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How Not to Heed a Warning

“The public was actively misled.”

With those five words Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) provided further evidence of the need for whistle blowers in an age where the concept of an informed public is becoming an almost laughably quaint concept. Those words came from a speech delivered by Wyden on July 23 (2013) at the Center for American Progress; the full transcript of his speech (which is available on his website [and over at Alternet]) is an essential read. True, as the NSA revelations continue to unfold it can seem that there is a stunning number of articles to keep up with – and while Glenn Greenwald’s writing at The Guardian is essential reading – Wyden’s speech should also be considered a “must read.”

What sets Wyden’s speech apart is the perspective that he brings: one that is intimately embedded within the Intelligence (as in spying) community and the US political landscape. From 1981 to 1996 Wyden served in the US House of Representatives and since 1996 he has been serving in the Senate where he is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee; which is an easy way to demonstrate that Wyden is hardly a new arrival in Washington D.C. The NSA revelations have caused quite the odd dance in the US capitol as some politicians have called for Edward Snowden’s head, whilst others have said these revelations are no big deal, and this bizarreness reached peak absurdity last week (around the Amash/Conyers amendment) wherein the Republicans in Congress actually worked with the Obama administration to block an amendment that would have cut funding to some of the NSA’s operations.

As a critic, and a vocal one, of the Patriot Act, Wyden has been warning against governmental surveillance and overreach for some time, but what emerges interestingly in his speech is the extent to which he – as a US Senator – was unable to warn the public about what was going on. Indeed, reading over Wyden’s comments it seems clear that most of what has been reported about the NSA hasn’t been news to him; however, until these reports made this information public he was prevented from speaking openly to the public on these matters. That an informed populace is essential to democracy is a sentiment visible (or audible) in Wyden’s comments as he notes:

“If Americans are not able to learn how their government is interpreting and executing the law then we have effectively eliminated the most important bulwark of our democracy.”

Yet it increasingly seems that elected officials are not able to inform Americans about what is going on, even if these officials may very well be aware of the lengths to which the citizenry has been mislead. While any politician can find airtime to criticize the Affordable Care Act, ad nauseum, with little concern about implications, a Senator cannot as easily appear on national news and share the truth about a gross invasion of privacy and expansion of the surveillance state; as Wyden notes:

“Months and years went into trying to find ways to raise public awareness about secret surveillance authorities within the confines of classification rules.”

These “classification rules” in Wyden’s own phrasing make it so that Senators:

“are not even allowed to tap the truth out in Morse code and we tried just about everything else we could think of to warn the American people. But as I’ve said before, one way or another, the truth always wins out.”

That is actually a bit of a misleading sentence as Wyden’s (and a few other senator’s) attempts to get the truth to the public were hardly winning out; indeed, it seems less that the “the truth always wins out” and more as though we must hold out hope that “a courageous whistle blower will present the truth.” “Classification rules” aside one cannot help but wonder how all of these revelations may have played out had it not been a lone contractor making these revelations public but a US Senator standing up to declare “damn the rules, this is unconstitutional!” At this point it is relatively clear that Edward Snowden has forfeit the hope for a semblance of a normal life, and it is something of a shame that no Senators could rise to similar moral heights (putting the needs of others ahead of ones own needs for comfort); though it may well be that Wyden has felt that being a voice for the protection of civil liberties within the government is important (and it is) in a time when a nominally liberal administration (liberal does not mean leftist) spies indiscriminately on its citizens.

While Wyden’s speech is not bereft of hope, and while he seems eager to use these revelations as a way to discuss these issues and engage with the public, his exhortations that action must be taken now almost seem couched in an acceptance that this may be the new state of affairs. After all, had the Amash/Conyers amendment passed in the House, would it have made it through the Senate? And had it made it through the Senate would it have been vetoed by the President? And had it been vetoed would the House and Senate have been able to override the veto? One does not get credit for dishonesty, so the answer should be clear.

Wyden’s speech acts as a sort of tragic confirmation of what Senator Frank Church spoke out against decades ago (in 1975) as chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence that investigated the NSA (the following quote appears in Chris Hedges book Empire of Illusion) at which point Senator Church warned:

“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place left to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.” (Church quoted in Hedges, 179)

Keep in mind that warning comes from the days before smart phones, tablet computers, Facebook, Google, Big Data, Chromecast, Google Glass, and the list could go on. And the totalizing, potentially authoritarian power, that Senator Church warned against seems to have been taken less as a warning and more as a business strategy by many technology firms. Indeed there is an odd resonance between Church’s warning and a comment that comes from Senator Wyden:

“Without additional protections in the law, every single one of us in this room may be and can be tracked and monitored anywhere we are at any time. The piece of technology we consider vital to the conduct of our everyday personal and professional life happens to be a combination phone bug, listening device, location tracker, and hidden camera.”

The spying technologies of Senator Church’s day are downright anachronistic and cumbersome compared to the spying devices of today, with the hilarious clincher being that the phones of today (smart phones) need no agent to sneak inside your abode to install a bug, they simply call the telecom, or better yet, do not ever bother specifically targeting you, but just grab up your information along with everybody else’s information. As Senator Wyden notes:

“The combination of increasingly advanced technology with a breakdown in the checks and balances that limit government action could lead us to a surveillance state that cannot be reversed.”

That is the same surveillance state about which Senator Church had warned the citizenry; however, it seems less and less like a paranoid fantasy by the hour. In 1975 the idea of the government (or some corporation) knowing everything seemed distant, but in 2013 the technologies to allow such total informational awareness have arrived, they’re getting faster all the time, and most people are merrily buying them (how fast did Chromecast sell out?). While the surveillance state must be halted, it is essential to keep in mind that the speedy march of those jackboots has been greatly aided through our thoughtless embrace of new technologies. Though Senator Wyden was willing to launch some criticisms towards technological society he falls short of coming out and simply asking whether the ability to shop for t-shirts, watch videos of cats, or check e-mail on a little screen while sitting in bed is a worthy tradeoff for our privacy.

Senator Wyden’s comments are well worth a read, and act as an important reminder that elected officials who would speak the truth are frequently prevented from doing so. Yet the true value is in reading Wyden’s warnings, contrasting them with those of Senator Church, and wondering what type of world we may find ourselves in thirty years from today if we fail to heed Wyden’s words to the extent to which we failed to heed Church’s. After all, in 2013 if you go to a website to read Senator Wyden’s words the NSA (not to mention companies like Google or Facebook) will know that you did so.

Let them know you are not afraid. We ignored Senator Church, let’s not make the same mistake again.

On this Topic

Paranoia is not a Tactic

“More than machinery, we need humanity”

The Panoptic Con

Falling Under Technology’s Spell

A Robocop Statue Amidst the Rubble

Works Cited:

The Frank Church quote comes from – Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion. Nation Books, 2009.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

8 comments on “How Not to Heed a Warning

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