Friday, June 14, 2013

'National Security' has Diverged from the Public Good

I feel like I’m a beating a dead horse where the revelations to the NSA’s PRISM program and the administration’s response to those revelations are concerned, but the administration and its allies in Congress are proving to be absolutely tone-deaf to the public welfare. 

Attorney General Eric Holder told European Union ministers that “the national security of the United States has been damaged as a result of those leaks”. 

Really, Mr Holder?  Would you like to prove that to us?  I suppose that evidence is classified as well, too secret to share with the public in whose name you serve in high office. 

And a member of the Obama administration—which has dragged the United States deeper into a counterproductive war on, of, and by terror—has a lot of nerve talking about damaging the national security of the United States.

It takes particular chutzpah for Holder to make this claim.  He does, after all, head the department which seized the records of the Associate Press, a full frontal assault on the Fourth Estate which, as the NSA episode proves, is our best hope for shedding light on the machinations of our security state absent Congress acquiring a spine and the will to do its job.

Holder’s Justice Department, moreover, made the incredible decision not to prosecute anyone for the financial crimes committed by banks in the run-up to our financial crisis.  As Senator Elizabeth Warren—long a lonely voice speaking out on behalf of the public on this matter—put it: “I believe strongly that if a regulator reveals itself to be unwilling to take large financial institutions all the way to trial—either because it is too timid or because it lacks resources—the regulator has a lot less leverage in settlement negotiations... If large financial institutions can break the law and accumulate millions in profits and, if they get caught, settle by paying out of those profits, they do not have much incentive to follow the law”.

This is as true of the other crimes for which Holder and Obama offered effective amnesty.  Members of the Bush administration and the intelligence services who condoned, incited, and carried out murders, torture, renditions, kidnappings, disappearances, and aggressive war have all been allowed to walk free.

Imagine the message this sends to those in the administration and the intelligence world who in a healthy democracy would today be wondering whether there would be a reckoning for running an intrusive, unaccountable program and lying to Congress about it. 

Imagine the public outcry that would result if we let known murderers, kidnappers, sadists, thieves, and gangsters go, saying “It’s all in the past, let bygones be bygones”.  That is effectively what we have done in refusing to look back at the crimes of the Bush government and of Wall Street, and by defending the actions of the intelligence agencies today.  We are those who have committed violent crimes—of both a physical and economic character—that there will be no consequences, and that they are free to reoffend.  In fact the bigger the crime—the sinking of a national economy or the waging of an aggressive war, for example—the safer the criminal.

It is no wonder we see such a high rate of recidivism amongst our intelligence agencies, agencies which have perfected the art of intimidating politicians into doing their bidding.  In a biting Guardian op-ed, author John LeCarré characterised the work of the intelligence services thus: “How good are you at talking people into betraying their country? ... One thing that won’t have changed in the 50-odd years since I left the secret world, and never will, is the gullibility of the uninitiated when faced with real-life spies.  In a flash, all rational standards of human judgment fall away”.

It’s no wonder that military and intelligence commanders scramble to be first to brief the new Commander in Chief, a briefing during which, by all accounts, they do their best to scare the heck out of him, convincing him that if they are not permitted to carry on with their toils—unimpeded by niceties like justice, oversight, or morality—the sky will fall. 

Former Vice-President Al Gore has joined the chorus of the administration’s critics, arguing that “it is not acceptable to have a secret interpretation of a law that goes far beyond any reasonable reading of either the law or the constitution and then classify as top secret what the actual law is”.  He tore into defenders of the NSA who have cited favourable polls, noting that “We don’t do dial groups on the Bill of Rights”. 

Some uniquely unprincipled commentators have sought to rein in liberal and left-wing criticism of the NSA’s breach of our civil liberties by accusing us of not trusting government, and of breaking with our political community, conflating the interests of that community with those of a branch of the state that has proven itself time and again to be violent, unaccountable, and dangerous. 

The truth, of course, is that it is this administration and its predecessor, and not its critics, who are breaking those bonds, and diminishing trust in our institutions and political community.  We are merely seeking to remind this government of where its true responsibilities lie, of the people to whom it owes clarity, honesty, and transparency, and that in this day and age, the “national security of the United States” is no longer the same thing as the public interest, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the United States.

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