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Obama’s Reassurances about Domestic Surveillance are not Reassuring


President Obama gave a news conference on Friday in which he addressed the controversy over Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding NSA spying on the American people.

This issue is a very difficult one for Mr. Obama, given that he came to it from civil libertarian position as a senator, but now is president. When you are president, you are president of the nearly one million NSA employees and contractors, who become your constituency– not to mention the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, much of the military, the Intelligence and Research Division of the State Department, etc., etc.

Obama is concerned not to demoralize the analysts who are gathering and using the electronic data. Those analysts have had successes in keeping the US safe, which they cannot reveal, and one understands his support for them. I’ve addressed intelligence analysts from various US agencies dozens of times in the past decade, and have always been honored to do so.

But Mr. Obama is going beyond simply avoiding harming the government’s esprit de corps. He is playing to the gallery of maximalists on domestic surveillance and is preferring them over the general public. It is one of the problems with having a standing army and a huge intelligence-industrial complex, which the founding generation warned against– it becomes a lobby within the government for militarism and against civil liberties.

Obama is also aware of two dangers to his presidency and to the fortunes of the Democratic Party, which he heads. One is that the Bush administration, especially Dick Cheney, may have left behind saboteurs in the bureaucracy who will attempt to sink him if he tries to change certain policies put in place by Cheney for the sake of the latter’s cronies. The other is that a terrorist cell will in fact manage to pull off another big operation in the United States. While the Democrats for the most part did not blame Bush for 9/11, we know how the GOP will crucify Obama if there is an attack on his watch.

For both these reasons, the former civil libertarian now may feel he needs all the surveillance he can get.

Any president is beholden to the intelligence-industrial complex and the only time there are significant reforms is when there has been a revelation of significant wrongdoing that catches the public’s imagination or becomes a political football between the two parties. Thus, you had the Seymour Hersh articles about the CIA excesses in the New York Times in the early 1970s, then the Rockefeller report and the Church Commission. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the CIA had conducted the COINTELPRO program on US college campuses against critics of the Vietnam War. (It is illegal for the CIA to operate on US soil against US citizens, though this practice was revived in New York after 9/11).

All that said, Mr. Obama has in his public comments on the revelations by Edward Snowden consistently gone beyond what he needed to do to assuage the injured feelings of the analysts.

Among the more shameful episodes in the Obama presidency has been his vindictiveness toward whistleblowers and his and Eric Holder’s eagerness to use the fascistic 1917 Espionage Act against them. Seymour Hersh, who provoked the last big reforms of US intelligence, would have been charged with espionage by Barack Obama and would either have been executed or would have been given life in prison. In this regard, Obama’s record is worse than Nixon’s.

The 1917 Espionage Act was enacted just after the US went to war with Imperial Germany. It was twinned with a Sedition Act a year later, as this site explains : “Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a federal offense to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the Constitution, the government, the American uniform, or the flag. The government prosecuted over 2,100 people under these acts.”

In other words, the Espionage Act deployed against Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is a manifestation of war fever and nationalist fascism from the early 20th century, and likely is unconstitutional, just as most of the Sedition Act has been ruled to be. It does not speak well of Mr. Obama that he is using this sort of tool to govern.

Mr. Obama at one point in his press conference called on Edward Snowden to come back to the United States and argue his case. I mean, really. This kind of disinformation and grandstanding can’t possibly be necessary, even given the constraints mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Mr. Obama knows very well that if Snowden returned to the US, we would never ever hear from him ever again. He’d go straight to a maximum security prison for the rest of his days on earth and die there.

Bradley Manning was held at a brig by the Marines and was falsely declared a suicide risk so that he could be tortured by being chained naked to his bed for a year and woken up several times a night (sleep deprivation is a torture tactic, as is humiliation via making a prisoner nude. These same techniques were used by the US military on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib). There is no reason to believe that Snowden would be treated better. Note that Obama’s own spokesman, P. J. Crowley, publicly criticized Manning’s treatment and was fired for it. Obama had been in a position to stop the torture but did not.

If Mr. Obama were serious about wanting Snowden voluntarily to return and participate in a national debate, he would take the espionage charges off the table. Despite cynical presuppositions by Snowden’s critics, there is no evidence whatsoever that he has shared sensitive intelligence with either China or Russia.

For the rest, Mr. Obama ignored most of the revelations from the Snowden material published by The Guardian and others when he spoke of reforming the NSA “programs.”

He ignored the revelation that the NSA is sharing Americans’ pattern of telephone calls with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which has repeatedly used it to develop drug charges against individuals, and has lied to judges and defense attorneys about how the information was obtained. Since it was obtained without a warrant and via massive fishing expeditions into citizens’ private effects, deploying it to gain drug convictions in small Midwestern towns is unconstitutional and extremely disturbing. Lying about how the case was initiated is unconscionable.

He ignored the revelation of the Tempora Program whereby the US paid British intelligence $150 million to attack sniffers to the transatlantic fiber optic cables that surface at the UK, and to download petabytes of emails and telephone calls (the substance of the emails and telephone calls, in contrast to what Mr. Obama keeps alleging). There are 250 NSA analysts assigned to sifting through this material.

Mr. Obama is a very busy man and it is possible that he hasn’t read all of Glenn Greenwald’s Guardian articles on the Snowden revelations. He should. He is being briefed on this matter by people with a vested interest in keeping the surveillance programs going, and is not being given the whole truth.

Remarkably, the president did not say anything about how Germany has cut the US off from its earlier intelligence cooperation in anger at the very extensive spying the US does on that country, a NATO ally. He did not say anything about the charges that the US is using these surveillance programs to engage in industrial espionage in South America. He did not bring up the potential loss of 10%- 20% of customers by US internet companies offering Cloud computing. Everyone now knows that what you put in the cloud goes straight to the Federal government.

The reforms Mr. Obama pledged to pursue are a start, but they are not enough. There are clearly abuses going on, as with data sharing from the NSA to the DEA and its obfuscation before the courts. Mr. Obama in his public discourse absolutely refuses to acknowledge those abuses. Until he does, he cannot fix them. 

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