While Washington and most of the media are obsessed with the botched roll out of Obamacare, a story with much more long-lasting and more profound implications unfolds around us with hardly a passing notice from Congress or many voters.
Here’s a prediction. When the history of the Obama Administration is written, the admittedly monumental screw ups with the health insurance website will get a paragraph or two of attention. The vast network of intelligence gathering – OK, let’s call it what it is spying – that is taking place on the watch of a president who was elected as a civil libertarian will get a full chapter. It’s that important.
It is nearly impossible to keep track of the flood of revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), but here are some of the highlights. The New York Times reports that the NSA listened in not only to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls, but started doing so years ago when Merkel was merely a backbencher in German politics.
“How the N.S.A. continued to track Ms. Merkel as she ascended to the top of Germany’s political apparatus illuminates previously undisclosed details about the way the secret spy agency casts a drift net to gather information from America’s closest allies,” Mark Mazetti and David Sanger wrote in the Times. “The phone monitoring is hardly limited to the leaders of countries like Germany, and also includes their top aides and the heads of opposing parties. It is all part of a comprehensive effort to gain an advantage over other nations, both friend and foe.”
The news of the spying has already badly damaged the personal relationship between the American president and the German chancellor. The phone call Merkel initiated to express her outrage was, as an Obama aide told the Times, “not easy.” No kidding.
We also know that NSA has been tapping into Google and Yahoo networks, monitoring the phone calls of journalist, gathering millions of bits of data from foreign and domestic phone systems and, most significantly, saying almost nothing – at least nothing truthful – about this gigantic infringement of civil liberties.
When the NSA’s James Clapper speaks his language of evasion reminds you of the once popular television comic Professor Irwin Corey, the absent minded “world’s great authority” who would ramble on speaking nonsense that sounded strangely profound. Corey once opined, appropriate to NSA spying, “If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.”
“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper a while back during a Senate hearing.
Clapper responded: “No, sir … not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
Only after the Edward Snowden revelations did Clapper admit his answer was, as The Atlantic reported “erroneous,” or “the least untruthful” one he could provide. Wyden recently said, “There’s not a shred of evidence today that that would have been corrected [in public] absent the [Snowden] disclosures.”
Normally lying to a Congressional committee – ask Oliver North – is reason to clean out your desk or maybe fix up your cell, but Clapper remains on the job with his efforts now focused on explaining away the spying on Merkel and 30 other world leaders.
Forty years ago another Northwest senator, Idaho’s Frank Church, laid bare the out-of-bounds behavior of the NSA, the CIA and the nation’s other security agencies. And, like the prescient civil liberties advocate he was, Church carefully warned that an American government with the means, in the case of the CIA, to open the mail of American citizens and hatch plots to kill foreign leaders, conceivably could turn that same awesome power on domestic enemies.
Then President Gerald Ford tried repeatedly to blunt Church’s investigation in the 1970’s once telling Church and Texas Sen. John Tower, as Leroy Ashby and Rod Gramer report in their fine biography of Church, that America is “a great power and it is important that we be perceived as such – that our intelligence capability to a certain extent be cloaked in mystery and held in awe.” But Church knew that just the opposite was true. An all powerful and overreaching national security state that employs tactics more and more reminiscent of Putin’s Russia or Saddam’s Iraq is not a recipe for global respect or moral authority.
A great country, secure in the wisdom of its own best instincts and loyal to its creed, could command real respect. “Ours is not a wicked country,” Church said in 1976, “and we cannot abide a wicked government.”
A country that is a force of moral authority in the world doesn’t find itself with a Secretary of State saying what John Kerry was compelled to say this week. “The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there,” Kerry told a conference in London via video link. “In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”
Oregon’s Wyden is a worthy successor to Idaho’s Church and is playing much the same role as he confronts the entrenched power of the national security state. “We will be up against a ‘business-as-usual brigade’—made up of influential members of the government’s intelligence leadership, their allies in think tanks and academia, retired government officials, and sympathetic legislators,” Sen. Wyden warned last month. “Their endgame is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin-deep. … Privacy protections that don’t actually protect privacy are not worth the paper they’re printed on.”
At the risk of sounding like a Tea Party conspiracy theorist, I do reflect on the historic fact that our federal government, even with all the sacred respect we profess to show for the Constitution’s protections of our civil liberties, has frequently trampled on those liberties. From World War I when American citizens went to jail for criticizing the war to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, from liberty oaths in the McCarthy era to Watergate break-ins, it takes no Orwellian flight of fancy to see an all-knowing, all-seeing federal government destroying our standing abroad, while trashing our liberties at home.
Great nations are true to their values. Great nations don’t just do things because they can. And great nations do not put civil liberties on autopilot.
Frank Church warned us 40 years ago. Ron Wyden is trying to warn us today.