At the end of the eighteenth century, the laissez-faire-philosopher-turned-statist Jeremy Bentham devised a scheme for the design of a prison he called the Panopticon: a circular building at the center of which is a watchtower made of glass from which it is possible to observe the inmates at all times. If we look at America as one vast prison, with ourselves as the inmates, we can get some idea of what the national security bureaucracy was envisioning when they conceived PRISM, “Boundless Informant,” and the program that records the details (minus content) of every phone call made in the US (which, as far as I know, doesn’t have a name). Derived from documents leaked to the Guardian newspaper columnist Glenn Greenwald, these revelations throw back the curtain on a modern day, hi tech Panopticon, with the high priests of the National Security State sitting at the center of it, relentlessly observing us, the prisoners—who don’t even know we’re prisoners – 24/7.
PRISM allows the National Security Agency (NSA) “direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants,” according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian newspaper. The information scooped up by the NSA includes “search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats,” according to the Power Point presentation leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The document claims the US (and British) governments collect this information “directly from the servers” of internet service providers. While at first denying even knowing about any such government program, as well as the idea that they would allow direct access to their servers, the named ISPs later conceded the truth of these accusations by acknowledging that the information is indeed being provided in a “online room,” where massive amounts of information are stored and then transferred to government snoops.
In response to civil libertarians who worried about the extend of government surveillance, and whether it went beyond the bounds allowed by law, the NSA and the intelligence community routinely denied they were spying on Americans. It’s just those dastardly foreigners, they said: oh, but of course we inadvertently scooped up some information on American citizens, however that was an unavoidable accident – and, in answer to inquiries from Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, they claimed there was no way of knowing how much or to what extent surveillance of Americans had occurred. No sooner had that been run up the flagpole than the Guardian debunked this particular lie with yet another blockbuster story, this time exposing a program given the sinister name of “Boundless Informant”:
“The National Security Agency has developed a powerful tool for recording and analyzing where its intelligence comes from, raising questions about its repeated assurances to Congress that it cannot keep track of all the surveillance it performs on American communications.
“The Guardian has acquired top-secret documents about the NSA data-mining tool, called Boundless Informant, that details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks.”
Accompanying the Guardian story is a “heat” map reprinted from the original documents showing where the snoops are spying most intensely, with high rates of interception in red and orange, and the rest in shades of green. America is colored orange. “Boundless Informant” has the ability to determine how many communications have been intercepted in a given country, what sort of communications they are, and other details. In a snapshot of what our spooks scooped up in March, 2013, we see Iran came in first, unsurprisingly, with more than 14 billion reports, with Pakistan and Jordan following close behind. Egypt and India also figure prominently. Israel looks bright red to me. The map affixes a number to the orange-colored United States: 2,892,343,346 – presumably the number of “reports” coming into the Panopticon for that month.
Combined with the massive phone call database being compiled – which can track your location as well as your calls – this triad of Orwellian devices constitutes a modern day Panopticon, one that defines us all as inmates in some vast penal institution. Which pretty much sums up the status of the individual in the year 2013, and, indeed, in the entire post-9/11 era. We are living in the era of the Surveillance State, in which the “enemy” is not just some nameless, faceless terrorist but, potentially, anyone and everyone.
In the midst of these shocking revelations, their author has bravely come forward: he is 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a former employee of the Booz-Allen defense contractor who worked for the NSA and has now apparently fled to Hong Kong. In an interview with the Guardian, Snowden states his motives forthrightly:
“The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.
“I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”
This is what is going to save our republic, in the end: the existence of people like Edward Snowden, who, I’m not surprised to learn, contributed $250 to Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. The whole tenor of his remarks to the Guardian bespeaks an explicitly libertarian critique of the “authoritarian mindset” – as he puts it – of the government spies who are tracking our every move. This video interview with Snowden, conducted by Glenn Greenwald, literally brought tears to my eyes: one could not possibly hope for a clearer, more eloquent indictment of the emerging American police state than Snowden’s withering analysis of what he calls “the architecture of oppression.” Here is someone who gave up a comfortable life in Hawaii as a highly-paid government contractor and now risks jail – “I do not expect to see home again” – and eternal exile. Why did he do it? To give the American people the information they need to decide whether they want to live in a society where government spying on citizens is ubiquitous. His greatest fear? It’s not imprisonment, but the fear that his act will change nothing.
It’s up to us to make sure his heroic act is not in vain. He appears to be a confirmed libertarian, and an informed and articulate one at that. Libertarians are in the vanguard of this fight, and have been from the beginning: it’s no accident that Sen. Rand Paul is introducing legislation – the Fourth Amendment Restoration Act – to shut down the Panopticon now. Thank the gods for the Glenn Greenwalds, the Daniel Ellsbergs, and the rest of the honest liberals who defend the long and distinguished civil libertarian tradition on the left – they are our invaluable allies
Snowden is bound to be pilloried as a “traitor” by the neocons, the Lindsey Grahams and John McCains, and their newfound best friends in the Obama administration: the latter will doubtless pursue Snowden just like they pursued Bradley Manning and are still pursuing Julian Assange. And I can’t wait to hear from the Obama cult on all this. Snowden is already being attacked by the Usual Suspects for his choice of sanctuaries, and he answers the question of why Hong Kong:
“I think it is really tragic that an American has to move to a place that has a reputation for less freedom. Still, Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People’s Republic of China. It has a strong tradition of free speech.”
Stronger, apparently, than our own – and that may indeed turn out to be true, at least in this particular case. Aside from the bitter irony of having to flee to Red China in order to escape the enemies of freedom – I told you we’re living in Bizarro World – this is actually quite a smart move, because it’s an open question as to whether the Chinese government will hand him over to the Americans. If they do, they will surely take their time about it. Hong Kong has autonomy in its internal affairs, while defense and foreign policy are Beijing’s domain. The relatively liberal politics of Hong Kong make a quick handover unlikely – and, as far as Beijing is concerned, especially unlikely in the wake of a Sino-American summit at which President Obama went out of his way to complain about alleged Chinese hacking of US computer systems. In response to that charge, Snowden had this to say:
“We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world. We are not at war with these countries.”
While some Chinese officials would no doubt like to be able to hand Snowden over to the Americans, the political dynamics of such a move are highly problematic. They don’t want to be seen as caving in to American pressure: the ultra-nationalist Chinese public has enough gripes about official corruption and growing economic inequality for the Politburo to throw this into the boiling pot. The leadership transition is still shaky, and the new leader, Xi Jinping, is going to be sorely tested as this becomes a major diplomatic bone of contention between Beijing and Washington.
The impact of these stunning revelations is bound to reverberate throughout the world, with international as well as domestic political implications we have only just begun to contemplate, but one aspect of all this I find especially interesting, and that is how it is changing the ideological atmosphere in this country. The change was neatly summed up in a tweet by one Zaid Jilani, who I believe is a former blogger for one of the liberal think tanks:
care what party you vote for, if you’re tea party or
the only political labels right now are authoritarian or
Certain events define the battle lines and show us just where everyone stands, and the Snowden-Greenwald revelations are just such an occasion. Where you come out on this issue defines who and what you are: the “liberal” pundits defending this administration’s multi-pronged assaulted on civil liberties will go down in infamy as the Benedict Arnolds of the American left. In such times, when the stakes are this high, and the future of the republic is at issue, character determines who will stand up and who will bow their heads to the powerful. What is striking, to me, is the atmosphere of fear that this administration has managed to instill in potential whistleblowers: in his Sunday morning interview with George Stephanopoulos, Greenwald was asked if the FBI has paid him a visit “yet”: Glenn’s answer was classic. He said that if and when the FBI comes calling he’ll tell them, “There’s this thing called the Constitution, the First Amendment of which” guarantees his ability to report what the government is doing in the dark. He made it clear he isn’t intimidated, and when Stephanopoulos asked if we can be expecting more revelations, Glenn said, “You can.”
For the first time in many years, there is a massive fightback against the continuous assault on the Constitution and the rule of law we’ve been experiencing since September 11, 2001. God help us if we lose.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).