By Dennis Loo
Obama says that his prosecution of whistleblowers is necessary because whistleblowers have aided America’s enemies by informing them of secrets that will harm America. With precious few exceptions, the rest of this nation’s political leadership and media pundits join in this chorus of condemnation of whistleblowing and call for the metaphorical or literal heads of these dastardly whistleblowers.
A close examination of what is going on here, however, points to a very different picture than what officialdom declares. The real target of the NSA’s ubiquitous surveillance isn’t terrorists. The NSA’s target is the entire world’s population and foreign governments; its purpose is dominance and oppressive social control.
There are two core facts that make this point. Both of these facts have been studiously and religiously concealed from the public by mainstream media and public officials.
First, the NSA’s universal spying on whole populations predate 9/11 and were not instigated for the purpose of detecting and preventing terrorist incidents. Terrorism had not become a central or even secondarily important issue, either in the corridors of power or in the public consciousness, when the NSA and other intelligence gathering agencies instituted universal surveillance. In its present form, the NSA spying on us all was imposed in the first few weeks after Bush took office in 2001, seven months before 9/11. The warning signs that the 9/11 attacks were coming were present in abundance several months before 9/11 but universal surveillance had nothing to do with those warnings. The warnings – which were spurned and dismissed with contempt by Bush and Cheney – were obtained through traditional intelligence gathering techniques, not universal surveillance. That information was obtained by surveilling those who the FBI, CIA, and NSA et al had reason to suspect, putting pieces of various data together through detective work and investigative thinking, warnings from other nation’s intelligence services, and informants on the ground. Torture was not used. Warnings to Bush and Cheney of a spectacular terrorist attack on the U.S. were numerous, definitive, and universally ignored by the White House. The problem was not a lack of intelligence. The problem was that the White House refused to act upon the intelligence they had. In the wake of 9/11, Bush et al, the same individuals responsible for spurning those dire and explicit warnings, reacted by claiming that they were given no warnings about the attacks and that they needed more data and needed to clamp down on civil liberties, including engaging in the war crime of torture in order to avoid another such attack. Others have chronicled the story of Bush et al’s failure to prevent or at least mitigate 9/11 in great detail. See here for example.
Second, it is simply absurd and dramatically counter-productive to carry out anti-terrorist intelligence by collecting all of the world’s electronic communications. This would be like a detective who was trying to solve a murder case by treating the entire world as suspects rather than focusing his or her efforts on those with a motive and those who were in some way connected to the victim. It would be like trying to treat a small tumor by exposing the entire body to continuous radiation therapy. It is simply ludicrous to toss out probable cause and institute improbable cause as the standard of governmental policy. You cannot reasonably connect the dots to identify the threads of pending terrorist plots if you are systematically collecting all the data there is to collect on everyone and everything: to do so means that you are purposely drowning yourself in oceans of irrelevant data. U.S. intelligence is daily collecting more than four times the data contained in the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. The government isn’t doing these illogical things because they are stupid. They are doing these things because their real purpose is not to detect terrorist incidents. Their real purpose is to control and repress whole populations. That is the only reason why you would collect all there is to know about everyone and everything: because you want to control and manipulate everyone and everything.
The enemy as the U.S. government sees it, in other words, is not al-Qaeda. The enemy is the people. We are the enemy.
Obama is vilifying whistleblowers and threatening investigative journalists and protesters with sedition and/or indefinite detention because whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and protesters are the canaries in the mine.
Canaries placed in mines are the classic early warning signals for miners because the birds are more sensitive to the buildup of odorless toxic fumes. When the birds die, the miners have to get out right away or they will be next.
What Obama is doing in going after whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is the equivalent of someone who deliberately kills the canaries in a mine.
Imagine someone coming into a mine to strangle the canaries, proclaiming as he does that the canaries are the source of toxic fumes, not the materials in the mines themselves. “Once the canaries are eliminated,” he declares, “all of the dangers from toxic fumes will be eliminated.”
Whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and dissenters are the conscience of the people. Without them the people are utterly powerless to prevent being preyed upon by tyrants. Without these human “canaries,” the people are like the miners who die from toxic fumes without even knowing that they are in danger.
As Glenn Greenwald has described it in relation to the trial of Bradley Manning:
The government is proceeding on the theory that simply because the information that’s leaked ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda had an interest in it, that constitutes aiding and abetting the enemy. And what that essentially does is it converts every form of whistleblowing or leaks into a form of treason.
The Obama Administration, in other words, is interpreting espionage and sedition in an unprecedented and extremely alarming way: a whistleblower, a journalist, or any other person who reveals information that the government or private corporations consider sensitive (not just classified material), even if the leaker is not seeking to personally profit from that revelation and is simply making it known to the public because the public should know about crimes being committed and laws being broken, can now be punished severely, up to and including execution. The logic that Obama is employing goes like this:
If you make information public that is eventually read by al-Qaeda, this means that you are aiding al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is part of the public. Ergo, anything made public by anyone that we in the government regard as embarrassing or potentially revealing of corruption or crimes happening by those in government or private corporations makes the leaker a criminal who should be punished vigorously to teach a lesson to anyone else who would do the same.
The government is claiming that even if the information divulged shows governmental or corporate lying and crimes, the real criminal is the leaker, not those responsible for the criminal and corrupt acts being revealed by the leaker.
The U.S. government is, in other words, criminalizing facts, truth, and those who tell the facts and reveal the truth.
By what definition can this be permitted to govern a society and that society still be considered one that has freedom of speech and assembly?
The new rules are these: you cannot leak because by the mere act of doing so, you have given aid and comfort to the nation’s enemies. You don’t have to sell the secrets by meeting the enemy in some basement parking lot or in some park. You don’t have to communicate with or have any arrangement at all with the enemy: you merely have to be part of the process by which information is made public that the government regards as privileged, anything that private companies or the government consider important, for you to be subject to being charged with treason.
As Glenn Greenwald points out:
There’s evidence that Osama bin Laden was very interested, for example, in Bob Woodward’s book — books, which have all sorts of classified information in them at a much higher level of secrecy than anything Bradley Manning leaked. That would mean that not only the leakers to Woodward, the highest-level members of government, but even Woodward himself, could be depicted as a traitor or be accused of aiding and abetting the enemy. It’s an extraordinarily menacing theory to journalism and to whistleblowing and leaking.
A June 22, 2013 report from McClatchy’s newspapers, “Obama’s Crackdown Views Leaks as Aiding Enemies of the US” by Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay reveals a program of Obama’s little known to the public called “Insider Threat Program.” This program, put succinctly, calls for federal employees to keep an eye on their co-workers and snitch on anyone who appears to be acting suspiciously. Failure to do so will be punished severely.
President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of “insider threat” give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.
Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material. They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.
“Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy for the program that was obtained by McClatchy.
Imagine if Vladimir Putin or North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were enacting such a program in their countries. What would the outcry be at western news networks and from the U.S. State Department about how these dictators were turning workers against workers, neighbors against neighbors, friends against friends, in a snitching society? The man of hope and change, Mr. Yes We Scan, does it and it hardly manages to get any mainstream media attention, McClatchy’s notwithstanding still managing to retain some aspects of investigative/watchdog news media.
What Kafka famously wrote about in The Trial, what George Orwell wrote about in 1984, what Philip K. Dick wrote in The Minority Report about the Bureau of Pre-Crime: how true are these works about horrible dystopias in describing the reality that we see today? How much more pervasive are the sources of information gathering that the U.S. government has implemented than any of those in the fevered imaginations of novelists seeking to exaggerate in famous works of fiction analogues to reality? Their fictional exaggerations are outstripped by the reality of today. The U.S. government is scooping up absolutely everything transmitted over electronic communications hardware.
There are many different aspects to this closing down of a free society under this champion of the people, Barack Obama, including the National Defense Authorization Act. I won’t go into all of them here, but just one more very telling example. In 2009 I broke the story that the Obama Administration was training all DoD employees in their annual exam that protest = “low-level terrorism.” This isn’t just a sin of Obama. It’s something that other governments around the world have been doing under the signboard of a war on terror.
There are those who are blinded to what Obama has been doing because they cannot see beyond the binary categories of Republican and Democrat. They think that there are no other choices for the people than picking the GOP or the Democrats in electoral charades. Since the Republicans’ rhetoric is so blatantly reactionary and Obama dresses up what he’s doing with words calculated to sound better to you if you’re not a reactionary, then these partisans think that what Obama’s doing is at least a fiftieth of a shade better than the Republicans. Those who are seduced by this game of good cop/bad cop being played by this country’s two major parties will accept any horrid acts being done by their government as long as it’s done by their party of choice and not by the other horrible party. The inadequacy of this mode of political decision-making is self-evident: you will be played for a fool as long as you continue to fail to see that both “good” cops and “bad” cops are cops and neither is really your friend.
Why is the government attempting to insulate itself from the people by banning dissent that challenges what authorities are doing? Why have things gone this far?
As I wrote in Globalization and the Demolition of Society:
[We are now] a society in which the torture and assassination of those believed to be on the wrong side of the “War on Terror” are ordered from the very top—by the president (previously covertly by Bush and now openly by Obama).
While media still continue to do some limited informing for the public, they have overall become an instrument for the few to manipulate the many and a device to insulate elites from the oversight of the many (p. 268).
Why do corporations and the government feel the need to label anyone who dissents from what they’re doing and interferes with business as usual a terrorist? The most concise answer to this question is that they are doing things that cannot stand up to the scrutiny of the people. What Bradley Manning’s revelations documented was that the U.S. government was committing war crimes on a daily basis, spying on even its own allies, and lying constantly about what it was doing. You cannot continue this sham “war on terror” if the people – “the enemy” – is finding out indisputably that this “war on terror” is a lie and that men, women, and children are being killed for no good reason other than the needs of American Empire.
Before the canaries – whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and dissenters - are strangled to death by our government, we, the miners in the caves, must rise to defend our canaries.
Dr. Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the author of Globalization and the Demolition of Society and a Steering Committee Member of World Can’t Wait. His website is DennisLoo.com.