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Why the U.S. Executive Branch is a Clear and Present Danger to Democracy


Edward Snowden's revelations have illuminated the most critical political issue facing America today: how an authoritarian U.S. Executive Branch which has focused on war abroad for the last 50 years now devotes increasing resources to is that "I don't want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship,is recorded. That's not something I'm willing to live under."

Whether millions of other Americans accept the new surveillance status quo will determine the future not only of privacy but democracy in this nation. For even the critical issue of U.S. government of surveillance is only a part of a far larger pattern of undemocratic and unaccountable Executive Branch behavior, at home and abroad. The problem is not only that the Executive Branch operates in antidemocratic secrecy, with an “Insider Threat Program” that even requires its employees to inform on each other or risk losing their jobs. It has also subverted the Congress, judiciary and mass media, so that they no longer provide constitutionally mandated checks and balances, and are instead largely today extensions of Executive power.

How do you feel about the fact that as you read these words the U.S. Executive Branch is storing information about your phone calls and Internet messages which, even years from now, could be used to embarrass, control and/or harass you, defeat you in an election, cause you to lose a job, break up your marriage, or even threaten you with imprisonment? Many say “I have nothing to worry about, I’m not a Muslim terrorist.” But this displays a naïve complacency about the massive pools of data the Executive is collecting that have nothing to do with protecting us from a relative handful of Muslim terrorists, and could easily be misused by secret and unaccountable government agencies in the future.

Even centrists like Tom Friedman and Bob Woodward have warned that America could turn into a "police-state" should another 9/11 occur. And the Executive Branch has created more of an infrastructure for such a state than ever in our history under a Democratic president who professes a belief in civil liberties. Should a Republican become president in 2016, with a Cheney-like mindset using “unitary Executive theory” to grab even more power, democracy could become little more than a pleasant daydream.

What is most troubling about America's political class today, who have mostly castigated Snowden but not even dared criticize a Dianne Feinstein for keeping U.S. Executive surveillance secret from the American people she theoretically represents, is not only that they are "willing to live under" a Surveillance State. It is that they don't even want to know.

They shoot the messenger rather than dare face his message, displaying precisely the kind of complacency that causes democracy to die.

Even decent pundits who oppose excessive wiretapping have buried their heads in the sand about Executive threats to democracy. N.Y. Magazine's Jonathan Chait has put it in the category of just another "non-scandal" like Benghazi or the IRS, writing "but when the president is carrying out duly passed laws and acting at every stage with judicial approval, then the issue is the laws themselves, not misconduct." This is seconded by Paul Krugman: "as Chait says, NSA stuff is a policy dispute, not the kind of scandal the right wing wants."

Putting the relevance of NSA spying in the context of whether it benefits or harms the Republican party, and falsely claiming that there are meaningful legislative or judicial checks on Executive power, is absurd. It points up our psychological difficulty in accepting the fact that the government we have been taught since birth protects democracy is today the greatest threat it faces.

It requires profound changes in the mindsets that map our lives to realize that we are now paying our leaders vast sums to deceive, lie to, spy on, monitor and track us; that our own government threatens freedom of the press and information far more than any foreign foe; and that Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, who believe that the U.S. government should not murder innocents abroad and spy on Americans at home, shame the rest of us with their moral commitment to try to save democracy.

And the Executive Branch is geometrically increasing its threats to democracy at the very moment the U.S. president has told us that serious external terrorist threats have significantly declined, pose a far smaller threat to our lives than our own automobiles, and are best dealt with by careful police work conducted jointly with foreign allies. Domestic surveillance is clearly increasing because powerful Executive agencies seek more power, budget and staff, not because they need more money to protect us. There is nothing new about this. It is what unaccountable bureaucracies do.

The “Fiction That Everybody in Congress Knows"

But democracy depends on the other branches of government, and the Fourth Estate, checking its power. And nothing shames America’s leaders more than their knowingly perpetrating the fiction that Congress, the judiciary and mass media are doing so.

On June 5, 2013, for example, President Obama stated that ”the programs are secret in the sense that they are classified. They are not secret, in that every member of Congress has been briefed,"

Asked about this two days later by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Rep. Keith Ellison replied, "I am not aware of this program that was revealed today. So I think it's a fiction, it's a fiction that everybody in Congress knows. We don't know what we don't know."

And those members who serve on the Intelligence committees learn only what the Executive allows them to know, "don't know what they don't know," and are muzzled from doing anything meaningful about even the limited information they receive. As Jeremy Scahill has explained, "there are a handful of U.S. senators that are allowed to go to what's called a secured classified intelligence facility, a SCIP, and to review certain memos, not all, but certain memos the White House has deemed appropriate to share with Congress." And they must come alone without staff, and "they're not allowed to bring a writing utensil. They can't bring paper. They're not allowed to bring anything with a battery. And they look at certain memos, not all that the White House has agreed to show them. And then, they're not permitted to share what they've seen with anyone. Not their constituents. Not other lawmakers."

There may be no more dramatic revelation of the truth of unaccountable Executive power than when Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden stated in 2011, "I believe that the American people would be absolutely stunned, I think members of Congress, many of them, would be stunned, if they knew how the PATRIOT Act was being interpreted andapplied in practice. I'm going to insist in significant reform in this area."

He was right. But unlike a patriotic and courageous whistleblower who has risked his very life to bring this information to the American people, even an elected legislator who knew it was a "stunning" abuse of power did not dare reveal it to the American people.

The notion that Executive power is subject to meaningful judicial review is another fiction. The FISA court rubber-stamped 1,788 out of 1,788 applications for wiretapping, allowed by the Executive only to rule on the processes it claimed to follow not the actual people being wiretapped. And, even more disturbing, the N.Y. Times has revealed that the 11-member secret FISA court, including 10 conservative Republicans appointed by John Roberts, has become an antidemocratic Star Chamber that has not only failed to limit but actually expanded Executive Power to spy on us.

Adjudicating a case in which the ACLU sued to obtain illegal Executive "kill lists," federal judge Colleen McMahon wrote, "I find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret." The Patriot Act was specifically designed to preclude meaningful judicial review.

And the U.S. mass media, although some journalists have done important work revealing Executive wrongdoing, primarily serves to convey Executive "talking points" to the public on an hourly basis.

The media dutifully broadcast around the nation former FBI agent and current House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers' unproven claim that Edward Snowden is a traitor because of "changes we can already see being made by the folks who wish to do us harm." The media then reported that Senate Intelligence Committee member Saxby Chambliss said that "the bad guys are now changing their methods of operation." Then, after we were told that this program would help the enemy if revealed, anonymous NSA officials were suddenly made available to discuss it with the Washington Post, Reuters, CNN, and the AP, which ran a story headlined "Al-Qaida Said To Be Changing Its Ways After Leaks" that appeared in newspapers around America.

The charge was hardly credible since the NSA provided no evidence to support its claim, Snowden had a strong self-interest in not providing details which could have helped his prosecution for espionage, and the unnamed "folks who wish to do us harm" have long known their emails and phone calls were monitored. But the Executive Branch had succeeded in its goal of using the mass media to bombard the American people with these messages to support its indicting him as a spy.

Authoritarian secrecy and deception is the beating heart of Executive power. Former Obama administration official Ronan Farrow, who had a top-secret clearance, has reported that "trillions of new pages of text are classified each year," and that "a government agency was found to be classifying the equivalent of 20 million filing cabinets filled with text." It is obvious that almost none of this would be of use to "Muslim terrorists," and that the Executive's main goal is to keep information of its abuses and misman

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