What the disclosures of former CIA contractor Edward Snowden show perhaps above all else is just how petrified the leaders of the United States have become – of ordinary citizens both in the US and around the world. When we say “leaders” we mean the ruling elite – the top one percent of the financial-corporate-military-industrial complex and its bought- and paid-for politicians.
The international manhunt by the US authorities for Snowden, which has accelerated with his flight to Moscow to evade extradition from Hong Kong, is indicative of the desperation in Washington’s elitist establishment to quash him and what he is revealing about their despotic rule.
Today, the US has evolved into a dystopia, not a democracy, where obscene wealth and privilege stand in the face of massive poverty and misery. One indicator of this abysmal inequality is the fact that the 400 richest Americans have more material wealth than 155 million of their fellow citizens combined. Another datum: some 50 million Americans – a sixth of the population – are surviving on food handouts. Unemployment, homelessness, suicide rates, prescription drug addiction, rampant gun crime all speak in different ways of social meltdown.
American society is collapsing from the sheer weight of its decrepit capitalist economy. The social system is unsustainable. It is like a distended rotten sack that is coming apart at the seams from inexorable burgeoning pressure. This is not unique to the US. All around the world, people are rebelling against the inequity of crony capitalism – there is only one form of capitalism – from Europe to the Arab Middle East, from Turkey to Brazil.
But the US is a phenomenal case in point of collapsing capitalist society. It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, within living memory; the US was regarded as the economic paradigm of the world. Now it more and more resembles a giant sprawling ghetto of unremitting poverty that is interspersed with a few gated rich communities, the latter populated by the top one percent of society.
This is the historical context for fully understanding the significance of gargantuan state surveillance by the elite against the citizenry, as revealed by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The American ruling class, as with their elite counterparts around the world, are figuratively sitting within their privileged niches and petrified by the mounting discontent “outside”. Through their criminal ransacking and rigging of wealth, the powers-that-be have through their own insatiable greed created a powerful potential enemy -virtually the entire population, both in the US and around the world.
In this highly unstable situation of elites and masses that bankrupt capitalism has furnished, “democracy” can no longer be tolerated by the rulers. That is why the rulers have embarked on massive information gathering, monitoring, spying and surveillance. It is all about maintaining “control” of a precarious and explosive disequilibrium.
One basic duty of any state is to protect its citizens from foreign enemies. Enemies are conventionally understood to be state militaries or non-state terrorist groups. But from Snowden’s revelations of US government surveillance of telecommunications, the vast bulk of America’s spying is on civilians. The phone calls, emails, cyber chats and photos of billions of people all around the world are vacuumed up and stored for analysis. Snowden disclosed in one instance how Chinese hospitals and universities – not military installations – were among the many international civilian targets for American government snooping.
US national security officials defend this global dragnet method as a necessary way to trawl for terrorists. Last week, the chief of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander told the American Senate that more than 50 terrorist plots against the US had been foiled by the NSA’s interception of civilian communications. The evidence for the alleged thwarted terrorist attacks cited by General Alexander was sketchy at best, so we are obliged to accept the NSA’s dubious word on its self-serving claims of success.
Even if we accept this claim on face value, an alleged terror threat numbering 50, gleaned from billions of communication files, is a negligible ratio, akin to a needle in a haystack. That means two things. First, the statistical terror threat against US citizens is likewise negligible to the point of being virtually non-existent. As Snowden himself pointed out, the chances of Americans dying from slipping in their bathtub are far great than from terrorism. The second thing is that the official pretext for global, industrial-scale infringement of privacy – that is, national security of its citizens – is grotesquely disproportionate, and therefore unjustifiable.
In the aftermath of these revelations, US President Barack Obama and his security officials are claiming that the infringements of individual privacy are minor. “No-one is listening to your phone calls,” said Obama. He also added that there must be a trade-off between national security and what he called “minor breaches” of civil liberties.
These assurances from Obama and US National Intelligence Director James Clapper, among others, are rejected by Snowden and other NSA whistleblowers, as well as by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is litigating against the American government over the recent revelations. Official claims of limited surveillance and breaches are also repudiated by various digital privacy advocates, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as by common knowledge of American constitutional rights.
Edward Snowden says that when he was working at the NSA, he had clearance to hack into anyone’s email “including the president’s”. That is far from “minor”.
Another former senior employee of the NSA, Thomas Drake, who was prosecuted under the US Espionage Act for similar whistleblowing in 2011, says that the American government and its secret agencies have systematically “subverted the constitution” by arrogating the power to tap into all and any communications that they desire. In a narrow sense, Obama may be right that “no-one is listening to your phone calls”. Not yet, at least, but the executive powers and technology are in place for this totalitarian system of eavesdropping to be switched on.
Drake writes, “The supposed oversight, combined with enabling legislation – the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court, the congressional committees – is all a kabuki dance, predicated on the national security claim that we need to find a threat. The reality is: they [the US government] just want it all, period.” He added: “They have this extraordinary system: in effect, a 24/7 panopticon on a vast scale that it is gazing at you with an all-seeing eye.”
It seems an incredible lack of judgment among some alternative commentators who have dismissed Snowden’s revelations as trivial. Worse still, some commentators have even insinuated that the former NSA analyst is a witting or unwitting player in an elaborate CIA hoax aimed at intimidating citizens from using mass communications.
Such views badly underestimate the extent of American government criminality towards its own sacrosanct constitution and the deeply corrupting implications that has for democracy.
Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story earlier this month, has said, “The people who have learned things they didn’t already know are American citizens who have no connection to terrorism or foreign intelligence, as well as hundreds of millions of citizens around the world about whom the same is true. What they have learned is that the vast bulk of this surveillance apparatus is directed not at the Chinese or Russian governments or terrorists, but at them.”
Greenwald adds, “And that is precisely why the US government is so furious and will bring its full weight to bear against these disclosures. What has been ‘harmed’ is not the national security of the US but the ability of its political leaders to work against their own citizens and citizens around the world in the dark, with zero transparency or real accountability.”
Since the US Espionage Act was instituted nearly a century ago in 1917, there have been a total of 10 prosecutions against American government employees deemed to have broken the law and compromised national security through whistleblowing. One of those was former State Department staffer Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971, revealing the spurious legal grounds for the American genocidal war on Vietnam.
Seven out of the total 10 prosecutions against whistleblowers – 70 percent – have occurred under the Obama administrations. That figure alone tells of a growing anxiety within the American ruling class. That anxiety is related to their increasingly criminal secret powers and the ongoing subversion of democracy. The American rulers are jealously guarding their criminal behaviour and that is why they are hunting down with a vengeance people like Snowden who are seen to be exposing this criminality. It is something of an irony that this week Snowden had to flee to Russia (the former “evil empire” in the words of late American President Ronald Reagan) in order to avoid extradition to the US where he is charged with felonies under the Espionage Act.
Former NSA employee Thomas Drake says that when he was working as an analyst during the Cold War he was assigned to monitor the espionage activities of Stalinist East Germany and its secret Stasi police. Drake says that the Stasi had an obsession to “knowing everything” about its citizens and kept a huge archive of paper files. However, this voluminous archiving is a fraction of what is stored and accessible by American secret services owing to the internet and digital technology. Drake describes the American NSA as “a Stasi on steroids”.
In the 1970s, US Senator Frank Church led a groundbreaking investigation into illicit American government covert operations. Church warned then that if the secret powers of the NSA were to ever become deployed against the American public – as opposed to “foreign enemies” – then that country’s democracy would be finished. That is precisely the present abysmal outcome of secret US state powers.
There are two corollaries of the imploding capitalist system, for which the US still remains the lynchpin for historical reasons. The first is the increasing militarism of the US and its Western allies to compensate for this economic demise. This militarism has evolved over the past decade since the purported 9/11 terror attacks on the US in 2001 to become a condition of “permanent war”. The present US-led covert war in Syria and underway against Iran are part of a continuum of imperialist war-making that connects Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, as well as Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Mali. This state of permanent war is needed by the waning capitalist powers to try to assert control of natural resources, markets, finance and investment against perceived rivals, such as Russia and China.
The other corollary of the historic failure of capitalism, and in particular in the US, is the imperative to assert control over social meltdown and rebellion. That is why the growth in militarism abroad has gone hand-in-glove with the intensification of surveillance powers and repression against citizens at home. American, and Western, democracy is, for all intents and purposes, a dead corpse. Only criminal wars and repression of its citizens are keeping the moribund system on a life-support system.
As Thomas Drake noted, “Since the [US] government unchained itself from the constitution after 9/11, it has been eating our democracy alive from the inside out.”
The rulers of America are despotic elites who are living in fear and trepidation of their own people and of people power around the world rising in rebellion against the misrule of capitalism.
Finian Cunningham, is a prominent expert in international affairs. The author and media commentator was expelled from Bahrain in June 2011 for his critical journalism in which he highlighted human rights violations by the Western-backed regime. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in journalism. He is now based in East Africa where he is writing a book on Bahrain and the Arab Spring.He co-hosts a weekly current affairs programme, Sunday at 3pm GMT on Bandung Radio