers complicit in torture and a POTUS who personally authorizes assassination. And then go on from there.

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

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