By Alfredo Lopez
This past week, the Federal government threw a one-two punch that will effectively destroy the Internet as we know it. Demonstrating, once again, his talent for obfuscation and misdirection, President Obama made a speech about reforming the NSA and controlling surveillance that actually officially recognized, sanctioned and even expanded the NSA's domestic spying and cyber-warfare.
While pundits and activists quickly pointed to the President's "weakness" in not implementing real changes in the spying policies, there was nothing weak about Barack Obama's speech. True enough, this wasn't the conciliatory speech some people wanted or even expected; he didn't apologize for the atrocious mangling of our civil rights he's overseen. But he wasn't hiding from the outrage. Rather, he told us in no uncertain terms that he sees a need to spy on us, has what he claims are the laws in place to let him do it and has the will to continue and expand upon it. It was a chilling moment: a bully telling us "how it's gonna be".
At the same time, the federal courts last handed down a decision which also, if upheld on appeal, effectively destroys the Internet as we know it: throwing out net neutrality rules and actually declaring the Federal Communications Commission legally incapable of regulating the Internet's vitally important high speech broadband service.
The President's speech is the more infuriating, the court decision the more dangerous but, taken together, they present a horrifying vision of a government whose homicidal activities are accompanied by its destruction of democratic protection. The same government that is fighting some kind of war in every part of the world is fighting an unrestrained war on our freedom and liberty here at home. I'll have something to say about net neutrality later this week but first...our President and his war on our rights.
Barack Obama has a communications style that is, by now, well-known: he hypes a speech as a "major address", speaks for 45 minutes or so and contextualizes everything historically (frequently alluding to major events in U.S. history as influencing his decisions). In this speech, he started with: "At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the 'The Sons of Liberty' was established in Boston. The group's members included Paul Revere, and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America's early Patriots." That first sentence should tip us off to what's coming: this man can connect the NSA's attacks on our freedom with Paul Revere's ride.
He then shifts, in virtually every speech, into his main argument, which is to re-position an ongoing debate. Here we are in the middle of the speech: "...just as ardent civil libertarians recognize the need for robust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse as intelligence capabilities advance, and more and more private information is digitized."
That's a complete lie. "Ardent" or not, civil libertarians generally consider these "robust intelligence capabilities" unconstitutional and illegal as well as ineffective and completely unnecessary. They've produced libraries of studies demonstrating that. Try to find a statement by any major civil liberties organization supporting "robust intelligence capabilities" of the type we're seeing. On the other hand, national security leaders haven't acknowledged any "potential for abuse" -- at least not in recent policy presentations and arguments. They first lied that none of this spying was taking place, then they defended it robustly and now they are proposing its continued expansion.
"As a mea culpa for the government's overzealous surveillance techniques," Businessweek's Joshua Brustein points out, "the president's speech was woefully lacking. He hit all the fuzzy themes guaranteed to drive critics batty."
What the President was doing here was shifting the argument to avoid touching on the main issue: that the spying on U.S. citizens through the indiscriminate and wholesale collection of personal data and the content of absolutely legal and protected communications is a major crime and that his Administration is a criminal enterprise. One can argue with that but it's what many people are saying and no honest government official should ignore it.
His definition of proscribed spying "does not include the ingestion of tens of trillions of records about the telephone calls, e-mails, locations and relationships of people for whom there is no suspicion of relevance to any threat," wrote Bart Gellman in the Washington Post. "Alongside the invocation of privacy and restraint, Obama gave his plainest endorsement yet of 'bulk collection,' a term he used more than once and authorized explicitly in Presidential Policy Directive 28."
In short, in the only history-making part of the speech, he made bulk data-capture of his citizens' private and personal data an established and ordered policy. There will be no turning back by this Administration.
That established, the President made a few substantive statements but promised almost nothing except that aggressive NSA and related government surveillance would continue basically unchanged. Any hope that the Obama Administration would back off from its virtual police state policies is now dashed.
"We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies," he said, addressing in a short sentence the issue everyone tuned into the speech to hear about. "There is a reason why blackberries and I-Phones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room. We know that the intelligence services of other countries -- including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures -- are constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations, intercept our emails, or compromise our systems."
The most important question isn't what other governments are doing to us; it's what our own government is doing. Obama's only answer was that it was doing things that were completely legal. "..nothing that I have learned...indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens," he said. "...The men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They are not abusing authority in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails."