Hillary Clinton to Edward Snowden: Face the Music

Edward Snowden: Face the music -- or perhaps a firing squad
Edward Snowden: Face the music — or perhaps a firing squad

W.J. Astore

A revealing question and answer came in this week’s presidential debate among the Democratic candidates.  They were asked if Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed illegal spying by the NSA and the U.S. government, should be considered a hero or traitor.

Hillary Clinton’s answer was revealing of who she is and what she stands for; here it is in full:

CLINTON: He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.

COOPER: Should he do jail time?

ClINTON: In addition — in addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.

According to Hillary, Snowden is not officially a whistleblower, since he failed to apply for such status within the government. If he had, she suggests he would have been given a fair hearing.  (Right!  Just like the “positive response” Hillary Clinton’s State Department gave Peter Van Buren, who for his honesty about Iraq reconstruction was outcast and hounded into retirement.) She also suggests that Snowden’s revelations have “fallen into a lot of the wrong hands,” by which I think she means not foreign terrorists but the American people — what she terms “everyday” people to distinguish them from people like her.

But, finally, this sentence is the killer: I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.

Facing the music: Do you know what that potentially means for Edward Snowden?  Accused of treason (his information having fallen into all those “wrong hands“), he would face the possibility of execution by the U.S. government.  Facing the music in this case may mean facing a firing squad.  At the very least, we’re talking about a LONG jail sentence, doubtless in a maximum security federal penitentiary.

By comparison to Hillary, the other candidates showed measures of compassion.  Lincoln Chaffee said he wanted to bring Snowden home: that he deserved praise for revealing illegal activities by the U.S. government.  Martin O’Malley essentially agreed with Clinton but without the ominous warning about the need to face the music.  Bernie Sanders applauded Snowden for his role in educating the people about their dishonest and abusive government; he said that important service should be taken into account if and when Snowden returns for trial.  Jim Webb punted the question to “the legal system” but he also highlighted the dangers of uncontrolled surveillance and how such power can be used for undemocratic purposes: “We’ve got a vast data bank of information that is ripe for people with bad intentions to be able to use,” Webb said.  Of course, we truly wouldn’t know the full extent of this without the revelations provided by Snowden.

Following on from what Webb said, the conclusion is obvious: Edward Snowden is a hero.  He should be brought back to the United States and praised for his courage in revealing how our government has spied illegally, not only on the American people but on much of the world.  Untrammeled spying is not making us safer; it’s people like Snowden, those who still have integrity and who believe in the ideals of democracy, who are making us safer.

On the question of Snowden, hero or traitor, all the candidates disappointed. But in calling for Snowden to face the music, Hillary Clinton’s answer represented the deepest bow to the National Security State.

If I were Snowden, I wouldn’t plan on returning to the USA if Clinton is elected president.

Petraeus and Snowden: Both Leakers of Classified Material, Same Punishment?

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

Two news items this morning caught my eye.  The first involves Edward Snowden, the security contractor who revealed massive (and ongoing) spying by the National Security Agency (NSA), much of it illegal.  Snowden says he will consider returning to the United States if he is given a fair trial (he is currently in Russia, where he’s been granted asylum and a residency permit for three years).

Watching the Citizenfour documentary (which I recommend highly), it’s apparent that Snowden revealed the sweeping extent of the NSA’s spying not out of malice, not for money, and not out of disloyalty, but rather because he wanted to serve the people by shedding light on the dangerous activities of powerful governmental agencies.  Snowden, in short, was motivated by patriotism. He saw how power was corrupting governmental agencies like the NSA, he recognized the dangers of that power to democracy, and he acted to warn the people of the possibility of this power ending in tyranny.

If he returns to the USA, how should he be punished?  May I suggest that he receive the same penalty as General David Petraeus, who also leaked highly classified information?  That penalty would be two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine.

Actually, that penalty wouldn’t be fair to Snowden, since Petraeus’s motivation for leaking classified information was personal. According to the New York Times, Petraeus shared his “black book” notes, much of the content highly classified, freely to Paula Broadwell, his lover and biographer.  He apparently did so in order that she could write a more glowing account of his life.  It’s also possible that this was part of the seduction process between the two: the sharing of those “sexy,” highly classified notes in exchange for further intimacies exchanged between the sheets (or under the desk).

Irony of ironies: The "ascetic" Petraeus bonded with Broadwell as they ran six-minute miles
Petraeus and Broadwell: “All In”

So, Paula Broadwell gained access to “classified notes about official meetings, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and the names of covert officers.”  Later, Petraeus lied to the FBI about the sharing of those notes.  And for these transgressions, he remains at liberty, with a lucrative deal at a private equity firm, teaching at Harvard University and walking the halls of power as an ascetic “hero” of the Surge in Iraq (2007).

Meanwhile, Snowden, who has been very careful not to compromise covert assets, remains in exile, vilified by many as a traitor to his country.

That’s the American moment for you.  A general with powerful friends gets a slap on the wrist for leaking highly classified material to his mistress and lying about it to the FBI, and a young patriot who acts to shed light on the growing power of governmental agencies to spy on the people and to violate their liberties is hounded into exile and denounced as a traitor.

And justice for all, America?

Update (3/5/15): 

Glenn Greenwald notes that Snowden’s desire to return to the U.S. is nothing new (and not news). The main obstacle is that U.S. law prohibits Snowden from using the defense that the documents/information he leaked should never have been classified to begin with. In other words, in a democracy, government should be transparent and accountable to the people, rather than being shrouded in secrecy and unaccountable to the people.  Imagine that!

Greenwald’s article, of course, changes nothing that I wrote above about the two-track justice system in the U.S. If only Snowden had been a military general and ex-chief of the CIA before he became a whistleblower! But, sadly, he was just a young man inspired by idealism and fired up about the dangers of the total surveillance state.

Idealism driven by concerns about the overweening powers of the national security state: We can’t have that in America.  Hang Snowden! Opportunism and deceit by a powerful man who ran a key component of that state (the CIA) and who should definitely have known better about violating security and lying to investigators? Well, that’s OK, “hero” Petraeus. Pay a token fine — and here’s your “Get out of jail free” card.

https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/03/04/snowden-wants-come-home-stories-case-study-media-deceit/

Reforming the National Security State (updated)

The World as a Confessional, with the NSA as its Priests
The World as Confessional, with the NSA as its Priests

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has an especially fine exposé of the National Security State as a religion with its own priesthood, holy books, dogma, and true believers/followers.

I recommend reading the entire article, but I do want to highlight some implications of his argument.  Like the Catholic Church (and I’m Catholic), the National Security State is hierarchical, conservative, and often anti-democratic.  We, the laity, have little if any say in how the system operates, even as we’re the ones who fill the coffers and collection plates.  We are subject to a militarized (or militant) aristocracy that sees itself as uniquely privileged, the “best and the brightest,” working to keep us safe from the devil of the day.  To question the system and privileges of the powerful is to risk being seen as an apostate.

But the Catholic Church is, at least in theory, dedicated to the cause of peace (though historically sometimes at the point of a sword).  The U.S. National Security State, despite (or rather because of) the evangelicals or true-believers in its midst, is dominated by a church militant and a church triumphant.  This is unsurprising.  Powerful militaries seek military solutions.  Defeats or stalemates like Iraq and Afghanistan are reinterpreted as triumphs (at least for the U.S. military).  If they defy reinterpretation, defeats can always be attributed to Judas-like figures within the body of the American politic, like the anti-war hippies of the Vietnam era (even if the latter looked more like Jesus than Lucifer).

The biggest problem is how the dominance of the National Security State weakens our democratic structures, including our right to privacy.  Consider the penetration and interception of all forms of electronic communication by the NSA and similar “intelligence” agencies.  Like the Catholic Church with its rite of confession, the NSA listens to our “sins” in the name of safeguarding us from harm.  In the bad old days, the Church used its rite of confession to gain access to the secrets of the powerful.  Leave it to the NSA to trump the Church by turning the whole world into a confessional booth.

Such a subversion of privacy doesn’t preserve democracy – it destroys it.  Like the Catholic Church of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the National Security State is choking on its own power and privileges, losing its sense of mission as it wallows in money and sanctimony.

Where is Martin Luther when you need him?  For like the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the U.S. National Security State needs a serious reformation.

Update (1/7): At TomDispatch.com, Nick Turse has a great article today on the growing reach and power of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) within the U.S. military.  It’s a powerful coda to Engelhardt’s article.  Extending the Catholic Church analogy, SOCOM in the U.S. military today is much like the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church — missionaries of the American military across the world.  And like the Jesuits they see themselves as an elite, as true believers, as holy warriors deserving of secrecy and privilege and power.

As such, they believe they should not be accountable to the laity — meaning us.  Neither do they believe they are accountable to our legal representatives in Congress.  They answer to their Loyola (Admiral McRaven) and ultimately to the Pope (whoever the commander in chief happens to be, as long as he supports them).

The National Security State has truly become the new national religion of America.  We worship at its Pentagon of Power, its huge NSA facilities.  They are America’s true national cathedrals.

“American Fascism”: Accurate or Misleading?

Has an Iron Heel already come to the USA?
Is it already here in the USA?

recent article by John Pilger in the British Guardian speaks of a silent military coup that has effectively gained control of American policymaking. It features the following alarmist passage:

In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration … The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement — Obama’s singular achievement.

Strong words. Is America the land of “liberal fascism”?

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism

For Paxton, fascism is:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

In formulating this definition, Paxton had Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind, but his definition is an excellent starting point in thinking about fascism.

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

It’s true that, in the name of “support our troops,” we grant the Pentagon brass and defense contractors too much leeway, and allow our Department of Defense to seek “global power” without reflecting that such ambitions are the stuff of totalitarian states. But let’s also recall that our troops (as well as our representatives) still swear an oath to the Constitution, not to a dictator or party.

It’s also true that, as a society, we are too violent, too attracted to violence (think of our TV/Cable shows, our video games, and our sports), and too willing to relinquish individual liberties in the name of protecting us from that violence and the fear generated by it. Yet Americans are also increasingly weary and skeptical of the use of military force, as recent events involving Syria have shown.

The point is not to despair, not to surrender to the demoralizing idea that American politics is an exercise in liberal fascism. No — the point is to exercise our rights, because that is the best way to retain them.

Authority always wants more authority. But as political actors, we deny by our actions the very idea of fascism. For in fascist societies, people are merely subjects, merely tools, in the service of the state.

Don’t be a tool. Be an actor. Speak up. Get involved. Work to make your imperfect republic a little more representative of the better angels of our nature. Because it’ll be your deeds that keep our country from falling prey to fear and violence and the authoritarian mindset they breed.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.  This article is also at Huffington Post.

New Meaning for the NSA

Image

The National Security Agency (NSA) has always been highly classified, a fact captured by the joke that NSA really stands for Nonesuch Agency.

Lately, with all the revelations by Edward Snowden about “inadvertent” and “unintentional” spying on Americans, the NSA seems to be defining a new acronym for itself.  Call it the

Nothing to See here, move Along, outfit.

The American people are being told by their government and their media that NSA domestic spying is a non-story.  The headline is something like: They’ve always done it, or They’re doing it to keep you safe, or You can trust powerful government agencies that have access to your private data.

In other words, nothing to see here, move along.

A true democracy jealously guards the rights of its citizens, notably the right to privacy.  A true democracy also has sufficient checks to guard against the acquisition of power and influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-intelligence complex.  We are no longer such a democracy.

Perhaps the biggest “reveal” of the whole Snowden affair is how much of government intelligence is not government.  It’s been outsourced, privatized.  We’ve added the profit motive to spying, ostensibly in the name of efficiency.

So, along with acquiescing to government spying, we’ve now made it a for-profit business in which lobbyists give money to Congress to ensure that this intelligence complex continues to grow in power and reach.  All in the name of keeping us safe, naturally.

The Army has an off-color saying: Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.  Please don’t tell me you’re spying on me and mining my data so that I’m “safer.”

There is something to see here, citizens.  And what it is is not pretty.

W.J. Astore