Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Traitors, Patriots, and Accountability

I think that the most widespread emotions to revelations about NSA spying by Edward Snowden via the Guardian were surprise, anger, and gratitude. 

Surprise because even in the post-9/11 dystopia we inhabit, we expect however naively that our government takes its service to the public seriously, and therefore the breach of so many civil liberties via their massive online spy program was shocking.  The anger was directed at an administration so extraordinarily cavalier about the rights of this country’s citizens, at the intelligence agencies which unaccountably gobble up our liberties in the name of an ever-more hollow security, and at our elected representatives who have clearly not been doing their job when it comes to providing oversight of these programs.


In an indication of how out of step they are with public sentiment, and how little civil and human rights mean to them, leading Republicans have taken a very different tack.

According to CNN, House Speaker John Boehner said of the whistleblower, “He’s a traitor”, adding that “he thought Edward Snowden’s leaks had put Americans at risk”.  Boehner was joined by Peter King (arch-hypocrite and ardent supporter of the Irish Republican Army), who labelled Snowden a “defector”.

I wonder which actions have put more Americans at risk.  Is it really the release of documents which expose a massive and secretive security state surveillance program?  Or might it not be the rubber-stamping of a Patriot Act which allowed the evisceration of our civil liberties?  Or perhaps the incitement, approval, and prosecution of a horrific war which killed thousands of U.S. citizens, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, will cost trillions of dollars, and was based on a series of lies approved where not concocted by officials at the highest levels of government who colluded with religious fanatics and war profiteers?  Or even the unquestioning embrace of the war of terror which supposedly makes the NSA’s program so very necessary, a war which promises to be multi-generational in scope, bloody in character, and counter-productive in its aims, creating a society of fearful, xenophobic, paranoid people who are in the process of giving up their right to call themselves citizens of a republic? 

People like Boehner and King, who have swum in the blood of their countrymen and overseen the dismantling of many of the protections and provisions which keep us secure, at liberty, and morally and economically sound, should take a long hard look at their record before they begin bandying around words like “traitor” or “defector”.

And if learning that some of our elected representatives have no sense of responsibility is not enough, we have also discovered that our intelligence agencies have, in the technocratic parlance of officialdom, been “less than forthcoming” when it comes to answering questions from Congress.  The Guardian reports that “Clapper said earlier this week that he had misunderstood [a question posed by Senator Ron Wyden in March].  When asked directly by Wyden in March whether the NSA was collecting any kind of data on “millions” of Americans, Clapper replied ‘no’ and ‘not wittingly’—a claim undermined by the Guardian’s disclosures about NSA collection of millions of Americans’ phone records.  Wyden also disclosed that he had given Clapper an opportunity in private to revise his answer, after the session”.

It is hard to draw any conclusion other than that one of the most senior intelligence officials in our country is either an accomplished liar—willing to deceive the elected representatives of the public he is meant to serve—or else a complete idiot, unable to process simple inquiries, let alone oversee a collection of intelligence agencies.  Whether the ultimate diagnosis of Clapper’s civic ailment proves to be idiocy or malice, he is self-evidently unfit to continue in his duties. 

It is good that there is some outrage growing in Congress, but we must remember that this is a body which has in the last decade and a half, signed off on disastrous wars, signed away many of our civil liberties, checked off on a litany of executive abuses, and checked out when it comes to the performance of its oversight duties.  In this case, their hand was forced, and I hope that I am wrong in suspecting that much of their outrage stems from injured pride at being kept out of the loop, and that had they been fully informed of these measures, they would have gone away quietly after their briefings, whistling in the dark and leaving the public none the wiser.

The Obama administration’s response—the despatch of intelligence officials to brief Congress in secret—is a calculated play on the past laziness of these members.  He is hoping that by stroking their egos and letting them in on the ‘secret’, he can head off the public reckoning which we so badly need. 

It is further telling that so many of the revelations in recent years about our national security apparatus, and its betrayal of the public trust have come from newspapers abroad, and the Guardian particularly.  American whistleblowers clearly do not see American newspapers and media as sufficiently interested in or committed to the public interest, or their duty to scrutinise the actions of our state security agencies. 

‘Traitor’, ‘defector’...this is the language of permanent war, of the Cold War and of all cold wars, and the perpetual state of paranoia, militarisation, myopia, and moral turpitude that such war induce amongst citizens of what is meant to be a democracy. 

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