Tag Archives: National Security Agency

Escaping The Abusive State: After Snowden

5 Dec

 

 

            The more contact one has with the modern state, even in those societies that have long constitutional traditions entrenching civil liberties, the more grounds there are for deep and growing concern. I suppose that the most dramatic exhibition of the dangers being posed as 2014 approaches, and we are reminded that this will be 30 years after 1984, are associated with Edward Snowden’s extraordinary disclosures of the global network of surveillance being operated by the National Security Agency in the United States (NSA).  Such a network presupposes that we are all, that is, every inhabitant on the planet to be regarded as worth investigating as potential terrorist threats, and along the way establishing a huge data bank of information that can be used for nefarious purposes at any point to disempower and subvert protest movements or even blackmail anyone seen to be obstructing projects dear to the government or any special interest group that has the government’s ear on matters it cares about.

 

            In important respects more disturbing than the Snowden revelations was the rabid response of the supposedly liberal government presided over by Barack Obama. No stone was left unturned, other than assassination or kidnapping, in the effort to gain physical custody over Snowden evidently with the intention of prosecuting him to the full extent of the law as an odious criminal offender. Foreign governments were badgered to cooperate in the pursuit, a plane carrying the Bolivian president was improperly denied access to the airspace of several European countries and forced to land in Vienna, because it was suspected of carrying Snowden. Such an enforcement dynamic completely overlooked the political nature of Snowden’s crimes, which have been uniformly regarded as placing an accused individual beyond the reach of extradition if outside of sovereign territory, which was definitely the case here, making Snowden legally unreachable even in the event that countries involved had extradition treaty arrangements for cooperative criminal law enforcement. Such treaties did not exist in relation to China and Russia, the countries where Snowden was physically present, and yet the United States persisted in its demands, and treated the Chinese and Russian governments as behaving in a hostile fashion of diplomatic relevance when they rejected the demands of the U.S. State Department to treat Snowden as a routine fugitive from criminal justice. Not so incidentally, the United States government has long shielded those accused of even violent crimes by foreign governments through reliance on this exception to extradition based on the political nature of the crime.

 

            Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of this still festering situation is the energy devoted to Snowden as the whistleblower, more derisively referred to as ‘a leaker,’ while ignoring implications for a humane and democratic future by treating everyone, everywhere as a potential enemy who would be spied upon to the extent technology allowed. There was some mild pushback by Congress, seeking clearer guidelines on the mandate of the NSA, and searching for the outer limits of the permissible encroachment on the privacy of individuals, governments, and economic entities. In the background is a well-grounded suspicion that part of the motivation for global surveillance is to assure a competitive edge for American property, trade, and investment interests, and to gain dirt on foreign diplomats and political leaders.

 

            Overlapping with the official fury directed at Snowden was the broader anger directed at whistleblowers whose disclosures sought to set off alarm bell. Those who had the temerity to disclose governmental criminal wrongdoing were themselves criminalized by a focus on their breach of  excessive classification restrictions. It should be clear, as highlighted by Daniel Ellsberg’s notable reflections on the release of the Pentagon Papers gathered in his book appropriately titled Secrets, that the excesses of governmental secrecy are joined at the hip to extravagant surveillance in what amounts to a perverse twinning relationship. The very government that refuses to accept restrictions on its invasions of the privacy of its citizens and people around the world, mounts unprecedented and simultaneous claims that it needs to operate without any accountability behind several high walls of secrecy.

 

            The experiences of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are of a piece with that of Edward Snowden: vindictive backlash, exaggerated security claims, and an arrogant refusal to gaze in the mirror. The Wikileaks/Manning disclosures revealed serious war crimes and governmental cover ups,  the existence of which make a strong case for violating pledges of secrecy that are relied upon to hide the ugly dimensions of what is involved in foreign policy, especially in relation military interventions carried out in such distant countries as Afghanistan and Iraq. Should not the American people have a write to know about state crimes committed in their name? Should not the peoples living in foreign countries have the right to know about such crimes that produce suffering and victimization in their supposedly sovereign countries? And when such disclosures do occur, should not the government have the decency to acknowledge its own wrongdoing, and thank the whistleblower and apologize to those who were victimized?

 

            My motivation in writing this piece was prompted by seemingly different more personal outrages associated with the behavior of the liberal state. In the first instance, I have been deeply moved by the continuing tragic saga of Lynne Stewart, a courageous American lawyer who has a long record of defending unpopular political and indigent clients, who has been allowed to languish for months in a Texas jail despite suffering from an acute form of terminal cancer. Her apparent crime that landed her in prison was to pass on information and private messages to the family of ‘the blind Sheik’ (Omar Abdel-Rahman) whom she was representing (alongside Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General) in the terrorist conspiracy trial arising out of the earlier 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. What has been most shocking is that despite numerous recommendations from medical and prison officials to the effect that Stewart easily qualifies for ‘compassionate release’ from prison, a position even endorsed by judicial officials, she remains to this day cruelly confined because Charles Samuels,  Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,  has refused to sign off on her plea. This incarceration of Lynne Stewart is such an extreme instance of vicious and sadistic state behavior toward an honorable citizen that its full horror cannot be fully comprehended by a mere description of her experience. For Lynne Stewart’s story to be credibly portrayed will likely depend on some future artistic enactment as by film or fiction. As so often is true, such a descent into the domain of unspeakable evil can only be grasped if expressed through film or fiction.

 

            My immediate reason for writing in this manner has been an unfolding tale of apparently well-intentioned cruelty by the state that occurred recently in Great Britain. A 35 year old pregnant Italian woman, whose name cannot be disclosed under British criminal law, was visiting the UK a few months ago for the sake of job training course at Stansted Airport in Essex, not far from London. While there she apparently stopped taking medication for a preexisting bipolar condition, resulting in what has been described in the media as ‘a panic attack.’

 

Only then did a perfect storm engulf her life. Her disturbed condition was reported to British authorities under the Mental Health Act whose personnel stepped in and took over the case. In disputed testimony the woman was alleged to need to be constrained. Accordingly, she was transferred to a mental hospital where she was heavily sedated, during which time her baby was delivered by C-Section surgery without her consent, and even her knowledge as she was unconscious. Her lawyer contends that she at all times, including when suffering from mental distress, retained the capacity to give or withhold her consent from the procedure undertaken. If correct, a state-ordered invasive approach to her pregnancy was certainly improper, a violation of the most basic of reproductive rights. Even if she was not sufficiently stable to make an informed decision, it seemed at least necessary to refer such a question to a responsible process of assessment, which was not done as far as is known, or consult with a family member.

 

But the abusive behavior did not stop after the child was born. Quite incredibly, some reports contend that she was not even allowed to see her own baby, while others say she was allowed for two days to have her baby in the hospital room, but it was then summarily removed with the intent to sever her connection permanently. She returned to Italy where her health and mental stability were fully restored by resuming medication at which point she appealed to British courts to acquire custody of the child who had by this time been turned over to foster care. Her appeal was denied despite her Italian nationality, place of residence, and the evidence that she was a competent mother to children growing up under her parental supervision. She didn’t owe the slightest allegiance to Britain and yet her desire and capacity to handle the upbringing of her biological child was rejected by judicial fiat. In a secondary development, her former husband, the father of the child, who was living in America appealed to a British court to have the child brought up by his sister, the aunt of the child, who was certified to be a highly responsible person with excellent parental qualifications and a readiness to undertake the task. The request was denied by the British judge on the ground that there was no ‘blood’ link with the American relative, and that kinship was not sufficient. The result, to date, is the assignment of the baby to a foster home that has no familial connection whatsoever, denying the mother even visitation rights. I doubt that even the most absolutist monarchy would be as contemptuous of humane treatment as has been the behavior of this British welfare/judicial bureaucratic nightmare, an unfolding post-Kafka horror story.

 

            Even granting the well-intentioned innocence of government in relation to these problematic undertakings affecting this mother and child, it is one more distressing example of what happens to people when the government insists that it knows best what to do in situations of admitted social and ethical complexity.  In this instance, it is not acting beyond the law or above the law, but within the law. What took the place was decreed from start to finish by official institutions and administered by bureaucrats probably thinking that they were doing their job in a responsible fashion. As has been observed in some critical writing in the British print media, this story has come to light in part because the victim mother had the resources and composure to seek help from lawyers and friends, as well as the Italian government, and was perceived as a ‘European.’ If instead she was an unlawful immigrant or, worse, a Roma, it is likely that the public would never even have heard of these events, and the whole episode would have been kept within the black box of standard operating procedures when it came to handling the grievances of those among us who are unwanted and marginalized.

 

            In my view, these seemingly disparate occurrences are all expressions of the moral arrogance of the modern liberal state, and its failure to strike a decent balance between freedom and security.  There is no doubt that the recent challenges posed by extremist non-state actors do require adjustments in how government protects those resident within its borders, but the tendency to exaggerate the threat so as to instill sufficient fear in the population to justify the wide spectrum of responses that feature high defense spending, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at one end and Snowden and Manning at the other end is what should be an occasion for an entirely rational collective panic attack in democratic societies, showing healthy signs of deep attachment to the values and practices of freedom, and when there is instead relative quiet, it adds to concerns about a general mood of passivity, resignation, and even acquiescence in ‘the new authoritarianism,’ encouraging more of the same. Such patterns in the domain of national security is  reinforced by such gratuitous abuses as when harmless prisoners are deprived of contact with their loved ones when at death’s doorstep and a newborn child is removed forever from the love and care of a desiring mother for the sake of some misguided ideas of petty bureaucrats engaged in  ‘social services’ and ‘welfare.’ 

 

            We can and must do better, above all as citizens engaged in the protection of the sort of society we wish to live in; without civic activism of a militant character we can wave goodbye to the promise of genuine democracy.  

Protecting Snowden

4 Jul

Such self-designated ‘wise men’ of our time as David Brooks and Tom Friedman, highly influential opinion and opinionated writers of the NY Times, have been telling their readers that Edward Snowden was decent and intelligent, but overstepped the law by arrogating to himself the disclosure of the ‘total data’ surveillance programs of the National Security Agency of the U.S. Government. By deliberately releasing abundant evidence of the astonishing breadth and depth of surveillance, Snowden was clearly motivated by the concern that rights of privacy, the quality of democratic life, and respect for the sovereignty of foreign countries and the confidentiality of diplomatic events were being placed in jeopardy. For some, this bold decision to expose American intelligence gathering made Snowden a villain, called ‘a traitor’ by a variety of public officials including John Kerry, the Secretary of State. There is no doubt that Snowden is guilty of violating espionage laws, which automatically almost constitutes treason for those who possess an ultra-nationalist mentality. Those who think this way believe Snowden deserves to be punished to the limits of the law, and that foreign governments friendly to this country should accede to Washington’s request for his detention and expulsion to the United States to face charges.

Of course for many others Snowden is a hero for our times, actions that should be honored by a Nobel Prize. Snowden put democratic accountability ahead of his own career and security, knowingly placing himself at great risk by daring to challenge the security policies of the government of his own mighty country for the sake of avoiding a gathering Orwellian political storm. What President Obama speaking after the Snowden leaks described in Germany somewhat disingenuously as “a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our own people.” What protection of the American people have to do with listening in on the diplomatic communications of European Union members seems more than far fetched!

There are many sober voices declaring themselves worried about the dangerous implications of such a massive breach of national security, especially following the major discrediting disclosures of those recent master whistle blowers—Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. In effect, given the kind of security threats that exist in the post-9/11 world the public must trust the government to strike the right balance between protecting the country against threats to national security and upholding the liberty of its citizens and respecting the sovereignty of other countries. As Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and later the NSA, put it after these events: “We are now going to target the U.S. as if it were a foreign country.” Should Snowden’s violation of his oath and of espionage laws be welcomed as ‘a safety valve,’ a check upon abusive government, or as a gaping hole in governmental operations that needs to be closed as tightly as possible? The Belt Way insiders’ argument is that unless this latter approach is taken governmental policymaking will suffer because the needed institutional confidence that secrets are kept will be lost.

I find the Big Brother fears more credible than these anxieties about leaks in the secrecy enclosures relied upon by supposedly constitutional governments in defiance of the democratic ethos of accountability, transparency, and participation. What one finds consistently in government practice is an excess of secrecy via promiscuous classification tendencies that seem frequently used often to avoid embarrassing politicians from exposing dubious behavior or protecting bureaucrats from second-guessing and hostile commentary by journalists and the public. What is evident is that the government, even in a country that prides itself on freedom and privacy, tends to view information gathering in a spirit similar to weaponry—do whatever the technology allows so long as the costs are reasonable and the risks can be contained at moderate levels. And with the advent of digitized information technology, the sky is the limit: the PRISM program that was what Snowden was working on in his role as private contractor in the employ of the consulting firm of Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, and —-, was an indiscriminate data collection process that didn’t confine its intrusions to those for whom there existed grounds of suspicion. Indeed, every person everywhere was now living under a cloud of suspicion, there were no roster of ‘usual suspects’ to be rounded up in the aftermath of serious criminal incidents. The distinction crucial for the political wellbeing of people living in a liberal society between suspect and citizen now seems superseded and irrelevant, and this is an ominous development that should be challenged.

Two major developments brought this unsavory reality into being, and given ‘libertarian politics’ a new credibility. First, the most feared existential security threat became associated with potential political extremists who could be anywhere, within or beyond national borders, with or without affiliations to a political network. Consider such instances as the Norwegian Islamophobic right wing sociopath, Anders Breivik, guilty of a massacre on July 22, 2011 or the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombers on April 15, 2013. It is truly the case that the presence of isolated individuals, as well as transnational terrorist networks, pose severe threats to the viability of constitutional democracies. Many have voiced fears that a repetition of 9/11 in the United States would produce a slide into a kind of reactive fascism, and thus some sacrificing of freedoms, placing our trust in elected leaders and representative institutions, and hoping for the best is a kind of situational necessity. Politicians contend that such information trolling in the private domains of peoples’ lives has already contributed to the avoidance of terrorist attacks and horrifying incidents in as many as 90% of the cases of successful prevention. That is, the kind of threat that dominates our current fears can only be addressed in a responsible manner by giving up any expectations of autonomous citizenship or the promises of accountable government. Such a democratic slippage may simply have become a fact of 21st century life about which most of society has accepted, even if with scant awareness of what is happening.

The second important factor is the ‘can do’ quality of digital technology as applied to the temptations of mass surveillance whether for purposes of governmental control or private profit. Information can be gathered, enlisting the social networking infrastructures of modern society, stored, analyzed, coded, and made available for a wide range of licit and illicit uses. There is a sinister continuity between the technological capabilities of the massive data collection program of the NSA known as PRISM and the lethal drone missions controlled by civilian operators acting far from any combat zone, carrying out battle plans based on the selection of targets from a kill list presented daily to the president, and approving in secret the execution of American citizens and those living in foreign countries who owe no allegiance to American laws. Such is the nature of the ‘global war’ unleashed by George W. Bush after 9/11 and continued by Barack Obama. There are reassurances that care is taken, efforts are made to minimize mistakes, and only the most imminent of threats are targets. The objective assessment of the killing fields tell a different story—of innocent persons killed, of ‘signature’ strikes targeting for death those against whom there is only vague circumstantial evidence, of a reign of terror in areas where suspects are supposed to be based.

In actuality, what Snowden did was surprisingly responsive to national security concerns, including the protection of secrecy surrounding controversial overseas undertakings. Snowden has indicated that he never had an intention to release any documents that implicate particular agents engaged in covert operations or that reveal the location of CIA bases in foreign countries. In effect, Snowden was acknowledging that the government has ‘secrets’ that deserve keeping, and that he was distinguishing these from the those that were not justified by security considerations and posed a severe threat to the future quality of constitutional democracy. It is undoubtedly the case, as Snowden has hinted, that he had good reason to believe without such an unauthorized disclosure, the public would have no way of finding out what was going on and no say in shaping the privacy/security balance, and the government would undoubtedly continue to rely on excessive claims of secrecy to insulate itself from procedures of accountability, including the rather unconvincing forms of oversight that are entrusted with avoiding wrongdoing in its surveillance gulag. I think there is good reason to conclude that it is only the obtrusiveness of whistleblowers that produces these occasional glimmers of sunlight that illumine to some degree the dark corridors of governmental power.

The three major whistleblowing incidents of the last half century bearing on national security, (Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Bradley Manning (Iraq and Afghanistan document trove), and Snowden (the NSA Prism Program of Surveillance) had one thing in come, disclosures of state crimes that had been long covered up, and were integral to structures of impunity that seem vital to the performance of the dirty work of empire. Daniel Ellsberg in a Salon interview with Brad Friedman on June 14, 2013 [Salon.com] insisted that a more permissive political atmosphere existed in 1972 when he released the Pentagon Papers. There was then at least the possibility of getting the story out without being thrown into prison under conditions of solitary confinement (Manning) or hounded as if a common criminal (Assange, and now Snowden). Under current conditions it seems as if the only way for Snowden to have some opportunity to give his reasons for doing what he did was to go abroad, and then seek asylum.

What seems most dismaying about the Snowden affair is the prosecutorial zeal of the Obama presidency, supposedly liberal in its outlook on matters of personal freedom and the values of constitutional government. What Snowden has done is so clearly ‘a political crime,’ if it is a crime at all, and in recognition of this there has existed since the French Revolution been seen as inconsistent with the generally desirable policy of inter-governmental cooperation in the apprehension of suspected criminals. In such circumstances it is unseemly to instruct the Vice President to call around the world exerting leverage to discourage grants of asylum or sanctuary to Snowden, or worse yet, to use American influence to interfere with international flights thought to be associated with Snowden’s attempt to seek asylum, itself a right conferred in Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maybe it is a legal stretch to insist on Snowden’s right of asylum considering that the ‘persecution’ he might face if returned to the United States would be nothing more (or less) than prosecution under applicable American criminal law, which presumably would be carried out in a judicially supervised manner as constitutionally prescribed by due process standards. But given the vindictive response to the Manning release of a cache of documents to WikiLeaks, and the refusal of the government to acknowledge the implications of policies that are criminal in nature, asylum should be granted to Snowden, and the failure to do so exhibits two features of present world order: American exceptionalism (would the US Government really turn over to China or Cuba a person who had risked everything to disclose state secrets to the world? The following statutory language is certainly suggestive of an answer: “No return or surrender shall be made of any person charged with the commission of any offense of a political nature.”); and the logic of major states that share an interest in collaborating with each other so as to keep the lid of secrecy covering their most nefarious practices.

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