A week and a half ago, California Senator Dianne Feinstein denied that the actions of the NSA were intrusive, declaring that they were “not surveillance”. She wrote that the NSA’s programs were “effective in helping to prevent terrorist plots against the U.S. and our allies”.
She defended the operations of the secret courts that are charged with exerting oversight, even though some of the judges on those courts have complained that they have neither the resources nor the access to exert proper oversight. And Feinstein mounted her defence even though the official charged with overseeing the NSA and other intelligence agencies told bald-faced lies to the very members of Congress charged with keeping him honest.
The Guardian reported that “several experts independent of the intelligence committee have testified, including to Feinstein’s committee, that the collection of phone metadata can provide a detailed and intrusive window into an individual’s life, particularly when matched with other data. A person’s name, for instance, can easily be derived from their telephone number”. All of this undermines Feinstein’s claims that intelligence officials couldn’t actually monitor Americans with the technology they use.
Feinstein’s constituents got some insight into her arrogance when she defended her decision to back the President’s now-averted drive to war in Syria even in the face of unrevealed intelligence and an absence of a strategy. She declared that the public “have not seen what I have seen, or heard what I have heard. I like to believe that after 20 years that I have some skills in separating the wheat from the chaff”.
A week later, after increasing revelations about the extent of NSA spying on U.S. allies, Feinstein declared that she was “totally opposed” to such intrusion. In the space of a week, she went from working hard to watering down legislation which would reform the machinations of our military-intelligence complex to clamouring for a “total review of all intelligence programs...so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community”.
Feinstein and her Congressional colleagues were not alone in being kept in the dark, for the White House also appeared blind-sided by the revelations about the surveillance which has apparently been taking place for over a decade. It was also revealed that the NSA “began testing means to gather location data on cellphones inside the U.S. before informing the secret surveillance court that oversees it”.
Call me cold-hearted, but I am not moved by Feinstein’s injured demeanour. She is a hypocrite. She and her Republican colleagues—the architects of much of the security state—have spent the last several years defending the security state against all its critics, explaining that they knew best, and that they could provide oversight. They, we heard again and again, were the experts who knew exactly what was going on, and anyone who claimed otherwise was imperilling the nation’s security.
Now, Feinstein’s feelings are hurt because she has learned that she was not so special. The rogue security agencies were just as ready to lie to her as to anyone else. Remember when National Intelligence Director James Clapper was shown to have lied repeatedly to Congress, it was Feinstein who went to his defence, asserting that “there is no more direct or honest person than Jim Clapper”.
Think for just a moment about the nature of the relationship between the security services and Congress.
After 9/11, agencies which always exist in the shadow and never enjoy the full trust of the public or its representatives because of their ugly, abusive track record, spy an opportunity to expand their power by demanding massive authority in the name of national security. The Bush Administration, with the aid of the Republican Party and a handful of right-wing Democrats like Feinstein, bully their colleagues into accepting this demand, using the media and the floor of Congress to denounce doubters as “anti-American”.
Once granted these powers, the intelligence agencies go rogue, expanding their actions beyond what was ever contemplated by a quiescent Congress, cowed by the bloviating Bush administration and the foaming right-wing pundits on FOX and other assorted propaganda organs.
The rogue agencies begin lying and withholding information from all members of Congress, and routinely abuse their power. But they lie to some more than others. And they work particularly hard to make the members of the Intelligence and other national security committees feel privileged. They give them classified files (files which nonetheless don’t tell the whole story). They let those members serve as their ambassadors to the media and the public. They allow those members to believe they are “experts” who control intelligence, whereas because they are so many suckers, they are actually just acting as a useful front, their democratic legitimacy obscuring the dark deeds that the rogue agencies perform behind closed doors.
They do the same thing with the judges on the secret courts, undoubtedly making them feel privileged by acknowledging the pretence that these judges have the power to rein in their activities, when in fact they withhold information from them.
In time, as the War of Terror for which these rogue agencies advocated goes out of vogue, some members of Congress find their spines and voices, and begin questioning the extent of the agencies’ activities. The agencies lie, and the members of Congress who they have made to feel special, privileged, and informed, step outraged to their defence, declaring them essential to our campaign of terror abroad in defence of the homeland where the rogue agencies are steadily eroding the liberties they are ostensibly protecting. These members of Congress themselves begin to distort the record, making inaccurate claims about how domestic spying has thwarted terrorist threats. They do so feeling confident that they are a part of a noble endeavour to protect our security and certain that they know the bounds of the lies in which they engage.
But then someone like Edward Snowden comes along and blows a hole in their story. At first the rogue activities he reveals are those on which Senators like Feinstein signed off, and she rallies to the defence of the NSA, assuring the public and her colleagues that she is well-informed and capable of controlling and monitoring the agency (a claim she probably genuinely believed).
But the latest revelations demonstrate the true state of things: namely, that Clapper and his ilk lied or misled Feinstein and the privileged few just as much as they did the lesser members of Congress, to say nothing of the public, in those name these abuses are carried out. And now Feinstein is angry and offended. Not because of the erosion of our civil liberties at home. She was okay with that. She knew best, after all. But because the people she thought were her allies tricked and manipulated to her, and didn’t allow her into the inner recesses of their club. She is angry that her credulity was rewarded with what she likely regards as a personal betrayal.
This episode demonstrates how inadequate a check on their power it is to allow the rogue intelligence agencies to operate in the dark, given cover by neoconservatives from both political parties. It demonstrates that we cannot trust the assurances of our legislators because from the exalted vantage-point that is NSA headquarters, they are a part of the same tiresome, unnecessary democratic process, and need to be managed and manipulated rather than informed and updated.
The contempt of the military-intelligence services for the transparency and debate which must characterise the democratic process, and the way in which that contempt began creeping into our elected bodies, should show us that it is time to break the back of this hydra-like security apparatus which has dragged us into colonial wars, fabricated some threats while totally failing to anticipate others, and is debasing our democracy.
It is shameful that the NSA and its ilk spy on our allies. It is far more shameful that they also regard the public as an adversary from whom they must hide the truth about their actions even as they distort the manner in which we interact with our fellow global citizens.
It is unlikely that Feinstein and her colleagues will actually recant their support for the security state. But now that they know that they were betrayed, perhaps they can understand how their constituents feel. And perhaps we can begin the work of reclaiming our rights, our priorities, and our democracy.