The image was the thing. Those serried American flags beneath their burnished and distinctly imperial eagles. Obama’s speech on the NSA was devoid of meaningful content. The threats against Snowden and the references to America’s right to spy on its potential enemies – which seemed to mean everybody – were obviously heartfelt. The “restrictions” on the NSA were devoid of intent, mumbled and hedged around. Actually you don’t have to analyse what he said. The picture says it all.
Reading the acres of media comment devoted to this exercise in changing nothing, it does seem that the task I face in explaining things is easier than I expected. Nobody seems actually to be fooled. You have the fascistic tendency – a majority – arguing that Obama is right, and the lesson of 9/11 is that safety can only lie in massive government intrusion into all human interaction all of the time. Then you have the libertarian tendency, like me, who believe that nobody should be targeted until they have actually done something wrong, and the idea of continual surveillance of entirely innocent people just in case someone somewhere is contemplating doing something they shouldn’t, is terrifying. What we don’t have much of is people pretending that Obama is actually doing something to curtail the surveillance state.
When Obama failed to close Guantanamo, failed to act against torture and extraordinary rendition, and sanctioned the killing of thousands through drone strikes, for a long time I kept meeting Americans who claimed he was not a neo-con really, but rather playing a subtle game for liberalism to win in the long term. I don’t know anybody who believes that now, and nobody seems to be arguing it today. Obama is now an open vicious neo-con. The picture says it all.
Some of it was almost amusing. Obama plainly said that America would not spy on allied leaders, but reserved the right to spy on every other person in any foreign country. I found the idea that every German may be spied on except Angela Merkel distinctly amusing. Less amusing is the idea that the secret courts which are supposed to be a check on the NSA – with their entirely pro-government judges – would be “improved” by the appointment of a secret advocate to argue the case for privacy, without the subjects of the cases having any contact with their advocate or even being aware the case is going on.
Secret Courts are an increasing feature of life in the dog days of western world power. In the UK we have already for many years had the situation where people may face criminal trials without being allowed to see the intelligence based “evidence” against them – often gained from torture of third parties abroad – and are “represented” by government appointed cleared – i.e. pro-security service – lawyers who are not allowed to tell their clients what the evidence is against them. We recently have the institution of entirely secret criminal courts in which the entire proceedings are closed. As Julian Assange pointed out on CNN, even the carefully selected secret court in the USA has found against the NSA on a number of occasions. Obama’s extraordinary claim that their had been no abuse by the NSA was a straightforward example of the “Big lie” technique. Again, that picture explains it all.
The suggestion that data be held not by the NSA but by a third party which will be another government institution is risible. If they insist it is held, I vote Glenn Greenwald holds it. After a crime has been committed, I have no difficulty with the authorities approaching the communications providers for targeted information which helps the investigation. The deliberate conflation of that idea with permanent mass surveillance is dishonest – and the constant references to 9/11 to justify any intrusion are chilling.
Actually, what worried me most about the speech was the thought that the 9/11 excuse must be wearing thin, and that we are only seven years away from starting to have voters who weren’t even born at the time. All those who make an extremely fat living from the security state, or who benefit in other ways economically from the docility of a population quiescent through the manipulation of fear, will start shortly to have need of a new and more urgent bogeyman. That really will start to make the world a more dangerous place – and the danger comes from those claiming to protect us.
Look at the picture.