What could be more fun? An articulate and very smart young man our Washington mandarins deride as a "twenty-something high school dropout" has the US national security establishment, the Washington punditocracy, and the President himself in a panicky lather. Government officials are howling with outrage, and calling for Edward Snowden’s head. The pundits are livid: how dare this "narcissist" who didn’t go to an Ivy League college presume to sit in judgment of his betters! Whatever their disagreements, politicians and talking heads of the left and the right agree: Snowden is a "traitor"!
Their big problem, however, is that the American people think he did the right thing: a Time poll says 54 percent approve. Snowden may be the most hated man in Washington, but out here in the cornfields he’s a hero. You can manipulate polls by injecting subtle bias into the way the question is worded – this explains, I think, why other polls say the majority are in favor of his prosecution – but the unmistakable reality is that Americans are not yet so corrupted that they will sit still for wearing shackles. After more than a decade of constant fear-mongering propaganda, their attachment to the Constitution has not been broken – although perhaps it is more accurate to say their basic distrust of anything coming out of Washington, D.C., is unabated. The White House petition to pardon Snowden garnered 80,000 signatures in less than a week: as I write, it is fast approaching 85,000.
But the Washington know-it-alls have a solution to this dilemma –and, for them, it is indeed a dilemma: keep everything secret. So that even the law is itself a secret – or, at least, the government’s interpretation of it is kept under lock and key. Everything else about the mechanics of our emerging police state is also a secret: the internet companies forced to turn over their customers’ private accounts to government snoops are forbidden by law from saying anything about their interactions with Washington. They cannot tell a customer "The government forced us to turn over your records." If they choose to fight in court, they cannot publicize their fight. It is a mugging that happens in the dark – the familiar modus operandi of all criminals.
The very court order giving the government carte blanche to monitor all the communications of Verizon – and, now we learn, of all major internet and phone service providers – was top secret classified information. Indeed, this is among the gravest of Snowden’s alleged "crimes" – leaking this Top Secret document, which is nothing more than a perfunctory court order, of the sort that are routinely public in any free society. This document was deemed so sensitive that only a very few High Muckamucks were given access to it – which has fueled speculation Snowden may have had help from someone higher up on the Soviet totem pole, perhaps some Lieutenant Commissar somewhere in the bowels of the NSA who had a pang of conscience….
We are told that the reason for all this secrecy is that we don’t want to let the "terrorists" in on how we’re tracking and fighting them. But the reality is that Al Qaeda and likeminded groups are already aware we’re tracking them – though, on 9/11, it appeared they were tracking us, as Bill Safire pointed out in one of his last columns for the New York Times:
"A threatening message received by the Secret Service was relayed to the agents with the president that ‘Air Force One is next.’ According to the high official, American code words were used showing a knowledge of procedures that made the threat credible.”
Safire swore this was told to him by Karl Rove, who said the President was going back to Washington until the Secret Service “informed him that the threat contained language that was evidence that the terrorists had knowledge of his procedures and whereabouts." As Safire put it:
“That knowledge of code words and presidential whereabouts and possession of secret procedures indicates that the terrorists may have a mole in the White House – that, or informants in the Secret Service, FBI, FAA, or CIA.”
Safire later disavowed this story, but I believed him the first time, and still do. Yet this knowledge went down the Memory Hole, along with Safire himself, and no one talks about it anymore – and the NSA sure isn’t talking. We still don’t know all the important facts about the catalyst for the all-pervasive surveillance our "war on terror" has conjured into being, let alone the invasions we’ve launched in its name. The Panopticon uncovered by Snowden is not some recent invention: it was born before the Bush administration – remember "Echelon"? – and has metastasized ever since.
It started under Bill Clinton, but in the post-9/11 atmosphere the tentacles of the Surveillance State grew like kudzu. For twelve years, the US government has been fighting a nameless enemy – it’s gone far beyond just Al Qaeda – using methods it refuses to reveal, but the events of the past few weeks have thrown back the curtain on the true nature of that struggle. Washington is waging war on those they consider the real enemy – the American people.
Why else would they vacuum up all the phone calls made in this country, and store them away for future reference? Why would they create a huge surveillance apparatus that employs tens of thousands of people and deploys sophisticated technologies on solving the "problem" of how to keep track of the movements, thoughts, and opinions of millions of Americans? And why would they keep the law itself – or, at least, their twisted "interpretation" of it – a state secret? This is the ultimate in authoritarianism – a secret law that you don’t even know you’re breaking (how can you know when it’s a secret?).
The Soviet empire is dead: only the ruins persist. Yet the system Lenin and his successors created lives on right here in America. "If you see something," says Big Sis, "say something." The KGB would’ve agreed wholeheartedly. So, you object to the government scooping up your phone calls and emails – what do you have to hide, comrade? Left-wing commentators, from Mother Jones to Talking Points Memo, are sliming Snowden like Pravda once slimed dissidents. Pro-government media are playing down the Snowden revelations – poor Rachel Maddow has to get really really creative in order to think up other stuff to cover – and Washington is just as united against Snowden as Moscow, circa 1930, was against "Trotskyite wreckers." And then there’s this – the nagging suspicion that the former "community organizer" who sounds so reasonable, so intelligent, so positively Stevie Wonder-ish, is really an aspiring tyrant in the guise of an American President.
Such suspicions have previously been confined to the outer reaches of the political spectrum, where the Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim crowd hangs out. And, yes, we’ve already heard all about the Bill Ayers-wrote-his-books theory, and the other crap the neocons have been handing out to their easily indoctrinated followers in the official "conservative" movement. With the Snowden revelations, however, which show how the President – who campaigned in 2008 as a civil libertarian crusader – ratcheted up the Surveillance State into a smoothly humming Panopticon, the real face of Barack Hussein (yes, Hussein) Obama is revealed to the world.
And it isn’t pretty.
President Obama nationalized the auto and healthcare industries in his first term, to the applause of our pro-government "progressives": now we learn he secretly nationalized the nation’s biggest internet service providers right under our noses, forcing them into the role of snoops – and the cheers from his progressive amen corner are deafening. Like Winston Smith at the end of George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, they have suddenly discovered that they love Big Brother.
There are notable exceptions, which only prove the rule: Glenn Greenwald, the reporter and columnist who broke this story, and who exemplifies the old-fashioned liberal in the tradition of Randolph Bourne and Oswald Garrison Villard, has come under relentless attack from the all-too-familiar left-wing defenders of the Regime. And speaking of regime defenders: Chris Hayes has expressed some reservations, but lately taken to simply avoiding the topic of Snowden. Maddow has dropped all mention of it from her show (and these people wonder why their ratings are tanking). Good old Nat Hentoff is horrified, but since he came out, so to speak, as pro-life, liberals have given themselves a good reason not to listen to him anymore. Over at Fox, there is outright editorial dissonance, with commentators visibly torn between their kneejerk inclination to bash the President and their reflexively authoritarian-neoconservative instincts whenever "national security" is supposedly involved.
Is it, though? Some high mucka-muck recently testified before Congress that no less than fifty terrorist attacks worldwide were prevented due to the all-seeing Eye of
Sauron the NSA, and yet every time they get specific it turns out the case they point to could have been broken without this supposedly invaluable aid.
Think of it this way: our government has set up a system whereby an "analyst" can key in the right code and call up all your emails, all your phone calls, all the locations you’ve visited – and with whom – as far back as you care you imagine. Are we really supposed to believe they have done this in order to fight scattered bands of "terrorists" hiding out in caves somewhere in the mountains of Shitholistan?
If you believe that, you deserve to live in a Soviet America, comrade. Because that’s just where you’re headed.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
So Andrew Sullivan has disappeared behind a pay wall, never to be seen or heard from again. There’s a lesson or two in there somewhere.
That was a tweet, actually, which I thought good enough to include as an addendum to this column. I’ll often tweet column ideas before they’re written – or, in this case, as I write – and 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).