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Confronting the Growing National (In)Security State

The state has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of growing insecurity that fuels demand for more security.

(Image: National security via Shutterstock)

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The national security state dominates US foreign policy and now increasingly domestic policy. It has become a behemoth, a monster with an insatiable appetite that both looks for opportunities to expand and creates reasons to justify its expansion. Driven largely by profit and geopolitical positioning to control the world’s resources, the national security state may finally be overreaching to the point that people are seeing through the myth of “they hate us for our freedom” and realizing that we are all being duped.

The United States is stuck in a cycle that it created by decades of military intervention, war and economic hegemony. This has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of growing insecurity that fuels the demand for more security. As real and perceived threats against US security result in a national security response of more military, more spying and more intervention, the consistent response abroad is more threats to the security of Americans and attacks on the US military and transnational US corporations. Reaction by the United States is inevitably more security state violence. And the cycle continues to spiral.

Real feelings of insecurity have been used to scare people in the United States into accepting the growing erosion of our civil liberties. We are taught to treat each other as potential terrorists and to be on the lookout for threats. We are accustomed to being complicit with gross invasions of our privacy as a trade-off for greater “security.” But this is an illusion, as is the idea that if someone is not doing anything wrong, then this state of hypervigilance doesn’t affect them.

Now these illusions are being exposed. Four years ago, Pfc. Bradley Manning was arrested for leaking documents on the wars and US foreign policy that showed crimes, unethical behavior and abuses of power. The government reacted harshly, held him in solitary for one year and sought to make an example of him to frighten others from coming forward. These actions showed how the government will abuse its power to cover up its own misbehavior. But rather than deter, this abuse has led to more leaks.

As Glenn Greenwald writes, “The more they overreact to measures of accountability and transparency – the more they so flagrantly abuse their power of secrecy and investigations and prosecutions – the more quickly that backlash will arrive.” In the more than three years since Manning’s arrest, there have been multiple leaks, including perhaps the most important, the recent leaks by Edward Snowden. Intimidation is not working.

And the national dialogue is changing. Just as these whistleblowers had hoped, people are questioning whether the national security state is justified and just whose interests it represents. Coalitions of organizations are forming to demand greater transparency and accountability, and serious questions are being asked about the effects of a privatized security state on democracy and the broader interests of the public.

The Dangerous National Security Spiral

Wars and military interventions occur out of the Office of the President, which has become an imperial presidency that does not wait for Congressional or UN approval. Fred Branfman, who exposed the illegal bombing of Laos and the targeting of civilians by the United States during the Vietnam War, says that since 1962, the United States has killed 20 million human beings, the vast majority of them civilians, more than any other country in the world during that time period.

This mass slaughter of people, and the displacement of an equal number who were forced to flee their homes and often their countries, continues no matter who is president. No doubt part of the problem is the mirage democracy and managed elections in the United States which limit our choices, but the bigger problem is the institution of the executive branch, the vast military and intelligence apparatus, and ongoing foreign policy that emphasizes intervention and domination rather than diplomacy. These institutional forces need to be changed if we are to have any hope of redirecting US relations with the world.

Branfman describes part of the dangerous cycle of the national security state: “And today’s U.S. executive branch policies pose an even greater long-term threat to U.S. strategic interests, not only abroad but at home. The evidence is overwhelming, including the statements by several dozen U.S. national security experts cited at the end of my recent piece, that U.S. leaders are not protecting national security but rather weakening it as never before.”

They are weakening security by creating more enemies every day. Branfman points out that the Joint Strategic Operations Command (JSOC), essentially a team of assassins operating on a global scale, is active in 60 countries. Obama has used drones in many countries, most with which the United States is not at war. This remote-control policing of the globe is increasing hatred against the United States. A 2011 Pew poll shows 74 percent of Pakistanis, 130 million people, regard us as their enemy. Branfman points out, “It makes no national security sense to be at war with 1.8 billion Muslims.”

Numerous officials have made similar points; retired General Stanley McChrystal says every civilian the US kills creates ten enemies. Who are these security-state-created enemies? The tens of thousands families, friends and neighbors of people killed in drone strikes or held without trial in Guantanamo Bay or other secret prisons. They include the vast numbers of people under drone surveillance and threat of attack in numerous countries in Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. Also, this includes the people threatened with full-blown war as the United States moves from the destruction of Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya and now to Syria, with Iran and North Korea in its sight and under threat, and even China being encircled militarily in Obama’s Asian pivot. The undermining of democracies throughout the world adds to the problem, especially in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, countries that have broken from US empire. The United States does not become more secure by turning the people of the world against us.

As a result of this ongoing policy of intervention and domination, the US security state apparatus has grown dramatically. This security state includes not only government agencies but thousands of corporations that are hard to distinguish from the government. The merger of corporations and state is evident in the intelligence gathering apparatus, each entity sharing information with the other. For example, a recent leak from Edward Snowden on British intelligence’s seizure of virtually every worldwide phone call and Internet activity, reveals that it shares the information with 850,000 outside contractors, as well as the NSA.

There are important legal and moral issues that challenge all of these policies, but Branfman points out, the security state apparatus is “also endangering us, undermining security and creating enemies.” Further, “It is our government that is endangering our national security, not the whistleblowers.”

The security state is becoming more insecure itself as people in the United States learn about the extent of domestic and global spying. This creates a potentially volatile situation. Branfman says that “No president has done more to create the infrastructure for a possible future police-state” than President Obama. Branfman sees three ways that this infrastructure could be used to escalate to a full police state that would destroy our democratic ideals: (1) another 9/11 type attack, (2) domestic unrest due to the economic collapse and growing inequality; and (3) global disruption due to climate change. These are all very real possibilities and one interesting thing about each – current government policy not only fails to solve or minimize these problems, it actually makes each worse.

The National Security State Used Against Americans

Thomas Drake, a former executive of the National Security Agency who became a whistleblower and was accused of violating the Espionage Act says, “We have all become foreigners, all subjects of the surveillance state” and it has “really very little to do with counter-terrorism.” Further, the security apparatus is “treating the United States as a foreign nation” consistent with the Obama administration’s claim that the whole world is a battlefield, and that includes the United States.

Drake points out that he and his colleagues in the NSA showed the agency how it could collect the data it needed to protect the United States from its enemies, while at the same time operating within the limits of the Constitution, consistent with the Fourth Amendment and protecting the privacy of Americans. But, the NSA rejected that approach and instead “because of a perverse incentive to keep track of everyone,” gathered all information so that they would have it in case they needed it at a later date. According to Drake, the “NSA wants to own the Internet.”

An East German expert, Drake says “the Stasi would be drooling at what the US surveillance state is doing” with their collection of information. The full review of how Americans are spied on is breathtaking. There is so much information being gathered that the NSA is building a data facility in Utah that will use as much energy as Salt Lake City to hold 100 years’ worth of worldwide communications, including phone and Internet communications. The surveillance state has been building relatively consistently for 100 years. With every advance in technology; the surveillance state has expanded to use that technology.

What is the extent of monitoring? The American government is in fact collecting and storing virtually every phone call, purchase, email, text message, internet search, social media communication and credit card transaction. They also gather information about finances, health, employment history, travel and student records, and virtually all other information on every person in the United States. The British government taps into trans-Atlantic cables to gather telephone and Internet traffic which they share with NSA and corporations. In 2011, they collected 600 million telephone events each day.

Then there is the monitoring of the travel of Americans through a massive surveillance system of CCTV cameras which could be upgraded with facial recognition technology. In addition, the federal government has used drones on Americans, 13 police departments are using them and 30,000 drones are projected to be licensed in the United States in the next decade.

When we travel, our conversations will also be monitored as cities across the country are quietly installing microphone-enabled surveillance systems on public buses that would give them the ability to record and store private conversations. Street lights are being installed that can spy in some American cities. Cell towers and cell phones can track where your phone is. And, phone companies responded to at least 1.3 million law enforcement requests for cell phone locations in 2011. The government is pushing for “black boxes” being installed in cars to track people.

When Americans travel they go through often abusive and always degrading, invasive searches at airports, but the TSA is now moving beyond airports to trains and sports stadiums, as well as deploying mobile scanners to spy on people in many places. Related to this is expanding the geographic area for border searches to 100 miles away from the border. When the government conducts a border search it is not constrained by the Fourth Amendment.

And then there is the corporate side of the security state. Big companies are giving data to the NSA and other government agencies in return for special treatment. The NSA built a back door to all Windows software and the FBI wants a backdoor to all software. Companies are creating new products like bill boards that can watch you. And a recent patent application by Verizon would allow your television to watch you, track what you are doing, who you are with, what you’re holding, and the mood you’re in.

All of this is happening within the framework of law and congressional oversight. But, as Thomas Drake says “Oversight has been co-opted and compromised, it is a kabuki dance. Secret surveillance is approved by secret courts. Compromised congressional oversight includes gag orders to silence elected representatives” so they cannot tell their constituents what is going on. “It really inverts the system of justice,” he says.

Former NSA official William Binney describes, in a USA Today interview, how the oversight system fails to work saying, “We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after. And that just failed totally because no one in Congress or — we couldn’t get anybody in the courts, and certainly the Department of Justice and inspector general’s office didn’t pay any attention to it. And all of the efforts we made just produced no change whatsoever. All it did was continue to get worse and expand.”

Jesslyn Radack, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project, tells USA Today not only did the system fail to respond, “but more than that, it was turned against them. … The inspector general was the one who gave their names to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act. And they were all targets of a federal criminal investigation, and Tom [Drake] ended up being prosecuted — and it was for blowing the whistle.”

Radack calls the oversight system a rubber stamp, “Congress has been a rubber stamp . . . and the judicial branch has been basically shut down from hearing these lawsuits . . . So the idea that we have robust checks and balances on this is a myth.” Further in 2012 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court approved 98 percent of the 1,856 applications for surveillance and searches outright, with one withdrawn and 40 others modified, which is consistent with its practice since it was founded in 1978. But still, President Obama describes the system of secret surveillance, secret courts, secret congressional oversight and gag orders: “it is transparent.”

Making these already weak checks and balances weaker is the dishonesty of intelligence officials and the inability of either courts or congress to check their truthfulness. For example, Sen. Ron Wyden asked the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, if there was mass data collection of Americans. He said “no.” In USA Today Drake described that as “This is incredible dissembling . . . the oversight committee, unable to get a straight answer because if the straight answer was given it would reveal the perfidy that’s actually going on inside the secret side of the government.” Binney added, “It can’t work the way it is because they have no real way of seeing into what these agencies are doing. They are totally dependent on the agencies briefing them on programs, telling them what they are doing.” The same is true for the FISA court.

Branfman says it more starkly saying “We cannot trust government spokespersons as they have been lying to us for 50 years.” Indeed, the dishonesty of government representatives has become so consistent that “we take it for granted when they lie to us, we expect it and accept it.” Further, “when they get caught in a lie, they cover-up and if the cover-up does not work they call it an aberration and blame a low-level official.” He explains that security state officials “do not think it terms of truth in lies, they think in terms of what do they have to say to support their mission and enlarge their budget.”

Nobody in the country is immune to this extensive monitoring. Of course we know that FBI Director Hoover spied on President Kennedy and his brothers. And NSA whistleblower Russ Tice revealed that members of congress, Supreme Court justices and the young state senator Obama were spied on. And that is why the spying affects all of us. Information that is collected on elected officials, judges and the media can be used to make them ‘behave’ under threat of losing their careers. This undermines democracy and the rule of law.

How Do We Deal With and Dismantle the Security State?

Thomas Drake reminds us that “Senator Frank Church warned us in 1975 – when the surveillance state was used against the American people, including protesters. Can we pull ourselves out of the abyss? Is it embedded in the infrastructure of our society so deeply that we can’t?” Drake is dedicating his life to restoring the Constitution, privacy and the Fourth Amendment, so he has not given up.

And, many Americans have not given up either. Over 200,000 people have joined an effort to stop the spying at www.StopWatching.US, and more than 100 organizations have signed onto a letter calling for a congressional investigation modeled on the Church Committee of the mid-70s. They describe the spying as “blanket data collection by the government [that] strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy. This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens’ right to speak and associate anonymously and guard against unreasonable searches and seizures…” They seek to have the Patriot Act repealed and officials who put this unconstitutional program in place held accountable.

Another group is taking on CCTV cameras, seeking to create a data base describing where they are. There have been incidents in the United States and around the world of activists destroying CCTV cameras.

Others are sharing information on how to stop the security state from spying on you. And some are providing detailed specific steps you can take to have more private communications, as well as evaluating the tools available for safer communication.

During our interview with them on Clearing the FOG, Thomas Drake and Fred Branfman said that to end the security state, we need to build a mass popular movement to challenge the system and demand that it ends. To restore democracy Drake calls for “maximum openness and transparency”; and real checks and balances in government. The government needs to be re-chained to the US Constitution and the limits on searches and seizures. It needs to stop “violating the rights of Americans and people all around the world.”

Branfman believes this is an issue that the right and left of the American political spectrum should join together on, recognizing we need a potent political movement to challenge the entrenched security state. He sees the only way we will be able to turn back the security state is through popular ferment over the next decade.

Drake is heartened by Edward Snowden whom he describes as a classic whistle-blower acting in the public interest. He notes that East Germany collapsed from within and part of the reason was people in the security state seeing they were on the wrong side. Now in the United States, he says, people “are seeing the initial outlines and contours of a very systemic, very broad, a Leviathan surveillance state and much of it is in violation of the fundamental basis for our own country — in fact, the very reason we even had our own American Revolution.” Snowden has helped to start the debate we have needed to have since 9/11.

Edward Snowden showed the incredible power that one person has who is on the inside and breaks ranks. A key ingredient of a strategy that will succeed in shifting power is people on the inside switching to the side of the people. When Bradley Manning leaked documents concerning the Iraq and Afghanistan War, the Guantanamo Bay prisons and Foreign Service documents that showed the operation of US empire around the world, the national security state came down on him aggressively. Their goal was to scare others, but since his arrest and abuse four years ago there have been many important national security leaks, with Edward Snowden producing perhaps the most important. While intimidation may work on some, others will be encouraged by their abuse and every one person who blows the whistle makes a tremendous difference.

Whistleblowing is critical to progress against a security state that is undermining democracy. The actions of Manning, Snowden and others like them will inspire a new generation of whistleblowers. Indeed, whistleblowing has been democratized as relatively low-level techs gain access to critical information. As Julian Assange says: “They are young, technically minded people from the generation that Barack Obama betrayed. They are the generation that grew up on the internet, and were shaped by it.” While it may seem impossible to safely blow the whistle in the US security state, in fact it can be done. Here’s a brief guide on how to safely expose crime and abuse of government and big business by phone, email and mail.

We are confident that while some may be frightened by the security state, others will feel that it is their duty to come forward with the truth. They may do it anonymously, as many have, or they may do it publicly, as Edward Snowden did, but they will come forward. In the end, the crimes will be exposed and those participating in them need to know, they will be held accountable.

As Edward Snowden said in answering questions posed by the public:

“Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers. If the Obama administration responds with an even harsher hand against me, they can be assured that they’ll soon find themselves facing an equally harsh public response.”

Julian Assange warns Obama and the security state adding: “And by trying to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the US government is taking on a generation, and that is a battle it is going to lose.”

Now that the dangerous national security spiral is hitting home with mass surveillance of Americans, and more and more are seeing that so-called national security actually make us less safe and less free, the cycle can be broken. Every American is now directly affected by the US security state, and more and more will speak up and take action to end it. The popular resistance that Drake and Branfman say is needed is starting to build. More and more people are asking themselves the same question Manning, Snowden, Branfman, Assange and others have asked “what is my breaking point?”

You can listen to NSA Leaks, Spying and the Myth of National Security with Thomas Drake and Fred Branfman on Clearing The FOG.

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