“Knowledge (of) the scale of our capability would raise public awareness generating unwelcome publicity for us and our political masters.” –Classified UK NSA document
“To approve such a program, the Court must have every confidence that the government is doing its utmost to ensure that those responsible for implementation fully comply with the Court’s orders. The Court no longer has such confidence.” –U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Order, p. 12, 3-9-2009
For those alarmed by the steady growth of lawless, violent and authoritarian U.S. Executive power for the last 50 years, the events of the past few months have been exciting. The emergence of a de facto coalition of progressives and conservatives opposing the National Defense Authorization Act law giving the Executive the right to unilaterally detain or execute American citizens without a trial, and NSA mass surveillance of phone and Internet data, has been unprecedented, and offers the first hope in 70 years that Executive power can be curbed
The most important development has been the public and congressional reaction to President Obama’s proposal to strike Syria. A huge majority of the American people opposed even a limited military action by the Executive Branch. Reading the polls, the President decided to seek congressional authorization for a limited military action. For the first time in living memory, Congress clearly opposed him. It is too soon to say what this will mean for the future, but the implications clearly extend beyond just this particular strike or President.
The main arena besides the Middle East where the issue of the Executive Branch vs. Congress and the American people will play out in coming months will concern attempts to limit not only Executive surveillance of innocent Americans, but its other assaults on the very foundation of democracy itself.
The fundamental issue involved amidst the ongoing cascade of revelations about NSA wrongdoing is this: what must be done to roll back the Executive Branch’s creation of a surveillance state, which is just one more major economic crisis or 9/11–as even centrists like Bob Woodward and Tom Friedman warn–from becoming a police-state.
Most of the focus until now has been on trying to absorb the dimensions of the surveillance state we have suddenly learned we are living in since June 6 . But it is now time to focus on the actions needed to end its assaults on democracy.
This is not a simple question, either politically or technically. Politically, it is impossible to envision ending the surveillance state without a broad left-right coalition both in Congress and among the public devoted to doing so. But it will be difficult to maintain a coalition of progressives and Tea Partiers, liberals and conservatives, who neither trust nor respect one another–particularly when fought by an Executive that will hit back against attempts to control it with everything it has.
The technical questions are even trickier. How does Congress write and pass laws to prevent Executive Agencies from undertaking surveillance and population control measures when, to paraphrase Congressman Keith Ellison, “Congress doesn’t know what it doesn’t know”? How can Congress control Executive wrongdoing when Executive officials invoke the mantra of national security to avoid providing it with information?
Had Edward Snowden not risked life imprisonment or worse to reveal that the U.S. Executive Branch has created a surveillance state, we would still know virtually nothing about it. The ranking Senate and House Intelligence committee chairs, Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers, would still be covering up Executive wrongdoing, and even those members angered at its criminality would still be muzzled from saying anything. The Judiciary would still not only be rubberstamping Executive actions, but expanding Executive Branch power. The mass media would still be routinely conveying its denials of wrongdoing to the American people whenever the issue arose.