Written on: Wed, Jun 12th, 2013

Truth is treason in an empire of lies

Truth is treason in an empire of lies
Edward Snowden, former techical analyst at the CIA, is now on the run for exposing secret information about government spying by the NSA. Is Big Brother finally watching our every move?  
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“Truth is treason in an empire of lies”.

This quote was coined by Ron Paul in his book The Revolution. But he was most likely borrowing from a phrase by George Orwell, who wrote: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

In an age where government spying and cover ups are commonplace, speaking truth to power, despite personal risk, is to me a courageous and heroic act that deserves our utmost respect. This is why I view Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, in the latest NSA scandal in the USA, not just as whistleblowers doing an important job for the people, but also as brave men who are not deterred by the threat of government force in their pursuit of truth and justice.

But first, let us understand what happened…

National Security Agency Surveillance

Several days ago, Glenn Greenwald, reporter for the Guardian, broke the story of widespread government surveillance programmes conducted by the National Security Agency, one of America’s most powerful intelligence agencies. Detailed information can be found here at the Guardian news site, which is where the news first exploded into the public eye. The article is titled: “NSA spying scandal: what we have learned”. There are three main parts in this article detailing the NSA program: Verizon, PRISM, and Boundless Informant.

For the Verizon data mining aspect, the US National Security Agency (NSA) was empowered by a secret order issued by the foreign intelligence court directing Verizon Communications, a mobile phone provider with 98.9 million wireless customers, to turn over all its call records for a three-month period. The order is untargeted, meaning that the NSA can snoop on calls without suspecting anyone of wrongdoing.”

For PRISM, “internal NSA documents claim the top secret data-mining programme gives the US government access to a vast quantity of emails, chat logs and other data directly from the servers of nine internet companies. These include Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Apple”.

For Boundless Informant, the article explains: “Prism is involved in the collection of data, but Boundless Informant organises and indexes metadata. The tool categorises communications records rather than the content of a message itself. A fact sheet leaked to the Guardian explains that almost 3bn pieces of intelligence had been collected from US computer networks in the 30-day period ending in March this year, as well as indexing almost 100bn pieces worldwide.”

The fundamental issue

The fundamental issue here is: what is the role of government? Does the government have the authority, and even a good reason, to collect data about its citizens, to the point of infringing privacy, for the sake of “protecting the people”? In an attempt to collect intelligence to counter potential terrorist attacks, should the government be conducting surveillance on its people?

On one side, some say that since the government’s job is to keep its people safe, there is nothing wrong with these actions, especially if an individual has “nothing to hide”. This view was articulated best by Senator Lindsay Graham here.  He said: “I’m a Verizon customer. I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States. I don’t think you’re talking to the terrorists. I know you’re not. I know I’m not. So we don’t have anything to worry about.” This view is echoed by Sen. John McCain, who felt that the agency’s surveillance tactics were “appropriate.”

On the other side of the debate, it is asserted that the government’s primary role is not to keep its people safe, but rather, to protect their liberties and rights. Therefore, the right to privacy and the rights accorded to Americans by the Fourth Amendment, are to be protected by the government, and should limit the state’s actions. Benjamin Franklin once famously said: “Those who give up liberty for temporary safety, deserve neither”. The argument here, is that the government can only provide safety, at the expense of freedom. Individual freedom, according to its advocates, is too precious to be given up in the name of fighting terrorists. Trampling on the historical liberties granted by the Constitution and Bill of Rights for temporary and special grants of government power to “keep the people safe”, insults the very ideals that America is supposed to represent.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a staunch defender of civil liberties, best represented the second camp in an interview on Fox News Sunday, suggesting that the government’s surveillance program has gone too far and represented an “assault on the Constitution”. Paul, who’s a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said, “We’re not talking about going after a terrorist – I’m all for that. Get a warrant; go after a terrorist or a murderer or a rapist. But don’t troll through a billion phone records every day. That is unconstitutional. It invades our privacy.” Predictably, his view was disparaged by the neoconservatives Graham and McCain.

But perhaps the best exchange occurred between Former Congressman Ron Paul (father of Sen. Rand Paul), current Chairman of Campaign for Liberty, and Amb. R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA. The former called Snowden a hero who told the truth and said that those defending the surveillance were “justifying dictatorship”. However, the former CIA chief felt that Snowden “arrogated” too much power for himself and wrongly took matters into his own hands to decide what the balance between liberty and security is.
Watch the fiery exchange here:

 

Edward Snowden: “I do not want to live in a society that does these sorts of things..”

It should not come as a surprise that I am of the latter view. At this point, let us understand the motivation that drove Edward Snowden, the source of the NSA leaks. Snowden disclosed his identity in an explosive interview with the Guardian, published on Sunday, 9th June. He revealed he was a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden worked at the National Security Agency for the past four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell.

When asked why he decided to become a whistleblower, Snowden replied: “”The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards. I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

This is the interview excerpt from the Guardian:

But when did he decide to release the secret information? What triggered him? He responded: “You see things that may be disturbing. When you see everything you realise that some of these things are abusive. The awareness of wrong-doing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up [and decided this is it]. It was a natural process. A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama. I did not vote for him. I voted for a third party. But I believed in Obama’s promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor.”

Personally, it is an insult to common decency that the United States government might be pressing charges of treason/espionage against Snowden if they get the chance to. When government commits a wrong, it is almost second nature to them to turn it around, spin that with what Orwell called “doublespeak”, and point an accusatory finger on someone else. How dare they paint Snowden as a criminal. When asked if what he did should be considered a “crime”, he replied: “We have seen enough criminality on the part of government. It is hypocritical to make this allegation against me. They have narrowed the public sphere of influence.” Who violated their oath? Did Snowden violate his oath? Or did Obama and Clapper (NSA head)?

Snowden and Greenwald have done a great service to the American people by exposing the truth about what the government is doing in secret. We should be thankful for individuals like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald who see injustice being carried out by their own government and speak out, despite the risk. Snowden has had “a very comfortable life” that included a salary of roughly $200,000, a girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, a stable career, and a family he loves. “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

If we want to live as free individuals, we need to start thinking of the government not as masters, but as servants assigned to serve us. Government “needs” to spy on us to help us?  The government does not need to know more about what we are doing; we need to know more about what the government is doing!

President Obama should learn from Senator Obama

When Senator Obama was running for President, he did so on a platform of civil liberties and a more humble foreign policy. But as Snowden mentioned above, the “hope and change” he promised has not materialised. His administration has been plagued with numerous criticisms of late, the IRS Scandal just before this NSA one, the perpetuation of drone strikes in the Middle East, the failure to close Guantanamo facilities, the maintainence of the Patriot Act, National Defense Authorisation Act, secret kill lists, etc. It has grown to the point that a petition is on the White House to impeach him. It reads:

“President Richard Nixon resigned after wiretapping a handful of journalists, sparing the nation the ordeal of impeachment. We call on Obama to do the same. His administration vetted the NSA’s surveillance of millions of Americans and seriously violated the Fourth Amendment. He confiscated the personal records of reporters, thus violating the First Amendment, and the IRS under his watch harassed political organizations opposed to his policies. Moreover, his administration has lied under oath to Congress. In addition to violating Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution by invading Libya, his administration engaged in torture and conducted a covert drone war. Due to the severity of these crimes, we call for the immediate resignation of Barack Obama.” (I strongly suggest readers click on each link here to corroborate for themselves the accuracy of these charges)

Let me just raise one specific issue: drones. Pitch Interactive, a Berkeley-based data visualization unit, has created a graphic tracking every drone strike the United States has carried out in Pakistan since 2004. More information can be found in this Huffpost article. What would Senator Obama say if he saw this drone warfare (that has killed children) happening under his watch?

droneC1

Huffington Post ran a headline the other day on US Drone Policy under Obama.

Many people are also oblivious to the National Defense Authorisation Act and the secret kill lists under the Obama administration. In December 2011, President Obama signed the 2012 NDAA, codifying indefinite military detention without charge or trial into law for the first time in American history. The NDAA’s dangerous detention provisions would authorize the president — and all future presidents — to order the military to pick up and indefinitely imprison people captured anywhere in the world, far from any battlefield. It was again extended over the New Year in 2013.

It is shocking and repulsive that constitutional rights have been so mangled under big government. Why, under any circumstances, should the federal government have the power to imprison or kill any person they deem a threat without ever giving that person a right to due process? Senator Lindsey Graham’s answer to this question is for the American people to “Shut up!

It didnt have to be this way

Is anyone shocked? I am not. There were some lone voices calling out in the wilderness against Orwellian 1984, in 1984 itself! See this classic:


How would things be different if these warnings were heeded?

Zeitgeist

Just last week I wrote an article entitled “Internet freedom is vital to individual liberty” in response to the latest proposals by Singapore’s MDA to regulate the Internet. I had warned that a failure to achieve a total separation of state and media would only lead to a slippery slope toward tyranny. I did not expect that within just days I would have an excellent example to further prove this point. The NSA scandal comes at a time when it was almost as if they were eager to prove my point right.

The US has gone so far down this road to serfdom; I only hope the tireless, irate, minorities willing to start brushfires of freedom in the minds of men will prevail. But I believe that currently we are in a time of intellectual re-awakening all around the world, where individuals, especially young people, are getting more wary of big government and seeing the sheer bankruptcy of the state.

I leave the reader with two questions:

1) What would it take for you to say: enough is enough, I will start fighting for liberty?
2) How much of your freedom would you give up in order to gain security (real or perceived)?

Notes:

1) Check out the original stories broken by Glenn Greenwald here (on Verizon) and here (on PRISM). They contain a breadth of information which readers should check out.

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Displaying 3 Comments
Have Your Say
  1. Zach Ng Sanyo says:

    Hi, Bryan, this article, like all your other articles, is thought-provoking.

    I’m just wondering about two points:

    1) Someone pointed out that internet companies are privy to our personal details – from the emails we sent, the Facebook comments we left to the articles we read – and these companies aren’t shy to export these personal details for sale to advertisers.

    Does it make sense for the government to know less about us that these money-making companies?

    This discussion about ethics of public policy and privacy rights is interesting. BUT it doesn’t seem rooted in today’s reality where our personal details are already collated without our complete awareness, especially since we tend to click ‘I agree’ whenever any window pops up without going through the full legal details listed on that window. The debate about ethics is fascinating, but hardly practical.

    It seems, to me at least, that learning how to deal with such easily accessible information about people should be the way forward, rather than a passionate ‘the government should not have my information!’ outcry.

    2)I think that you’re conflating the two issues. The NSA scandal is different in its intentions from the latest MDA regulations. The NSA purports to collect information about the public; it does not control what the public reads.

    The MDA regulations, however, is about having a modicum of control over the online materials that the public reads.

    Like you, I’m confused and disappointed with the latest MDA rulings. However, I don’t think that the two issues are comparable. They are different in their natures and intentions.

    Regards.

    • Bryan Cheang Bryan Cheang says:

      Hi Sanyo, thank you for your reply. You raise good questions here.

      1) The difference between private companies knowing our information and government getting our information is that the former is voluntary and based on consent, the latter, on coercion that you cannot escape from.

      If we are not happy with private companies getting our information, we can always opt out of it. Or if they break a contractual obligation to us, they can be punished (eg when giving away our information if we did not contractually consent to it).

      Ethics by definition is of course not practical. But ethics can help guide our choices when we reflect on various alternatives. I wanted to focus on ethics because many might just focus on the practical effects of censorship or non censorship. I think principles and practical considerations should be reflected together. No problem with that.

      Also, my stand is not a dogmatic “government should not get any information”. The government has a role to play which requires our information, but it has to be done via the rule of law through proper procedures, without infringing on rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights for example. Thats why the NSA case is so distasteful.

      2) You correctly pointed out that the MDA regulation is meant to curtail our access to information, while the NSA is about obtaining information. I am fully aware of this. But my argument is not weakened by this distinction because it is not founded on it.

      My focus was that both the NSA and MDA regulation represents the expansion of government power over the individual and his rights. The MDA regulation is a state-initiative that infringes on the right to free speech and right to own private property and transact with it. The NSA snooping is an infringement on the 4th amendment and the right to privacy. In both cases the individual becomes less free in the face of a leviathan state.

      I, am just like you, disappointed abt the MDA’s rulings. But, unlike you, I am not confused, because the nature of the state is very predictable, it acts in certain ways and seeks to maintains its position always. My hope is that we will know this well so we will not be shocked when something like that happens again.

      Once again, thank you very much for your comments, appreciate them.

    • Zach Ng Sanyo says:

      Thanks for the clarification, Bryan! I’ll muse about what you said :]

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about the author

Bryan Cheang

- Bryan is a Political Science and History undergraduate at NUS. His academic interests revolve around libertarian and classical liberal political philosophy, free market economics and modern American/European history. He blogs on bryancheang.com

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