Today, US president Obama will declare that nothing is wrong with the total surveillance system that has grown like a tumor in the once freedom and privacy loving grove of democracy the founding fathers envisioned. The surveillance system has indeed grown and a militaristic logic now is dominant within the US discourse on terror prevention and domestic surveillance. Others would argue that military thinking now is the dominant paradigm within the US elite, resembling a surveillance-industrial complex, much like the military-industrial complex former president Eisenhower warned us about. Eisenhower warned about the growing impact the military and its entanglement with the industry will have on society. He argues that a military mode of thinking and problem solving will become the dominant paradigm (a dispositif in Foucaults words) for politics, ignoring other possible (and more civil) solutions to problems. One can see the effects already. Two examples: First, the civil-military balance has shifted. Within US political discourse, everything is a war – the war on drugs, war on terrorism or even the “war on christmas”. In this regard, even the internet is a means of war. The Cyberwar logic, put forward by the revolution in military affairs during the 1990s sees information not as good that has to flow freely, but rather as a weapon that can be used to disrupt societies. There is a grain of truth in this thought. Ideas are indeed powerful. Think about the idea that Iraq supposedly possessed WMD, which was put forward to legitimize the invasion in 2003.
The second point is, while the founding fathers, socialized in the era of enlightenment, thought that free information was necessary for a democracy to function (because if the people are sovereign you need the best educated people in the world and accurate information to decide about the course of politics), military thinking denies information its role. Within the military dispositif, information is dangerous, it’s a tool of war our enemies can use against us. Therefore, it follows that it must be restricted and managed by a hierarchy of guardians that protect citizens from harmful information. These ideas have grown in the US during the last 20 years. They became embedded within the institutions of the US political system. If you look for example at the review panel for the NSA scandal, you see only people of the security establishment and no societal groups or academics. The surveillance system itself is highly entangled and not transparent at all. There are no efficient checks & balances. All this is the result of a system of surveillance, which has an impact on politicians themselves.
If you take for example Senator Obamas stance on privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of information, you would think to have a different person in front of you. The whole speech can be read here. He talks about how the Patriot Act established a system that violates the very principles of the US constitution.
And if someone wants to know why their own government has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document – through library books they’ve read and phone calls they’ve made – this legislation gives people no rights to appeal the need for such a search in a court of law. No judge will hear their plea, no jury will hear their case.
This is just plain wrong.
Giving law enforcement the tools they need to investigate suspicious activity is one thing – and it’s the right thing – but doing it without any real oversight seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for.
He, like many critics of the NSA practices, argues that the system of oversight is basically cosmetics because it was designed that way. The practices of the FISA court would frighten the founding fathers because it operates against the principles of the rule of law. There is not a big difference between 100% loyal and obedient courts in some third world dictatorship that want to play democracy and the oversight of secret services. Within this system, the voice of the victims cannot be heard and the judges are obedient and willing to sign every search warrant they get. There is no “you have the right to remain silent” anymore. You are forced to remain silent because no one allows you to defend yourself. There is no “You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning” because your data speaks for you. Obama challenges gag-orders, which forbid victims of surveillance to make public that they have been target of surveillance. Imagine being robbed without having the right to sue the perpetrator and demand justice. That is because justice is not the aim of these courts, but security is. They turn the whole logic of checks & balances ad absurdum. Furthermore, Obama blames the US government for going on a “fishing trip” through private data of citizens, collecting every piece of data with a fish-net. Remember, this was back in 2005, when the NSA system was not yet operating at its present capacity.
It is worth to keep the former position of Senator Obama in mind. It vividly shows what a presidency can make out of a person and that Realpolitik strikes when you move into the White House. It is obvious, that the commander in chief has to take care of its country and protect its citizens. But it also shows how exposure to the surveillance system changes beliefs as well as sets of ideas of politicians. That’s a change we can believe in.