Have we gone too far in expanding surveillance in the pursuit of terrorism?
This is the question that the mainstream news organizations are asking, and it's exactly the wrong question, expertly designed to distract us from reality and derail the discussion we should be having.
First, there's no "we" in this equation. The US Government is a "they", unresponsive to the voice of the people. We have lost the core of our democracy, and the election of President Obama was the emblem and seal of that loss. We still have the old habit of participating in political debate, and the media sustain the illusion that this is still our mode of government. But in truth, we've already had the debate and we've made our conclusions. We voted for the candidate who promised an end to imperialist wars, a repudiation of torture, and the most open and accessible Administration in the history of the country...and this is what we got.
Second, it's entirely inappropriate to have a public debate over actions that are unconstitutional to begin with. If Obama wants to change the Constitution, he knows the procedure for doing so. Until then, we'll thank him to "preserve, defend and uphold" it as he vowed. His actions are clear ground for impeachment, and that's the debate we should be having. Not to put too fine a point upon it: collecting every text message and email, every phone and Skype call and Facebook chat is obviously an "unreasonable search" in violation of the Fourth Amendment. If the Constitution's authors had intended for the government to conduct blanket, open-ended and untargeted investigations, there would have been no meaning to the concept "unreasonable searches and seizures".
Who among us would be immune from blackmail by someone who cut and pasted from our every phone call? Having the dirt to embarrass and blackmail one's political enemies is an invitation to abuse and tyranny. We have all known this at least since J Edgar Hoover and the East German Stasi.
Third (and this is my main point) the expansion of surveillance since 9/11 was never about countering terrorism, but has always been about stifling political dissent. Terrorism is invoked as an excuse. Terrorism is, in fact, amplified and trumpeted by the news media and created by our own CIA for the purpose of sustaining that excuse. The excuse also serves for government secrecy, which shields actions that would be seen as shockingly corrupt if revealed. Constitutionally-protected dissent must be stifled to keep the government from being responsive to the will of the people, as it would be if it were operating in a fashion anything like that mandated in our Constitution.
How we Know that Anti-terrorism is a Ruse?
We can see that the Administration's purpose has never been to oppose "tearism" by looking back to 9/11 and the initial response of BushCo. It was embodied in the Patriot Act, a huge complex of unconstitutional mandates that was rushed through Congress just a few days after 9/11. It was clearly prepared well in advance of 9/11, and it was not designed to prevent another 9/11 attack. In fact, the 9/11 attacks could have been stopped beforehand by our existing intelligence (which Bush ignored) and stopped even while in progress by our existing program of scrambling fighter planes (which Dick Cheney personally ordered to stand down, in a remarkable and revealing subplot).
The biggest move that BushCo made in response to 9/11 was to go to war with Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. It was entirely predictable that that war failed to reduce the risk of terrorism, but on the contrary inflamed a generation of young Muslims who previously had had a friendly view of the US. Many in the press regard this war as a sincere but misguided effort to combat terrorism, but I think that is quite a stretch, especially after the revelations of the Downing Street Memo. No -- it's far mare plausible that the Bush Administration knew exactly what it was doing and that their professed concern with "tearism" was a Big Lie for public consumption. It was "tearism" that gave Bush the most powerful presidency in US history, justified his radical anti-populist agenda and the breakneck dismemberment of democracy.
The Obama Administration has continued most of these policies, with predictable results, and has expanded government secrecy and prosecuted with a vengeance all those who reveal the truth. They are not stupid. I assume they know exactly what they are doing.
Since 9/11, there have been terror incidents at regularly-scheduled intervals to keep the fear alive and make sure we know there's a good reason to surrender our democracy. There were the anthrax letters, the shoe-bomber, the bottle-of-acid hijacker, the underwear bomber (who brought us backscatter x-rays at airports), the Times Square car bomb, the rampage at Fort Hood, school shootings in Texas, Colorado, California and Connecticut, and most recently the Marathon bomber. Not one of these has been independently investigated by local police. Not one has led to a trial with a defense attorney who has subpoena power and the resources and motivation to find out what actually happened. We are taking it on faith that these incidents happened as reported, and meanwhile they are the foundation and justification for a rapid collapse of our civil rights, the shutting down of our society of which Naomi Wolf warned us so eloquently 7 years ago. Who benefits from avoiding trials and having secret "military tribunals"? It does not deprive the terrorists of any information they don't already have. All it does is to keep us from knowing who are the real terrorists.
Where is the Missing Resistance?
Another piece of this story is the role of Homeland Security in breaking up the hopeful populism of last year's Occupy movement. Occupy was derailed by infiltration and dirty tricks much more than by tear gas and police brutality. The anti-war movement has been stifled and thwarted ever since the successful popular uprising against nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Both political parties are to the right of the American people. The people want peace and public-sector jobs and a clean environment. But there are few Democrats who will work toward these goals, while the Republicans are busy working against them.
The tradition of American democracy is actually quite robust, and it takes a vast unconstitutional machinery to keep the will of the people from coming out. This machinery could never survive the light of day. That's why Snowden's courage is such a beacon of hope, the brightest to appear since the beginning of our slide into despotism twelve years ago. What a brave man is Snowden! A hero for our time. This is Gandhian "civil disobedience" to the Nth power. I know he will inspire courage in others, including people in the press, who know so much more than they are telling. Truly if the downward slide of American democracy is to be halted, actions like Snowden's must be the leading edge of a people's resistance movement.