We will be discussing Edward Snowden and his revelations for some time (I hope). His observations are worth serious thought. As quoted in the Washington Post by Barton Gellman “Man who leaked NSA secrets steps forward” /2013/06/09 ‘“I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents.” The steady expansion of surveillance powers, he wrote, is “such a direct threat to democratic governance that I have risked my life and family for it….” “We managed to survive greater threats in our history . . . than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs,” he wrote. “It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance. . . . That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs…” “Analysts (and government in general) aren’t bad guys, and they don’t want to think of themselves as such,” he replied. But he said they labored under a false premise that “if a surveillance program produces information of value, it legitimizes it. . . . In one step, we’ve managed to justify the operation of the Panopticon” — an 18th-century design by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham for comprehensive surveillance of a prison population.”’
It is not generally acceptable for individuals to decide whether it is OK to violate a law we don’t like (though we all do it all the time), but there can be circumstances that are sufficiently serious that our conscience may dictate that we must. Snowden made that determination and is prepared to accept the consequences. The courts will determine what those are. In my opinion his motives are above question.
I hope, however, as does Snowden, that the public discussion will focus on the issue of the proper balance between government’s desire to protect us from harm and invading our privacy, a favorite tool of totalitarian regimes, rather than on whether Snowden was justified in breaching his confidentiality commitment or not. The very nature of government is that of a slippery slope toward ever larger activities and powers. These risks, of course. were very well-known by our founding fathers who did their best to introduce limits and checks and balances on government power.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, called PRISM “deeply concerning,” stating that: “Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society. I call on all Web users to demand better legal protection and due process safeguards for the privacy of their online communications, including their right to be informed when someone requests or stores their data. A store of this information about each person is a huge liability: Whom would you trust to decide when to access it, or even to keep it secure?”
Contrary to his promises, President Obama has not reversed the dangerous excesses of the eternal War on Terror and other political abuses promoted by Bush/Chaney. Examples are the IRS anti-tea party abuses, and the administration’s frightening attack on the press: “The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press.” govt-obtains-wide-ap-phone-records-probe. But these pale compared to Obama’s expansion of our secret, undeclared wars in Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere in the form of assassinations of “bad guys.”
The most deeply disturbing of these was the assassination of Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen who had lost faith in the intentions behind the American government’s attacks on Muslims around the world. Anwar, an initially moderate Muslim Imam,frequently interviewed by the American press following 9/11, ultimately became sharply critical of U.S. behavior and moved from Falls Church Va. back to his native Yemen to rejoin his parents. U.S. authorities came to believe that his blogs and sermons were influencing others to take violent acts against Americans. President Obama authorized his death without formal charges and without any convincing evidence of crimes other than the exercise of his free speech, which had become embarrassingly critical (and is not yet a crime). Our government claimed that he had become an al Qaeda leader but presented no evidence of any connection at all.
The day Awlaki’s death was announced (September 30, 2011) syndicated columnist Glenn Greenwald stated: “Remember that there was great controversy that George Bush asserted the power simply to detain American citizens without due process or simply to eavesdrop on their conversation without warrant. Here you have something much more severe. Not eavesdropping on American citizens, not detaining them without due process, but killing them without due process.” Former Bush CIA director Michael Hayden stated: “We needed a court order to eavesdrop on [Awlaki], but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?” (Both of these quotes are taken from Jeremy Scahill’s shocking book “Dirty Wars; The World is a Battlefield”)
If you are not alarmed by our President ordering the death of Americans without due process, you will surely be sicken that our secretive special forces killed Awlaki’s 16 year old son Abdulrahman two weeks later. The government has never explained whether his death was another of their many accidents or had been deliberate and if so why. He was also an American, born in Denver Colorado on August 26, 1995 (https://www.facebook.com/abdulrahman.14.10.2011). Soon thereafter Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former White House press secretary, was asked: ‘“It’s an American citizen that is being targeted without due process of law, without trial. And, he’s underage. He’s a minor,” reporter Sierra Adamson told Gibbs. Gibbs shot back: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”’ (Dirty Wars) Gibbs should be publicly whipped (if we did that sort of thing) or at least banished from polite society. How disgusting.
I am proud of the principles of individual dignity and rights upon which my country is based. I am proud of what many of my countrymen have accomplished and contributed to the world. I am tired of being ashamed of many of the self-destructive things my government has increasingly been doing in the misguided name of my security. Why do you think Muslims in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere wish to attack the United States rather than (or in addition to) fighting each other for one reason or another? Because many of them have been killed or injured by our global campaign of assassinations and/or outright wars, which they see as an American attack on Islam. They are fighting to defend themselves just as we would (or say that we are). We need to leave them alone. They will have no interest in attacking us if we stay out of their homelands.
I am hoping the current revelations of some of our government’s abuses of its powers and our liberties will bring them to an end. It is, as I have noted so many times before, the nature of government to want to grow in scope and power. As we all know, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. The pendulum of potentially coercive government power has swung too far in the false name of defending our safety against foreign (and now domestic) enemies. I hope that the current revelations will shock us into sending the pendulum back the other way.
Several weeks ago, on Memorial Day, my friend Lou Cordia sent the following from President Reagan’s Memorial Day Proclamation for May 25, 1981 as a reminder of what we properly aspire to:
Over one hundred years ago, Memorial Day was established to commemorate those who died in the defense of our national ideals. Our ideals of freedom, justice, and equal rights for all have been challenged many times since then, and thousands of Americans have given their lives in many parts of the world to secure those same ideals and insure for their children a lasting peace. Their sacrifice demands that we, the living, continue to promote the cause of peace and the ideals for which they so valiantly gave of themselves.
Today, the United States stands as a beacon of liberty and democratic strength before the community of nations. We are resolved to stand firm against those who would destroy the freedoms we cherish. We are determined to achieve an enduring peace — a peace with liberty and with honor. This determination, this resolve, is the highest tribute we can pay to the many who have fallen in the service of our Nation.