Is America a Free Country?

by , April 23, 2012

The “war on terrorism” has inaugurated a new era in the American polity, a sea-change that has not only threatened to overturn traditional limits on government power but also corrupted the political culture – and opened the way to the terminal crisis of the Constitution.

In a revealing series of interviews on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” program, three individuals targeted by the American surveillance state – William Binney, former top NSA official, Jacob Applebaum, an internet security specialist who works with WikiLeaks, and Laura Poitras, an Oscar-nominated documentary film-maker whose work has brought her to the attention of US authorities and led to her harassment by US government agents – give compelling evidence that the answer to the question in the title of this piece is clearly an emphatic no.

Binney resigned his position with the National Security Agency (NSA) after 40 years in protest at the government’s increasingly totalitarian methods of data-collection and retention, without judicial oversight. The government has targeted him: in 2007, his home was invaded by FBI agents after he went to the Senate Intelligence Committee with revelations about illegal NSA spying on American citizens: they pointed guns at him, and warned that he would “not do well” in prison. Applebaum and Poitras have been detained, searched, and interrogated every time they have re-entered the US from abroad – Poitras over 40 times – and had their laptops seized and presumably copied. None of these individuals have been charged with a crime.

The degree to which our constitutionally-protected liberties have been usurped is shockingly described by Binney:

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe all emails, the government has copies of, in the United States?

WILLIAM BINNEY: I would think—I believe they have most of them, yes.

GOODMAN: And you’re speaking from a position where you would know, considering your position in the National Security Agency.

BINNEY: Right. All they would have to do is put various Narus devices at various points along the network, at choke points or convergent points, where the network converges, and they could basically take down and have copies of most everything on the network.

While this level of surveillance started during the Bush administration, under President Obama, says Binney:

The surveillance has increased. In fact, I would suggest that they’ve assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: How many?

WILLIAM BINNEY: Twenty trillion.”

What are they doing with all those emails? They’re targeting their enemies, domestic as well as foreign, and combining this information with “meta-data” – i.e. financial records, credit card transactions – to create comprehensive profiles of those on their enemies list. There’s nothing to stop them from “leaking” this information to anyone, for any purpose – because it all takes place in the dark. And if they want to find something on you, they will find it and use it. This, in short, is what it means to say one lives in a police state. Glenn Greenwald wrote about this in a recent column, and he said something very important that we should all focus on:

So just look at what happens to people in the U.S. if they challenge government actions in any meaningful way — if they engage in any meaningful dissent. We love to tell ourselves that there are robust political freedoms and a thriving free political press in the U.S. because you’re allowe d to have an MSNBC show or blog in order to proclaim every day how awesome and magnanimous the President of the United States is and how terrible his GOP political adversaries are — how brave, cutting and edgy! — or to go on Fox News and do the opposite. But people who are engaged in actual dissent, outside the tiny and narrow permissible boundaries of pom-pom waving for one of the two political parties — those who are focused on the truly significant acts which the government and its owners are doing in secret — are subjected to this type of intimidation, threats, surveillance, and climate of fear, all without a whiff of illegal conduct.”

All modern dictatorships employ the same method of limited freedom in certain realms, expanding and contracting the parameters of the permissible according to the tactical advantage of the moment, and yet always upholding the first principle of any and all tyrannies: that the government grants such “rights” as “free speech” and “free assembly” at its sole discretion. Which means they can be rescinded at a moment’s notice.

This state of conditional freedom that allows these governments to maintain the official fiction they are “liberal” democracies. With Fox News and MSNBC braying at one another, and the airwaves filled with corporate-funded political ads detailing the dirt on this or that candidate, the illusion of liberality persists. Yet all one has to do is challenge the “national security” prerogatives of an ever-expanding American empire – as Binney, Applebaum, and Poitras did – and suddenly one is transported into the world of It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s masterful evocation of what a distinctively American dictatorship might look like, Orwell’s 1984, or some other dystopian vision of a totalitarian future. Reading these warnings today, one cannot escape their archaic air: not because the visions projected in these novels turned out to be wrong, but precisely because they have already come true.

Take Orwell’s classic work, which posited a world in a state of perpetual warfare (check!), where constant and universal surveillance is the norm (check!), where “thoughtcrime” is ruthlessly punished, and where most ordinary people (the “proles”) are basically left alone, with totalitarian methods of repression directed almost exclusively against rebellious elites (check!) This last item is the point Greenwald made in his piece, and it bears repeating and elaboration. The idea is to make it possible to exert control without affecting how most people live their lives. If you aren’t a “whistle-blower,” a Julian Assange, or a Bradley Manning: if you don’t reveal closely-guarded government secrets, if you aren’t making documentaries about how the Americans conquered and lorded over the Iraqis, then you have nothing to worry about. There are no political prisons, no gulags – but if you step out of bounds the government has enough information to discredit, destroy, and/or imprison you. Two journalists – Tom Vanden Brook, a writer for USA Today, and Ray Locker, an editor – who were writing about the Pentagon’s use of military contractors to whitewash its sorry record in Iraq and Afghanistan, found that a website and a false Twitter account in their names made a sudden appearance, in what appeared to be a coordinated effort to discredit them and their work.

The contractors deny all involvement, and, yes, this happened under the Obama administration – last week. Barack Obama is an essential element of the developing totalitarian trend in the United States: indeed, I would argue his reelection is the essential factor pushing this process forward. “Lean forward!” barks MSNBC – but forward to what?

This is a question I needn’t ask myself, for the simple reason that I was never a supporter of the President, and am an unlikely candidate for membership in the Obama cult. My political views might be described as somewhat to the “right” of Ayn Rand, when it comes to domestic issues, and far to the “left” of Noam Chomsky when it comes to foreign policy. In short, I’m a libertarian, and so my jaundiced view of the President is not all that surprising. Yet even I am surprised by the deafening silence in the “liberal” community – and the lack of real anger on the left at Obama’s escalation of the war on our civil liberties. Leading “progressives” are apparently indifferent to this administration’s vindictive pursuit of “whistle-blowers” – insiders like Binney who cry foul at government abuses – and the lack of outrage is … outrageous.

I know it’s an election year, and partisanship is to be expected – but I would think that, as we descend into an authoritarian abyss from which there is no return, American liberals and “progressives” would consider it significant enough to declare a moratorium on partisanship and exert some pressure on their political leaders. Why is it left to us libertarians, and rare dissident liberals like Greenwald, to speak out against the accelerating encroachments of the National Security State?

I’ll tell you why: because the American left is dead, killed off by their support of a candidate who personified their turn to identity politics. The left’s undying allegiance to the President and his policies has sealed their rejection of the old-fashioned liberal anti-imperialist pro-civil libertarian stance, exemplified by The Nation when it was edited by Oswald Garrison Villard and which briefly resurfaced during the Vietnam era. Instead of going forward, American liberalism has retreated back to the era of FDR, when being on the “left” meant supporting not only the Welfare State but also calling for bigger and better ways to buttress the Warfare State. Modern liberals, like their ideological antecedents of the 1930s, disdain the Constitution as an archaic dead-letter that needs to be converted into a “living” document. What’s all this talk about the alleged sacredness of the Constitution, they grumble: it all sounds like so much “constitutional fundamentalism” to them. Democratic Rep. Mike Quigly of Illinois opines that such concepts as “free speech” and “due process of law” are so vague that they “don’t define themselves,” and are up for creative interpretation.

The neoconservatives who have taken over the conservative movement and the Republican party are certainly not going to jump into the breach and take up the cudgels on behalf of the Constitution. They only invoke it when it offers to upend the President’s economic and social initiatives, such as Obamacare, but when it comes to this administration’s assault on basic civil liberties they say “Faster, please!

With the left co-opted, and the right pushing for an even more draconian crackdown on what is left of our constitutionally-protected rights, we are left with only Ron Paul holding up a copy of the Constitution and demanding its restoration. Unfortunately, even that voice will be stilled – at least, insofar as presidential politics is concerned – after the Tampa convention, in August, when the Republicans anoint Mitt Romney, neocon tool and sacrificial lamb. What this means is that the authoritarian trend in American politics will continue, unabated and unopposed. In this context, it is appropriate to recall the warning of John T. Flynn, former New Dealer-turned-constitutionalist, a financial writer purged from The New Republic and polite liberal society for his vocal opposition to the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

Fascism will come at the hands of perfectly authentic Americans, as violently against Hitler and Mussolini as the next one, but who are convinced that the present economic system is washed up and that the present political system in America has outlived its usefulness and who wish to commit this country to the rule of the bureaucratic state; interfering in the affairs of the states and cities; taking part in the management of industry and finance and agriculture; assuming the role of great national banker and investor, borrowing millions every year and spending them on all sorts of projects through which such a government can paralyze opposition and command public support; marshaling great armies and navies at crushing costs to support the industry of war and preparation for war which will become our greatest industry; and adding to all this the most romantic adventures in global planning, regeneration, and domination all to be done under the authority of a powerfully centralized government in which the executive will hold in effect all the powers with Congress reduced to the role of a debating society. There is your fascist. And the sooner America realizes this dreadful fact the sooner it will arm itself to make an end of American fascism masquerading under the guise of the champion of democracy.

“…. They began to flirt with the alluring pastime of reconstructing the capitalist system. They became the architects of a new capitalist system. And in the process of this new career they began to fashion doctrines that turned out to be the principles of fascism. Of course they do not call them fascism, although some of them frankly see the resemblance. But they are not disturbed, because they know that they will never burn books, they will never hound the Jews or the Negroes, they will never resort to assassination and suppression. What will turn up in their hands will be a very genteel and dainty and pleasant form of fascism which cannot be called fascism at all because it will be so virtuous and polite.”

Those words were published in 1944, and they are truer today than on the day they appeared in print. The dictatorship of the virtuous is being prepared, ever so politely, by those who pose as the champions of a “liberalism” corrupted beyond recognition. As we pass from a condition of liberty to one of conditional freedom, this is the political agency ensuring a smooth transition.

Read more by Justin Raimondo