Monday, June 24, 2013

Domestic Spying

Next to a guest column by a former National Security Agency employee who calls whistleblower Edward Snowden "a thief, a coward and a traitor," the Albuquerque Journal in today's print edition published this comment by political cartoonist Christopher Weyant.

Snowden, in his initial revelations to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, said he hoped the story wouldn't be about himself but about the US government's policy of spying on its own citizens. Yet to many on all sides of the issue the story is about Snowden. Is he a traitor or a hero? Will he get away? How dare he? I've been posting updates that portray Snowden's moving about as a flight to freedom, a flight that others, like US Secretary of state John Kerry, who this morning called Snowden a "traitor," portray as Snowden's flight from "justice." Articles about Snowden's maneuvering have been the most often posted news articles for more than 24 hours now, according to Google, sometimes topping 2,000 per hour.

Whatever you think about Snowden, there are two stories here -- Snowden, and what he has been revealing. The US government does spy on its own citizens. If you think that's alright, OK. But it does, and it does many things it didn't used to do, using terrorism as the excuse,  or reason, depending on whether you agree with it or not, whether you think it's worth giving up your privacy and certain civil liberties or not, whether you think there's any real danger to US citizens from terrorists or not. 

Writer Walter Brasch catalogs many of the things the government is doing, that it didn't used to do, in a blog post that's being reprinted here and there. Besides what the NSA is doing -- sweeping up the digital record of everything we say and do and storing it -- the government has several programs set up that collect personal information on Americans and feed it into big data bases. These data bases are where things like the famous "no fly list" comes from. Any information you give out, like that which goes on your drivers license, or that you hand over to airlines, such as your eye color or your meal preferences, is building up in these data bases.

The danger of all this, of course, is not that the government has this information on you, but the potential uses it can be put to. The no fly lists, Brasch points out, somehow included several hundred people who simply opposed George W Bush and Dick Cheney politically.

This is what the NSA story should be about, not Edward Snowden. We like to think that America can never become a police state -- not here, we like to believe. But we believe that because of the safeguards the founders put into the Bill of Rights, and the cautionary decisions that have been made by courts and legislators ever since. We feel that "right" and truth will pretty much always win out, because we've always had open courts and open arrest records, not secret courts, like the courts approving the decisions to spy on Americans, and the secret arrests now possible under US law.

Snowden, whether you like him or not, knew he faced a US government that has already declared him a traitor. He knew the congressional oversight committees formed in the 1970s to prevent intelligence agency abuse were entirely ignorant of Bush Administration wiretapping, and now spend their time defending the intelligence agencies and their budgets not overseeing them. He knew about Bradley Manning, who was held in solitary confinement in what the UN Special Rappoteur called conditions of torture and is now undergoing what amounts to a show trial, where the military judge has categorically denied every defense motion to present evidence. 

Safeguards like the Bill of Rights, that are steadily being eroded by things like the Patriot Act and by legal opinions written by Bush and Obama justice department lawyers, that we aren't even allowed to see, are why Americans believe we can't become a police state, not because American rulers are somehow more virtuous or wise than other rulers or are automatically only interested in our best interests, or because Americans are somehow inherently incapable of doing things to each other that other human beings somewhere else routinely do.



  1. What is good for the government should also apply to corporations who probably track you more the the feds. For instance, go on line and click an ad to buy a lawn mower. and then start watching for months as ever lawn mower merchant in the world puts ads on your internet pages. I wonder who I trust more? Obama or the Koch brothers.

  2. I've been thinking about your comment. Marxism holds that the economic system is what determines everything, from our perception of reality to government policy, everything. And the larger context for a government spying on its own citizens would be to keep them in line and pliant, keep being obedient workers and good consumers. I and a lot of other Leftists have been moaning about government, so thanks for putting me back on track. I always thought you had Marxist tendencies!