It’s a small detail, in the general scheme of things, but one indicative of a troubling recent trend: when Congress voted on reauthorization of the Patriot Act, in 2011, the administration sent summaries [.pdf] to the House intelligence committee describing – without going into too much detail – the data dragnet conducted by the NSA under section 215. "We believe that making this document available to all members of Congress, as we did with a similar document in December 2009, is an effective way to inform the legislative debate about the reauthorization of Section 215,” read the cover letter accompanying the documents. Apparently Rep. Mike Rogers, the neocon tool who heads up the committee, didn’t agree: the summaries were never seen outside the committee.
So the Obama administration lied when it said all members of Congress were fully informed about what was going on behind the backs of the American people – and Rep. Rogers was complicit in that lie, a fact that ought to put a new gloss on the alleged virtues of bipartisanship. No doubt the GOP leadership was particularly concerned to keep this knowledge away from those Tea Party freshmen (and freshwomen!), whose distrust of government marked them as potential troublemakers. While this wouldn’t be the first time legislation passed Congress under false pretenses, if we add this to the other ways official secrecy has insinuated itself into the political and legal process in this country, there is more than a little cause for concern.
Remember that our lawmakers are forbidden from explicitly describing the level of surveillance the law now allows: in warning against what is being done in the dark, Sen. Ron Wyden has had to use elliptical language – much as someone who lived in the former Soviet Union at the height of the Stalin terror was restrained from describing ordinary everyday horrors in a letter to relatives living overseas. Legislators can’t debate the law, they can’t challenge the law, because the government’s secret interpretation of the law is highly classified – we aren’t allowed to know about it.
When it comes to the Surveillance State, many of the traditional avenues of resistance are closed to us. For example, take Ladar Levison, head of Lavabit, a company that recently folded rather than cave in to the government’s demands. What were those demands? Well, Levison can’t say: if he does, the government can charge him, lock him up, and throw away the key. What he did say is that he was forced to make a choice between being "complicit in crimes against the American people" and Lavabit, an email service that allowed users to encrypt their communications (Snowden was reportedly among their customers). He chose the honorable course – but is prevented from telling us exactly why.
We are told all this secrecy is necessary because, after all, we’re at war, and our enemies abroad are relentlessly pursuing any and all weaknesses in the system in order to destroy us. Yet there is reason to suspect that the nature of this "enemy" is far different from what we’ve been led to believe: it isn’t some terrorist hiding in a cave somewhere – because the "enemy" is us, i.e. the American people.
Aside from the sheer number of individuals who have been effectively gagged by the government and prevented from telling the American people what is really being done to them under cover of "law," another way to tell all is not quite right is the sort of language showing up in official documents. As Marcy Wheeler points out, citing the NSA "White Paper" [.pdf] issued in tandem with President Obama’s recent "Snowden-isn’t-a-patriot" press conference, this document "doesn’t limit the terrorism in question to international terrorism (that which transcends national boundaries). And that’s not the only place in the White Paper where the government neglects such a modifier: by my rough count, about half the references to terrorism include no indication in the sentence that the discussion is limited exclusively to international terrorism. But there should be such a limitation. The Section 215 statute (which is broader in scope than the 215 metadata dragnet) makes quite clear that its use, when concerning a US person, is limited to international terrorism or clandestine activities."
Given the government’s ability to scoop up all our communications, and store them away for later use, this kind of mission creep was inevitable. After all, why should they limit themselves to monitoring communications having to do with overseas terrorism, when their recent emphasis on the domestic variety places it on an equal footing with the alleged threat from abroad? With no real oversight, the NSA was and is free to go hog wild, spying on alleged "threats" no matter where they crop up: and while this may go far beyond the original intent of the law, isn’t that what governments do all the time – exceed the "legal" boundaries of their authority in the hope they’ll be allowed to get away with it?
The distinction between "foreign" and "domestic" is one easily elided by a zealous government investigator intent on targeting a US citizen who hasn’t broken any law: in the case of Antiwar.com and this writer, the "foreign terrorist" link cooked up by the anonymous author of this FBI memo was the fact that a terrorist suspect had once visited this web site!
The "architecture of oppression," as Snowden deemed it, has successfully built itself into our lives because it takes on the appearance of a defensive measure, a military tactic deployed against a foreign enemy. Yet this administration is rapidly dropping even that pretense, and their partisan hounds are baying "What have you got to hide?"
What we are faced with is the astonishing sight of an administration often hailed as among the most "liberal" in our history making the case for government secrecy and surveillance on an unprecedented scale. For the first time since the days of Woodrow Wilson – another know-it-all professorial "progressive" with an authoritarian streak a mile wide – the government is moving toward criminalizing journalism it finds objectionable. They aren’t just breaking into reporters’ email accounts and scooping up their phone calls – they’re taking active measures against them.
This New York Times Magazine profile of Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who, together with Glenn Greenwald, has been instrumental in getting the Snowden revelations out there, documents the incredible harassment she’s had to endure from the US government every time she gets on, or off, a plane. Poitras is clearly afraid to travel back to the United States, and Greenwald, an American citizen currently living in Brazil, no doubt has some concerns about his physical safety should he return – having had one leading "journalist" and a leading Congressman loudly call for his arrest and imprisonment.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself and ask aloud "Where am I?" No, it’s not a senior moment – I’m not that old! – it’s me wondering what kind of country we’re living in where a US citizen has to fear his government because of something he wrote, or an opinion he holds. The country I was born in doesn’t allow that kind of thing, while the country I live in now – well, it’s not so clear.
So you’ll pardon me for asking: where the heck am I – and how in the name of all that’s holy do I get out of here?
But wait: this isn’t the time to emigrate, at least not quite yet. The Bad Guys have been exposed, and the reaction has set in. We haven’t lost yet: we’re on the cusp between liberty and tyranny. It’s one of those elastic moments in history when things could go either way. The outcome, in short, depends on you, on me – on all of us Americans who remember what being an American is all about.
Which brings us to the subject of this web site, its role in the battle against the Surveillance State, and the US government’s campaign to shut us down. As many of our readers know by now, in 2004 the FBI launched a "preliminary investigation" of this writer, our webmaster, Eric Garris, and presumably everyone associated with Antiwar.com, no doubt utilizing the intrusive surveillance tools recently exposed by Snowden. Really quite flattering, when you think about it, as well as yet another indication that the threat from the new authoritarians is very real – and for us here at Antiwar.com, the threat is very personal.
We know they’ve been "investigating" us, but who knows what other shenanigans they’ve carried out under cover of "law"? Even given the way they released the 2004 memo that marked the launching of their investigation – in response to a very tangentially-related FOIA request – bears all the characteristics of a concerted campaign of defamation, meant to scare away supporters.
If you’re the kind of person who scares easily, and caves in immediately whenever you’re intimidated, then you probably aren’t reading this, and so let’s talk frankly. Do you really want to live in a society where these kinds of considerations determine what causes you support?
I didn’t think so.
You’re the kind who instinctively fights back, the kind who wants to make his or her voice heard – and one of the most important and immediate ways you can do that is by supporting the web site that’s been making the case for peace and civil liberties since well before 9/11. Our task and our message has been clear from the beginning: making the key link between America’s wars of aggression and the gradual dismantling of the Constitution to make way for the National Security State. Snowden proved our worst fears were well-founded – and that knowledge is the one thing our rulers fear.
The dissemination of knowledge the Powers That Be would rather we didn’t have access to – that has been Antiwar.com’s mission from the start. Because before the American people can act to free themselves from the War Party and restore the Constitution they must be educated, and not just in a broad sense. Here at Antiwar.com, you’ll find news and analysis you won’t find in one place anywhere else: news the "mainstream" media downplays or ignores outright, and analysis that doesn’t read like official talking points.
Education is the prelude to informed action, but we can’t continue this vital educational campaign without your financial assistance. We owe nothing to corporate sponsors and we don’t get money from big foundations, either liberal or conservative: our little operation is entirely funded by our readers, and we’ve been doing it this way for 17 years. Yet we don’t take your support for granted: far from it. We strive every day to fulfill our responsibilities to our readers, which boil down to this: giving you the truth and nothing but the truth about what our government is doing, in the name of "national security," at home as well as abroad.
So please: in this age of propaganda, so much of it originating from governments, independent journalism is essential to the survival of a free society. Please make your tax-deductible donation to Antiwar.com today.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.