The president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, spoke this morning at the United Nations and delivered a powerful indictment of spying by the NSA on behalf of the United States. She said, “Without respect for a nation’s sovereignty, there is no basis for proper relations among nations,” adding that “Brazil knows how to protect itself. Brazil … does not provide shelter to terrorist groups. We are a democratic country.”
The Brazilian president is so outraged at American spying, both on her country and on her personal emails and her personal life, that she canceled a state dinner with President Obama.
While most Americans see this as a rift between Brazil in the United States over the issue of our spying on them, President Rousseff highlighted the most important point of all elsewhere in her speech this morning.
She said, “Without the right of privacy, there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy.”
This is not just true of international relations. It’s also true here within the United States.
Back before the Kennedy administration largely put an end to it, J Edgar Hoover was infamous in political circles in Washington DC for his spying on and blackmailing of both American politicians and activists like Martin Luther King. He even sent King tapes of an extramarital affair and suggested that King should consider committing suicide.
That was a shameful period in American history, and most Americans think it is behind us. But the NSA, other intelligence agencies, and even local police departments have put the practice of spying on average citizens in America on steroids.
As Brazil’s President points out, without privacy there can be no democracy.
Democracy requires opposing voices; it requires a certain level of reasonable political conflict. And it requires that government misdeeds be exposed. That can only be done when whistleblowers and people committing acts of journalism can do so without being spied upon.
Perhaps a larger problem is that well over half – some estimates run as high as 70% – of the NSA’s budget has been outsourced to private corporations. These private corporations maintain an army of lobbyists in Washington DC who constantly push for more spying and, thus, more money for their clients.
With the privatization of intelligence operations, the normal system of checks and balances that would keep government snooping under control has broken down.
We need a new Church Commission to investigate the nature and scope of our government spying both on our citizens and on our allies.
But even more than that we need to go back to the advice that President Dwight Eisenhower gave us as he left the presidency in 1961. Eisenhower warned about the rise of a military-industrial complex, suggesting that private forces might, in their search for profits, override the protective mechanisms that keep government answerable to its people.
That military-industrial complex has become the military-industrial-spying-private-prison complex, and it is far greater a threat to democracy then probably was envisioned by Eisenhower.
Government is the protector of the commons. Government is of by and for we the people. Government must be answerable to the people.
When the functions of government are privatized, all of that breaks down and Government becomes answerable to profit.
It’s time to reestablish the clear dividing lines between government functions and corporate functions, between the public space and the private space.
A critically important place to start that is by ending the privatization within our national investigative and spying agencies.