As the days and weeks go crawling by, bringing now and then another little drib, another little drab of revelations from the storehouse of secrets that Edward Snowden pried loose from the National Security Agency, the story turns slowly but surely from one of scandal and outrage bidding fair to trouble the well-cushioned bottoms on the seat of power to a dimmed, drained subject of "debate" amongst powerful insiders.
Indeed, we are now told by the dolers of the dribs that "debate" was the sole purpose of the exercise in the first place. Snowden was driven into permanent exile, his life and liberty put at constant risk, solely to provoke a "debate" in the national power structure, a conversation among the cognoscenti of political and media elites that will lead, eventually, to the holy grail of "reform." Naturally, this debate -- and the revelations themselves -- must be kept within careful parameters; nothing that might actually damage the "national security" operations of the brutal, bristling, maniacally militarized, quasi-Stasi, Gorgon-staring imperial state is to be allowed into the "conversation" our betters are now having among themselves on how best to bring a modicum of restraint and oversight to the NSA's all-pervading surveillance. (For more on this, see 'Oligarchs Approve the NSA Debate.')
"Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind his own business."
But put this aside for now. And put aside the fact that this slow drip-feed of carefully curated stories has come to seem more like an inoculation than a revelation, inurring people to the shock with small doses which, over time, simply fade into the background noise, become part of the new normal -- while allowing the Security Apparat itself plenty of time to develop antibodies -- defenses, diversions -- to diffuse the impact of what could have been a powerful, multi-sided shock to the system.
Put all that aside, and let us grant, for a moment, the premise that the "debate" provoked by the Snowden revelations will indeed lead not to the usual application of skin-deep PR cosmetics but to a true "reform" of NSA practices: a more careful delineation of the scope of the agency's activities, and more rigorous oversight by a few select members of Congress, who will, in this case, for the first time in many decades, actually carry out their responsibilities.
In other words, let us grant that every dream of the debate-provokers comes true and the NSA is genuinely "reformed." The question then follows: so what?
As Arthur Silber points out in a powerful new essay, the NSA is only one small cog in a vast machinery of repression that already, right now, possesses -- and exercises -- an overwhelming level of control over the liberties and lives of every US citizen (not to mention the billions of meaningless non-entities and pieces of drone fodder who live beyond the sacred bounds of the Homeland). What's more, a preponderance of this repressive machinery is already "transparent" -- openly acknowledged, even advertised by the ruling elite in many cases.
What's more, almost all of this machinery is "legal" in one way or another. As Silber noted years ago, when a very similar "debate" was being carried out by "serious" people seeking "reform" after another set of revelations about government spying emerged:
With regard to FISA and issues of liberty and privacy in general, let me now ask you a few questions. How long do you think it would take you to identify, read, and understand every provision in every statute, regulation and other authorization that gives surveillance powers to the government? Furthermore: Would you know each and every place to look, or how to determine what those places were? Additionally: With a staff of 20, or 50, could it be done, even if you were provided with limitless time and limitless funds?
I submit to you, without qualification or reservation, that you could not do it. No one could. Consider that most legislators in Washington aren't even aware of much of what's in the bills they so eagerly vote on. Consider the prohibitive length and complexity of legislation that comes before Congress. That's true of what is going on now. If you tried to track down every piece of legislation, every regulation, every administrative agency ruling, and every other pronouncement still in effect that allows the government to surveil and otherwise keep track of you, me, the guy down the street, the woman next door and the man in the moon, based on alleged concern with and the need to protect us all from the ravages of drugs, "illicit" sex, any and all other suspected criminal activity and, natch, terrorism, how on God's green earth would you do it? You couldn't.
As he concludes today:
Certainly with regard to surveillance, the State has already granted itself entirely comprehensive, indeed omnipotent, powers. I guarantee you that, buried in the hideous bowels of all the laws, regulations, agency rulings, etc. and so on unto the ends of time, that give the State surveillance powers, the State has the power to spy on anything, anywhere, anytime, for any reason it manufactures, or for no reason at all.
Yes, do you remember that controversial FISA bill noted above? Remember the fierce "debate" after the New York Times revealed the extent of the Bush Administration's warrantless surveillance programs? Remember the "reform" this debate led to, when crusading presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (breaking his solemn word) voted for a "reform" bill in 2008 that greatly expanded the reach of the surveillance system -- in effect, legalizing Bush's illegalities -- while absolving the telecom corporations of their illegal acquiescence to these crimes? Remember all that? How did that turn out, all that "debate" and "reform" and working within the system? Did it curtail in any way, did it slow to any degree, the relentless expansion of our Stasi-like security apparatus?
Are we really to believe that getting a "debate" going among these same people, and/or the same types of people (products and beneficiaries of our militarized, super-profitable, ego-inflating 'national security' system), will actually produce a different result?
As Silber says, the NSA revelations do have value, shining a light on a pernicious corner of the Security Apparat's sinister operation. But he goes on to note:
To focus on the NSA as if that agency is the only or even a major source of the problem is entirely wrong. The NSA is only one source of the rot that is spread across numerous agencies and programs, the rot that has infected our government at every level (federal, state, county, municipal, etc.) and in countless ways. But the unique and restricted focus on the NSA is also an enormous boon to the State; it is largely the result of our culture's idiotic and myopic focus on the "hot" story of the moment, devoid of history, of context, of everything that should inform our understanding of the issues involved. It creates and supports the view that, if only we "fix" the NSA, then a significant part of the problem will be solved. But that is flatly untrue. As I already noted, you could eliminate the NSA entirely this very minute, and it wouldn't make a damned bit of difference. But the heightened focus on the NSA, while ignoring all the other agencies and programs involved in similar and even identical activities, leads directly to the "solution" that will make the State writhe in ecstasy. Congress will have some hearings, and they will provide for some "oversight" and "accountability," and most people, including most of the State's critics, will herald the great triumph of "the people" and "democracy." Meanwhile, the State will continue doing exactly what it was doing before.
2. "Thanks for the American dream, To vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through."
Silber's latest post gives a chilling example of just how meaningless even a genuine "reform" of the NSA would be. He sets down what could almost be a dystopian horror story from some adventure mag of the 1950s: the tale of an America under the boot of a tyrannical elite that lavishes its obedient insiders with perks and protection while abandoning the rest of the rabble to ravages of fate:
Imagine that there is a special class of American citizens. This special class is made up of individuals from private business, in fields such as agriculture, finance, the internet, academia, and utility companies. These people have certain responsibilities and, in exchange, they are granted certain privileges. These people are dedicated to providing information that, in their view, might be related in some way to possible threats to "national security." They are encouraged to report all such information they may come across, including information about their fellow employees. Imagine that there are tens of thousands of such "special" people, spread across the entire United States. ...
For their diligent work, members of the special class are given advance "secret" warnings about terrorist threats, before the general public learns of them (and sometimes even before elected officials). These special individuals receive "almost daily updates" on threats "emanating from both domestic sources and overseas." These special people enjoy being "special." They "are happy to be in the know." In the event that communications networks are seriously disrupted, this special class will be able to get phone calls and internet messages through when most people can't.
These special individuals also have specified roles when martial law is declared. That's what the State has communicated to them: when martial law is declared, not if. These people will be "expected to share all [their] resources," and to protect any parts of the "critical infrastructure" to which they have access. In return, they will have "the ability to travel in restricted areas and to get people out."
When martial law is declared, these special individuals are granted one further power. They will be expected "to protect [their] portion of the infrastructure." If necessary, the State expects them to use deadly force to do so. Because these are very special people, the State has told them that, should they use deadly force, they will not be prosecuted.
Imagine all that. Would such a state of affairs trouble you? Do you think it would be a cause for concern that the State employed an army of "private" Americans to be its spies in businesses of every kind, perhaps including the business where you work? Would it bother you that the State has deputized tens of thousands of otherwise "ordinary" Americans to be murderers when martial law is declared -- murderers who are given an advance blank check for their killings?
But you don't need to imagine any of this. All of this is true, and this program came into existence in 1996. The program is called InfraGard, and I wrote it about more than five years ago. As of February 2012, InfraGard had more than 45,000 members; roughly 7,000 new members join each year. There are at least 86 chapters spread across the United States.
Please note the following, as it is of special importance. Information about InfraGard has been easily available for years. ... The government isn't trying to keep InfraGard a secret. To the contrary, the State is enormously pleased with this program. It is more than happy to make its operations known -- and many Americans are very happy to join it. Most other Americans appear not to care about InfraGard at all -- for it is almost never talked or written about. You should find that profoundly disturbing. The State maintains a private army of tens of thousands of spies -- spies who are deputized to kill other people, possibly including you -- and no one seems to give a damn.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. The power of unlimited surveillance, as hideous and repulsive and inhuman as it is, still pales next to the greater power which our elites have granted to themselves: to kill -- without warning, without warrant, without trial, without mercy -- anyone they choose to kill. I have written about this astonishing situation reality many times (my first column on the subject appeared in November 2001), as has Silber, for years (and again, eloquently, in his latest piece).
But let's set it out clearly again: the American government has already reserved the right to kill anyone on the planet, including American citizens, at the arbitrary order of the President -- or any one of the many people he has deputized to make such decisions on their own. We live -- literally, entirely -- at the pleasure of the state, which can kill us at any time it likes, for whatever reason it decides is sufficient.
This was "secret" during the Bush Administration, although it was deliberately made known through government leaks to mainstream media outlets. Under Obama, of course, the death squad operation has been openly acknowledged, with his own national security advisor cheerfully discussing it under oath before Congress. This "transparency" -- which, after all, is the goal of every "reformer" of the system -- came after the White House leaked details of the program for a very favorable story in the New York Times, which portrayed the president and his death squad henchmen as deeply moral men struggling mightily through dark nights of the soul before parking their asses on a couple of couches every Tuesday and going through lists of people to be murdered, like Stalin and Beria in the Kremlin.
This arbitrary power to murder is the central political reality of our time; it is the bedrock, the foundation, of the American state as it actually exists today. The NSA surveillance program is merely an outgrowth -- a natural product -- of this system. Even if by some miracle, you could nip this single bud, the tree will continue to bring forth an abundance of poisonous fruit.
"Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams."