Remarks by the President on Review of Signals Intelligence (if he had told the truth)
Department of Injustice
11:15 a.m. EST
THE PRESIDENT: A small, secret surveillance committee of goons and thugs hiding behind the mask of patriotism was established in 1908 in Washington, D.C. The group was led from 1924 until 1972 by J. Edgar Hoover, and during his reign it became known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI agents spied upon and infiltrated labor unions, political parties, radical groups—especially those led by African-Americans—anti-war groups and the civil rights movement in order to discredit anyone, including politicians such as Henry Wallace, who questioned the power of the state and big business. Agents burglarized homes and offices, illegally opened mail and planted unlawful wiretaps. Bureau leaders created blacklists. They destroyed careers and sometimes lives. They demanded loyalty oaths. By the time they were done, our progressive and radical movements, which had given us the middle class and opened up our political system, were dead. And while the FBI was targeting internal dissidents, our foreign intelligence operatives were overthrowing regimes, bankrolling some of the most vicious dictators on the planet and carrying out assassinations in numerous countries, such as Cuba and the Philippines and later Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Throughout American history, intelligence services often did little more than advance and protect corporate profits and solidify state repression and imperialist expansion. War, for big business, has always been very lucrative and used as an excuse to curtail basic liberties and crush popular movements. “Inter arma silent leges,” as Cicero said, or “During war, the laws are silent.” In the Civil War, during which the North and the South suspended the writ of habeas corpus and up to 750,000 soldiers died in the slaughter, Union intelligence worked alongside Northern war profiteers who sold cardboard shoes to the Army as the spy services went about the business of ruthlessly hunting down deserters. The First World War, which gave us the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act and saw President Woodrow Wilson throw populists and socialists, including Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, into prison, produced $28.5 billion in net profits for businesses and created 22,000 new millionaires. Wall Street banks, which lent $2.5 billion to nations allied with the United States, made sure Wilson sent U.S. forces into the senseless trench warfare so they would be repaid. World War II—which consumed more than 50 million lives and saw 110,000 Japanese-Americans hauled away to internment camps and atomic bombs dropped on defenseless civilians—doubled wartime corporate profits from the First World War. Why disarm when there was so much money to be made from stoking fear?
The rise of the Iron Curtain and nuclear weapons provided the justification by big business for sustaining a massive arms industry, for a huge expansion of our surveillance capabilities and for more draconian assaults against workers and radicals. The production of weapons was about profits rather than logic. We would go on to produce more than 70,000 nuclear bombs or warheads at a cost of $5.5 trillion, enough weapons to obliterate every Soviet city several times over. And in the early days of the Cold War, with Hoover and Joe McCarthy and his henchmen blacklisting anyone with a conscience in government, the arts, journalism, labor unions or education, President Harry S. Truman created the National Security Agency, or NSA.
Throughout this evolution, Americans were steadily shorn of their most basic constitutional rights and their traditions of limited government. U.S. intelligence agencies were always anchored in a system of secrecy—with little effective oversight from either elected leaders or ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, totalitarian states like East Germany offered a sterling example of what our corporate masters might achieve with pervasive, unchecked surveillance that turned citizens into informers and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their homes. Today I would like to thank the architects of this East German system, especially Erich Mielke, once the chief of the communist East German secret police. I want to assure them that the NSA has gone on to perfect what the Stasi began.
In the 1960s, the U.S. government spied on civil rights leaders, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement and critics of the Vietnam War, just as today we are spying on Occupy activists, environmentalists, whistle-blowers and other dissidents. And partly in response to these revelations decades ago, especially regarding the FBI’s covert dirty tricks program known as COINTELPRO, laws were established in the 1970s to ensure that our intelligence capabilities could not be misused against our citizens. In the long, twilight struggle against communism, and now in the fight against terrorism, I am happy to report that we have eradicated all of these reforms and laws. The crimes for which Richard Nixon resigned and the abuses of power that prompted the formation of the Church Commission are now legal. The liberties that some patriots, including Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, have sought to preserve have been sacrificed at the altar of national security. To obtain your personal information, the FBI can now freely issue “national security letters” to your bank, doctor, employer or public library or any of your associates without a judicial warrant. And you will never be notified of an investigation. We can collect and store in perpetuity all metadata of your email correspondence and phone records and track your geographical movements. We can assassinate you if I decide you are a terrorist. We can order the military under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act to arrest you, strip you of due process and hold you indefinitely in military detention centers. We can continue to throw into prison those who expose the illegality of what we are doing, or force them into exile, as all totalitarian secret police forces from the SS to the KGB to the East German Stasi have done. And we can torture.
The fall of the Soviet Union left America without a competing superpower. This threatened to delegitimize our massive spending on war and state security, now more than 50 percent of our budget. But a group of Islamic radicals who had never posed an existential threat to our country emerged to take the place of the old communist bloc. The politics of fear and the psychosis of permanent war were able to be continued. The war on terror placed new and in some ways more complicated demands on our intelligence agencies. Our illegal and disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and our indiscriminate bombing of other countries, along with the war crimes Israel is carrying out against the Palestinian people, are driving people in the Muslim world into the arms of these militant groups. We are the most hated nation on earth. At the same time, globalization—our corporate policy of creating a worldwide neofeudalism of masters and serfs—means we must spy on citizens to prevent agitation and revolt. After all, if you are a worker, things are only going to get worse. To quash competitors of American companies, we spy on corporations in Brazil, including Brazil’s biggest oil company, Petrobras, and on corporations in Germany and France. We also steal information from the leaders of many countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose personal cellphone we tapped. However, Ms. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, should not, as she has done, accuse us of being the Stasi. We are much more efficient than the Stasi was. We spied successfully on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in addition to Pope Francis and the conclave that elected him last March. Senior U.N. officials and Roman Catholic cardinals are highly susceptible to recruitment by al-Qaida. The reasons are classified. I won’t share them with you. Believe me.
Threats to the nation raised new legal and policy questions, which fortunately our courts, abject tools of the corporate state, solved by making lawful everything from torture to wholesale surveillance. I would like to take a moment to thank our nation’s compliant judges, the spineless deans of most prestigious law schools and most law professors and lawyers for refusing to defend the Constitution. They have been valued partners, along with the press, in our campaign to eradicate your civil liberties.
The horror of September 11th was masterfully manipulated by the security state and our for-profit military-industrial complex. These forces used the attacks as an excuse to increase the massive pilfering of taxpayer dollars, especially by the Department of Homeland Security, which has a public budget of $98.8 billion. The truth, however, is the system of internal security is so vast and so secret no one in the public has any idea how large our programs are or how much we spend. It is true that our 16 intelligence agencies missed the numerous signs and evidence leading up to the 9/11 attacks. In short, they screwed up, just as they did when they failed to anticipate the fall of the Shah of Iran or the collapse of the Soviet Union, or when they told us Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But we have a rule in Washington: Never reform failed bureaucracies or hold government officials accountable; rather, give them more money. Keep failure secret.
It is a testimony to the hard work and dedication of the men and women of our intelligence community that over the past decade we’ve taken enormous strides in making the Middle East a caldron of rage. New capabilities and new laws have turned us into the most efficient killers on the planet. Relationships with foreign intelligence services have expanded, creating one immense, global corporate system of surveillance and security that obliterates the rights of people at home and abroad. Taken together, these efforts have killed hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. We have terrorized whole countries from the sky and forced millions to become refugees. This will ensure endless war, which ensures endless profits for those who make war—which is the point.
Over the last six months, I created an outside Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to make recommendations for reform. This group is led by the same intelligence chiefs who carry out the abuses. The chancellor of Germany has, like many of our other allies, demanded we stop spying on citizens of that nation. But, unfortunately for the chancellor, as well as for you, my fellow Americans, we will continue to do whatever we want
The folks at the NSA and other intelligence agencies are our nation’s voyeurs and peeping Toms. They read your electronic bank and medical records. They know what you and your kids post on Facebook and Instagram. They have all of your emails and text messages. They track your movements through the GPS on your cellphone. They are not alone. Corporations of all kinds and sizes track your online searches and what you buy, then they analyze and store the data and use it for commercial purposes; that’s why those targeted ads pop up on your computer and your smartphone so often.
Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say “trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect.” History has too many examples of such trust being breached. Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends on the law to constrain those in power. And that is why Congress and our courts have rewritten our laws, from the NDAA to the FISA Amendment Act, to strip you of legal protection.
I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Martin Luther King Jr. who were spied upon by their own government. But I, like Bill Clinton, have sold out those true patriots and gutted those government programs that made possible my own education and ascent into systems of elite power. As president I understand, as do Bill and Hillary, that political power is about us, not about you. I know where power in this country lies. It does not lie with the citizen. It lies with Wall Street and corporate boardrooms. And since my vanity demands that I be famous, wealthy and powerful, I work hard for these centers of power. None of these centers of power want to see any curbs on the security and surveillance state. And so I will make sure there are none.
As a senator, I was critical of practices such as warrantless wiretaps. But as president I have carried out a far more extensive assault on civil liberties than my predecessor, George W. Bush. I have used the Espionage Act eight times to charge patriots such as Edward Snowden who exposed crimes of the state. And I have lied to you often, as I did in the original version of this speech, to defend the right of our security and surveillance apparatus to spy on you without judicial warrants.
As a presidential candidate in 2008 I promised to “reject the use of national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.” I promised to close our detention center in Guantanamo Bay. I said I would revisit the Patriot Act. I told you I would overturn unconstitutional executive decisions issued by the Bush administration. I said I would shut down our black sites. And I promised an end to extraordinary rendition. I told you as president last summer that the NSA “cannot target your emails” and that all of our surveillance programs were subject to the full control of Congress. I have, along with our Congress and our highest courts, eradicated the Fourth Amendment, which once protected citizens from government intrusion into their persons, homes, papers and effects. And, to be frank, the only reason I am talking to you today about spying is because Edward Snowden has, through his leaked documents, illustrated that everything I and others in government have promised to do or told you about domestic and international surveillance is a lie.
Today I am announcing a series of cosmetic reforms that my administration intends to adopt administratively or will seek to codify through Congress.
First, I have approved a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities both at home and abroad that sounds impressive but means nothing.
Second, we will institute a few bureaucratic programs and procedures to give you the illusion of greater transparency while we continue to sweep up and store your personal information, including your telephone metadata.
Third, I propose more amorphous and undefined protections for government activities conducted under Section 702.
Fourth, the FBI’s national security letters will not be touched. But we could and should be more transparent in how government uses this authority. We really should. But we won’t. To make you feel better, however, I have directed the attorney general to amend how we use national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed—though unspecified—time unless the government demonstrates a need for further secrecy. That need might last forever.
This brings me to the program that has generated the most controversy these past few months—the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215. Why is this necessary? It is necessary because in a totalitarian state the secret police must gather information not to solve crimes but, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, “to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population.” We need all of your emails, phone conversations, Web searches and geographical movements for “evidence” should we decide to seize you. And my apologies to Sen. Bernie Sanders, but we can’t make exemptions for members of Congress, especially when they come from Vermont. If you think you are innocent, or that you have nothing to hide, you do not understand what is happening. Justice, like truth, is no longer relevant. Ask Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, along with whistle-blowers like Thomas Drake, where justice and truth got them. One of the main tasks of any security service is blackmail, a tactic the FBI used to try to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide. So if you have any dirt we want to know about it.
I will propose turning over the storage of all your data to a third party, perhaps a private corporation. This will offer you no protection, but it should provide a good government contract to one of my major campaign donors.
The cosmetic reforms I’m proposing today will, I hope, give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, along with our courts, continue to eviscerate those rights. I recognize that there are additional issues that require further debate, such as your constitutional right to halt the wholesale capturing and storing of your personal information and correspondence and evidence of your geographical movements. But don’t expect me to help. I sold out long ago.
The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, can be assured that the United States follows everything they do or say. It does not matter if they are ordinary people or foreign leaders. I am not going to apologize for monitoring the communications of friends and allies. We know what we are doing. We know why this is important. The effects of declining incomes for working men and women, the massive debt peonage that keeps people trapped, the slashing of government assistance programs, the chronic, long-term unemployment, and the effects of climate change will eventually trigger volatile unrest. We are ready. The likelihood of totalitarianism no longer comes from fascism or communism. It comes from corporations. Corporations, for which I work, fear those who think and write and speak out and form relationships freely. Individual freedom impedes their profits. And the surveillance system I am protecting today is designed to keep these corporations in power.
Our democracy is a fiction. We seek to maintain this fiction to keep you passive. Should you wake up, we will not shy away from draconian measures. I believe we can meet high expectations. Together, let us chart a way forward that secures your complete subjugation, the iron rule of our corporations and our power elite—at least until we make the planet wholly uninhabitable—while we continue to snuff out the liberties that once made our nation worth fighting for.
Thank you. May God bless you. May God bless Corporate America.
Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.