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Is God a Civil Libertarian? How the American Surveillance State Devoured General Petraeus

That the stars of America's national security establishment are being devoured by out-of-control surveillance is a form of sweet justice.

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It is usually the case that abuses of state power become a source for concern and opposition only when they begin to subsume the elites who are responsible for those abuses. Recall how former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman - one of the most outspoken defenders of the illegal Bush National Security Agency (NSA) warrantless eavesdropping program - suddenly began sounding like an irate, life-long ACLU privacy activistwhen it was revealed that the NSA had  eavesdropped on her private communications with a suspected Israeli agent over alleged attempts to intervene on behalf of AIPAC officials accused of espionage. Overnight, one of the Surveillance State's chief assets, the former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, transformed into a vocal privacy proponent because now it was her activities, rather than those of powerless citizens, which were invaded.

With the private, intimate activities of America's most revered military and intelligence officials being smeared all over newspapers and televisions for no good reason, perhaps similar conversions are possible. Put another way, having the career of the  beloved CIA Director and the commanding general in Afghanistan instantly destroyed due to highly invasive and unwarranted electronic surveillance is almost enough to make one believe not only that there is a god, but that he is an ardent civil libertarian.

The US operates a  sprawling, unaccountable Surveillance State that - in violent breach of the core guarantees of the Fourth Amendment - monitors and records virtually everything even the most law-abiding citizens do. Just to get a flavor for how pervasive it is, recall that the Washington Post, in its 2010 three-part "Top Secret America" series, reported: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications."

Equally vivid is  this 2007 chart from Privacy International, a group that monitors the surveillance policies of nations around the world. Each color represents the level of the nation's privacy and surveillance policies, with black being the most invasive and abusive ("Endemic Surveillance Societies") and blue being the least ("Consistently upholds human rights standards"):

And the Obama administration has spent the last four years aggressively seeking to expand that Surveillance State, including by agitating for Congressional action to amend the Patriot Act to include Internet and browsing data among the records obtainable by the FBI without court approval and  demanding legislation requiring that all Internet communications contain a government "backdoor" of surveillance.

Based on what is known, what is most disturbing about the whole Petraeus scandal is not the sexual activities that it revealed, but the wildly out-of-control government surveillance powers which enabled these revelations. What requires investigation here is not Petraeus and Allen and their various sexual partners but the FBI and the whole sprawling, unaccountable surveillance system that has been built.

Glenn Greenwald, a former constitutional lawyer and a Guardian columnist until October 2013, has earned numerous awards for his commentary and investigative journalism, including most recently the 2013 George Polk Award for national security reporting. In early 2014, he cofounded a new global media outlet, The Intercept. This essay is adapted from his new book,No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State(Metropolitan Books), published today.

 
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