Thursday, May 16, 2013

Civil Liberties, the AP, and Government Accountability - Why are we looking for all the wrong people to blame?

As I wrote a couple of days ago, the media are now up in arms over the curtailing of civil liberties that is inherent in the AP Phone Records Scandal that broken in Washington DC last week.  The Washington Post published no less then five columns (here, here, here, here, and here) that featured the story in some form – and  all variations on the same theme:  this is an egregious assault on the press and civil liberties, and goes past anything the Bush Administration did, and must be stopped.

As I noted then (additional emphasis added):

History is repleat with examples of surveillance states, all probably set up due to the PERCEPTION of an existential threat , that grow and morph and begin to consume the very societies that they are meant to protect.  It happened in the Soviet Union, it happened in Nazi Germany – it happened here during WWII resulting in internment camps for Japanese citizens (among other horrible domestic abuses).  It happened under Nixon, and it happened under Johnson as Vietnam raged.

So why in the world did anyone think that the vast (and often contractor led) surveillance state cobbled together in the 9/11 ashes of the Cold War would be any different?  Because when it started was pitched to focus on “terrorists”, which is really code for Muslims?  Because it was run by the federal government?  On what basis did all these media types, and telcom bosses, and ordinary citizens believe they would be immune from NSA’s purported billion emails a day capturing and filtering capability?

Glenn Greenwald expand the point in his blog today, writing this:

You don't say! The Washington Post's breaking news here is only about four years late. Back in mid-2010, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, speaking about Obama's civil liberties record at a progressive conference, put it this way: "I'm disgusted with this president." In the spirit of optimism, one can adopt a "better-late-than-never" outlook regarding this newfound media awakening.

What’s actually at work here, is that the denial of civil liberties (which is really a denial of human rights) has finally left the “them” community and come to “us.”  No longer can white, middle class, corporate America turn the other way while Muslims are subjected to invasive, terrible treatment, because that same segment of white, middle class America is now  firmly in the sights of the surveillance state.  It is the culmination of something predicted, ironically, by the CIA (H/T Glenn Greenwald at the link above)[emphasis mine]:

This is such an under-appreciated but crucial aspect of the Obama legacy. Recall back in 2008 that the CIA prepared a secret report (subsequently leaked to WikiLeaks) that presciently noted that the election of Barack Obama would be the most effective way to stem the tide of antiwar sentiment in western Europe, because it would put a pleasant, happy, progressive face on those wars and thus convert large numbers of Obama supporters from war opponents into war supporters. That, of course, is exactly what happened: not just in the realm of militarism but civil liberties and a whole variety of other issues. That has had the effect of transforming what were, just a few years ago, symbols of highly contentious right-wing radicalism into harmonious bipartisan consensus. That the most vocal defenders of this unprecedented government acquisition of journalists' phone records comes from government-loyal progressives - reciting the standard slogans of National Security and Keeping Us Safe and The Terrorists - is a potent symbol indeed of this transformation.

While I’m glad the media is finally waking up to how bad this really is, I think they are going off in the wrong direction for a solution.  Both David Ignatious and Joe Davidson of the WaPo (cited above) seem to think that part of the solution is “management” of federal agencies that isn’t afraid to manage and lead, so that federal employees at Justice and the IRS (in it’s Tea Party aggregation filter scandal) would have been stopped before they started.  They all but whine that senior feds aren’t doing their jobs (insert bloated, ineffective government anyone argument of the day here) and if they were, this would never have happened.

Really?  Let’s start with whom, exactly, you think are these managers who are so derelict?  The Senior Executive Service career folks who are running many parts of the federal government because they have no politically appointed bosses (thanks to Senate Republican’s sudden aversion to Advice and Consent on Presidential appointees).  Are they those same appointees, who all serve “at the pleasure of the President” and thus whose very job depends on toting the Party Line?

Or, could it be that the abuses of civil liberties – which started with state sanctioned torture and indefinite detention under President Bush – are well grounded in the Orwellian legal system Congress has constructed at the behest of two Presidents of opposing parties.  From the Patriot Act, to the FISA reauthorization and beyond, Congress has abdicated its checks and balances role on the Executive Branch, preferring to give ever broader powers to the White House, and it’s principle occupant, all in the name of keeping us “Safe.”  One wonders when we will see Congress grill itself over its own contributions to this horrible alternate reality with the vigor it applies to the Administration.

But then again, we’d all have to recognize that all these abuses – regardless of the targeted group – are heinous abominations against our Nation and its ideals.  Sadly, I fear most Americans are not yet ready to do that.

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