Governing in the Dark

White House.(Photo: Lance Page / Truthout )

The NSA scandal isn’t going away, and each leak tears a bigger hole in our current governing structure, says Gautney.

Obamacare may have sucked much of the air out of the room over the past few weeks, but to the chagrin of the White House, the NSA scandal is not going away so easily. Since June, each new leak has outdone the other in tearing at the fabric of the president’s legitimacy. Last week, it was the NSA spying on Mexican President Felipe Calderon; this week, the wiretapping of 70 million French and the cellphone of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. And, according to Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s trusted messenger, “the worst is yet to come.”

By now, most people know who Edward Snowden is – the 30-year-old computer geek who leaked mounds of top-secret information on NSA surveillance programs – implicating not only the US and British governments, but also leading telco and high-tech companies like Verizon and Facebook.

Snowden’s leaks came on the heels of Chelsea Manning’s disclosure of hundreds of thousands of secret government documents to the website Wikileaks – the notorious leaker dropbox that publishes source material, aimed at bringing “the unvarnished truth” to the world public. Manning, an Army intelligence “information groomer,” was deeply troubled by what she described as American foreign policy bent on “killing and capturing people,” including the intentional murder of Iraqi children and civilians. Things that would deeply trouble any one of us.

Wikileaks is the brainchild of Julian Assange, the Australian hacker who founded the multisite platform so that whistleblowers like Manning could deposit their leaks anonymously. Since the mid-2000s, the website has released hundreds of thousands of classified documents, including a series of cables of the Clinton-led State Department – known as “Cablegate” – as well as files on Guantanamo Bay detainees and various images and recordings documenting “collateral murder” during the Iraqi and Afghan wars.

In interview after interview, Snowden has stated that he “acted in the public interest” and took strict precautions with his data. By sparking a debate, he reasoned, the public would be better capacitated to make informed decisions about which freedoms they’d willingly trade off for national security. Manning too described herself as a “transparency advocate,” fighting for the public’s right to know and ability to decide. Assange’s Wikileaks was positioned similarly – as an agent of freedom of speech and a crucial check on governments. A “lights on, rats out” operation, as Assange so irreverently put it.

The rabid smear campaigns against Snowden and Assange from both right and left – calling them “terrorists” and “traitors”- alongside blatant human rights abuses against Manning, say as much about the corruption of our system of free speech and constitutional rights as do the leaks themselves. Not to mention the mainstream media’s ruthless eating of its own – not just targeting leakers and anonymous bloggers, but esteemed journalists like Greenwald himself.

In the brave new world of secrets and leaks, these relatively modest figures exposed something assuredly immodest about our political leadership – including dangerous imbalances of power in our system of governance and abuses of executive authority that are ruining our democracy.

For better or for worse, the Bush presidency has become a cautionary tale for abuse of executive power, the ubiquity of the military worldview, and the fragility of the rule of law. In functional, liberal democracies, legitimacy rests in the hands of the people, who confer consent on the leaders who represent them. Bush’s abuse of “state secrets” privilege to circumvent judicial oversight and consistent manipulation of facts, reconfigured this relationship, such that “national security” replaced our citizenry as a primary source of legitimacy. Such unbridled executive power lay in the president’s authority to make and enforce law, but more importantly, in his unchecked ability to decide under what conditions it could be suspended.

With a Senate record marked by dissent against the both the war and the US Patriot Act, Obama’s electoral victory signaled a desire among American voters to move on from the warmongering and “governing in the dark” of the Bush years. A change we can believe in. But Edward Snowden put an end to that. His leaks exposed what a Ron Paulite aptly described as “a Patriot Act on steroids” – in which wiretapping and surveillance programs have become, under Obama, even more invasive and ubiquitous. Along with serious unfreedoms of the press.

It’s not just the press, however that’s eating itself under the weight of executive domination. As a body formally endowed with the power to check and balance, it’s Congress too. Senators like Mark Udall and Ron Wyden have been protesting the decline of American civil liberties for years. But as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, their knowledge of classified matters actually straight-jackets their ability to talk openly and critically about national security. Even if they tried to ask the tough questions (and sometimes they do), it’s clear that Obama officials have zero qualms about giving members of Congress the “least untruthful” answers. That’s how director of national intelligence, James Clapper, described his bold-faced lie to Senator Wyden when, under oath, he was asked about the NSA wiretapping Americans.

And that’s how he and NSA Director Keith Alexander proceeded at a House Intelligence Committee hearing this week, in which Alexander disavowed Snowden’s leaks on wiretapping European citizens, and Clapper claimed that snooping on foreign officials was a “hearty perennial” of intelligence gathering. Alexander went so far as to defend his agency’s expansive spying campaign, saying, “we only work within the law” and that he’d rather “take the beatings” from the public and the media “than give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked.” In other words, he’d rather sacrifice our democratic right to decide in favor of his own.

It’s too soon to gauge how the NSA leaks will reverberate through our system and whether Congress will have the guts, or at least the will, to help rescue our political life from the instrumental dictates of militarism. What we do know, however, is that Wikileaks’ disclosures helped bring to justice the corrupt bankers behind Iceland’s financial crisis in 2008 and played a major role in catalyzing the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali in late 2010 – which, in turn, spurred the Arab Spring, and eventually, Occupy Wall Street. In these and other cases, citizen leaks and transparency incited from below helped spur movements that made significant social and political change.

A favorite among leakers and whistle-blowers is the renowned Orwellian axiom that “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Events in Iceland and Tunisia suggest, however, that individual truthtelling is only part of the story of change. It’s what we, as a society, do with that information that really counts.