A few weeks ago, as we are now well-acquainted with, government contractor Edward Snowden leaked some information about the government’s surveillance programs which include the seizure and analysis of personal communication data from such companies as Verizon, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and others. Snowden was hiding out in Hong Kong to avoid retribution for his whistle-blower efforts to alert the public to the extent of the federal government’s data collection. He is now on the run.
At first, this made a pretty big stir with newspapers and citizens expressing outrage especially as this came in the wake of revelations of executive seizure of journalists’ phone records.
But then the coverage changed and in a very disturbing way. President Obama and various Congressmen not only defended the programs, but acted as though they were routine, well-established and not newsworthy. Then came the attacks on Snowden’s person that he was low-level, interested in notoriety and had no business fleeing the country. As if any of that would discredit the information revealed. Sadly, these NSA programs are real regardless of the merit of the messengers who pulled the curtain off them. The undermining of Edward Snowden as a noble person is nothing more than a basic ad hominem tactic. Though ad hominems are logical fallacies, they often work with surprising ease and success. That is happening this time.
In the ensuing weeks, national outrage about the unprecedented level of government snooping has quelled. It barely makes headlines. When it is mentioned, Snowden is presented as a traitor.
This is shocking and scary.
Snowden did not reveal any dangerous information that compromised sensitive programs or persons (unlike Julian Asaange’s Wikileaks scandal that outed many undercover agents and lead to their deaths). Snowden only alerted us to government programs that target living, breathing American citizens and thousands (millions?) of people around the globe. And for his trouble, he is being charged with spying! [Note: If there is more to this than I realize, and there was dangerous information involved, I would be willing to reconsider my view.]
The spin regarding the Snowden leaks amounts to 1984-esque suppression of historical facts, manipulation of public opinion, and a troubling induction of amnesia in our collective memory.
I don’t talk politics much because as a trained student of political theory, I am often jaded and have views that fall far away from that of both Republicans and Democrats. But this is important. Here is my analysis of the Snowden coverage and six reasons why the spin amounts to tactics used by the totalitarian regime of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.
- First, Let’s deal with the leaked info.
- As mentioned above, the extent of the leaked information simply informed us Americans that the National Security Administration (NSA) collects data from top technology companies (including phone records metadata and email content).
- There was no dangerous or sensitive information that led to harm to American citizens. All Snowden did was tell us what our government is doing to us. I see no inherent problem with that.
- Additionally, none of the information threatens American security interests. Though a potential terrorist may know all about how the CIA snoops, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to avoid making phone calls.
- Now, this is A LOT of information about the individuals it tracks—which is everyone. A very accurate picture of a person’s interests, goals, weaknesses, emotional connections and even more would come through this. Even if John Doe from Indiana has nothing to hide, that’s quite a lot of dirt for the government to have on him.
- So what else is problematic about these newly revealed NSA programs: the high potential for abuse. I know that all this is done in the name of security and high ranking officials have been quick to point out the number of horrible plots foiled because security personnel were able to discover them and stop them. I get that.
- Why should we be concerned? Because nothing, absolutely nothing, stands in the way of the government turning these information gathering techniques into detailed files on every single American. The technology exists to do this. And nothing, absolutely nothing, stands in the way of the government targeting specific groups who may be deemed “dangerous” in the future simply for living out their worldviews or ethnic identity. This could be anyone. In past (real-life) repressive regimes it has included: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, communists, Hutus, Tootsis and others. From this brief list, it should be clear that NO group on any ideological spectrum is safe from the whims of the current totalitarian regime.
- Don’t think repression could happen in America? Of course it can. Repression of ethnic and ideological groups is all too common and any regime with the power to do it often will. Just months ago this year, it came out that the IRS has been targeting conservative organizations. This is the beginning; type targeting is possible, and so it will happen. That’s just how fallen human nature works. No government is perfect, but that is why we should try to take steps to prevent it. 1984 was a warning of the evils that real people can fall into. We should heed it.
- That is why we should care about civil liberties. Civil liberties are not designed for us to hide our crimes; they are designed for us to protect ourselves from an overly intrusive government; they are designed to help prevent oppression.
- The curtailing of basic privacy and the intrusion of government into minute communications on an everyday basis is something we as a nation should be very, very concerned about. The Founding Fathers were concerned about the potential for oppression and we should be too.
- Value of security
- Now do not misunderstand me; I too value security, and it is right and proper for our government to protect us. I heard an impassioned speech by retiring CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell last week at my sister’s high school graduation. In his speech, Mr. Morell told poignant stories of those injured and killed on 9/11 and the tireless work of his colleagues to protect American citizens. I totally appreciate this. I understand that most people who work for the government do so with the best of intentions and a very sincere concern for protecting our population. I applaud them.
- I also must be clear though, that while we certainly should seek to protect our citizens, we cannot accept a police state as a trade-off for safety. The elimination of privacy and civil liberties may mean safety today, but in the long run, it will mean that no one is safe from their own government. Therefore, we must be very careful about the balance we strike between freedom and security.
- 1984 in Real Life
a. Full technological capacity to do it
i. In 1984, the government has a sophisticated and immense bureaucratic apparatus for tracking and monitoring all citizens to ensure compliance.
ii. Well, that technology is available and it is even easier to use. Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen warn about this in their recent book, The New Digital Age: “everything a regime would need to build an incredibly intimidating digital police state—including software that facilitates data mining and real-time monitoring of citizens—is commercially available right now.”
iii. The NSA can seize data from Verizon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others. Imagine how incredibly detailed a picture they could have of you from all of your facebook activity (private and public), your emails, your phone contacts, locations and call durations. And with the passage of one sentence of law, the content of your conversations could be analyzed as well.
b. Doublespeak: The Phony Defense
i. In 1984, the War Department is called the Ministry of Peace. By calling horrifying realities by the opposite name, the autocracy of Oceana controls its citizens by deceiving them.
ii. The phony defenses given by the administration (and both parties in Congress) are just one example of how we talk the talk of freedom, but are beginning to walk the walk of repression.
iii. Yes, it’s legal, but that doesn’t matter. The President and various Congressmen drone on and on about the legality of this and the judicial and congressional oversight, but this isn’t actually very reassuring. After all, the only thing required for something to become legal is for Congress to pass it and the courts not to strike it down. That means that if Congress declared tomorrow that rape of all short women was legal, it would be legal.
iv. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that it would be morally acceptable. There is a difference between legality and morality that is woefully overlooked or simply not understood in today’s society. Insisting on the legality of something (Mr. Obama) doesn’t necessarily make that thing okay. Just look at the abortion issue: pro-lifers know that abortion is legal, but we also protest it because we know that it is murder. So the legality defense of anything, including NSA surveillance, doesn’t actually make that thing acceptable. The government in 1984 did everything legally too. Not to mention, everything Hitler and Stalin did was also legal.
v. Case in point: Snowden is being charged with espionage. And that begs the question: for whom is he spying? Answer: the American public. And we are charging him with espionage? Ridiculous. It is doublespeak (a lie calling something its opposite) to charge Snowden with spying. Spying is giving secret, dangerous information to an enemy. The American public should not be the enemy of the American government.
vii. The other defense is that it’s working. Well, maybe it is. I could believe that. But it could also work to do so much more and terrible things. Additionally, are there any grounds for believing that this type of high-tech, invasive snooping works better than older methods which targeted dangerous individuals instead of screening everything from everyone? Liberty of Law makes a strong case that the information aren’t even effective against real criminals.
c. Done in Secret
i. In 1984, the Thought Police operate in secret without public knowledge. Are Snowden’s revelations any different than secret data collection on every single America? And is the overly harsh reaction of the government anything more than a bull-headed attempt to cover their tracks?
d. Detailed data on every single citizen; the NSA doesn’t need a telescreen
i. In 1984, Big Brother peers into everyone’s living room through a two-way television set that functions as both security camera and propaganda generator.
ii. Well, the NSA doesn’t need this device today because of the data it harvests from Facebook, Google, and Verizon. And yes, it really is an invasion of privacy.
iii. Some of the most idiotic defenses claim that it isn’t an intrusion of privacy because no one is combing through all of one person’s specific data (such as phone calls) and creating files. Because of the computer’s role, these apologists insist that the tracking is really anonymous. How ridiculous. Computers as analysts would have very little trouble integrating all of a person’s data and associating it with his or her name. This is, of course, is how the technology must work in order to pin point dangerous persons. That means that we are no more than a hair’s width away (if we are not there already) of having detailed files on every single citizen. The magnanimity of this is underappreciated, I think.
e. Our collective memory has been erased.
i. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” –1984
ii. In 1984, this is done by overpowering news broadcasts during the hapless viewers, in a matter of seconds, forget who the enemy was and passionately decry the new enemy-of-the-moment. All memory that the enemy has changed ceases to exist.
iii. This happens today. We forget what happened a week or a year ago once the coverage changes. The spin in the news smearing Snowden is exactly this type of smoke and mirrors. Within weeks, Snowden went from being a courageous whistle blower to being a low-level traitor. And most of us don’t question that or even remember that he was ever anything but a “traitor.”
v. Another example: Obama was elected on platform of winding down the War on Terror, protecting civil liberties, and criticizing George W. Bush for painting too broadly against freedom with the Patriot Act and with indefinite detainment at Guantanamo.
vi. He has done the opposite of all of these, and we praise him for it. He has expanded the surveillance programs he criticized and admitted it! He has kept Guantanamo open. He also passed the Defense Act (FISA 2012), which allows for the indefinite detainment of even American citizens simply for being suspected of terrorist intent (ie no crime needs to be committed). Bill Maher, that most odious of talk show hosts, even said that he was ok with the idea of Obama taping phone calls, but that it would be different if Dick Cheney was doing it. Well, Mr. Maher, 1) that’s a lot of trust to give a political figure and 2) in a few short years, Obama won’t be in office anymore. It might be someone you aren’t so friendly toward. Good policy should restrain an overbearing government no matter who holds power.
f. The Thought Police: We do it willingly
i. SPOILER: In 1984, Winston is tortured by the thought police until he willingly accepts Big Brother’s leadership. Well, we don’t even have to be tortured.
ii. With our memory erased, we happily continue browsing facebook neverminding about the high-level of information seizure or the fate of the one who told us about it.
iii. It is a disgrace to someone who may live the rest of his life as fugitive or prisoner to ignore this.
Conclusion: Living near Washington DC, as I do, where everyone and their mom holds a security clearance, for years I balked at the suggestion that the government was competent enough to become truly repressive. Government workers are just normal people. No need to have a conspiracy. But the citizens of Oceana and the Thought Police are just normal people too. While most government employees (and contractors) serve boredly or with good intentions, it is not hard to convince good people to work on something questionable. So I do believe that the government could pull off a gradual transition into a police state. The Soviet Union did it; East Germany did it, as have a whole host of others.
I think the coverage of the Snowden leaks and the government’s response are shocking and intimidating. It is ludicrous to charge him with espionage. On one hand, the President and various Congressmen act like nothing extraordinary was revealed; and with the other hand, they seek the harshest of penalties for him.
We should be very wary of these developments. I, for one, am a Catholic, and the views of the Church are already coming under suspicion from the ruling class. In an instant, the legal system could turn harshly against us. And for those who are not Catholic, and perhaps less concerned since they have “nothing to hide,” let me say this:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.