Edward Snowden and Turnkey Tyranny

snowden
Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours.  Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state.  As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had.  (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.)  The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.

My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview.  I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.

Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:

1.  People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse.  Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way.  This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing.  (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)

2.  The American people are no longer partners of government.  We are subjects.  Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.

3.  Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power.  They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them.  This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism.  Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11.  They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere.  This was a goal they achieved.

4.  Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth.  Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth.  Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.

5.  The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials.  Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality.  Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.

6.  Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune).  Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.”  Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds.  As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.

7.  What is true patriotism?  For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people.  It’s not loyalty to government.  Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.

8.  National security and public safety are not synonymous.  In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated.  We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.

9.    We live naked before power.  Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them.  It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).

10.  “The system is built on lies.”  James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress.  And there are no consequences.  He goes unpunished.

11.  We own less and less of our own data.  Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government.  It’s become a commodity.  Which means we are the commodity.  We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.

12.  Don’t wait for a hero to save you.  What matters is heroic decisions.  You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.

In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes.  He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.

Jared Kushner’s Top Secret Clearance

Jared
On his majesty’s secret service

W.J. Astore

Word is that President Trump intervened to grant his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a “top secret” security clearance.  So what?  That’s the president’s prerogative, and Kushner needs this clearance to perform all the magic he’s apparently capable of, such as reinventing government, negotiating with Mexico, solving the opioid epidemic, and bringing peace to the Middle East.

Top Secret security clearances are quite common in America: more than one million people have them, and at least another three million have secret/confidential ones.  Of course, not all TS clearances are created equal.  They all require background investigations, but some are “special,” and some are SCI, which stands for compartmentalized information.  In other words, just because you have a TS clearance doesn’t mean you can access all TS information.  You have to have “a need to know.”  You have to be “read in” to certain programs.  And some programs are so secret that only a few people have access to them.

One would assume Kushner needs access to top secret intelligence in his job as a “peace envoy” for the Middle East.  Lacking such a clearance, Kushner would have to be fired, but as Trump’s son-in-law and as a special friend to the Israelis and Saudis, Jared is not about to be fired.  Trump apparently lied about intervening to approve Jared’s clearance (“The president was equally forthright a month ago when he unequivocally denied that he intervened in any way to get a permanent security clearance for his son-in-law,” notes The Guardian), but Trump lies a lot.  It’s a little like breathing for him.

What’s the real issue here?  For me, as I wrote about back in 2015, it’s how the government uses classification schemes to keep secrets from us, the American people.  Apparently, either we or they can’t handle the truth.  To cite myself:

Our government uses security classification not so much to keep us safe, but to keep the national security state safe — safe from the eyes of the American people.

As The Guardian reported in 2013:

“A committee established by Congress, the Public Interest Declassification Board, warned in December that rampant over-classification is ‘imped[ing] informed government decisions and an informed public’ and, worse, ‘enabl[ing] corruption and malfeasance’. In one instance it documented, a government agency was found to be classifying one petabyte of new data every 18 months, the equivalent of 20m filing cabinets filled with text.”

Nowadays, seemingly everything is classified.  And if it’s classified, if it’s secret, we can’t know about it. Because we can’t be trusted with it.  That’s a fine idea for an autocracy or dictatorship, but not so fine for a democracy.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people?  Impossible when nearly everything of any importance is classified.

America, Trump or Jared’s loose lips aren’t the problem.  The problem is a government shrouded in secrecy.

Friday Morning Thoughts

rocco
Johnny Rocco (with gun) wants more

W.J. Astore

A few thoughts on this Friday morning:

1. Andrew Bacevich at TomDispatch.com describes 24 stories/questions that are being ignored or neglected by the mainstream media as they obsess about Donald Trump. I’d like to add #25 to his list, as follows: Why is everything in America classified? The constant appeal to classification, to secrecy, prevents the discussion of vitally important military and security matters in public.  Is the real target of all this secrecy our rivals and enemies, or is it the American people?

Related to my #25, of course, is the persecution of “whistleblowers” for allegedly violating secrecy.  Under the Obama administration, people were accused of sedition and treason when their real “crime” was trying to keep the American people informed about what their government is really doing.

In short, when did the USA become the former Soviet Union, with its own NKVD/KGB and a state-controlled media that essentially promulgates and enforces the dictates of the powerful?

2. Afghanistan is a mess. According to this morning’s SITREP at FP: Foreign Policy, “Defense and intelligence officials are warning that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is likely to get worse before it ever gets better, despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops and tens of billions invested in building and funding the faltering Afghan security forces.”

“’The intelligence community assesses that the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners,’ Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a Senate hearing Thursday. The Pentagon is looking to add another 3,000 troops to the effort there in the coming months, pushing American advisors closer to the front lines to work directly with Afghan forces in the fight.”

After sixteen years of American/Coalition efforts, the Taliban is resurgent, yet the only strategy U.S. generals can offer is more troops and more money to train Afghan security forces that are mostly unreliable and often non-existent.  Why can’t the U.S. military admit defeat and leave?

Consider a sports analogy.  Last week, the Yankees-Cubs played an 18-inning game, eventually won by the Yankees.  Game over.  Imagine if the Cubs had said, “OK — We lost.  But we want to keep playing.  Maybe another 18 innings.  Maybe forever.  We just want to keep playing until we can claim, falsely even, that we’ve won.”  We’d label the Cubs as crazy.  As poor sports.  As deluded.

But this is what America is in Afghanistan.  We’ve lost in extra innings but we still want to keep playing — forever, it seems.

Daniel Ellsberg nailed it back in 2009.  The U.S. is a foreign power in Afghanistan engaged in a bloody stalemate that cannot be won.  Yet America persists, in part because U.S. presidents kowtow to military “judgment” and the idea that to withdraw from Afghanistan is to appear weak and unmanly.

3. Speaking of issues of manliness, Donald Trump (among others) likes to use the phrase “taking the gloves off” to refer to hyper-aggressive military actions. When did bare-knuckle brawling become a smart way to fight? Actually, it’s a great way to break your hand.  Boxing is dangerous enough while wearing gloves, yet our Washington “fighters” are ready to get down and dirty by doffing their gloves.  As I’ve written before, far too many Americans (and people in general) have died in the name of big-boy pants and similar machismo nonsense.

4. At TomDispatch.com, Army Major Danny Sjursen succinctly summarizes the U.S. military’s strategy in one word: More. As Sjursen puts it in his article:

Predictions are always a dicey matter, but recent history suggests that we can expect military escalation, which already seems to be underway in at least three of those countries.  More, after all, remains the option of choice for America’s generals almost 70 years after MacArthur went head to head with his president over Korea.

What then is to be expected when it comes to the conflict with ISIS in Iraq, the complex, multi-faceted Syrian civil war, and America’s longest war of all, in Afghanistan?  All signs point to more of the same. Open up a newspaper or check out a relevant website and you’ll find, for example, that U.S. Afghan commander General John Nicholson wants a new mini-surge of American troops dispatched into that country, while the U.S. commander in the fight against ISIS, General Stephen Townsend, may require yet more ground troops to “win” in Iraq and Syria.

More is the mantra of America’s generals.  It’s how they measure their influence as well as their success.  In this, they remind me of the gangster Johnny Rocco in the movie “Key Largo.”  When Humphrey Bogart asks Rocco what he wants, Rocco pauses, after which Bogart has the answer that Rocco seizes upon: More.  Will he ever get enough?  Rocco answers: Well, I never have.  No, I guess I won’t.

Even though Trump has promised a major hike in military spending for 2018, the Pentagon is already clamoring for more.  Like Johnny Rocco, America’s generals and admirals can never get enough.

5. Finally, a dire lesson from history. When strong men seek to take over a government, they first seek to seize or neutralize the military and police forces of their country. It’s a time-tested formula.  Consider Trump’s early actions.  From his hiring of generals and his promises of scores of billions more for the Pentagon as well as to his hiring of good buddy Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and his firing of James Comey at the FBI, Trump is well on his way to winning over and controlling the agencies of violence and enforcement in the U.S.

Does America await its very own Reichstag moment?

Two Points About the Hillary Clinton Email Fiasco

Hillary in 2013
Hillary in 2013

W.J. Astore

Much is being made of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which she used when she was Secretary of State.  To me, the real issue is not that Hillary endangered national security by sending classified information in the clear.  No — the real issue is that the Clintons act as if they are above the rules and laws that apply to “the little people.”  They are superior and smug, totally devoted to themselves and their pursuit of power and the privileges that come with it.  It’s a matter of character, in other words.  Hillary’s evasiveness, her lack of transparency, her self-righteousness, her strong sense of her own rectitude, make her a dangerous candidate for the presidency.

My second point is this: The issue of classification should be turned on its head.  The real issue is not that Hillary potentially revealed secrets.  No — the real issue is that our government keeps far too much from us.  Our government uses security classification not so much to keep us safe, but to keep the national security state safe — safe from the eyes of the American people.

As The Guardian reported in 2013:

“A committee established by Congress, the Public Interest Declassification Board, warned in December that rampant over-classification is ‘imped[ing] informed government decisions and an informed public’ and, worse, ‘enabl[ing] corruption and malfeasance’. In one instance it documented, a government agency was found to be classifying one petabyte of new data every 18 months, the equivalent of 20m filing cabinets filled with text.”

Nowadays, seemingly everything is classified.  And if it’s classified, if it’s secret, we can’t know about it.  Because we can’t be trusted with it.  That’s a fine idea for an autocracy or dictatorship, but not so fine for a democracy.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people?  Impossible when nearly everything of any importance is classified.

Too bad Hillary didn’t send everything in the clear — what a service she would have done for the American people and for democracy!

America’s Global Security State

A golem to smite our enemies; until it becomes our enemy
A golem to smite enemies; until it becomes the enemy

W.J. Astore

“Global reach, global power”: that was one motto of the U.S. Air Force when I was on active duty.  “A global force for good”: that’s the new motto in advertisements for the U.S. Navy.  Note that word: global.  For the ambitions of the U.S. government and military transcend national security: they truly are global ambitions of dominance, which is exactly what Tom Engelhardt documents so fully in his new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

Engelhardt powerfully documents the growing power of a “shadow government,” a government shrouded in secrecy (and which routinely classifies 100 million documents per year), a government that relentlessly prosecutes anyone who tries to lift this shroud of secrecy, a government that continues to grow in size and power despite, or rather because of, its failures.  It’s a government of intelligence agencies and Special Forces and drone strikes and private military contractors and a 1000+ military bases overseas and carrier task forces and rendition/black sites, a government that divides the globe into major military commands like CENTCOM and AFRICOM and NORTHCOM, a government that can’t think of the “homeland” without adding the word “security” and lots of guns and tanks.

This week, Engelhardt introduced his new book at TomDispatch with the following shocker:

“What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters.  You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities.  Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it.  Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of ‘spycraft’ gains its own name: LOVEINT.

“You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet.  You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order.  You break into the ‘backdoors’ of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts.  You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies).  Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt.  Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.”

And yet despite all the trillions invested in America’s global security state, we’re no safer today than we were before 9/11.  Indeed, we’re less safe in a thoroughly militarized world in which Americans increasingly find their rights being abridged in the false name of security.

A painful irony is that however much they fail (like in their recent failure to predict the rise of ISIS), America’s global security state continues to grow.  As Engelhardt notes:

“Keep in mind that the twenty-first-century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth.  That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history.  (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted, or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.)  However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers, and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.

“You could, of course, say that the world is simply a hard place to know and the future, with its eternal surprises, is one territory that no country, no military, no set of intelligence agencies can occupy, no matter how much they invest in doing so.  An inability to predict the lay of tomorrow’s land may, in a way, be par for the course.  If so, however, remind me: Why exactly are we supporting 17 versions of intelligence gathering to the tune of at least $68 billion a year?”

Good question.  The more they fail, the more money and power they get.

In some ways, the U.S. global security state is like a Rube Goldberg machine, absurdly and immensely complicated, with many points of potential failure.  Then again, Rube Goldberg might not be the best metaphor, since his devices actually worked.  They accomplished a simple task in an absurdly and often amusingly complex way.  But there’s nothing amusing about the U.S. global security machine, which can’t win its wars even as it succeeds in perpetuating its own growth.

What the global security state resembles most is a golem, a soulless monster of immense power.  The government summoned it in the name of smiting enemies, but it has now grown so powerful that no one fully controls it.  It continues to intervene powerfully and destructively, with wildly unpredictable results.  Yet its creators are so simultaneously frightened of it and in awe of it that they continue to feed the beast while sending it forth to do battle.

The shadow government as golem: a shambling monster seeking vengeance but lacking a soul and without a hint of compassion.  It’s a terrifying idea.  After reading Engelhardt’s new book, you should indeed be terrified of what is lurking in the immense and menacing shadow cast by the global security state.