Peeping Uncle Sam
Days after Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic I Have a Dream speech, one of J. Edgar Hoover’s top aides wrote in an FBI memo:
"In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech…We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security."
Six weeks later, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy relented to Hoover’s pressure and authorized the electronic surveillance of King’s home, his hotel rooms, and the offices where he held meetings. When this clandestine surveillance led to the discovery of King’s extramarital affairs, Hoover, with President Lyndon Johnson’s consent, had his agency prepare a “sex tape” evidencing their discovery, which was sent to King’s home in addition to a menacing letter, penned by Hoover himself:
"What you are...an abnormal beast...There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation."
Recently, the death of another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, afforded US statesmen a chance to wax lyrical about the inspirational qualities of the South African leader whom the US government had on their Terrorist Watch list until 2008, and whom the CIA, under President Kennedy, helped capture and imprison. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her shame about this “rather embarrassing matter,” and current Secretary of State John Kerry has unabashedly invoked Mandela’s memory, calling him a “stranger to hate,” to add inspiration to his tepid and unheeded calls for peace in the Middle East.
Now, with a grimace (and perhaps a shudder), one can acknowledge the irony in the fact that King is presently being hailed by the same government that persecuted him during his lifetime, that Mandela is being called an “inspiration” by another US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the same man who catalyzed and propagandized the post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it would be all too easy to view these repressive attitudes as jolting reminders of our government’s reactionary past. Rather, what is more sinister than our ugly past is when we allow the pretense of our society’s progress and maturation to obscure how the present government perpetuates the same impudence. How do we make the transformative step from understanding the lessons of our past to holding ourselves and our political representatives responsible to applying them to the present?
Former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden’s leaked documents — in addition to the subsequently incisive reportage of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and others — have detailed the expansive, intrusive, and ostensibly illegal spying apparatus that the US government has deployed domestically and overseas. The revelations have been shocking to the point of callousness: the sheer quantity of offenses has bludgeoned our ability to be surprised by the US government’s duplicity. It was reported, amongst many other privacy violations, that the NSA collects upwards of 200 million text messages per day; the NSA created a list of 122 targeted foreign leaders, which resulted in spying on the personal email and phone of the current Brazilian President and the former German Chancellor; the GCHQ, Britain’s version of the NSA, monitored the IP address of every visitor to the Wikileaks website; the DEA illegally used NSA information to make arrests; and the NSA even spied on other countries in the 2009 UN Climate Summit to sabotage efforts at climate reform.
Snowden’s leaks have helped catalyze a public discourse about the appropriateness of such spying, and two main factions have emerged: privacy advocates on the one hand, and national security ends-justify-the-means types on the other.
The former is symbolized by two Swedish professors’ nomination of Snowden for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, for his contribution “to a more stable and peaceful world order.” The latter camp, in which Obama is firmly entrenched, presents us with a version of history something like this: Snowden has undermined national security, made US citizens vulnerable to the swath of terrorists still out there, and that these terrorists need to be brought to justice through spying and whatever extrajudicial means available; Snowden, thus should be tried for espionage. A number of prominent members of congress and the US Department of State still maintain that Snowden is a spy; even Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has suggested that Snowden might be a Russian agent. Some government employees have publicly voiced opinions that Snowden’s fate should be harsher than imprisonment. Drawing caustic parallels between the current situation and the malevolence that King faced from his government in the last years of his life, former NSA director Eric Hayden, responding to Snowden’s nomination for the Peace Prize, said, in a dark allusion, "I must admit … I'd also thought of nominating Mr. Snowden, but it was for a different list."
What is missing from the conversation about security versus freedom is not if Snowden’s leaks have threatened our national security, not if the gargantuan national security apparatus has been successful in protecting our lives, but rather why are we as a citizenry being presented with two unappealing and limited choices: either (a) get spied on, or (b) be at grave risk of terrorist attack.
In other words, given that the US government has yet to give any substantiation for the House Intelligence Committee Chair’s claim that Snowden’s “real acts of betrayal place America's military men and women at greater risk,” and also that, as a recent report has shown, the mass spying apparatus has been unable to thwart a single one of the 225 cases on US soil since 9/11, why are so many in Washington still defending the need for the mass spying so vigorously?
It is an often ignored component of the NSA scandal that 70 percent of the national intelligence budget is now spent on the private sector. It is thus the private sector, and not our national government, that controls the majority of the intrusive spying apparatus, and the ends of this spying are inevitably profit, and not the wellbeing of the US citizens. Examples of the private sector putting this spying technology to sinister ends abound: private companies consulting cops on how to best spy on domestic protesters; firms giving meta-data driven advice to JSOC for their shadowy military operations in the third world; a Boeing-owned company helping direct all of AT&T’s incoming calls into an NSA office.
However, what is troubling here is not just how the private sector is putting the technology to use, but that the stability and growth of the US economy might now rely on this burgeoning surveillance industry. Over 1.1 million Americans work for private companies that do contract work for the NSA — and this number only accounts for employees of companies directly commissioned by the government. Think for a second about all the Internet companies in the business of collecting information about you in order to sell to the highest bidder (Facebook, Google, Yahoo, AOL, LinkedIn, etc.), and how easily the government was able to collect this information from these companies, through coercion and complicity.
The ability of our country to roll back surveillance is about much more than an ideological debate. We have to deal with the inertia of an entrenched and fragile economy. And we also have to keep in mind Gallup polls that consistently show that Americans place the economy and unemployment as the biggest problems facing our country.
In 1961 President Eisenhower warned of the perils of a military-industrial complex, in which the economic gains from war are so great as to act as a catalyst for war. Fifty years later, in 2011, the 100 largest contractors sold $410 billion in military services and arms. Snowden’s leaks have allowed us to see the crystallization of another complex: the spying-industrial complex. And we are also witnessing a merger between these two complexes. Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill have explained in The Intercept how the NSA has been complicit in the US assassination program, using electronic surveillance in lieu of human informants to identify targets for lethal drone strikes.
In her only public statements on the leaks, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton recently suggested that Snowden’s leaks about privacy invasions are dubious and present a dangerous threat to national security. After his "I Have a Dream" speech in which he promoted racial harmony, the FBI warned that King was a “profound threat to national security.” Nelson Mandela was pursued as a “terrorist threat” to our national security by the CIA because of his intent to use nonviolent, political means to create a racially undivided South Africa.
In order to understand why these seemingly innocuous and righteous aims (privacy, racial harmony, equality in the eye of the law) were all treated by the US government as a grave threat to national security, we must look to the economy.
Regarding MLK’s calls to end racism, it is important to remember that racism did and does create a society from which certain corporations make tremendous profit. This is not only due to the fact that, throughout the 20th century, segregating the labor pool was an entrenched strategy of large businesses in order to stifle union power. Also, today, as Michelle Alexander made painfully apparent in The New Jim Crow, our prison system is still tremendously divided according to race: in the US, one in three black men will spend time in prison, while the same can be said for only one in seventeen white men. Recent months have seen proposals from Eric Holder to address some of the harsher federal sentencing practices; however, any comprehensive movement away from this nation’s racially biased prison-industrial complex will have to contend with the significant corporate interest therein. Consider a proposed contract between the Corporate Corrections of America and the US government in which the private prisons will overhaul the maintenance and operation of government prisons in exchange for a guarantee that prison occupancy rates remain at 90% or higher; in this deal, any losses resulting from a reduction of the number of prison beds occupied will be compensated by the taxpayers. Three for-profit prisons in Arizona currently have contracts with local governments that guarantee 100% occupancy. This is all to say that though recent polls show that ⅔ of Americans support restructuring how this country treats its most marginalized offenders, the $70 billion private prison market may undermine serious reform.
Similarly, concerning the US government’s sinister decision to have Nelson Mandela on its terrorist watch list until 2008, a stark factor is all of the private American capital that was invested in South Africa throughout the latter 20th century. More than $1 billion was invested by US corporations during the apartheid regime at the end of the 1990s, even after years of a highly successful disinvestment campaign that helped nearly halve the amount of American capital from $2.4 billion in 1982 to $1.3 billion at the end of 1998. And the racist conditions in South Africa were not incidental but rather essential to the profitability of huge American corporations that invested in the region; any efforts by Nelson Mandela to create an empowered, racially harmonized South Africa undermined the bottom lines of major US companies, and thus, the health of the American economy. Consider this report by Amy Goodman about anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus:
"Ford and General Motors built manufacturing centers in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where Dennis Brutus grew up. He told me, 'They were using ... very cheap black labor, because there was a law in South Africa which said blacks are not allowed to join trade unions, and they’re not allowed to strike, so that they were forced to accept whatever wages they were given. They lived in ghettos ... actually in the boxes in which the parts had been shipped from the U.S. to be assembled in South Africa. So you had a whole township called Kwaford, meaning ‘the place of Ford.’
"UBS and Barclays 'directly financed the South African security forces that carried out the most brutal aspects of apartheid.' The United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid stated, in 1979, that 'we learn today that more than $5.4 billion has been loaned in a six-year period to bolster a regime which is responsible for some of the most heinous crimes ever committed against humanity.'"
We can analyze Snowden’s leaks through a similar lens and come to the same conclusions about their implications. If, as mentioned above, the NSA has been unable to thwart a single of the 225 terrorist plots hatched in the last decade, then perhaps it has been the economic disruption caused by Snowden’s leaks that has caused the US government to react so harshly against him. The Wall Street Journal has estimated that the revelations about the NSA PRISM program (the primary program that mines the Internet for our personal data), and the ensuing privacy concerns of Americans and citizens worldwide, could cost the IT sector $180 billion.
Already referenced is the more than 1.1 million employees that work in the private sector doing direct contract work for the NSA. When we think about what it would mean to roll back an economic behemoth like the surveillance market, consider this number of more than one million employees against the estimated 3,900 temporary jobs that will be created by the Keystone Pipeline. On the one side of the debate about the Pipeline, you have those praising the boost to the economy that would be given by these thousands of temporary jobs, and on the other side you have the scientific community protesting that the Pipeline will devastate the global environment. That this economy-vs.-environment debate is even happening on Capitol Hill and on the occasional Sunday morning talk show is evidence of two things: (1) corporate greed and power — the Koch Brothers will earn $100 billion in profit in the next forty years if the pipeline is approved, and (2) even very short-term economic gains can overshadow something as vast as climate change, a problem that even John Kerry has said is as big of a security threat as terrorism and WMDs.
The argument here is that, just like MLK and Mandela before him, Edward Snowden has threatened stability, but what he is threatening the stability of is not society, but rather its capitalist underpinning, which seems, at the moment, quite fragile.
The society that the NSA is thus defending is the same one that, as David Harvey has pointed out, President Bush was defending when, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he appeared in a commercial for the collectively struggling US airlines to urge citizens to please cast aside their fears and start flying again as soon as possible. It is the same society in which John Boener argued in front of Congress that the US cannot endure the benefits of universal healthcare because it will slow economic growth. It is the same society that, more than a century ago, Winston Churchill was defending in front of British Parliament when he authorized the murderous military repression of striking coal miners during Britain's Great Unrest at the beginning of the 20th century. Churchill argued, successfully, that the strike threatened the “degeneration ... of all the structure, social and economic, on which the life of the people depends.”
It is this version of society — one rooted in an economy in which a shrinking percentage of Americans are reaping the financial benefits — that was being threatened when Martin Luther King, Jr. was too vigorous in his condemnation of the triad of materialism, militarism, and racism; this is why he had to be discredited as a duplicitous communist. It is this society that was threatened when Nelson Mandela fought to create a less economically exploitable South Africa; this is why the CIA had to help the racist South African government capture and arrest him. And it is this society that is being threatened by Edward Snowden’s leaks; this is why the State Department has persisted in labeling him a Russian agent.
What is pertinent here is not the ridiculousness of the labels given to these three men, but the desperation that gave birth to these ridiculous labels, the desperation of what will be lost if the freer world in which these progressive forces are hoping to contribute towards manifests, and the desperation that causes those in power to paint anything alternative to hegemony, even things like racial equality and basic privacy, as dark and dystopic.
//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery.