In his 7,000-word State of the Union speech last month, President Obama waited 5,700 words before stintingly devoting a single sentence to the subject of surveillance. He didn’t mention the rogue NSA, didn’t name specific reforms, adding only that the important thing was that “public confidence” in the “vital work” of the intelligence community was maintained. This cavalier approach to the topic of the year belies the administration’s essential disinterest in the public interest. This perspective was reified in the last two weeks by the voices of the American intelligence community. On Tuesday the House Intelligence Committee staged its annual “worldwide threat briefing” only a week after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s briefing on the same subject.
It is no small cause for alarm that, among his colleagues, the President is perhaps the least condemnatory of Edward Snowden. The President recently diminished the value of the Snowden files by claiming they had caused more harm than good, but grudgingly conceded that they had raised a “policy debate.” He has, however, condemned Snowden for not following prescribed NSA protocols to red flagging questionable activities, protocols that themselves include every possible opportunity to silence disclosure of the activities being flagged. Protocols invented by the offending party, as it were. That is whole point of whistleblowing, a nuance evidently lost on the Surveiller-in-Chief.
There would be no such calm demurrals from our threat-obsessed intelligence hawks at the recent summits, however. Hyperbole was the order of the day. We must of course concede the penchant for crowds, such as that of the intelligence community of Capitol Hill, to devolve into the mass hysteria of groupthink. How much more so when the principals arrive already seized by frenzies of fear. Which among them doesn’t see a suitcase bomb at every baggage claim or, to use Himmler collaborator Reinhard Heydrich’s phrase, doesn’t see “carriers of tendencies” in every email exchange that might critique state policy? (In a sinister note from a 2012 British intelligence document on the extraction of data from mobile applications, the author noted the ability to plot a user’s “political alignment.”)
A Theater of the Absurd
Tuesday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing seemed to serve as much as a PR op than an informed review of threat levels. Presided over by Republican Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee, some of the exchanges were as disingenuous as they were cretinous.
Rogers surfaced—not for the first time—Cold War-era suppositions about links between Edward Snowden and Russian intelligence. The Sunday following the President’s lame January surveillance speech, Rogers and Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein joined Meet the Press, hosted by the feckless David Gregory, to peddle the fiction that Russia aided Snowden in capturing NSA files.
The New York Times, never one to shirk its responsibility as official stenographer of the state, quickly amplified this false accusation with an article entitled, “Lawmakers Suggest Snowden Link To Russia Before He Leaked Data,” a piece of defamatory piffle that the Times needlessly popularized without a shred of evidence to support it (the article’s questioning of the claim in fine print notwithstanding). Rogers seems to be sourcing his antiquarian Soviet paranoia from his favorite John Le Carre novels.
As if this echo chamber of mendacity were not sufficient to discredit the entire proceedings, Rogers then hectored FBI Director James Comey to concede that journalists profiting off the sale of stolen property, i.e., the Snowden files, were vile lawbreakers. Comey, himself terrorized by Rogers’ seething presence, stuttered a few words about “First Amendment implications,” after conceding that the sale of top secret files might be akin to “hocking stolen jewelry.”
During the Senate Intelligence Committee briefing on worldwide threats last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed that journalists that supported or helped Edward Snowden were his “accomplices,” a catch-all term with which Clapper perhaps hoped to jointly implicate both phantom Russian spies and real journalists. British Parliament was at least a bit more specific, claiming Guardian journalists aided terrorists in their support of Snowden. Sadly enough, each of these instances represent alarming attempts to widen the circle of culpability and create legal pretexts by which citizens can be silenced for dissent.
Clapper added to his growing legacy of harebrained sound bytes on Tuesday by noting, without a trace of humor, that he had never in fifty years of government work, “experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Of course, there is a modicum of truth in this, given that gun-wielding Americans are now arrayed across 700 plus military bases around the world, “protecting” the kind of angry ingrates that so typify imperial subjects.
The Prince of Piffle
Not wanting his organization to be excluded from the festival of ignorance, CIA Director John Brennan then weighed in. In an effort perhaps to explain why America was being slung beneath a dragnet of surveillance, Brennan dramatized the ability of al-Qaeda camps to operate in destabilized nations like Iraq and Syria, neglecting of course to note the American role in destabilizing these countries. In this Brennan was only seconding the insuperable alarmist Rogers, whose opening remarks noted that, “al-Qaeda has morphed and spread throughout Yemen, Syria, the Levant, and Africa, this Administration has piled on even more bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.” Rogers failed to note the wondrous efficacy of the U.S. drone program in radicalizing the families of slain “suspects” in these regions. Instead, he savaged the Obama administration for piling on more “bureaucracy,” a strange claim given the swiftness with which FISA authorizes intelligence agencies to hoover the data of millions of Americans. (Rogers, bereft of novel ideas—so obvious in his Soviet spiel—was simply re-commissioning the tired trope of government red tape as another of the numberless causes of our terrifying insecurity.)
After the festivities ended, Rogers told assembled stenographers that “a thief selling stolen goods is a thief,” an obvious reference to former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Note how Rogers smuggles his conclusion into his premise. A “thief selling stolen goods” is all we need hear of this sentence to see he has already concluded Greenwald and journalists of his civil liberties ilk are thieves, a conclusion reached sans evidence or, evidently, a desire to find any.
Rogers is one of the most enthusiastic fear-mongering propagandists inside the beltway. You may recall him from a recent appearance on Charlie Rose, where he reiterated a number of farcical lies about Iran, while Rose massaged his jowls in consternation. This is the same Rogers who infuriated England by suggesting that if Parliament invited Edward Snowden to speak, it could jeopardize its participation in the developing Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). He also claimed last fall—in a stellar summation of his views on privacy—that, “You can’t have your privacy violated if you don’t know it.” Rogers exposes here the twisted logic by which he justifies violations of the Fourth Amendment, or perhaps how he absolves himself of defending the public against such violations. If there is a sitting representative that most shoulders the responsibility to defend the public interest against surveillance scope creep, it is the Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee. Yet Rogers has ingested the poisonous myth that nothing is forbidden in the name of national security. And as we now know, the NSA metadata program hasn’t foiled crimes, just exhausted more of the federal budget on paranoid military initiatives.
If You See Something, Say Nothing
How ironic that our evolving war on terror asks eternal vigilance from citizens—in New York, we are exhorted, “If you see something, say something!” (I was personally exhorted to do this very thing last year after questioning a congeries of cops as to why they had summoned an army of police vans to surround a pitiful assemblage of vestigial Occupiers attending a meeting in Zuccotti Park.) Yet when one of us summons the courage to step forward, he or she is hit with the hammer of the state. One is shuttled into a decades-long prison sentence, another hounded into permanent flight and what will likely be a life of itinerant exile. Likewise the glaring hypocrisy of the intelligence community’s furious indignation at having their lies and illegalities exposed, while delivering only the most blasé assurances to Americans that their privacy isn’t being hacked. So although the terror narrative now more than ever seems a splintering ship on an ocean of cynicism, the government shows no signs of relinquishing the pathological insincerity by which it reconciles its claims.
Martin Amis once provocatively suggested, in his book Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, something to the effect that the best way to rid ourselves of our obsession with nuclear weaponry was to treat pro-nuke proponents as lepers. To use peer pressure, in other words, to shame nuke lovers into conformity with nonproliferation. The technique has yet to be tried, as best I know. But I sometimes think we should apply it with our war on terror propagandists. The moment the least of them begins a mindless peroration about national security, we ought to instantly denounce him or her as a coward, incapable of living in an uncertain world without resort to hysteria. And perhaps accuse them too of a lack of patriotism, as though the armed forces were not already keeping us safe. Surely, these peddlers of fear are shameless in their conflation of surveillance with security. Ought they not to feel a little discomfort for their deceits?