Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Metadata and the security state

Cenk Uygur on how our intrepid Fourth Estate is reacting to the domestic spying stories, The Establishment Strikes Back The Young Turks 06/11/2013:

Richard RJ Eskow of the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) in How Dangerous is the 'Security/Digital Complex'? C&L 06/12/2013 and Stephen Walt in The tangled web of empire Foreign Policy 06/07/2013 remind us that the massive current domestic spying program which was revelaed in leaks last week is very much a part of the national security state that was first constructed in today's basic form for the Cold War and is now continuing as part of the Long War against whoever it is that is the Great Menace today. As Walt puts it:

One of the main purposes of government is to provide security. Ergo, when people are scared, they are more willing to let public officials take extreme actions in the name of "national security," including: 1) excessive secrecy laws, 2) prosecution of (some) whistle-blowers or leakers (except when authorized by those at the top), 3) preventive or preemptive wars, 4) targeted assassinations of suspected enemies, and 5) extraordinary rendition and/or torture. A population that is really scared will also turn a blind eye to all sorts of other dubious policies, including support for unsavory allies and the creation/maintenance of disproportionately large defense capabilities. Both dictators and democrats have been aware of these realities for centuries and have used public fears to justify any number of questionable actions.

This situation gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats. When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: "Ah, but if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me."

And so the circle continues: An exaggerated sense of threat leads to energetic efforts to shape events abroad, even in places of little strategic value. These efforts inevitably provoke backlashes of various kinds, some of which (e.g., 9/11) do genuinely harm Americans. Because it is deemed unpatriotic or worse to even ask what might have led others to want to attack us, officials merely declare that they "hate our freedoms" and launch new efforts to root out enemies. The result is more surveillance, more secrecy, and even more global intervention (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, drone wars, etc.) in an endless attempt to root out all sources of "evil." If this gets expensive, then cheaper ways to do it must be found, but what doesn't stop is the open-ended effort to meddle in other countries. This in turn requires even more energetic efforts to conceal what government officials are up to, both to prevent foreign populations from being fully aware of what the United States is doing and to prevent Americans from connecting the dots or questioning the wisdom of the effort. [my emphasis]
In a post from last month before the Verizon and PRISM revelation, Civil liberties, press freedom, and America's global role 05/16/2013, he writes:

Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.

To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing. ...

The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
I wouldn't want to say that this kind of spying is an inevitable manifestation of our current foreign policy, though at some level it is. Because it seems obvious on the face of it to me that a more focused surveillance program would be a more rational tool in pursuit of the current goal.

But the current US foreign policy of global hegemony, in which we maintain overwhelming military superiority to any "peer competitor" or any set of alliances that could combine to be such a competitor, has to be based on a mutually reinforcing cycle of fear and authoritarianism. And both the global hegemony policy and the cycle of fear and authoritarianism need to be rolled back.

Eskow's piece focuses on the fact that part of the government's authoritarianism is now being outsourced to private companies. Which is an interesting twist in the neoliberal drive to privatize public services. Colin Crouch in The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (2011) writes:

'Corporate citizenship' also suggests firms having both the rights and the powers of citizens, and sees them as definitely part of the polity and not confined to the market. This is useful for a realistic approach to contemporary corporate behaviour. When they are making their own regulation through standards, or acting not just as lobbies but as insiders to the public decision-making process, firms can be seen as exercising a kind of citizenship right. When their critics argue that, if these are the rights they are claiming, then they must expect to be subjected to demands of good behaviour going beyond their need to maximize profits within the market, they are making the reasonable point that citizenship rights need to be accompanied by responsibilities. (p. 135)
Crouch is talking about the broad concept of "corporate social responsibility," which these days sounds like an oxymoron.

But he's touching on something that's very relevant to outsourcing national-defense and law-enforcement responsibilities. If a corporation or private firm, like a consultant business or a mercenary group, is performing public functions like law enforcement and national defense, they should be accountable to the public every bit as much as public agencies.

The late John Kenneth Galbraith once suggested as a partial solution to the problems associated with military-industrial complex that large companies that exist almost exclusively to do military business be nationalized. As long as we have insanely largely disparities in wealth and income, any public institutional arrangement can be corrupted by banks, oil companies, rogue billionaires or other well-heeled players.

But I think there's an excellent case that function like necessary domestic surveillance should be handled by public institution directly responsible to the public, and not outsourced to the Booz Allens of the world.

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