Bush, Obama and the National Surveillance State

Bush, Obama and the National Surveillance State April 24, 2012

Glenn Greenwald reacts to the recent episode of Democracy Now that featured an NSA whistleblower (William Binney) and two people who have been the victims of serious harassment from the government over their activism against the unconstitutional anti-terror measures from both the Bush and Obama administrations. And he recalls this quote from Sen. Frank Church, who chaired the famous Church committee hearings about the CIA and NSA in the 1970s:

“Th[e National Security Agency’s] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. [If a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A.] could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.“

Church was an optimist, as it turns out. In fact, we do not need a dictator to bring such things about. Bush was not a dictator and neither is Obama; Bush left office when Obama was elected and Obama will do the same when his successor is elected, either in November or in 2016. But the National Surveillance State transcends the identity of our elected leaders even while it was built up and strengthened by both of them, giving themselves and future presidents ever more power to invade our privacy with no recourse at all, no check on that authority.

We love to tell ourselves that there are robust political freedoms and a thriving free political press in the U.S. because you’re allowed to have an MSNBC show or blog in order to proclaim every day how awesome and magnanimous the President of the United States is and how terrible his GOP political adversaries are — how brave, cutting and edgy! — or to go on Fox News and do the opposite. But people who are engaged in actual dissent, outside the tiny and narrow permissible boundaries of pom-pom waving for one of the two political parties — those who are focused on the truly significant acts which the government and its owners are doing in secret — are subjected to this type of intimidation, threats, surveillance, and climate of fear, all without a whiff of illegal conduct (as even The New York Times‘ most celebrated investigative reporter, James Risen, will tell you).

Whether a country is actually free is determined not by how well-rewarded its convention-affirming media elites are and how ignored its passive citizens are but by how it treats its dissidents, those posing authentic challenges to what the government does. The stories of the three Democracy Now guests — and so many others — provide that answer loudly and clearly.

Reacting to Binney’s claim that the NSA has collected some 20 trillion electronic transactions, Greenwald writes:

That sounds like a number so large as to be fantastical, but it’s entirely consistent with what The Washington Post, in its 2010 “Top Secret America” series, reported: “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.” Read that sentence again and I defy anyone to deny that the U.S. has become the type of full-fledged, limitless Surveillance State about which Sen. Church warned.

Note, too, how this weapon has been not just maintained, but — as Binney said — aggressively expanded under President Obama. Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowing has been, in large part, designed to shield from the American public any knowledge of just how invasive this Surveillance State has become. Two Obama-loyal Democratic Senators — Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado — have spent two full years warning that the Obama administration is “interpreting” its spying powers under the Patriot Act in ways so “twisted” and broad that it would shock the American public if it learned of what was being done, and have even been accusing the DOJ and Attorney General Holder of actively misleading the public in material ways about its spying powers (unlike brave whistleblowers who have risked their own interests to bring corruption and illegality to the public’s attention — Binney, Drake, Bradley Manning, etc — Wyden and Udall have failed to tell the public about this illegal spying (even though they could do so on the Senate floor and be immune from prosecution) because they apparently fear losing their precious seat on the Intelligence Committee, but what’s the point of having a seat on the Intelligence Committee if you render yourself completely impotent even when you learn of systematic surveillance lawbreaking?).

None of this should be surprising: Obama — in direct violation of his primary campaign pledge — infamously voted for the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that not only immunized lawbreaking telecoms, but also legalized much of the NSA domestic spying program Bush had ordered in the aftermath of 9/11. At the time, he and his acolytes insisted that Obama was doing so only so that he could win the election and then use his power to fix these spying abuses, yet another Obama-glorifying claim that has turned out to be laughable in its unreliability. The Obama administration also advocated for full-scale renewal of the Patriot Act last year, and it was Harry Reid who attacked Rand Paul for urging reforms to that law by accusing him of helping the Terrorists with his interference.

While there are still progressive interest groups that protest this massive and unconstitutional power grab — the ACLU, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Center for Constitutional Rights — the Democratic leadership, from Obama to Reid, Pelosi and Feinstein, have been absolutely complicit in the creation, maintenance and expansion of the National Surveillance State. And the Republicans have, predictably, been leading the way, from Bush to Boehner to David Addington. It has, as Greenwald has pointed out so many times, now a bipartisan consensus.

In ancient Rome, the early emperors were wise enough to keep the structure of the Senate in place even while stripping it of any real authority. By keeping the structure of the old republic in place, they could pretend that Rome was something other than a dictatorship. We now have something quite similar. We still go through the motions of holding elections, and there are genuine differences in policy on many important issues depending on which one is in power, but on the most foundational question of the limits of the government’s ability to surveil and detain us, they are in agreement. That is how freedom dies.

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