NSA Snooping: The War on Terror Is America’s Mania
I’ve voted for him as President twice. He prevented a world-wide depression. He signed the Recovery Act of 2009 launching a transition to a clean energy economy, doubling our renewable power, and financing unprecedented investments in energy efficiency and technology research. He instituted what I have worked to see in the U.S. for decades, nearly universal health insurance with no denials. He shut down our immoral war on Iraq. He removed “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell” so gays may militarily serve their country with honor. He led us to the point where the Supreme Court allowed federal recognition of same-sex marriages, allowing many of us, including myself, to feel as citizens with actual rights for the first time. He has been a transformative president.
President Obama is also one of my greatest political disappointments.
He has not shut down the failed war in Afghanistan. He failed in his attempts to shut down the illegal, unethical, and immoral Guantanamo Bay where we imprisoned a total of 779 “detainees” for “indefinite detention,” and where we still imprison 166 persons. He continues escalated use of drone attacks that have killed many innocent victims and likely helped create more terrorists. And, now there is PRISM — a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program operated by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) since 2007…
PRISM IS AS PRISM DOES
PRISM began as an adjunct to The Enabling Act… uh, I mean Patriot Act… in 2007 with passage of the Protect America Act under the Bush Administration, and we know now that it has been dramatically and dangerously expanded under Obama. The program is operated under the supervision of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court, or FISC) pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Its existence was leaked several months ago by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who warned that the extent of mass data collection was far greater than the public knew and included what he characterized as “dangerous” and “criminal” activities.
Published internal documents identified several technology companies as participants in the PRISM program, including Microsoft joining in 2007, Yahoo! joining in 2008, Google joining in 2009, Facebook joining in 2009, Paltalk joining in 2009, YouTube joining in 2010, AOL joining in 2011, Skype joining in 2011, and Apple joining in 2012.
Subsequent disclosures included that the NSA could unilaterally perform “extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications and stored information” including email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP chats (such as Skype), file transfers, and social networking details; further, the NSA engaged in “hacking” civilian infrastructure networks in other countries such as “universities, hospitals, and private businesses.” Further releases showed the U.S. had data-mined even the United Nations and offices of our European allies.
FREEDOM IS NOT FREE
I’ve truly grown weary of this trite, generic resort to mimicked patriotism: “Freedom is not free.” I don’t believe most Americans understand the truth behind this phrase and, in fact, get it largely wrong when they make the attempt.
Let me just say that, indeed, “freedom is not free.” Freedom has a cost. It should cost us when we say we will go to war to “fight for our freedom” — or, more to the point contemporarily, protect our oil interests and execute the vendetta of a sitting present whose father was the target of an assassination plan. It should cost us all in blood and in treasure…if the battle is worth engaging. It is the cost against which we would balance any “benefit” of war and violence.
This cost — this payment for freedom — should have meant that many American families — rich and poor… lower, middle, and upper class… urban, suburban and rural — were sending sons and daughters into harms way to protect our perceived “freedoms,” while it should have cost the rest of us the money to fight this war “for freedom.” But that didn’t happen. Mostly poorer, less-educated families tossed their kids into battle, and no taxes were specifically raised or public-financed bond issues bought by citizens.
So, it’s just a trite phrase because most Americans paid nothing for our recent war ventures (our continuing “War Against Terror”) in terms of blood and in terms of treasure…nope, we just put it on the credit card with no sacrifice and let “kids with no future” fight the battles. This freedom most Americans wanted and got for free. The poorer, less educated kids fighting who lost limbs, mental stability, careers… they paid and continue to pay, as will our children who will have to pay off our war credit cards.
Truth is that, in a more meaningful concept, freedom is not free…it has another cost: risk.
True freedom means you live in an open society with free movements and communications and protections through the Constitution. True freedom means risk. It means you are exposed and that this is a good thing. It means that free persons are always at risk from others who may take advantage of our freedoms and hurt us. It is a balance the brave used to proudly accept as the exception in the world.
To be completely relieved from risk would be like living in a self-imposed prison.
This other and perhaps most important area where we see the “freedom is not free” cliché ignored or misunderstood is with the freedom we forfeited for a smidgen more of actual safety and “sense of safety” from the bad international guys as we permitted the Patriot Act and other freedom-robbing laws to be enacted and which effectively nullified some of our guaranteed constitutional freedoms.
A free society means that we may walk down a street without a police battalion present and talk on our cell phones without being monitored and, thus, at risk for someone coming up and hitting us with a kidney punch. That’s the opposite of the non-free, fully monitored and protected society where no one could hostilely run up to you in a public crowd because there is such police presence around, where you chat on the cell phone while your calls are monitored for transmission to whom and where and for how long… where, no one can “hurt” you. In this opposite world, you are no longer in a truly free society, but you do feel safe… whether actually you are or not.
Truth is freedom means risk. It means being exposed to the glory of sunlight and free movement, association, and communication. It means you are vulnerable and know that this is an acceptable price because “Freedom Is Not Free!”
Modern America has grown risk averse and willingly forfeited freedoms of privacy, movement, communications and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Fly anywhere lately and have to remove shoes, get scanned, confine travel products to certain sizes, stand in security for an hour? Take a bus or train anywhere and be monitored and checked for danger? Drive your car on interstate highways with pole-mounted cameras or police car-mounted cameras that are snapping millions of license plates daily and recording the information and movements? Talk on your cell phone recently, now knowing that all your calls are being recorded for contacts and length of duration? Send an email or post to Facebook while now knowing that it’s stored in central federal data banks?
Americans couldn’t handle the price — the risk — of freedom and gave it up for perceived safety. But, as Benjamin Franklin said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
It seems we Americans have grown unworthy of our central precepts of freedoms and unworthy of the freedoms themselves…because we are unwilling to pay the cost of freedom: blood, treasure, and risk.
As I said to a friend who is very casual about loss of their freedoms from NSA surveillance (because, ostensibly, “they’ve got nothing to hide”):
“You may not want or deserve your freedoms, but I do want and deserve my freedoms… They are guaranteed to me as a Right, and I want them back.”
An insightful article about our American truth comes from outside, from a nation that also once forfeited its freedoms for security: Germany…
NSA Snooping: The War on Terror Is America’s Mania
A Commentary By Klaus Brinkbäumer
SPIEGEL INTERNATIONAL (German News Magazine)
The NSA spying scandal shows that America’s pursuit of terrorists has turned into a mania. Spying on citizens is as monstrous and unlawful as Guantanamo Bay and drone warfare. The German government’s response has been woefully weak.
America is sick. September 11 left it wounded and unsettled — that’s been obvious for nearly 12 years — but we are only now finding out just how grave the illness really is. The actions of the NSA exposed more than just the telephone conversations and digital lives of many millions of people. The global spying scandal shows that the US has become manic, that it is behaving pathologically, invasively. Its actions are entirely out of proportion to the danger.
Since 2005, an average of 23 Americans per year have been killed through terrorism, mostly outside of the US. “More Americans die of falling televisions and other appliances than from terrorism,” writes Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, and “15 times as many die by falling off ladders.” The US has spent $8 trillion on the military and homeland security since 2001.
America has other threats. The true short-term danger is homegrown:
- More than 30,000 Americans are killed by firearms every year.
- An American child is 13 times more likely to be shot than a child in another industrialized country.
When it comes to combating the problem, President Barack Obama and Congress are doing very little — or, to be fair, nothing at all. They talk about it every now and then, after every killing spree. The gun lobby, incurably ill, counters that the weapons are necessary for self-defense.
And when it comes to real long-term dangers, such as climate change, America, its prime perpetrator, does nothing — or, to be fair, too little too late.
As Monstrous as Guantanamo
All of this is not to say that terrorism doesn’t exist: 9/11 happened, and al Qaida is real. But spying on citizens and embassies, on businesses and allies, violates international law. It is as monstrous and as unlawful as Guantanamo Bay, where for 11 and a half years, men have been detained and force-fed, often without evidence against them, many of whom are still there to this day. It is as unlawful as the drones that are killing people, launched with a mere signature from Obama.
There has been virtually no political discussion about all of this. Attacks have been prevented through the spying program — Obama says it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says it, and we have to believe them. Voters and citizens are akin to children, whose parents — the government — know what is best for them.
But does the free America that should be defended even still exist, or has it abolished itself through its own defense?
An American government that gives its blessing to a program like Prism respects nothing and no one. It acts out its omnipotence, considers itself above international law — certainly on its own territory and even on foreign ground. The fact that it’s Obama behaving in such a way is bleak. If this were happening during the administration of George W. Bush, we could at least think, “It’s just Bush. He’s predictable. There is a better America.” Now we know: There is only one America. Did Obama, the Harvard Law student, even believe what he was saying in his speeches about the return of civil liberties? Can someone be so cynical that they promise to heal the world, then act in such a way all the while giving the xenophobic explanation that only foreigners would be monitored? Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are Obama’s role models. What would they say?
The Stasi Comparison Stands
The German government has shown devastating weakness. Merkel should say, “You are manic, and what you are doing is sick.” That’s what friends do. Instead she weighs every word to avoid annoying the Americans. She said that a comparison between the NSA and the Stasi is inappropriate, but she’s wrong. A comparison doesn’t require that two things be identical. The Stasi destroyed families, the NSA probably not. But the use of technology, the careful nurturing of the image of the enemy, the obsessive collection of data, the belief of being on the right side, the good side: Is there really no resemblance?
Angela Merkel promised to defend the German people from harm. To have your phone wiretapped and accept the fact that every one of your emails could be monitored — the violation of the private sphere — that qualifies as harm.
Every voter knows that realpolitik can be ugly, because politics require the balancing of many considerations. The decisive question is: What greater good justifies this breach of law by the US and the cooperation of German agencies? It is time for answers.