OBAMA'S NATIONAL SECURITY STATE EXPOSED: THE MEANING OF THE EDWARD SNOWDEN REVELATIONS
BY JEFF MACKLER
President Obama’s well-publicized May 23 speech to the nation was aimed at moderating the present U.S. dictum that the country is and should remain in a never-ending state of war—that is, the undeclared, undefined “war on terror.”
This “war,” codified since 9-11 in the Patriot Act and the associated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, has been routinely reaffirmed and expanded in scope by the Obama administration. It has been routinely employed to justify endless National Security Agency, FBI, and a myriad of other public and private government-funded spy operations that violate with impunity democratic rights and civil liberties at home and justify real wars abroad in which the Pentagon and privatized mercenary Blackwater-type death squads murder oppressed people around the world. Indeed, close to half of the U.S.-paid armed forces operating in Afghanistan today—hundreds of thousands of trained killers and their back-up operatives—function as private mercenary armies.
Judging that perhaps some embarrassing excesses have been committed in this “perpetual” state of war, President Obama suggested that the “Authorization for Use of Military Force” measures approved by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings committed by Egyptian terrorists, might be modified a bit to avoid “keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.”
He added, “Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.” The latter, as we all are supposed to understand, are being “phased out.” We can only assume, therefore, that the trillion-dollar annual military budget will be largely restricted to America’s “non-traditional,” daily wars conducted around the world largely in secret!
The Obama speech was laden with tedious and moralizing platitudes devoid of a single specific measure to remedy the avalanche of crude, brutal, illegal, unconstitutional, racist and even genocidal measures that today define the daily ruling-class policies and practices of a declining social order. The president’s speech was prompted by recent revelations that one or more of his spy agencies had wiretapped the home, office, and cell phones of some 20 Associated Press reporters and previously their counterparts in The New York Times.
The “humble” and posturing president also suggested that he and his successors might be restricted a tad in utilizing the present “kill list” to murder suspected terrorists, and that ways might even be found to limit torture and indefinite detention with regard to the hunger-strikers at the imperial U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. These prisoners have been held for years without charges, access to attorneys, or any other form of due process—and often have been subjected to torture.
Obama discussed only his short list of possible government transgressions, while promising to ask their very perpetrators, as if he himself was guiltless, to investigate themselves! Virtually absent from the president’s discourse were references to the vast array of blatant violations of fundamental rights that any “democratic” society would take for granted.
There was no mention of ongoing FBI threats to fine internet companies who refuse to install devices in their equipment to facilitate government surveillance of every person in the country. That such devices are operative is beyond doubt, but we are told that the acquired information is funneled into some “non-government-associated” holding apparatus accessible only when permission is granted by some secret government oversight body—to be sure, one “sworn” to protect our constitutional rights from people or institutions like the president, the NSA, the FBI, and all the others who might be tempted to abuse them.
Snowden: The spy who came in from the cold
To the great embarrassment of Obama and his posturing co-conspirators at every level of government, within days of his “pledge of openness” speech, the lid was blown off any and all pretence of democratic functioning in the U.S. This took place when a 29-year-old former CIA intelligence technician, Edward Joseph Snowden, currently employed at Booz Allen Hamilton, a multi-billion-dollar government-contracted spy agency, publicly announced what no one could deny—that he was the source of the British Guardian and Washington Post revelations during the previous week.
Snowden disclosed secret and longstanding FISA court orders demanding that virtually all of the nation’s internet providers—including Yahoo, Microsoft, Paytalk, AOL, Apple, Facebook, Skype and YouTube—allow for the unprecedented, secretly conducted, and ongoing government sweep of phone calls, audio and video chats, e-mails, photographs, documents, connection logs, and other communications used daily by American citizens.
The government spy program, code-named Prism, supposedly allowed corporations like Apple Computer to officially deny that they were the “direct” source that inspected the information or allowed immediate government access to it. They could point out instead that they served as merely a conduit that funneled all such information into Prism. In all, the whistleblowers reported that the NSA collects phone records on 3 billion private communications per day!
The leader of the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee, Diane Feinstein, blithely dismissed the revelations entirely, insisting that since they were FISA court-ordered—that is, issued by a secret court with virtually no government oversight—they were perfectly legal. Feinstein did indicate that some unnamed government officials had been “briefed” on the matter.
While government officials also retorted that all three branches of government had “signed off” on the telephone spying, a top ACLU official, Anthony Romero, denounced the program as a fundamental violation of civil liberties, saying, “A pox on all three houses of government,” regardless of what hidden approval devices were employed.
Another just-released 18-page presidential memo has Obama, according to Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, writing in The Guardian, ordering intelligence officials to “draw up a list for potential overseas targets for U.S. cyber attacks.” This never-published October 2012 Presidential Policy Directive 20 states that Offensive Cyber Effects Operations “can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance U.S. national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging.” The same objectives can be perpetrated within the U.S., says Obama’s directive, but only with prior orders from the president, except in cases of “emergency.”
This alone should cause some anxiety among activists who might suffer under the illusion that Facebook and other such social media devices can function as a permanent democratic instrument to challenge capitalist abuse and power and organize mass opposition. With a push of the government’s “emergency” button, these new and undoubtedly valuable but ultimately limited forms of communication can expected to be shut down in an instant.
And thus, in a matter of days, the Obama administration’s effort to posture as defenders of civil liberties went up in flames, and the police-state-type mechanisms that had been meticulously put into place and illegally used for more than seven years, officially, were exposed around the world. What a small layer of political activists had justifiably taken for granted for decades and longer is now the public knowledge of millions—and exposed by a handful of leakers who will inevitably face severe government persecution. How could it be otherwise?
Mushrooming spy apparatus
Edward Snowden was one of some 1.4 million intelligence technicians, operatives, security specialists, or just plain spies who have earned—after the minimum of a one-year investigation—top-level national security classification status. Moreover, all of these individuals work for a mushrooming number of government and privatized spy agencies charged with collecting data from every conceivable source. Indeed, the very rivalry between many of these agencies has fueled internal debates as to whether or not their efforts should be coordinated and the results “shared” to increase their efficiency and avoid duplication of effort.
It was these very “sharing” concerns that allowed Snowden, a relatively low-level employee at Booz Allen who specialized in such technical coordination, to gain access to the data of multiple agencies and their associated collections of government-classified documents. As with Bradley Manning’s leaks of millions of pages of classified “dirty-op” material to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks—including the release of videotapes of deliberate murder—this once again reveals that capitalism recognizes no limits when it comes to advancing its interests.
Here it is critical to state that Snowden’s revelations, the magnitude of which have yet to be determined, go far beyond the unprecedented spy network daily used against American citizens in violations of their right to privacy, free speech, and association. It is highly probable that Snowden’s computers, four or five of which he is reported to keep in his possession at all times, contain classified material that includes the illegal U.S. spy operations conducted against virtually all nations on earth. This material ranges from military secrets to private-sector intellectual property and data on scientific breakthroughs that relate to key aspects of capitalist production and trade, to documents of the very government and private banking institutions that collectively constitute the core operations of all U.S. rivals.
Snowden has now been charged under the Espionage Act with at least three violations, which would total some 30 years in prison, assuming he is extradited, indicted, and convicted. The government is looking for other avenues to persecute this bright and conscience-driven youth, who has little or no previous political experience. Major pressure was exerted on the Chinese government to extradite Snowden from Hong Kong, where he was reportedly in hiding with fears for his very life at the hands of U.S. operatives. The Chinese government was in no hurry to accede to the barrage of U.S. demands, especially when it learned from Snowden’s revelations that it too had been subjected to illegal U.S. spy operations. Undaunted, the courageous Snowden continues to release swaths of illegal and secret U.S. government spy operations, creating an unprecedented nightmare for Obama and the U.S. government.
It is interesting to note here that both Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden state that they took care to not release material that might cause harm to U.S. spies or otherwise directly jeopardize their operations, a form of innocent self-censorship in this writer’s view, that they perhaps believed might limit government efforts to lock them in jail forever—if not worse. This distinction was also employed by the Washington Post and other media who in the past, as with The New York Times’s 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers and the more recent Wikileaks material, actually submitted the materials they received for prior government perusal—that is, censorship.
In the case of the corporate media, it is simply a matter of doing the bidding of the U.S. ruling elite while attempting to maintain the semblance of a “free press” at the same time. A 1996 Times article noted that the Pentagon Papers, which revealed secret U.S. operations in Vietnam over the course of some 25 years, "demonstrated, among other things, that the Lyndon Baines Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.” The Pentagon Papers, were not declassified and publicly released until June 2011, that is, some 40 years after they were first leaked by RAND Corporation top-level military analyst and former Pentagon military specialist, Daniel Ellsberg.
The prosecution and punishment of the leakers remains a top priority, with government officials already investigating how to inflict the greatest harm to Glenn Greenwald, one of the country’s most democratically minded bloggers and the British Guardian reporter who first exposed this most recent wholesale violation of fundamental rights. Greenwald has toured the country and the world for years warning of the dangers of today’s unchecked surveillance and the resulting criminal acts perpetrated in the name of national security. This includes a national tour last year, when Greenwald minced no words in damning the government’s persecution of 700,000 members of the U.S. Muslim community since 9-11.
These latest revelations are but the tip of the iceberg. It is only a matter of time until the thousands and more of the millions of U.S. spies “come in from the cold” to expose the daily police-state measures, engineered wars, and mass murders that constitute a key portion of ruling-class policy today. What Snowden has revealed with regard to government spying differs little from the ever-deepening coordinated military-police measures being put into place in preparation for quelling the massive protests the ruling elite fully expect as their ongoing austerity measures inflict deepening misery on U.S. workers.
Drone bombings defend “national security”
There was little specific mention in Obama’s oration on the drone bombings that have to date taken the lives of almost 5000 civilians around the world, including a number of Americans in foreign countries deemed to be “terrorist suspects” and killed by some remote satellite-guided drone operator halfway around the world. The president did suggest that perhaps the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, might be assigned to drone warfare, thus leaving the CIA free to focus on perhaps more important objectives, including economic and military espionage.
Stealing corporate secrets, patents, research, and “intellectual property rights” of America’s corporate competitors—an activity always considered fair game in today’s thus-far mostly non-military competition for global economic domination, ranks high in top corporate circles. To be accurate, Obama did pledge that drone “signature strikes” would perhaps now continue with some vaguely-stated congressional or secret “public oversight,” as opposed to the present criteria of murdering people because they live in a region alleged to be in the vicinity of “terrorist operations.” The latter are defined as any that challenge the ongoing U.S. wars and interventions against their countries.
As in the decade of the Vietnam War, where the unofficial U.S. objective was, perhaps humorously stated, to “teach the Vietnamese not to invade the land that they were born in,” a war that slaughtered four million Vietnamese, terrorists are defined as anyone who opposes U.S. occupations and the rape of their country. In decades past this included the South African forces of the African National Congress, today the governing party of that nation.
To be sure, Iraq and Afghanistan were excluded from the president’s new and non-specific guidelines because these are “real wars,” as compared to Pakistan, where thousands of civilian drone murders have been systematically documented even though the U.S. is not “officially” at war in that country. Given this “fact,” the U.S. admits to no drone killings there, a fiction necessary to maintain a semblance of credibility—that is, to everyone except the Pakistani victims.
The use of surveillance drones to daily spy on American citizens was excluded—at least for the time being by the “democratic” chief of state. Again, maintaining the fiction of U.S. capitalist democracy at home still concerns U.S. policy makers, although this fiction stands exposed today more than ever as a crude fraud. The most recent revelations include evidence of the use of drones for U.S. domestic surveillance.
The FBI’s subpoenaing 24 members of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization to appear before a Chicago Grand Jury investigating terrorism tells us that the now officially-admitted spying on virtually the entire nation will be accompanied by persecution and imprisonment of social activists merely because of their political views. This attack on a socialist organization, the first in a generation, and on a group prominently involved in the U.S. antiwar movement and in the leadership of the broadly representative United National Antiwar Coalition, is an ominous sign that worse is to come. The list of antiwar and social justice organizations that have reported and proven government and police surveillance is ever increasing.
On the trade-union front, Obama neglected to explain why top government officials threatened to use the military to break strikes by the Longview, Wash., longshore strikers last year and in the not-so-recent past, when the striking ILWU was threatened with “national security” injunctions and the use of Navy crane operators to break a West Coast ILWU strike.
The monstrous persecution of “whistle blowers” like Bradley Manning—who exposed hundreds of thousands of pages of illegal government spying around the world as well as revealing videotape proof of the conscious murder of U.S. and foreign journalists, as well as civilians, by U.S. helicopter pilots who followed orders to gun down the innocent—never made the president’s list of democratic concerns. Persecuting the truth tellers rather than the murderers is standard U.S. policy—necessary, again, to defend the “national security” interests of the U.S. elite.
The shattering of fundamental constitutional rights is today commonplace in today’s legal system. In the name of the war on terror, attorney-client confidentiality has been eliminated via “legalized” electronic surveillance. In the case of Lynne Stewart her private government-taped conversations with her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rachman, were introduced in court as evidence against her—yet another example of trashing democratic rights in the fake war on terrorism.
Persecution of immigrants and Muslims
Obama also declined to mention that his administration has deported more immigrants, 300,000-plus over each of the past three years, than any administration in history—criminalizing, again in the name of national security, the poorest sectors of the working class, who labor most often at sub-minimum wages to satiate agri-business and other corporate requirements to remain competitive in world markets.
Furthermore, the Obama administration is using the immigration system to expand surveillance of the entire U.S. population. A FOIA request submitted by immigrant rights groups in 2011 revealed that Secure Communities, a program used to deport immigrants through the jail system, is the precursor of a national biometric database called Next Generation Identification, which is currently being developed by the FBI. And the latest immigration reform proposal expands E-verify to cover all workers in the U.S. Soon everyone could be required to show a biometric ID when applying for any job. Its clear from these few examples that attacks on immigrants are attacks on all workers.
Since 9-11 the ever-expanding Homeland Security apparatus has investigated more than 700,000 Muslims, again with the “justification” that this community represents a threat to the nation’s “national security.” There were no Obama apologies for these blatantly racist persecutions, as there are none for the “stop and frisk” legislation wherein hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown working people are daily harassed, persecuted, and jailed. The U.S. today imprisons the largest number and percentage of its population than any nation on earth. It ranks first as well in the number of executions, in both cases the majority victims of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.
With regard to his just admitted, and still unpunished, and therefore impliedly justified, civil liberties incursions, Obama pledged “to strike an appropriate balance [sometime in the future] between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.” His contemplated formation of an “independent board” to preserve civil liberties, as if the myriad of Constitutional/Bill of Rights protections and the entire system of judges and juries sworn to defend them were no longer adequate to guarantee these rights, is more than ironic.
These measures signal that the U.S. ruling class has been well aware of the massive mobilizations of workers around the world who have gone to new lengths to challenge the austerity measures imposed on them by a failing world capitalism that has no choice but to resolve its contradictions at the expense of the great majority. This includes the increased use of force, violence, and repression in its multiple forms to thwart the inevitable concerted fightbacks ahead.
Preparation for deepening repression
World capitalism faces perhaps its greatest crisis in the modern era. Its solution, with few if any exceptions, is to make working people and the most oppressed pay the price of the system’s universal economic failures. The tens of trillions of dollars exacted through near-universal austerity measures are used to bail out a system with no recourse other than more of the same—if not famine, endless wars, and the destruction of the environment.
What the capitalist minority fears most is the conscious organization by dedicated, disciplined, and deeply rooted revolutionary fighters of the vast majority, who alone can challenge its rule and replace it with an egalitarian society where the fulfillment of human needs of the earth’s people and the construction of a world free from war and environmental destruction trumps the dictatorship of the capitalist profiteers.
This dictatorship reveals its sharp teeth in the threatening code words imbedded in President Obama’s still guarded rhetoric, including his promise of “democracy” for all. Behind this stilted language, always inclusive of explicit “national security” justifications for repression, murder, and war, stands a failing system preparing to use any all means necessary to achieve its politically and morally degenerate ends.
Today, U.S. capitalism still rules with the relative consent of the majority, who despite their growing anger and frustrations, retain the illusion that their lives can be improved, in time, by the operation of the system rather than through their active intervention as revolutionary subjects.
But the ruling rich nevertheless constantly prepare for the time when these illusions are shattered, and mass working-class forces led by conscious revolutionary socialist fighters and parties that have earned a reputation for being the most consistent representatives of the broad workers’ movement in all its manifestations begin to call into question the system itself.
We can see important institutional elements for future repression being methodically moved into place, from major infringements of civil and democratic rights, to preparations for mass arrests, detentions, and imprisonment. A whiff of fascist repression is in the air, awaiting the time when its real expression becomes a requirement for continued capitalist rule. Between now and then, time remains to organize the working-class millions to defend their own interests and thwart this onslaught with a power far beyond the control of any and all would-be tyrants.
A longer version of this article is available at www.socialistaction.org.