Sunday, August 11, 2013

Obama defends the surveillance state

Conservative columnist Dave Weigel does a decent takedown of President Obama's comments Friday about domestic spying and Edward Snowden in Scoffer in Chief Slate 08/09/2013:

The president’s mission, as set out on Friday, is to take credit for all the reforms that sound the best, and to re-establish the government as a trusted actor without doing much that's new. In that May speech at the National Defense University, Obama committed to "a strong Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to review those issues where our counterterrorism efforts and our values may come into tension." On Friday, he said that he’d "asked the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review where our counterterrorism efforts and our values come into tension." Created in 2004, on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the board was effectively powerless until three months ago, when it finally got a chairman, and the president’s still bland when it comes to its goals.

Blandness serves a purpose. The White House’s plans for a website that will "serve as the hub for further transparency" are obviously silly, and the most concrete plan denoted in the press conference may not have a real impact. "One of the concerns that people raise is that a judge reviewing a request from the government to conduct programmatic surveillance only hears one side of the story," Obama said. "We can take steps to make sure civil liberties concerns have an independent voice, in appropriate cases, by ensuring that the government's position is challenged by an adversary." He was referring obliquely to a Democratic bill that would create a "public advocate" in the FISA court. Civil libertarians wonder if that would truly add more accountability to the process, or whether it would become yet another surveillance rubber stamp.
He also makes a good point about Obama's style. On the one hand, Obama makes considerable effort to come across as the proverbial regular guy. "But when the topic of Edward Snowden comes up, President Obama talks like he’s at the summit of Olympus, uninterested in mortals. It’s not a very convincing act."

Obama's own authoritarian leanings have come out most clearly around the issue of government secrecy and his War on Whistleblowers. He's also exhibited a downright cruel streak in relation to it, as Juan Cole recalls in Informed Comment 08/10/2013:

Mr. Obama at one point in his press conference called on Edward Snowden to come back to the United States and argue his case. I mean, really. This kind of disinformation and grandstanding can't possibly be necessary, even given the constraints mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Mr. Obama knows very well that if Snowden returned to the US, we would never ever hear from him ever again. He’d go straight to a maximum security prison for the rest of his days on earth and die there.

Bradley Manning was held at a brig by the Marines and was falsely declared a suicide risk so that he could be tortured by being chained naked to his bed for a year and woken up several times a night (sleep deprivation is a torture tactic, as is humiliation via making a prisoner nude. These same techniques were used by the US military on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib). There is no reason to believe that Snowden would be treated better. Note that Obama’s own spokesman, P. J. Crowley, publicly criticized Manning’s treatment and was fired for it. Obama had been in a position to stop the torture but did not.

If Mr. Obama were serious about wanting Snowden voluntarily to return and participate in a national debate, he would take the espionage charges off the table. Despite cynical presuppositions by Snowden’s critics, there is no evidence whatsoever that he has shared sensitive intelligence with either China or Russia. [my emphasis]
The dedicated Obama critic David Bromwich writes of the surveillance state (Diary London Review of Books 06/21/2013):

Fear must have been among the strongest emotions that penetrated Snowden when he grasped the total meaning of the maps of the security state to which he was afforded a unique access. In one sort of mind, and it characterises the majority of those in power, the fear turns adaptive and changes slowly to compliance and even attachment. In a mind of a different sort, the fear leads to indignation and finally resistance. But we should not underestimate the element of physical fear that accompanies such a moral upheaval. Since the prosecutions of whistleblowers, the abusive treatment of Manning and the drone assassinations of American citizens have been justified by the president and his advisers, a dissident in the US may now think of his country the way the dissidents in East Germany under the Stasi thought of theirs. ‘The gloves are off.’ Nor should we doubt that a kindred fear is known even to the persons who control the apparatus.
It's certainly created a dangerous situation for preserving the rule of law - in the national security arena, maybe we should talk about a revival of the rule of law - when the only way a person like Snowden who seeks to expose what he has good reason to believe are not only anti-democratic but illegal spying by the government and private companies to which it was outsourced the job is to be willing to go into permanent exile and risk the fate back home that Juan Cole describes.

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