(The title is classified.)

We are now beginning to see the staggering extent to which the Patriot Act has undermined our Constitution and privacy, thanks to the actions of a man who is being labeled a traitor by politicians and a hero, if a self-righteous one, by more sensible people.  The broad and ambiguous powers granted the FBI are enough of a cause for concern, and now we learn the NSA has been conducting secret surveillance of apparently everyone on the planet who has access to a telephone, computer or credit card.  That would include Americans, whom the NSA is of course not empowered to spy on, but we cannot afford to be obsessive about details when it comes to national security.  Besides, the FBI, which is in fact commissioned to pry into our lives, is too busy with its own vastly expanded powers.

Is this process of collecting and analyzing astronomical amounts of data at all effective in combating terrorism?  Perhaps, but an independent estimation is impossible when virtually everything – including the very existence of the program – is classified, and the public knows only what the government deigns to release.  “Trust us, your elected officials,” says the President.  Trust Congress, which seems to be generally in the dark itself and in any case is focused on politics?  Trust the military, which has a long and rich history of lying to the people?  Trust the spooks, whose whole existence is deception?  Keep in mind that the Man, Director of Intelligence James Clapper, when asked before a Congressional committee if data on Americans was being collected, said no, deliberately lying to the body that is supposed to be providing oversight.

Head of the NSA

Head of the NSA

Perhaps the saddest thing in all this is that fully half the American population accepts this massive invasion of the Fourth Amendment.  This is hardly a surprise.  Judging from the apparent abandon and relish with which people, especially younger people, place personal and revealing information and photos on social media platforms, it would appear that many Americans have little interest in the Fourth Amendment.  Of course, most Americans would not be able to identify the Fourth Amendment, but most do have a sense that the Constitution guarantees privacy.  Besides, what is a little snooping if it prevents terror attacks?  Further, many are taken by the assurance – second only to national security as a reason for undermining civil liberties – that you have nothing to worry about if you are doing nothing wrong.  Well, at least until the government has some reason to find wrongdoing.

That the odds of being injured by a terrorist are infinitesimal compared to being shot or by a gun or hit by a drunk driver is seemingly unimportant.  For some obscure reason killing a couple of people with a bomb and a cause is a threat to national security, while gunning down a dozen people in the streets of Chicago is just crime.  And the mere mention of national security means the Constitution is likely to be assaulted.  I am constantly amazed that the same people who constantly remind us that men died to preserve the freedoms we exercise, especially when we criticize the government and military, are among the first to accept limitations on those freedoms whenever the cry of national security is raised.

But even more annoying than the surveillance programs and the sanctimonious defense of the same is the stupefying and frequently ludicrous application of secrecy.  Is there nothing done by our government that is not classified?  Of course, left to itself the government, in all its manifestations, would classify everything; it is the easiest way to cover mistakes, avoid blame and embarrassment and do illegal things.  The spooks obviously feel better when the public knows nothing, but generals and politicians can also operate more freely and feel superior and important when they know stuff the public is unaware of.

The constant refrain is that revealing pretty much anything about our security apparatus damages national security, though exactly how is inevitably left vague.  We are told, for example, that the outing of NSA’s PRISM program has caused “serious and irreversible damage to this nation.”  What, now all of a sudden the terrorists realize it is dangerous to use cell phones and credit cards?  Those plotting acts against America could hardly be that stupid; the stupid guys get to blow themselves up in Kabul.  Except among the stupid in the US, of whom there seem to be many (one even sits on the Intelligence Committee – Michele Bachmann), such outlandish claims only further undermine the already almost non-existent credibility of the government on these issues.  Incidentally, that same person, General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, also claimed the revelation undermined our relations to our allies, a rare burst of truth from such a source.

Why is the very budget of the NSA secret?  What can our enemies conclude from knowing exactly how much money is poured into the agency, when simply knowing that is a very large amount is enough to make a terrorist wary?  The only sensible reason is to hide the coast and extent of the NSA’s activities from the American public, which is exactly what is happening.  And for political reasons the government is now revealing little bits of information regarding the NSA’s programs.  Well, if this stuff can be declassified now without hurting our security, why was it classified in the first place?

This can get very silly.  James Clapper lied to Congress because he would have violated the laws binding him to secrecy had he replied truthfully.  Rep. Peter King, a poster child for ignorance, further explained that the Committee had placed the Director in an “untenable” position by asking him the question at all, even though Clapper was advised ahead of the hearing that he would be asked this.  Sen. Ron Wyden, who asked the question, later stated that he knew Clapper was lying but could not say so without violating his own security clearance agreements.  Clapper later explained that faced with the problem he answered “no” as the “most truthful, or least untruthful” reply.  He might just as well used the expression “truthiness.”  He lied, plain and simple, and his explanation only makes him look either disingenuous or stupid – or perhaps both.

But the whole business is in fact very serious for us, the people.  The Patriot Act is of course a public document, but apparently exactly how the government interprets its clauses is different from what one might suppose from reading the law.  Naturally, that interpretation is secret, presumably because any terrorist can read the law and thus undermine its effectiveness by understanding its provisions.  Or because the government is abusing even the broad unconstitutional powers granted by the Act.

And the most nefarious and ultimately destructive part of this compilation of police state laws is the provision for the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is to provide the “oversight” promised by the politicians.  Of course, the court is secret.  It is staffed by judges appointed by the Chief Justice for seven year terms, and this should comfort us inasmuch as the Supreme Court is the defender of the Constitution, which, however, many scholars believe has already been violated by the Patriot Act itself.  There is no defense; the Justice Department makes its case for a warrant, and the judge decides, apparently positively in the vast majority of instances.   The arguments, the targets, the outcome and the information acquired are all secret.

No one is actually being tried before this court, although the decision to grant a warrant to the FBI might be considered the first step in a judicial process that could culminate in an individual’s arrest or death.  Nevertheless, it is a secret court, an institution traditionally associated with oppressive governments.  Like blowing up American citizens with a Hellfire missile (after a secret judgment in the White House), this court rests on a very slippery slope and establishes an incredibly dangerous precedent.  The next step is a secret court to try American citizens because the evidence used by the prosecution must be kept secret in the interests of national security, a development already emerging is the trials of foreign nationals and resident aliens.  The Patriot Act is transforming the Federal Bureau of Investigation into an actual Geheime Staatspolizei.

Head of the FBI

Head of the FBI

I see little hope.  The technology of spying has become so sophisticated, especially in connection with the information and communications structures, that resistance seems futile.  Not only has it become easier for the security services to spy and keep their operations secret, but the new electronic technologies are just too damn useful to the government, particularly regarding domestic concerns, and a generally ignorant Congress will continue to legalize activity ultimately destructive to a democratic society.  The Constitution is of course protected by the Supreme Court, but some of their recent decisions do not fill me with hope.  Besides, I am guessing that most of this stuff is also kept secret from the Justices.

One final thing: is Michele Bachmann actually entrusted with secrets?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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War without End, Amen

Chancellor Obama

Chancellor Obama

On September 21, 2001 Congress passed the Authorization to Use Military Force act, the legislation that essentially allowed the President and military to wage war on “terrorism” anywhere, anytime and seemingly forever.  In an impressive imitation of the German parliament under Hitler Congress, after virtually no debate, approved the act with an almost unanimous vote; apart from a few abstentions there was only a single nay cast in both houses.  That no vote was cast by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Cal), who is now sponsoring a bill, HR 198, that would repeal the AUMF.

The Patriot Act, another demonstration of incredible political cowardice, is of course much more pernicious domestically, with its constitutionally dubious provisions for dramatically enhancing the powers of the country’s security apparatus while undermining civil liberties.  The Patriot Act (always be suspicious of legislation with the word “patriot” in the title) immediately reminded me of the Enabling Act of 1933, which essentially allowed Hitler to henceforth govern by decree: both were justified by “threats” to national security (9/11, the burning of the Reichstag) and both increased the power of the state and undermined the democratic constitution.  And since no government will voluntarily surrender power the life of the Patriot Act, like the Enabling Act, has been constantly extended, most recently by that defender of freedom, Barack Obama, whom we now know is collecting information on Americans on a scale unmatched by any dictatorship in history.

In some ways the AUMF is the foreign affairs counterpart to the Patriot Act.  It dramatically increases the power and scope of the executive, military and CIA in waging war overseas and obviously allows the transgression of international covenants we are pledged to defend, once again in the name of national security, the favorite excuse of every authoritarian state.  Even better than the Patriot Act, the AUMF has no sunset clause, presumably because the war against terror will last so long as there is even a single individual contemplating violence against the United State, which is to say, forever.

President Obama, who was apparently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize simply for replacing George Bush, is now using the AUMF to “wage war,” i.e., assassinate people, to an extent the Bush administration could only dream of.  Obama thus joins such notables as Henry Kissinger, Menachim Begin and Yasser Arafat in the contest to see which Nobel Peace laureate has the most blood on his hands.  And his administration has just made it clear, at least in White House language, that the war is likely to continue for another ten or twenty years.  We could be going for a record here.

Lee’s bill is doomed to failure, because the forces perpetuating the forever war are simply too strong for Congress to resist, not that it takes that much to cow our noble leaders.    Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, it is not economic pressures that play a major role, since drone warfare is relatively cheap, and for Haliburton, Blackwater Mercs, Amalgamated Latrine Diggers, et al. there is in this case little “money to be made, supplying the army with the tools of the trade.”  Instead, the forces behind the forever war are institutional: the Presidency, federal security and intelligence agencies and the military.

Governments are the ultimate beneficiaries of wars, assuming they win them.  Threats to national security, particularly those that are seen as internal to the country, have always been a grand justification for the state, especially the executive, to accumulate more power, and the security threat is most obvious and useful when the country is actually at war, whether or not the enemy is seriously a threat.  The beauty of the forever war, of course, is that is in fact forever.  Crises need not be invented, because inasmuch as the country is always in a state of war, it is also always in the midst of a politically useful crisis.  Further, not only can we not lose the war on terror but it also does not need to be won, so long as terrorists (or reasonable facsimiles) are being blown up.  Even a failure, such as a successful serious terror attack in the country, provides a platform for seeking more authority and more leeway in the exercise of that authority.  It’s a politician’s dream come true.

The Executive branch clearly benefits, certainly in its relationship to the Congress.  The President of the United States now has more power, both in domestic and foreign affairs, than he has ever had, even, I would suggest, during the Second World War.  Governments do not willingly surrender power.  Much of the power accumulated during the war against Germany and Japan was retained by the Presidency, and more was added by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a fine example of war – or shadow war – playing into the hands of the executive and military.  Some of that authority was rescinded by the War Powers Act, but not all, and the measure in fact enshrines the idea that the President can commit the country to war without getting anyone’s approval by granting an exception: in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

Presidential authority and the mechanisms for exercising that authority clearly skyrocketed after 9/11, leading to two costly wars that really did not involve the American public.  Barack Obama has now dramatically underscored the point that all governments crave power; the putative liberal and one time critic of the Bush administration’s abuses has preserved all those emergency powers, which are now being used on a whole new scale.  The obsession with secrecy and leaks, which has resulted in an administration even more opaque than the previous one, obviously has a lot to do with preventing the public from realizing just how extensive and questionable the government’s activities are.

New digs for CIA spooks

New digs for CIA spooks

The forever war is a bonanza for the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and whatever other security and intelligence groups that are mucking about the country.  Since the war against terrorism has a domestic component our secret police, the FBI, has an unending excuse for enhanced activities, even those of constitutional questionable nature, and a basis for demanding more money.  Nobody, probably not even members of Congress, really knows exactly what the mandate and powers of the NSA are since this set of spooks makes the CIA look positively transparent, but clearly it is involved in domestic affairs, whether legally or illegally, who knows?  Intelligence agencies always do well in times of war, and we can expect the NSA to see increases in its funding, though we will not see them, since the agency’s budget is also secret.

The big winner in the forever war is the CIA (probably; who knows what the NSA is doing?), inasmuch as it is directly involved in foreign affairs and external threats to the US.  Such agencies inevitably grow larger in times of war, and in this regard the forever war is perfect, since it is against shadowy individuals scattered around the planet.  Consequently, the CIA becomes more important and plays a bigger role than the military, and the organization that was formally prohibited from assassination in 1975 now does so openly and with heavy weapons.  Why drone warfare and serious weaponry was put in the hands of an intelligence agency, particularly one with a history of incompetence and law-breaking, rather than the military is not at all clear.  Perhaps because they were considered better at secrecy and deception than the military.

While the forever war is essentially in the hands of its competitors, the military still benefits, since a war is a war, even one in which traditional armed forces have only a limited role.  Any war means budget increases for the Pentagon and provides them squealing points should any traitorous politician suggest their budget be cut.  Besides, the forever war is everywhere, which means more military personnel planted around the world.  And those aircraft carriers will be real handy for launching drones.

NSA.  Try to get in there.

NSA. Try to get in there.

None of these people have any serious reason to see the war on terror end; it is simply too good for business.  And it will not end, since it is unlikely there will ever come a moment when nobody is interested in killing Americans, especially since every drone strike, every violation of others’ national sovereignty is creating more jihadists.  So, the war on terror can even be good for terrorists.

The only real losers are the American people and their Constitution.