Birth of the National Security State
By Philip Giraldi
It is not far fetched to speculate that the United States has, over the past ten years, been sliding into a form of authoritarianism that retains only some aspects of the constitution and a limited rule of law. America’s president can, for example, commit soldiers to combat overseas without a constitutionally mandated declaration of war by congress while it is quite possible to be detained by the authorities and locked up without any prospect of trial or opportunity to defend oneself. The government even believes it can kill American citizens based only on suspicion. I prefer to think of this transformation as the National Security State because it rests on a popular consensus that liberties must be sacrificed in exchange for greater public safety from various threats, international terrorism being the most prominent. It might just as well be called the National Warfare State as it also requires constant conflict to justify its existence.
Three elements are necessary for the creation of a National Security State. First, there must be a narrative that can be sold to the public justifying the transformation. Second, a system of laws and regulations must be created that enable the state to act with impunity and also to protect the government from challenges to its authority. Third, technology must be harnessed to enable the state to surreptitiously monitor and control the activities of its citizens. All of these elements have fallen into place over the past decade.
A recent example of abuse of authority by the government demonstrates how several of the key elements can come together. On September 24th, the Obama Administration declared that it would ask a federal court to block a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in opposition to the government’s contention that it has the authority to assassinate American citizens overseas if they are suspected of involvement with a terrorist group. The White House has invoked the state secrets privilege, contending that vital national interests would be betrayed if the case were to proceed and further that the president has the authority to target anyone for death in time of war. The state secrets privilege is the ultimate weapon to avoid exposure of government wrongdoing. It has been used frequently by the Obama administration in spite of Obama-the-candidate’s pledge that he would run an open and accountable government.
The ACLU case focused on the one US citizen known to be on the administration’s assassination list, Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Now, by all accounts al-Awlaki is an unsavory character, involved with at least one extremist group in Yemen, but the evidence that he is an actual terrorist or that he has been closely involved with plotting terrorist attacks has not been made public. At this point, he appears to have been condemned to death without any due process and without any opportunity to defend himself. The Obama Administration abuse of the state secrets privilege in this case is little more than justifying the practice of extrajudicial murder at the whim of a government bureaucrat. It also assumes that the whole world is a battlefield without any declaration of war by congress. If all of that is so, al-Awlaki can be killed and so can any other American for any reason or no reason.
State secrets is only one weapon in the arsenal employed by the government to create a framework of regulation that permits the government to act with impunity. The Military Commission Act, which candidate Obama vowed to let expire, was renewed in 2009 with virtually no changes. Under the MCA, someone can be imprisoned indefinitely on suspicion that he or she has provided material support to terrorism. Material support is not defined and can be interpreted to mean nearly anything. If accused, right to a trial by peers does not apply as the detainee is subject to a military tribunal and habeas corpus is null and void. And how does the government determine if someone is a “terrorism supporter?” Through evidence derived from Patriot Act authorized National Security Letters, which the FBI can obtain without any judicial process whatsoever to look into the private lives of each and every citizen. Nearly 25,000 National Security Letters were issued in 2008 alone. When someone receives a letter demanding that information be provided to the authorities it is a felony to reveal to the subject of the investigation that he or she is being looked at.
The second key element in the National Security State is the media depiction of a threat that makes the public fearful and willing to sacrifice rights in exchange for security. This effort is aided and abetted by the government, which is the principal cheerleader for the fear mongering. In the al-Awlaki case the media obediently depicts the man as a terrorist, never challenging the established narrative so it makes it easier for the public to accept that he should be killed for reasons of public safety. Another recent initiative of the same sort is the narrative that there are numerous American Muslims who have been radicalized and might carry out terrorist acts. One might reasonably note that as there are possibly ten million Muslims in the US if that were true there would be hundreds of incidents occurring annually, possibly one or two a day. Where are they? Yet the government suggests that there is an “emerging” threat and the media buys into it hook line and sinker. The public is again scared into supporting the National Security State.
Finally, there is the technical ability to look into the private lives of each and every citizen, which is increasing exponentially as the technology is refined. The federal government is currently seeking legislation to enable it to monitor internet, blackberries, and social networking sites. The centers of most American citizens are criss-crossed by surveillance cameras, while “traffic control” cameras record automobile information, and cell phone and internet providers maintain complete records on calls and emails for up to a year. These are records that the government can access through the National Security Letters, without any judicial review. Cell phone system monitors are able to locate anyone with a phone turned on within a distance of three feet and whenever a call is made the location is recorded. This means if you attend an anti-war rally your participation might wind up in a security file. Much of this and other information is collected into data bases, together with public record material like driving license information, credit reports, and details of criminal and civil litigation. How much of the information is actually retained is anyone’s guess, but it is safe to assume that it is all kept for some time and that government computers can retrieve it at will.
Having lived in Europe, I know that most of these intrusive technologies first appeared on that continent, where people accept a high level of state control, only to be picked up subsequently in the US. The British government is currently introducing legislation proposing that all wage and salary earners have their paychecks sent directly to the tax agencies for processing. The government’s stated intention is to make sure that taxes are being collected, but Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs service computers would also be alert to possible money laundering and terrorist connections, raising the fear level to justify the action. After processing, the British government would then pass whatever money remains on to the person who actually earned it. Scary, but it is perhaps something that will also be proposed in the US by a Joe Lieberman, John McCain or Lindsey Graham, all of whom have used fear of terrorism to justify curtailment of civil liberties and intrusion into areas once regarded as private. Or even by Barack Obama, who appears to believe that a benign big government provides a solution to whatever ails you and is already moving towards monitoring all financial transactions.
The only answer to the National Security State a demand on the part of US citizens to return to constitutionalism and a rule of law. The government should not be empowered to kill citizens extrajudicially, start wars of choice, detain suspects indefinitely and without charges, use state secrets claims to avoid scrutiny, and obtain private information without a warrant. It is difficult to imagine a return to normalcy under the best of circumstances, but congress is complicit in the process and will do nothing. Genuine change will only come about when we the people insist on it.
Copyright © 2010 Campaign for Liberty
Also by Philip Giraldi:
Obama’s War on the Internet 07/19/10
A Tea Party to Nowhere 06/03/10
Droning On 05/11/10
Change at CIA? 04/22/10
No Special Relationships 04/02/10
View all 26 articles by Philip Giraldi