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June 19th, 2013
Freethought San Marcos: Government lies and secrecy destroy credibility

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

When a high government official blatantly lies in testimony before Congress, it is rare that we learn of the lie as quickly as we did this past week.  Sometimes, such misconduct takes decades to be revealed.  But thanks to whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who once worked for the CIA  and was, until recently, a civilian employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a National Security Agency (NSA) private contractor, we now know of the lie.

In March, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, boldly and knowingly lied in response to Sen. Ron Wyden’s question, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”  Clapper replied “No.”  When Snowden released proof of vast electronic spying on all Americans who use telephones and the internet, Clapper’s lie became obvious.  However, President Obama has made no move to oust Clapper for his lie or take other corrective action.

Actually, Clapper’s demeanor during and immediately after the lie made me suspicious from the beginning – his rapid eye-blinking and nervous extended spot-rubbing of a spot on his bald head are behaviors that have been identified by some psychological research as indications of lying.  But I did not know until the Guardian published Glenn Greenwald’s essay on his interview with Snowden that my suspicions were correct.  Even more remarkable to me is that Clapper knew he would be asked Wyden’s question the day before he testified, and still he lied.

Now, Greenwald and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who has been briefed in a classified meeting about the extent of the National Security Agency’s electronic spying on Americans, have both confirmed that what has been revealed so far by Snowden is just the “tip of the iceberg” regarding NSA’s domestic electronic spying.  The Washington Post has now reported that actual phone conversations have been listened to, and emails have been read, all without specific judicial approval.  Sen. John Tester, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, has said that he was not aware of the electronic spying that Snowden revealed.

Ever since this story broke, we have been bombarded by columns and essays from various pundits and arguments by electronic spying supporters that the real problem is the character, personality, and motivation of Edward Snowden.  Thanks to political columnist Juan Cole, we have a list of how Snowden will be smeared in order to discredit him with the public.

Snowden will be labeled a traitor and a defector (for going to Hong Kong), his mental health will be questioned, it will be claimed that he didn’t understand the spying program he revealed, his accusations will be called untrue, charges Snowden did not make will be labeled incorrect (attack by misdirection or a “red herring”), claims will be made that the spying is legal (which can’t be confirmed because the courts will not allow anyone standing to sue), minor parts of the allegations may be acknowledged to divert attention from the major intrusion on Americans’ lives, it will be claimed that Snowden has given aid and comfort to terrorists, and since this is a democracy we can always have a debate about the spying (although meaningful debate is impossible with regard to a secret program).  Already, every one of Cole’s points have been used by some writer or politician to attack Snowden.

Similar propaganda was directed at Bradley Manning, Julian Assange (a conduit of whistle-blowing information through Wikileaks), and most other whistle-blowers and reporters who have revealed unsavory, if not illegal, secret government actions.  Perhaps the most thorough personal attack on Snowden, bearing out Cole’s prognostications, was by New York Times columnist and PBS NewsHour commentator David Brooks.  What seems to bother Brooks more than the real or imagined events of Snowden’s life, is that Snowden has no respect for authority or loyalty to authority.  Brooks seems to believe that such respect and loyalty are bestowed on government like a divine right of kings, mainly because respect and loyalty are essential for a democratic society to function properly.  Brooks doesn’t believe that respect and loyalty must be earned by the government, just as it must be by individuals.

When members of Congress don’t know the extent of our government’s activities, especially those activities that appear to violate our constitutional rights, the system of checks and balances has failed, and trust in our government is nearly impossible for many Americans.  But when the source of our distrust comes by way of whistle-blowers, the American public seems confused.  Even so, a Reuter’s poll shows that more Americans approve of Snowden’s actions than disapprove.

From my limited personal experience with whistle-blowing, I have concluded that the institutional culture of large organizations in both the private and public spheres is not to make waves and to protect colleagues, as well as higher ups.  This trait is so ingrained that there is often little chance that anything will be done about wrong-doing that is reported within an organization.  Worse, the wrong-doing will not become known by the public.

Bradley Manning seemed to know what I have figured out from my limited experience with corrupt  authority – the only way to get the information about US atrocities to the people of the US is to bypass the military and the politicians entirely.  Without Manning’s actions, we would not know how eager those with their fingers on the triggers were to kill innocent Iraqi civilians and members of the news media.  We would not know how we were conducting the Middle East wars.  We would not know our government’s policies and practices nearly as well as we know them now.

Manning has admitted to what he did, but the government wants to convict him of aiding the enemy – treason.  The charge would be true if the American public were the enemy.  Article Three, Section Three, of the U.S. Constitution, appears to require collaboration with an actual wartime enemy of the United States (though the Supreme Court has yet to clarify this matter).

Manning released his information to the media, and it was published by such notable news purveyors as the New York Times and the Washington Post.  In truth, the government was embarrassed by Manning’s disclosures and had to explain itself, which it has not been able to do successfully.  Manning’s disclosures could be termed treason by embarrassment.  No enemy received a tactical or strategic advantage by seeing video of the intentional murder of innocents by Americans.  If al-Qaeda got some propaganda value from the release, it is of little more value than the entire immoral Afghanistan-Iraq-Pakistan-Yemen-Somalia debacle we call our War on Terror.

During Clapper’s hearing, Sen. Diane Feinstein sat silent as Clapper lied, and she has defended him since by attacking Snowden, as have many other members of Congress and the administration.  Even serial liar Dick Cheney has weighed in on the electronic spying.  Cheney’s position is that if elected officials in Congress and the administration approved the actions, we should trust that they are appropriate and legal.  No surprise there.

But Clapper’s perjury, the propaganda attack on Snowden and the other whistle-blowers, and the continuing cover-up by the administration and the Congress make it difficult to trust the government.  It has little credibility, which is unfortunately true of most governments that prefer keeping the people in the dark about what the government is really doing.

Congress has oversight responsibilities, but its members would rather look into made-up scandals to hurt political opponents than keep tabs on policies that can harm the country and its people, and violate the Constitution.  Most Americans have good reason to believe that the Fourth Amendment protects us from governments that engage in secret, unaccountable searches and seizures:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

And the American people assume that they are protected further by the Fifth Amendment, which provides in pertinent part:  “No person shall be . . .  deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

When the government engages in massive electronic spying on its citizens on a scale that rivals or exceeds the abandoned Total Information Awareness program adopted after 9/11, the liberty we have accepted as our birthright has been taken from us without due process.  All three branches of government – legislative, administrative, and judicial – have worked together to keep us from finding out how much our rights have been abused by keeping the information secret.  As Glenn Greenwald has written –

“. . . the Obama DOJ has repeatedly thwarted efforts by the ACLU, EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] and others to obtain judicial rulings on their legality and constitutionality by invoking procedural claims of secrecy, immunity and standing. If Democrats are so sure these spying programs are legal, why has the Obama DOJ been so eager to block courts from adjudicating that question?

One of the most troubling aspects of what has happened to us over the last nearly twelve years, is that we have acquiesced to this violation of basic rights, largely out of fear of another terrorist attack under the mistaken belief that only by diminishing our rights can we be safe.  Benjamin Franklin’s statement made in the Revolutionary period seems apt for this situation:  “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

But when none of the three branches of our government will allow us even to seek a remedy for apparent rights violations, perhaps it is unfair to use Franklin’s words to suggest that “we the people” have acquiesced to our loss of liberty.  Once again, the ACLU is attempting to obtain a court ruling on the constitutionality of NSA’s electronic spying.  Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU deputy legal director, had this to say about the lawsuit the ACLU filed last week:

“This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens.  It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation.  The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy.”

Along with many Americans, I am worried about another terrorist attack in the US.  But unlike New York Time’s columnists Tom Friedman and Bill Keller, I don’t find the NSA’s activities “well-regulated” when data mining has allowed the government to access anyone’s phone conversations or email communication without obtaining a warrant from an appropriate court – even the almost-always-obliging FISA court.

And I suggest that the government’s electronic spying is different from commercial data-gathering:  there is a difference between having a corporation’s computer, using an algorithm, determine our buying interests and showing us an advertisement for a product we may be interested in buying, and allowing the NSA to read our emails and listen to our phone conversations based on its access to data it acquires directly from the servers of Yahoo, Google, and other internet sources without participation by those companies.  This activity is an unprecedented breach of our constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of speech.

It is time we elected people to office who will put a stop to such activity, or our government will never again be trusted, or worthy of our trust.  A government that fights accountability at every turn cannot be trusted.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos


LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.

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