5 Ways the U.S. Government Has Built 'An Architecture of Oppression'

Human Rights

Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old NSA whistleblower who leaked a byzantine collection of classified documents, insists that the US government is building “an architecture of oppression.” While it has not yet become a reality, the capabilities of the security state are astounding, as Snowden notes.

Similar rhetoric has been recently used by Brian Jenkins, a man at the other end of the spectrum. A counter-terrorism expert and high-level consultant, Jenkins helped create the first database of international terrorists in 1971. In an interview with Slate, Jenkins remarked: "What we have put in place is the foundation for a very oppressive state."

Both of these characterizations of the sprawling national security apparatus acknowledge that “the tools are in place,” as Jenkins puts it, but the oppressive state is not yet fully formed. However, the two men indicate that a capricious turnkey response to a crisis, or the contrasting policies of a newly elected leader, for example, could easily undermine basic democratic freedoms and create a tyrannical regime.

Here are five ways that an "architecture of oppression" has already grown publicly and been normalized since September 11, 2001.

1. The Patriot Act

The big daddy of reactionary power grabs, the Patriot Act was put before Congress on a rare fast-track by Attorney General John Ashcroft just nine days after September 11. It was passed in a whirlwind of jingoistic fervor with only two hearings in the House and none by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) was the only senator who voted against it.

The Patriot Act made a variety of significant changes to law. It defined or redefined terrorism, domestic terrorism, cyberterrorism, and established or modified existing laws that indict those crimes. The powers of the US Attorney General and the Secret Service were expanded to eliminate barriers to investigating terrorism. Surveillance abilities were enhanced including weakening restrictions on wiretapping and other stored communications like voicemail. The power of the Treasury Department to regulate financial transactions and importantly foreign corporate or personal transactions was also broadened in an effort to crack down on financing terrorism.  

It is the jewel in the crown of state repression, and has been used to criminalize an entire generation of political dissidents, whether they be environmental activists who were rebranded “eco-terrorists,” hacktivists who became “cyberterrorists,” or international solidarity activists who were accused of “material support for terrorism.”

2011 saw numerous reports that the government had used the Patriot Act in 1,618 drug cases, and only 15 terrorism cases. It has long been known as the “Kitchen Sink approach to National Security” but the government’s abuse of the intentions of these provisions is astounding.

The Patriot Act is central to understanding how the NSA is conducting its dragnet surveillance. Critics have pointed out that PRISM, one of the secret programs exposed in Snowden’s leaks, allows the US government to collect and store metadata directly from the servers of companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple. It is clear that communications with individuals outside of the US are subject to this collection process, along with more conventional data gathering, like the filtering and collecting of data running across fiber-optic cables. However, the extent to which this affects the Internet communication of all US citizens is unclear.

The program has been enabled by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or FISA. A legal framework for surveillance, FISA was inspired by the findings of the Church Committee in order to give Congressional and Judicial oversight to domestic surveillance programs. It was a reform brought about after the nefarious disclosure that President Nixon had been spying on political organizations and activists in violation of the 4th Amendment’s requirement of probable cause. But in 2001 FISA was expanded by the Patriot Act under the Bush administration and renewed again by the Obama administration in December 2012 with bipartisan support.

A contentious clause and one at the heart of the NSA surveillance scandal, Section 215 of the Patriot Act modifies FISA to give law enforcement and intelligence agencies “unfettered” access to “business records” which the Patriot Act defines as any “tangible thing.” This generous wording leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It is the government’s legal justification for collecting cell phone records from Verizon and, given the pliability of the phrase, may be applicable to the PRISM program as well.

The Patriot Act also lowers the threshold for the approval of surveillance requests by a secret court created by FISA. More than 20,000 applications for data have come before the court since 2001, and only 11 have been denied. It appear that this judicial oversight amounts to little more than a formality and does not serve as a serious check on the power of law enforcement.

2. Killing US Citizens and the Use of Drones

There is no legal framework for the targeted assassination of US citizens without due process. In an address last month, Obama acknowledged for the first time what the world has known to be true thanks to courageous reporting: that in the span of one month, three American citizens were killed by drone strikes in Yemen in 2011. One of those killed, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was just 16 years old.  

In a court filing earlier this month, a lawyer for the Justice Department, Paul E. Werner, argued that despite not being approved by the judge, the killings were legal because the President and the Attorney General said they were legal. “The Attorney General’s statement last month that the use of remotely piloted aircraft and the targeting of Anwar Al-Aulaqi were subject to 'exceptionally rigorous interagency legal review' and determined to be lawful -- along with the President’s statement that those actions were legal -- only support the conclusion that those actions were lawful, and certainly were not clearly established to be unconstitutional in 2011.”

The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights recently issued a joint response to the government’s admission to the killings. “The government continues to insist that the courts have no role in evaluating the legality of its actions. But the executive branch cannot simply declare the killings lawful and attempt to close the book on that basis. A federal judge, not executive officials examining their own conduct, must determine the constitutionality of the government's actions.”

It appears that President Obama and Attorney General Holder have no intention of backing down from the precedent set by the killing of US citizens. President Obama has said that drone strikes responsible for killing civilians “will haunt us as long we live,” but nevertheless indicated that the program would go on. According to the New America Foundation, since the drone program began in 2004, more than 550 civilians have been killed.

3. Cracking Down on Activists

Activism used to be the way people voiced their grievances to elected officials and the powerful, but recent government crackdowns on peaceful protest have demonstrated that in this country, now more than ever, dissent is being criminalized.

Take the case of an 82-year-old nun and two peace activists in Tennessee. In June 2012, early in the morning, the three Catholic protesters gained access to a nuclear power plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They cut through several layers of fencing, unopposed by security personnel. Once inside the fence, they unfurled banners, spray painted anti-nuclear slogans and prayed together. They were soon arrested, and their civil disobedience was complete. Fast-forward to a year later. The seemingly innocuous protest has been deemed by Federal Prosecutors an act of “sabotage against the US government.” The three were convicted of a number of weighty felonies and currently await their sentencing in September.

In Oregon, frustrated lawmakers have resorted to calling some peaceful environmental activists terrorists. Thanks to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2004, this is nothing new. But what is new is trying to slander a peaceful civil disobedience tactic -- tree-sitting -- with the language of terrorism. Will Potter explains: “On April 29, two bills passed the Oregon House that would hit tree sitters and non-violent protesters with felonies and mandatory minimum sentences.” A representative in the Oregon House, Wayne Krieger, has led the charge against “environmental terrorists” and says "there's been a 30-year reign of terror by these people having no respect for the rights of others."

Let’s not forget about the widespread surveillance of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists that has recently come to light. Documents released by the FBI in December 2012 reveal that the the law enforcement agency investigated OWS as “domestic terrorists.” Furthermore, a report released in May 2012 by the Center for Media and Democracy sifted through thousands of pages of redacted government documents and made a number of startling findings. Fusion centers funded by the Department of Homeland Security, which pool intelligence information between federal and state law enforcement, dedicated vast resources, innumerable hours, and taxpayer funds to monitor OWS. The CMD report also details the FBI’s use of a secret program called “Operation Tripwire” which was initially developed to catch domestic terrorists using informants from the private security sector.  

Then there is Jeremy Hammond. The hacktivist pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the hack of Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, in December 2011. Thousands of private emails were released through WikiLeaks, revealing the extent of the involvement of private security firms in matters of US national security and counterterrorism. Hammond took responsibility for this and some eight other hacks of defense contractors/law enforcement websites. He said he was also relieved, after being in jail for more than a year without being convicted of a crime, to say that he worked with Anonymous.

Hammond, like Snowden, was troubled by the undemocratic nature of the intelligence world, specifically the way the US government embraces outsourcing to private security firms, which as early as 2006 were said to do 70% of US intelligence work. These for-profit corporations have no public or government accountability for their actions, and are often involved in illegal behavior, which the Stratfor hack proved.

In a statement released after his plea, Hammond, like Snowden, invoked his moral imperative to act: “I did this because I believe people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors. I did what I believe is right.”

4. Prosecuting Whistleblowers

The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than every other previous administration combined. Since 2009, Obama’s Department of Justice has used the Espionage Act, an archaic law drafted during World War I, to prosecute six whistleblowers: Thomas Drake, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, John Kiriakou, Shamai K. Leibowitz, Jeffrey Sterling and Pfc. Bradley Manning.

The Espionage Act itself is an enigma. It was written by Woodrow Wilson’s administration for the purposes of combating a hostile climate both at home and abroad. By most accounts, it merely reiterated many of the laws against espionage that were already on the books.  But a more explicit clue to its purpose comes from then Attorney General Thomas Gregory who called the act and the 1918 Sedition Act amendment “warfare by propaganda.”

"While we are fighting to establish the democracy of the world, we ought not to do the thing that will establish autocracy in America." These words could easily describe our present moment, but they were uttered by Illinois representative Martin Madden at the time of the Espionage Act’s passing.

The most egregious prosecution of a whistleblower has been the trial of Bradley Manning. Manning, who leaked thousands of documents to WikiLeaks during the Iraq war, has pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him, which could land him in prison for more than two decades. However, the government is pressing on, prosecuting him for, among other things, espionage and aiding the enemy, a charge which insists that the information Manning leaked had the expressed intent of aiding Al Qaeda operatives.

Aside from Manning’s case, the other prosecutions under the Obama administration reflect a serious desire for the administration to maintain secrecy. In fact, four of the prosecutions are for leaking information--in the case of Thomas Drake declassified information--to journalists for stories on domestic, not international, affairs.

But none of this has deterred the most recent round of leaks by Edward Snowden. In fact, those prosecutions might have inspired the leaks.

In an interview with  the Guardian, Snowden was asked if the treatment of other whistleblowers had influenced his decisions and actions to come forward. He responded: “[NSA whistleblower William] Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they'll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers.”

5. Prosecuting and Spying on Journalists

The revelation that the US government obtained phone records of Associated Press (AP) reporters and editors in a probe that took place over a two-month period came as a shock to many. But in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal, it is now unclear whether this behavior is extraordinary. It fits in with what the NSA leak exposed; it was indicative of the nonchalance of the US government with regard to dragnet surveillance of US citizens, whether they are press or not.

Less than a month ago, the AP’s president sent a letter to Attorney General Holder expressing his outrage and rebuking the Department of Justice: “We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news. While we evaluate our options we urgently request that you immediately return to the AP the telephone toll records that the Department subpoenaed and destroy all copies.” A variety of different organizations and periodicals decried the action, from the ACLU to the New York Times. The consensus seemed to be that it was an unacceptable form of intimidation, and everyone was quite shocked.

Revelations about Fox News journalist James Rosen followed the AP story. Rosen was accused of being “an aider and abettor and/or a co-conspirator” by an FBI agent in connection with a story that he published in 2009, allegedly based on information from a leak. The government obtained a search warrant to access Rosen’s emails in order to track down the source of the leak. Attorney General Holder later indicated that there would be no prosecution of Rosen. Instead, the Justice Department would focus on those responsible for leaking information, not those disseminating it.

Yet immediately after Glenn Greenwald broke the story of the NSA leaks, the drums in Washington began beating again, seeking his prosecution. Peter King (R.- N.Y.) led the charge, appearing on Fox News and claiming that Greenwald was holding CIA information that he would disclose publicly. Greenwald has denied this allegation, and pointed to King’s hypocritical involvement with the IRA, long considered a terrorist organization by the US government. On Twitter, Greenwald wrote: “Only In America can a renowned and devoted terrorism supporter like Peter King be the arbiter of national security and treason.”

The first periodical to cast light on his possible prosecution was the New York Times, which published a profile on Greenwald on June 6. “The article, which included a link to the order, is expected to attract an investigation from the Justice Department, which has aggressively pursued leakers,” the Times reported, referring to Greenwald’s pieces. Later on, the authors write: “He said that he had been advised by lawyer friends that ‘he should be worried,’ but he had decided that ‘what I am doing is exactly what the Constitution is about and I am not worried about it.’”  

Despite Attorney General Holder’s comments, the matter of prosecuting journalists publishing leaked material seems anything but resolved. Independent journalist John Knefel, who is currently reporting from Guantanamo Bay, told AlterNet: “The harder it is for journalists to do their job, the easier it is for the government to operate in secrecy.”


There is a deeply disturbing pattern of escalating infringements on civil liberties that has been normalized, beginning with the Patriot Act and extending to drone warfare, activism, and the surveillance and prosecution of members of the press.

Many politicians would have you believe that this is a fair tradeoff for liberty. But Americans are beginning to see the architecture of oppression swelling around them.

This is the moment when it looks like the United States will finally have a conversation about what the post-9/11 world should look like and re-problematize some of the more troubling conclusions we’ve reached in the past decade. This line of questioning should extend far beyond the bounds of the national security apparatus, and tackle fundamental issues. For example, are we, as a society, prepared to condemn an 82-year-old nun as a serious national security threat and imprison her and her co-defendants for the rest of their lives?

This is a serious question which gets to the heart of some national security dilemmas: political culpability. The protest was harmless, yet some unnamed nuclear experts told the New York Times on August 10, 2012 that it represented “the biggest security breach in the history of the nation's atomic complex.” So the conviction of the three protesters in Tennessee is more complicated. It created a huge national security embarrassment when the banner-wielding hymn-singing troupe waltzed into the nuclear facility and made it clear that terrorists could have done the same. The US government has chosen to criminalize the agency of dissidents in the decade following 9/11 and create, by way of simile, the parallel between dissent and acts of terror. The protesters are not to blame for the scandal; they were the ones who revealed it to the public.   

When asked by Glenn Greenwald about the worst thing that could happen after the leaks came out, Snowden replied: “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests."

Fortunately, it appears that the conversation has gone viral, and both the US and the world are starting to catch on.

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