The “war on terrorism” has inaugurated a new era in the American polity, a sea-change that has not only threatened to overturn traditional limits on government power but also corrupted the political culture – and opened the way to the terminal crisis of the Constitution.
In a revealing series of interviews on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” program, three individuals targeted by the American surveillance state – William Binney, former top NSA official, Jacob Applebaum, an internet security specialist who works with WikiLeaks, and Laura Poitras, an Oscar-nominated documentary film-maker whose work has brought her to the attention of US authorities and led to her harassment by US government agents – give compelling evidence that the answer to the question in the title of this piece is clearly an emphatic no.
Binney resigned his position with the National Security Agency (NSA) after 40 years in protest at the government’s increasingly totalitarian methods of data-collection and retention, without judicial oversight. The government has targeted him: in 2007, his home was invaded by FBI agents after he went to the Senate Intelligence Committee with revelations about illegal NSA spying on American citizens: they pointed guns at him, and warned that he would “not do well” in prison. Applebaum and Poitras have been detained, searched, and interrogated every time they have re-entered the US from abroad – Poitras over 40 times – and had their laptops seized and presumably copied. None of these individuals have been charged with a crime.
The degree to which our constitutionally-protected liberties have been usurped is shockingly described by Binney:
“AMYGOODMAN: Do you believe all emails, the government has copies of, in the United States?
WILLIAMBINNEY: I would think—I believe they have most of them, yes.
GOODMAN: And you’re speaking from a position where you would know, considering your position in the National Security Agency.
BINNEY: Right. All they would have to do is put various Narus devices at various points along the network, at choke points or convergent points, where the network converges, and they could basically take down and have copies of most everything on the network.
While this level of surveillance started during the Bush administration, under President Obama, says Binney:
“The surveillance has increased. In fact, I would suggest that they’ve assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens.
AMY GOODMAN: How many?
WILLIAM BINNEY: Twenty trillion.”
What are they doing with all those emails? They’re targeting their enemies, domestic as well as foreign, and combining this information with “meta-data” – i.e. financial records, credit card transactions – to create comprehensive profiles of those on their enemies list. There’s nothing to stop them from “leaking” this information to anyone, for any purpose – because it all takes place in the dark. And if they want to find something on you, they will find it and use it. This, in short, is what it means to say one lives in a police state. Glenn Greenwald wrote about this in a recent column, and he said something very important that we should all focus on:
“So just look at what happens to people in the U.S. if they challenge government actions in any meaningful way — if they engage in any meaningful dissent. We love to tell ourselves that there are robust political freedoms and a thriving free political press in the U.S. because you’re allowed to have an MSNBC show or blog in order to proclaim every day how awesome and magnanimous the President of the United States is and how terrible his GOP political adversaries are — how brave, cutting and edgy! — or to go on Fox News and do the opposite. But people who are engaged in actual dissent, outside the tiny and narrow permissible boundaries of pom-pom waving for one of the two political parties — those who are focused on the truly significant acts which the government and its owners are doing in secret — are subjected to this type of intimidation, threats, surveillance, and climate of fear, all without a whiff of illegal conduct.”
All modern dictatorships employ the same method of limited freedom in certain realms, expanding and contracting the parameters of the permissible according to the tactical advantage of the moment, and yet always upholding the first principle of any and all tyrannies: that the government grants such “rights” as “free speech” and “free assembly” at its sole discretion. Which means they can be rescinded at a moment’s notice.
This state of conditional freedom that allows these governments to maintain the official fiction they are “liberal” democracies. With Fox News and MSNBC braying at one another, and the airwaves filled with corporate-funded political ads detailing the dirt on this or that candidate, the illusion of liberality persists. Yet all one has to do is challenge the “national security” prerogatives of an ever-expanding American empire – as Binney, Applebaum, and Poitras did – and suddenly one is transported into the world of It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s masterful evocation of what a distinctively American dictatorship might look like, Orwell’s 1984, or some other dystopian vision of a totalitarian future. Reading these warnings today, one cannot escape their archaic air: not because the visions projected in these novels turned out to be wrong, but precisely because they have already come true.