A sensible citizen might think that after the past couple of years, the national security state would be rolled back in the United States and Britain. After all, the publics and governments of both countries have been rocked by revelations about the extent of security state overreach in probing people’s communications. Most of these examples of overreach have violated the spirit of the law, relying as they do on secret, rubber-stamp courts with hand-picked judges, and on oversight provided by a legislature which has been routinely lied to and misled. Others violate the letter of the law. All represent a threat to democracy and the public good.
|James Clapper, who lied repeatedly to Congress|
But the sensible citizen in question would be sadly mistaken. In just the last week any number of examples have arisen which demonstrate that, far from being in retreat, security states are digging in, constructing new fortifications to protect their activities from public scrutiny, and mounting offenses against their critics.
In Britain, a country which teeters on the verge of authoritarianism thanks to a massive accumulation of executive authority in the Prime Minister’s office, draconian security laws, and weak press freedom, a cross-party consensus has emerged around legislation to “ensure police and security services can continue to access phone and internet records”. The legislation will permit the British security state to collect data about calls and communications, and to monitor and read or listen to that communication when it sees fit.
Some people argue that this legislation is harmless, and that if you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to fear, as the more intrusive methods are only used if an individual poses a threat of some kind.
However, developments on this side of the water give the lie to that logic. Recent revelations—made possible by the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden, the man regarded as a traitor by the security state’s defenders—demonstrate that political engagement is enough to make U.S. citizens the subject of intrusive monitoring.
Civil rights activists, lawyers, academics, and federal officials have been subjected to covert monitoring. What they have in common is that they are Muslim-Americans. If a person’s politics, religion, or ethnicity are enough to permit the NSA to invade their privacy and sweep up and scrutinize their communications, we have a serious problem.
Such actions—and public knowledge of them, however murky—amount to acts of intimidation and harassment. We already exist in an environment in which political discourse is highly-circumscribed. The United States has a long and sordid history of smearing, bullying, and attacking people for their economic and social views, and if people know that critical discussion of civil rights issues, international affairs, or economics could draw down on them the attention and wrath of the lawless security state, they will think twice before doing so.
In this way, the security state can not only use methods of intimidation to preempt threats to the status quo. They can also assume that their other efforts to shore up their power at the expense of that of the public and of democratic institutions will face fewer challenges.
One such effort comes in the form of a new cyber security bill. Billed as a “reform” measure, the bill would actually increase the power of the security state, with two Senators (one of whom, Ron Wyden, was repeatedly lied to by the Director of National Intelligence) arguing that the bill “lacks adequate protections for the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans, and that it will not materially improve cybersecurity”.
But the bill has powerful defenders, including California Senator Dianne Feinstein who, although wrong on virtually every national security issue for the past decade, shows no sign of learning anything from her culpability in the dissemination of global terror or erosion of civil liberties. Some of her colleagues asked sufficiently probing questions of the national security establishment that they had to be lied to. But Feinstein causes the NSA and other rogue intelligence agencies no such difficulties.
It remains to be seen whether these various expansions of the security state will be subjected to much criticism and scrutiny. But the extent to which the power of the security state has currently and historically mired the U.S. in global conflicts, spread terror around the world, eroded civil rights at home, and circumscribed conversations about how to achieve a more just, equal, and democratic society should make a compelling case for ensuring that the public is more—rather than less—protected against abuses by this violent arm of the state.