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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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But the second thing that he realized beyond just the general realization that this power had been systematically abused was that, there was an agency that was at the heart of this abuse, and it was the National Security Agency. And what was really amazing about the National Security Agency was that it had been formed 20 years ago back in 1949 by President Truman, and it was formed as part of the Defense Department. It was so covert that literally, for two decades, almost nobody in the government even knew that it existed, let alone knew what it did. Including key senators like Frank Church.

And part of his investigation -- and actually, it was a fairly radical investigation, fairly aggressive even looking at it through cynical eyes and realizing that the ultimate impact wasn’t particularly grand, but the investigation itself was pretty impressive -- and he forced his way into the National Security Agency and found out as much as he possibly could about it.

And after the investigation concluded, he issued all sorts of warnings about the Surveillance State and how it was emerging, and the urgency of only allowing government officials to eavesdrop on citizens, that they have all kinds of layers of oversight in the courts and Congress, but he issued a specific warning about the National Security Agency that is really remarkable in terms of what he said. And this is what he said -- and you can find this anywhere online, in the New York Times, everywhere -- he said, as part of a written report, and in an interview:

The National Security Agency’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. 

He continued,

There would be no place to hide. If a dictator takes over the United States, the NSA could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.

Now, there are several things that I find extraordinary about that statement. For one, the language that he uses. I mean, this is not somebody who is a speaker at the Socialism conference 2012. This was literally one of the people who was the most established institutional figures in American politics. I mean, he was in the liberal way of the Democratic Party but very much, he was mainstream for many years [ ... ] And here he is warning the country of the dangers, not just of the U.S. government but specifically about the National Security Agency using words like “dictator” and “total tyranny” and warning of the way in which this power can be abused such that, essentially it would be irreversible. That once the government is able to monitor everything we do and everything we say, there’s no way to fight back because fighting back requires doing it away from their prying eyes.

And if you look now, 30 years later to where we are, not only would you never, ever hear a U.S. senator stand up and insinuate that the National Security State poses this great danger or use words like “tyranny” and “dictators” to describe the United States the way that Frank Church did only 30 years ago. Now it’s virtually a religious obligation to talk about the National Security State and its close cousin, the Surveillance State, with nothing short of veneration.

Just a few weeks ago, Chris Hayes, who’s an MSNBC host on the weekends, used the opportunity of Memorial Day to express this view in this very tortured, careful and pre-apologetic way that maybe it’s the case that not every single person who has ever served as an American soldier or enlisted in the American military is a hero. Maybe we can think about them in ways short of that. And this incredible controversy erupted, condemnation poured down on him from Democrats and conservatives, liberals and the like, and he was forced in multiple venues in the course of the next week to issue one, increasingly sheepish apology after the next. That’s how radically our discourse has changed, so that you cannot talk about the National Security State or the Surveillance State in these kinds of nefarious terms, the way that Frank Church, who probably knew more about it, did just a few decades ago.