The recently released secret FISA court opinion is supposed to promote the idea that the administration elected on a promise of "transparency" is now making good on that pledge. There’s just one problem: a good 20 percent of the 83-page document is redacted, including some key paragraphs. It is to a large extent unreadable. But what else are we to expect from this Bizarro World administration – the most secretive in our history – where black is the new "transparency"?
Yet that’s just the beginning of the White House’s weirdly inverted response to the public outcry against its massive domestic surveillance program. At his press conference promising to "reform" the spying machinery, President Obama announced a "review board" to be appointed that would supposedly reassure his critics there really is no domestic spying program: the goal, as he put it, would be to strike a "balance" between civil liberties and the safety of all Americans. A week or so later he made some appointments to this panel: former Counter-Terrorism Czar Richard Clarke, former special assistant for economic policy Peter Swire, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell – and Cass Sunstein, a very close friend and confidant of the President. Sunstein formerly headed up the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs: now a Harvard law professor, he has made something of a name for himself as an outspoken advocate of government spying. Being one of those really highbrow types, he calls it "cognitive infiltration." Sunstein wants paid government agents to penetrate ostensibly subversive “conspiracy minded” social networks: in other words, he wants to set up a police state system of government spies and provocateurs.
Sunstein is a singular figure: no one else in government (or academia, as far as I know) has pushed for measures so openly totalitarian in their implications. Here is part of the summary of an academic paper Sunstein published in 2008:
"Many millions of people hold conspiracy theories; they believe that powerful people have worked together in order to withhold the truth about some important practice or some terrible event."
What person in their right mind could possibly believe that powerful people are working together to withhold the truth about some important practice? Oh, wait! Isn’t that what the Snowden revelations have proved beyond what any "conspiracy theorist" I know of ever asserted? Thanks to the Snowden "leaks" we now know that is precisely what’s been happening.
According to Professor Sunstein, if you believe that, you’re creating "serious risks" for society at large, "including risks of violence." The mere existence of such people "raises significant challenges for policy and law."
James Clapper didn’t lie to Congress and the American people – you’re just imagining that, you conspiracy theorist wacko! Moreover, you’re a danger to society, and have to be combated by law enforcement agencies operating online and undercover. Sunstein proposes sending government spies into "chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups" to provide a bit of Attitude Correction.
These agents would be paid to infiltrate and counteract any "conspiracy theories" the Harvard Professor and his co-thinkers deem "dangerous." Sunstein stresses the importance of the covert aspect of this program: these Attitude Correctors must at least appear to be independent, all the while taking their marching orders (and their checks) from Washington. Think of it as a "stimulus" job-creating program. Their targets: anyone who "attempts[s] to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role." In short, the enemy is anyone who believes the government has covered up illegality and egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment for years – and anyone who suspects what Sunstein and his online KGB are up to.
The Bush administration tried something like this, although not quite as extreme: you’ll recall the secret government payoffs to "independent" pundits like Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher before and during the Iraq war, meant to drum up support for the neocon party line. The Sunstein approach takes this one step further, with a "grassroots" approach: online government –subsidized astroturfing, to give the impression of mass support for government policies – and smear its perceived enemies.
During the cold war, the US government set up all kinds of propaganda outfits designed to supposedly combat the International Communist Conspiracy, but which were really sinecures for neoconservative former commies eager to get on the government gravy train. "Radio Free Europe," "Radio Liberty," the "National Endowment for Democracy," and numerous other boondoggles created an entire ideological-governmental subculture invested in keeping the cold war going as long as possible – while accomplishing little to actually, you know, overthrow Communism. That event took the West completely by surprise, and was accomplished without any real help from Washington.
In any case, the creation of this vast cold war welfare program for otherwise unemployable neocons made some Americans uneasy: after all, wasn’t that what they did in Communist countries – set up government owned and operated media organs, which then dutifully pumped out the government line? We don’t want that in America, they decided, and so a very distinct legal line was drawn absolutely forbidding the distribution of Washington’s overseas propaganda within the United States.
With the coming of the Internet, however, the distinction between the US and the rest of the world was utterly meaningless. There was no longer any way to prevent exposure of Americans to ostensibly overseas propaganda campaigns. Instead of doing the logical thing – getting rid of all government-funded propaganda campaigns, period – they abolished the distinction entirely. The repeal of the ban on domestic propaganda is a legal opening for Sunstein’s Thought Police to pour through and "infiltrate" – his word – the online world of "anti-government" ostensibly subversive social networks.
As an exercise in ideological ambidexterity, Sunstein’s proposal is Olympic quality stuff: he is, after all, the author of an entire book about the necessity for dissent in a free society. Well, then how can he possibly advocate the creation of a covert government program to infiltrate, combat, and discredit these very same dissenters? Well, you see, there are good dissenters and bad dissenters, and as long as the Good Guys are in charge of the government, it’s cool to deploy government resources against those who believe in the wrong "conspiracy theories." As he puts it in his paper, imaginatively titled "Conspiracy Theories":
"Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so."
Rulers throughout history, including especially the worst tyrants, have touted their virtuous motives, and proclaimed themselves the guardians of "social welfare" – an oleaginous phrase that’s a code word for those ideologues (left and right) who long for a system of effective social control. Yes, there must be dissent – there’s the "liberal" gloss on a very illiberal idea – but it must be the right kind, our kind. Those crazy Ay-rabs, Sunstein avers, are rife with conspiracism, it oozes from their very pores, and here in America we have the homegrown "antigovernment" types, the very kind who hate Harvard professors and are potentially just as violent as Al Qaeda: indeed, perhaps more dangerous in the long run.
Well, then, "What can government do about conspiracy theories?" he asks:
"Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5)."
In Sunstein’s world, censorship is just another option, but "cognitive infiltration" of targeted groups – and the public square at large – by paid "credible" government covert agents on the Internet is definitely on the table. This is the person the President is appointing to his NSA review board, a body set up to reassure us that there’s no reason to fear for our privacy and that Big Brother isn’t watching us.
Here, after all, is someone who defended George W. Bush’s "military commissions" as perfectly legal and legitimate, dismissing opponents’ arguments as "ludicrous." And it isn’t just the Fourth Amendment the new authoritarians are after: Sunstein opposes the First Amendment as presently constituted. Instead, he says, we need a "New Deal for speech," one that would recognize that technological changes have made the old marketplace-of-ideas conception of free speech outdated. What we need, says Sunstein, is a reformulated First Amendment because the current version isn’t "adequately serving democratic goals." And, no, he didn’t capitalize the "d" in democratic, but you get the idea.
Sunstein, in short, is the single most consistent academic representative of barefaced authoritarianism one could possibly find, short of unearthing some aging New Left Stalinist. Certainly he is the most highly placed, shuttling from Harvard to government and back again. His appointment to the NSA review board is an unabashed middle finger aimed directly at the Obama administration’s civil libertarian critics.
Sunstein’s extremism is on full display in an article published by Bloomberg News just the other day, which the editors gave the rather skeptical-sounding title of "Could Bowling Leagues and the PTA Breed Nazis?" In it, Sunstein tells us "social capital" – the links that bind us together socially – is not necessarily a good thing. There is a "dark side" to it. Citing a recent study by one of his fellow nutty professors, he avers that a "high level of social capital" led directly to the rise of …. wait for it! … Hitler and Nazism!
Citing this crackpot study, Sunstein points to a correlation between membership in the Nazi Party and membership in private social organizations – those German drinking societies! – to "prove" a definitive link between bowling leagues and the Holocaust. And, no, you can’t make this stuff up. Utilizing the methods of "sociological" pseudo-science and progressive anxieties about the rise of right-wing fascism, Sunstein posits that "dense social networks" in the US are a problem for our democracy:
"For the current period, there is a straightforward lesson. Individuals and nations generally benefit from large numbers of private associations, including sports clubs, religious groups and parent-teacher associations. But in some nations, dense social networks also increase people’s vulnerability to extremism. A great deal of work suggests that terrorism itself can arise not because people are isolated, poor or badly educated, but because they are part of tightly knit networks in which hateful ideas travel quickly."
He’s right about one thing: ideas travel quickly. As for how "hateful" they are –well, I suppose that depends on who’s hating whom. Take, for example, the fact that someone is on Twitter spreading "hateful" ideas about, say, Cass Sunstein being an upfront totalitarian and a danger to all decent people everywhere. This, I would imagine, is the bad kind of social network, the kind that paid government agents need to refute, debunk, infiltrate, and discredit. And who knows but that some day, under some perfectly "imaginable conditions," we might even need to arrest that person.
Sunstein’s argument of last resort, you’ll note, is always the alleged threat of "terrorism": this is the Get-Out-of-Jail free card for our post-9/11 authoritarians, whether they be outright neocons or else "progressives" of Sunstein’s ilk: the deus ex machina of all their ideological morality plays is always the same. That theme is wearing a little thin, however, as the upsurge against the Surveillance State takes on momentum and the revelations continue – thank you, Edward Snowden! – in spite of recently stepped up strong-arm tactics to stanch the leaks.
Yeah yeah, sure sure, says Sunstein, "private associations are desirable and valuable," blah blah blah, but there’s another possibility, revealed by this bullshit "research," that proves "such associations can facilitate the spread of extremism, ultimately laying the groundwork for serious challenges to democracy itself."
That’s why all social networks, online and off, need a cadre of government spies to watch over the "democratic" discourse, and see that it doesn’t get out of hand.
In a halfway healthy society, Sunstein would be laughed out of polite society, and consigned to the margins, where fruit-juice drinking sandal-wearers and founders of utopian communes plot revolution in cheap cafeterias. In Barack Obama’s America, Sunstein divides his time between the halls of government and the lushest groves of academe, whispering in the ear of the President that the number of bowling leagues has grown quite alarmingly.
"Review board" my ass: what is needed is an independent counsel. The heavily-redacted secret FISA court opinion points to a years long government reign of outright illegality: we can only imagine what the unredacted version would reveal, and not even Congress has full access to that. What’s needed is an outside independent counsel with the bulldog determination of Patrick J. Fitzgerald and the concern for civil liberties of Sen. Ron Wyden, who, along with some others in Congress, raised this issue long before it took center stage. Only an independent counsel with full subpoena power can determine how far government spies overstepped their legal bounds – and who authorized it.
It is against the law to spy on innocent Americans, as Judge John D. Bates reminded the government in a tart footnote to his now declassified opinion. Who broke the law, and when? There’s only one way to find out.
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.