Progressives Betray Struggle Against Surveillance State

A struggle of some consequence is now being waged in Congress to keep on life support the NSA’s massive spying on the American people.   And in this struggle the progressives (aka liberals) are engaged in a massive betrayal of all they profess to believe in.   Instead too many of them are scurrying about attacking Rand Paul, the libertarian, anti-interventionist, Republican Senator who is leading the charge against the Bush/Obama spying program.  Among other things Senator Paul has engaged in a filibuster to stop this nefarious program.  So far he has been successful.

Let us try to make the crucial events in Congress as simple and crystal clear as possible.  There are two pieces of legislation that were before the Senate last week.

The first is the Patriot Act itself, Section 215 of which, in the government’s secret interpretation, allowed the NSA to vacuum up data on virtually every piece of electronic communication by every American and indeed everyone on the planet.  This secret interpretation and use of 215 came to light only when the heroic Edward Snowden blew his whistle.  Such massive spying has already been declared illegal by a recent opinion of the Second Circuit Court, although the NSA ignores this ruling.  The Patriot Act is due to expire on June 1, and Obama is desperate to keep its essentials alive.  Since the government has not been able to produce any convincing data that such surveillance has protected the U.S., one might well ask why Obama is so frantic, almost hysterical, to keep it alive.  Why indeed.

The second is a “reform” of the Patriot Act, called the “USA Freedom Act,” proposed by Obama and company.  However, the USA Freedom Act is not different in its essentials from the original Patriot Act.  One “difference” is that the telephone and Internet companies will hold the data rather than the government itself, and then the government will vacuum it up from those companies.  A distinction without a difference, to be sure.  Here is what the ACLU has to say about the “USA Freedom Act”:

“This bill would make only incremental improvements, and at least one provision – the material-support provision – would represent a significant step backwards,” ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement. “The disclosures of the last two years make clear that we need wholesale reform.”

Jaffer wants Congress to let Section 215 sunset completely, a common sentiment among privacy activists who are USA Freedom Act skeptics – they’d rather let it expire and wait for a better reform package than endorse something half-baked.

Now we get to the meat of the politics and the possible victory over the Stasi State that we have within reach.  Last week both these bills came up for a vote in the Senate.  Rand Paul filibustered, a filibuster denigrated by many “progressives” as just a “long speech.”  Nevertheless, it was enough that cloture had to be invoked to get a vote on the bills.  That means 60 votes were needed to keep the legislation alive. First came the vote for the USA Freedom Act.  There were less than 60 votes to keep it alive.  Down it went.  Then came the vote to continue the good ol’ Patriot Act and its atrocious Section 215.   Again there were less than the 60 votes needed to keep it alive.  Down it went.  So as things stand now, Section 215 will be history as of June 1! 

That in itself is an enormous victory and should be widely heralded.  But here is the interesting thing.  All the Democrats voted in favor of Obama’s phony reform, the USA Freedom Act.  (As noted above, they could not, however, muster the 60 votes needed to bring it forward and get it passed.)  They included the favorites of the progressives, Ron Wyden, Patrick Leahey, Elizabeth Warren and of course that notorious advocate of butchery in Gaza, Bernie Sanders.  What motivated these progressives to take such a stand?  First,  it was Obama’s bill, and more importantly it gave some cover to these Dems since most of their constituents are horrified by the Spy State.  Next, when it came time to vote for the original Bush/Obama Patriot Act, the sides switched and the Republicans voted in favor of that measure.  But they also failed to muster the 60 votes needed to go forward and so that version of mass  surveillance failed.  Only Rand Paul and a few other Republicans stood firm on the issue of no mass surveillance and confronted the Republican majority, a clear proclamation of principle over Party.  For progressives this is (yet another) massive failure of those Dems whom they labored to install in the Senate.

Now this week the bullies that “lead” Congress are conferring frantically to find a way to keep alive the government spying on us.  Every sort of blackmail, payoff, bribe and other inducement is certainly on the table to bring the necessary number of Senators along.  It is not beyond imagination that the NSA is providing some embarrassing confidential information on recalcitrant Senators, which has been hovered up in the last decade.  These Congressional leaders have until the weekend to muster the 60 Senate votes needed for this ugly task, and they are within 3 votes of getting their way right now.  Today Obama himself urged Congress to do whatever it takes to continue the bulk spying law.

Clearly this is a time when progressive organizations, who are forever urging us to write and contact our Congresspeople, should be rolling into action.  And here is the biggest problem.  I have long been on many of the progressive mailing lists.  On this issue I have received nothing from them – nada, zilch.  So I checked to see what they had on their web sites.  Would there be at least a mention of this issue, a plea to contact one’s Senator?   I checked Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Green Party, Code Pink and Peace Action.  None of them had a call to action on this issue as far as I could see as of May 26, which is very late in the game .  To be fair, UNAC (United National Antiwar Coalition) did have a statement on this as an issue, dating from a while back and including condemnation of Obama for his actions.  But even here there was no call to action – no call for phone or letters to Congress and certainly no calls for a street demonstration, which is almost an autonomic reflex with UNAC.

In short the pwogs have shown an abysmal failure to take action in halting the Spy State.  And there is not much time to act.  If you, dear reader, contribute to one of these organizations, stay your check writing hand until they do something.  Dollars they understand – if not principles.

Moreover, what I have received recently in personal emails from progressive contacts is yet more excoriations of Rand Paul.  Here the progressives have an ally in what should be an all important fight and they turn on him!  In fact the pwogs are among the targets of this surveillance.  Why then make an enemy of a potential ally in the fight against the police state?  That is indeed worth thinking about.

One final point, Rand Paul in the Senate, and fellow libertarians in the House like Thomas Massie and Justin Amash (the only Palestinian American in Congress) and a few others (including a few Democrats like Mark Pocan and Zoe Lofgren) stand almost alone now in serious opposition to the entire imperial elite establishment, Republican and Democrat both, in this fight. And Rand Paul is taking the greatest hits – even from that corpulent bag of corruption and mendacity, Chris Christie.

A victory on this issue is possible now.  It happened before when Obama halted a plan to bomb Syria because of opposition in Congress, an opposition fueled by letters to Congress, resulting in a bipartisan opposition to an attack on Syria. 

A victory here would arouse more interest in the kind of Right/Left alliances on concrete issues that this writer, Ralph Nader and others have been advocating for some years. 

So progressives should abandon their theological or religious approach to politics, an infantile disorder that produces little because it does not allow issues to be attacked one at a time.  If one conducts one’s politics like a Church, then one’s influence will never extend far beyond the tiny groups huddled in Church basements.

John V. Walsh can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com.

Read more by John V. Walsh

Author: John V. Walsh

John Walsh is a scientist who lives in Cambridge, Mass. He is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch.org.