Building The Infrastructure For A Police State

The government has accumulated and is storing massive amounts of data on Americans but is keeping this information secure and promises not to use this to spy on individual Americans not connected to terrorism. What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, obviously that is a sarcastic rhetorical question. One good answer to this question is found in an op-ed by Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a bit about whistle blowers:

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement – like the one we had against the war in Vietnam – or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely dangerous.

Unfortunately this is run under the title Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America. Yet another example of hyperbole seen on this issue, like another example I gave here. Fortunately Ellsberg acknowledges that this is not a police state, and is warning about a potential threat as opposed to exaggerating about the current situation. I certainly don’t see any sign that anyone fears discussing this issue, as would be the case in a true police state. On the other hand, would anyone trust John McCain, who has never seen a war he didn’t like. to have this information about people who might protest whatever wars he got us into if elected? Would you trust Mitt Romney, who seems to be devoid of any principles? In a two party system, who knows what type of Republican might manage to win an election in the near future (and not all Democrats can be trusted either).

There are a number of answers I’m hearing which aren’t very good, ranging from paranoia to the opposite reaction of denying the problem. I have received an answer that “Bush did it.” Is George W. Bush the standard by what is right? Yes, as I pointed out last week, this is an ongoing problem, not a new issue, and not a question of whether you like Bush or Obama better. Look at the issue independent of political personalities. Besides, if you want to blame politicians, as Steve Benen pointed out you can also blame Congress:

With this in mind, Jonathan Bernstein asked a compelling question over the weekend and provided a persuasive answer: “If you don’t like the revelations this week about what the NSA has been up to regarding your phone and Internet data, whom should you blame?”

There is, to be sure, plenty of blame to go around. The NSA has pushed the limits; federal courts approved the surveillance programs; George W. Bush got this ball rolling; President Obama kept this ball rolling; and telecoms have clearly participated in the efforts.

“But save plenty of your blame — perhaps most of your blame — for Congress.

“Did you notice the word I used in each of the other cases? The key word: law. As far as we know, everything that happened here was fully within the law. So if something was allowed that shouldn’t have been allowed, the problem is, in the first place, the laws. And that means Congress.”

It’s worth pausing to note that there is some debate about the legality of the exposed surveillance programs. Based on what we know at this point, most of the legal analyses I’ve seen suggest the NSA’s actions were within the law, though we’re still dealing with an incomplete picture, and there are certainly some legal experts who question whether the NSA crossed legal lines…

In theory, Obama could have chosen a different path after taking office in 2009, but the historical pattern is clear: if Congress gives a war-time president vast powers related to national security, that president is going to use those powers. The wiser course of action would be the legislative branch acting to keep those powers in check — limiting how far a White House can go — but our contemporary Congress has chosen to do the opposite.

This is, by the way, a bipartisan phenomenon — lawmakers in both parties gave Bush expansive authority in this area, and lawmakers in both parties agreed to keep these powers in Obama’s hands. What’s more, they not only passed laws these measures into law, they chose not to do much in the way of oversight as the surveillance programs grew.

We cannot expect any president to voluntarily give up powers present upon taking office, but at least there have been favorable signs that Obama is starting to ask the right questions. Under normal circumstances we need Congress to do their job. Unfortunately many Democrats were afraid to do this under Bush, and the Republicans are preoccupied by matters which are more important to them, from restricting reproductive rights to voting to repeal Obamacare thirty-seven times.  We also need the courts to do more than rubber stamp requests. Even under the best of circumstances, we cannot count on government to reveal its sins. If not for whistle blowers, we would not know much of what we know about Viet Nam, mistreatment of prisoners at places such as Abu Ghraib, CIA rendition, and the use of drones.

I’m seeing far too many cases of liberals playing down this issue, seeing it as an attack on Obama, when most opposed these provisions of the Patriot Act under George Bush. I’m also seeing some making this about Glenn Greenwald (who says more revelations are coming). I agree that at times he has gone overboard in attacks on Obama, but this is about the facts he is reporting, not his personal views.  Meanwhile the right is divided between those want to attack Obama and big government, contradicting their previous support for big government under George Bush, and those who are such big proponents of an authoritarian surveillance state that they will even overlook the fact, just this one time, that Obama is involved.

Another poor response I’m seeing is a comparison to all the information we give up when we go shopping, or post on Facebook. There is absolutely no comparison to information which is given voluntarily and to a retail store as opposed to information being secretly obtained by a government. When Google was accused of possessing too much information they initiated action to notify users of the information they have and offer ways to opt out. This might not be completely satisfying, but it is far preferable to a government system where it is illegal to even discuss requests for information.