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Glenn Greenwald: How America's Surveillance State Breeds Conformity and Fear

Once the government is able to monitor everything we do and say, we will be unable to fight back.
 
 
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Editor's note: The following is a transcript of a speech delivered by Glenn Greenwald at this month's Socialism 2012 conference, on the massive growth of government and corporate surveillance and their chilling effects on Americans' rights. 

Last year was my maiden trip to the Socialism 2012 world. I started off by standing up and saying -- I was actually surprised by this, pleasantly surprised, because I didn’t know what to expect -- how amazingly inspirational I actually found this conference to be. The energy of activism and the sophisticated level of the conversation and the commitment that people displayed and the diversity of the attendees, really is unlike any other conference. And so when I was asked back this year, I was super excited to come back and accept. Not only because of that, but also because the conference organizers asked if I could speak about challenging the Surveillance State.

The reason that I was so eager to come and do that is because I really think that this topic is central to all of the other activism that’s being discussed here this weekend.

The Surveillance State hovers over any attacks that meaningfully challenge state-appropriated power. It doesn’t just hover over it. It impedes it, it deters it and kills it.  That’s its intent. It does that by design.

And so, understanding what the Surveillance State, how it operates -- most importantly, figuring out how to challenge it and undermine it, and subvert it -- really is, I think, an absolute prerequisite to any sort of meaningful activism, to developing strategies and tactics for how to challenge state and corporate power.

To begin this discussion, I want to begin with a little story that I think is illustrative and significant in lots of ways.

The story begins in the mid-1970s when there were scandals that were erupting, arising out of the Watergate investigation in the Nixon administration and/or scandals surrounding the fact that, as it turned out, the Nixon administration and various law enforcement officials in the federal government were misusing their eavesdropping powers. They were listening in on people who were political opponents, they were doing so purely out of political self-interest, having nothing to do with legal factors or the business of the nation, and this created a scandal, and unlike today, a scandal 40 years ago in the mid-1970s resulted in at least some relatively significant reactions.

In particular, a committee was formed in the Congress and the Senate, and it was headed by someone named Frank Church, who was a Democratic Party of the United States senator from Idaho who had been, in the Senate, at this time, for 20 years as one of the most widely regarded senators, and was chosen because of that. And he led this investigation into these eavesdropping abuses and tried to get into the scandal. One of the things that he discovered was that these eavesdropping abuses were radically more pervasive and egregious than anything that had been known at the start of the investigation. 

It was by no means confined to the Nixon administration. In fact, it went all the way back to the 1920s, when the government first began developing the detective audio capability to eavesdrop on American citizens and heightened as the power heightened through the 1940s, when WWII would justify it; into the '50s when the Cold War did, and the 1960s when the social unrest justified surveillance. What Senator Church found was that literally every single administration under both Democratic and Republican presidents had seriously abused this power.

And not in isolated ways, but systematically. This committee documented all the ways in which that was true, and the realization quickly emerged that, allowing government officials to eavesdrop on other people, on citizens, without constraints or oversight, to do so in the dark, is a power that gives so much authority and leverage to those in power that it is virtually impossible for human beings to resist abusing that power.  That’s how potent of a power it is.