By Nick L’Heureux
As I write on September 11th, America is remembering perhaps its greatest domestic tragedy. Fourteen years ago, the World Trade Center was struck, defining the present history of the United States as well as the world, and prompting President Bush to declare a new war with a new title: “The War on Terror.”
On this same date, Chile remembers a similar tragedy that shook the country’s very foundations, too. This one instead took place in 1973, when the United States under President Richard Nixon backed a coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected government and replaced it with a dictator that not only crippled Chile’s economy, but also tortured and killed over 3,000 citizens.
Under the Nixon administration, the Cold War, like the War on Terror, gave way to new levels of government secrecy, heightened violence, and secret bombings, the effects of which can still be felt today. Secret campaigns, such as the bombings of Cambodia and Laos (which continue to cause innocent deaths from leftover cluster bombs) and the Christmas bombings in Vietnam, killed hundreds of thousands of nameless victims. The infamous Watergate Scandal coupled with the release of the Pentagon papers, which led to the prosecution of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, were also effects of the Cold War. All of these events, which should now be looked upon with scorn and shame, were a result of an administration that was run in the dark.
In this article, I argue that as citizens, we should demand a government with greater transparency and accountability, because as voters, we can only make decisions based upon the information provided to us.
In the past, information was passed from the top down; it could only go through select channels. As a result, there were many filters that information went through before we could make informed opinions. Today, as a result of the internet, many of these filters are now circumvented through independent news broadcasts and social media. However, most Americans, still get their information from the main corporate news media outlets such as CNN and MSNBC. Therefore, the narrative arc of the country is still driven by these selective channels. This narrative dictates how Americans perceive issues, especially those pertaining to war.
The way the media frames information is especially apparent in their depiction of whistleblowers. Edward Snowden, charged under the Espionage Act like Ellsberg was 40 years before, revealed to Americans that the government had been hiding and lying about the extent of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program. Media figures and journalists, responsible for keeping the government accountable, instead have spent their energy attacking those who go against the government. Instead of discussing the impact of what Snowden has revealed, many media outlets have decided to focus on the man himself. Even supposed liberals such as Lawrence O’Donnell have framed Snowden as an immature high school drop out. Glenn Greenwald, the disseminator of many of the Snowden files, has faced hostility from multiple media figures, such as NBC news host David Gregory and Andrew Sorkin of CNBC. Both have suggested that Glenn Greenwald be charged with a crime for exposing classified information.
Obama has not been silent about his opinions on the matters of journalistic heroism, stating that he encourages transparency but that Snowden is not a patriot. These events demonstrate that in the eyes of the government, transparency is vital to democracy, unless it reveals unflattering information that might lead to a true democracy where citizens are fully informed of the policies their own governments enact.
“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
–David E. Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.
Obama’s attitude towards journalists in general cannot be characterized as friendly. The environment in the White House created by the current administration is eerily similar to that of Nixon’s. According to the Atlantic, “Nixon read a summary of each morning’s news and then directed his staff how to respond, noting in the margins which reporters he liked and disliked.” Stuart Loory of the Los Angeles Times was banned from the White House after publishing a report on how much Nixon’s vacation home cost taxpayers. In 1969, Nixon also directed Spiro Agnew to “attack newspapers and television networks as if they were rival political parties.”
Obama’s record has not faired much better. A report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, written by Leonard Downie Jr., reports that, “Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including the lie-detector test,” as well as “scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records.” A program entitled the “Insider Threat Program,” which has been implemented in every department of government, forces employees to monitor the behavior of their colleagues in order to prevent unauthorized disclosures. Mr. Downie reports that many journalists in Washington are reluctant to even share unclassified information for fear of blow back from leaked investigations. Additionally, Obama has been very adept at finding ways around the press. Ann Compton, a White House correspondent with ABC News, says, “There is no access to the daily business in the Oval Office, who the president meets with, who he gets advice from.” Meetings with important figures on issues such as the economy are not even listed on Obama’s public schedule. The Society of Professional Journalists has even written a letter to the president urging him to be more transparent, stating, “We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”
With regards to journalists abroad, Obama has even been known to keep them in prison. In 2010, a prominent Yemeni journalist named Abdulelah Haider Shaye was jailed for his alleged association with Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula soon after he reveleaed a secret bombing by the United States that had killed 14 women and 21 children. After civil protests occurred, he was pardoned – that is, until the Yemeni president received a personal call from President Obama urging him to keep Abdulelah in prison.
“Every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them,”
–Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon
Similar to the secret bombings in the Nixon era, secret drone strikes have become routine in many parts of the world. Drone strikes have allowed the United States to impose a new global assassination program, introducing a new paradigm in American foreign policy.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in 2014, drone strikes cost the lives of at least 273 civilians. It has also reported that the Obama administration has launched more than 390 drone strikes all together, killing more than 2,400 people across three countries: Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. The real repercussions, of course, can never fully be known. The Obama administration has refused to release accurate information on civilian causalities from drone strikes. According to ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom,
…[the] Obama administration assertions about the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have varied significantly over the years. The assertions, which almost always come from unnamed officials, are sometimes contradictory and sometimes imply improbable conclusions.
Based upon kill lists written in secret, drone strikes can be used to target its victims with extreme efficiency. If an individual is considered a “threat,” he or she can be assassinated without any trial, even if he or she is a U.S. citizen. The Sixth Amendment has become a thing of the past with regards to drone strikes. With no checks or oversight, the president now serves as judge, jury, and executioner.
The Sixth Amendment has become a thing of the past with regards to drone strikes. With no checks or oversight, the president now serves as judge, jury, and executioner.
Additionally, exactly who is considered a terrorist is decided in the dark. Every few weeks, the president and a few national security advisors gather on a day cleverly named “Terror Tuesday” to decide which suspected terrorists will die. According to the New York Times, Obama personally signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia, “approving every new name on an expanding “kill list.” The United States often deems that any military-aged male can be a target. This fact is starkly highlighted by the death of 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki. Government officials have alleged that Anwar helped train the infamous underwear bomber. Ultimately, separate attacks by the United States left him, his son, Abdulrahman’s teenage cousin, and at least five other civilians dead. No proper explanation has been given for how or why this happened. Apparently, the current standard is that it is okay for the government to forfeit a citizen’s life for just being related to a suspected terrorist.
“Has the NSA’s massive collection of metadata thwarted any terrorist attacks? It depends which senator you ask. And evidence that would help settle the matter is, yes, classified.”
–ProPublica, June 10, 2013
The apparatus that has been put in place to detect terrorists at home has proven to be just as controversial as Obama’s drone program. As a result of the Snowden files, we now know that the NSA has been collecting massive amounts of data on American citizens. The great irony of the program’s defenders is that they seem to value their own privacy to the extent that they will break the law to protect it. On March 2013, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, was asked in a Sente hearing, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper replied, “No sir … not wittingly.”
If you believe in the adage, “knowledge is power” then the “collect it all” mentality becomes a very scary reality.
One of the most important aspects of privacy is knowledge, and who should be allowed to control knowledge is a pivotal issue. If you believe in the adage, “knowledge is power” then the “collect it all” mentality becomes a very scary reality.
The Obama administration’s claims regarding NSA’s counter-terrorism abilities have also been under scrutiny. According to New America, of 314 terrorist suspects found in the United States since 9/11, only 18 were implicated as a result of NSA surveillance. Despite this, it is staggering how the national security apparatus has been used. With regards to cell phone records, the Guardian reports that on a daily basis, the NSA collects “more than 5 million missed-call alerts, for use in contact-chaining analysis (working out someone’s social network from who they contact and when),” as well as the “details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts” and “more than 110,000 names, from electronic business cards, which also included the ability to extract and save images.” The NSA also collects, again on a daily basis, “over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users” and “almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, according to top-secret documents.” They also receive information from websites such as Facebook, Yahoo, and Google through the PRISM program.
The term ‘Orwellian’ doesn’t even fully characterize these methods. When “1984” was written, the internet did not exist, but today it serves as our most valuable method of communication. The internet can serve as a channel for the bulk collection of meta-data to reveal more information than any phone call or video camera. It reveals what you buy, what you are interested in, and a comprehensive web of your social connections. Thankfully, as a result of Snowden’s efforts, the bulk collection program recently expired in November 2015. Despite this, many of the methods used by the NSA can still be used to collect data on citizens. Furthermore, let’s not forget that leaders can abuse these surveillance capabilities, as Nixon did in the Watergate scandal.
How much we allow our government to get away with in the name of fighting terrorism becomes an extremely pertinent question when considering journalistic freedoms, privacy, and all the lives that have been sacrificed. As of November 20, 2014, the Department of Defense, which oversees over all matters of national security, has estimated that $855 million has been spent for the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an average of $8.1 million a day. So where does this money go? Much of it goes to private defense contractors such as General Electric or Boeing. The biggest of these, Lockheed Martin, receives almost 80 percent of their sales from the U.S. government, according to their own estimates. Not content with staying on the sidelines Lockheed-Martin also spent over $14 million in lobbying and over $3 million in campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats alike, according to OpenSecrets.org.
All of this raises serious questions about the decisions made by our government, especially the case when we consider only 26 Americans have died from jihadist terrorist attacks, while 48 have died from right wing terrorist attacks since 9/11. The actual threat of terrorism to Americans is, in many ways, persistently overstated.
As a society, we should not accept a country in which our leaders work in secret. The power to know and control all aspects of day-to-day life is becoming an even greater threat as technology advances every year. Americans are beginning to feel more and more powerless as our government continues the War on Terror. As a people, we cannot allow ourselves to give power over to a select few individuals
If history is kind at all, it is kind enough to show us the results of past mistakes. Nixon’s administration is a glaring example of the results of a society kept in the dark thanks to the new levels of violence and secrecy that technology made possible. Today, while technology has given people innovative forms of self-expression and new platforms for activism, technology can be used to oppress societies and restrict true democracy. As professor and activist Noam Chomsky once said, “Freedom without opportunity is a devil’s gift.” It doesn’t matter how much freedom of self-expression we have if we do not have the opportunity to hold our government accountable for the illegal and violent policies it often enacts. If we allow ourselves to be passive and give in to hate and fear, we will be handing over our rights to privacy and speech, and perhaps more importantly, our right to knowledge.