Peter Van Buren: Bradley Manning, Surveillance State Creep, and the Emergence of Post-Constitutional America

Yves here. Van Buren looks at how severely the Constitution has been eroded and catalogues elements of both monitoring and legal abuses that have not gotten the attention they warrant. For instance, while there has been considerable outrage about how the conditions of Bradley Manning’s confinement were tantamount to torture, many readers have given his trial a free pass. The attitude has been “It was a military trial, what did you expect?” In fact, as Van Buren reports, the conduct of the trial itself was as far from established norms as Manning’s detention was. Van Buren also describes how various policing and surveillance techniques developed in combat zones are being brought to the US.

By Peter Van Buren, who blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraq Reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. Van Buren’s next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, will be available March 2014. Cross posted from TomDispatch

On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”

Two hundred thirty-five years later, on July 30, 2013, Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 of the 22 charges for which he was prosecuted, specifically for “espionage” and for videos of war atrocities he released, but not for “aiding the enemy.”

Days after the verdict, with sentencing hearings in which Manning could receive 136 years of prison time ongoing, the pundits have had their say. The problem is that they missed the most chilling aspect of the Manning case: the way it ushered us, almost unnoticed, into post-Constitutional America.

The Weapons of War Come Home

Even before the Manning trial began, the emerging look of that new America was coming into view.  In recent years, weapons, tactics, and techniques developed in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in the war on terror have begun arriving in “the homeland.”

Consider, for instance, the rise of the warrior cop, of increasingly up-armored police departments across the country often filled with former military personnel encouraged to use the sort of rough tactics they once wielded in combat zones. Supporting them are the kinds of weaponry that once would have been inconceivable in police departments, including armored vehicles, typically bought with Department of Homeland Security grants. Recently, the director of the FBI informed a Senate committee that the Bureau was deploying its first drones over the United States.  Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security and already flying an expanding fleet of Predator drones, the very ones used in America’s war zones, is eager to arm them with “non-lethal” weaponry to “immobilize targets of interest.”

Above all, surveillance technology has been coming home from our distant war zones. The National Security Agency (NSA), for instance, pioneered the use of cell phones to track potential enemy movements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NSA did this in one of several ways. With the aim of remotely turning on cell phones as audio monitoring or GPS devices, rogue signals could be sent out through an existing network, or NSA software could be implanted on phones disguised as downloads of porn or games.

Using fake cell phone towers that actually intercept phone signals en route to real towers, the U.S. could harvest hardware information in Iraq and Afghanistan that would forever label a phone and allow the NSA to always uniquely identify it, even if the SIM card was changed. The fake cell towers also allowed the NSA to gather precise location data for the phone, vacuum up metadata, and monitor what was being said.

At one point, more than 100 NSA teams had been scouring Iraq for snippets of electronic data that might be useful to military planners. The agency’s director, General Keith Alexander, changed that: he devised a strategy called Real Time Regional Gateway to grab every Iraqi text, phone call, email, and social media interaction. “Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official. “Collect it all, tag it, store it, and whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

Sound familiar, Mr. Snowden?

Welcome Home, Soldier (Part I)

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the “collect it all” technique employed by the NSA in Iraq would soon enough be used to collect American metadata and other electronically available information, including credit card transactions, air ticket purchases, and financial records. At the vast new $2 billion data center it is building in Bluffdale, Utah, and at other locations, the NSA is following its Iraq script of saving everything, so that once an American became a target, his or her whole history can be combed through. Such searches do not require approval by a court, or even an NSA supervisor. As it happened, however, the job was easier to accomplish in the U.S. than in Iraq, as internet companies and telephone service providers are required by secret law to hand over the required data, neatly formatted, with no messy spying required.

When the U.S. wanted something in Iraq or Afghanistan, they sent guys to kick down doors and take it. This, too, may be beginning to happen here at home. Recently, despite other valuable and easily portable objects lying nearby, computers, and only computers, were stolen from the law offices representing State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn. Similarly, a Washington law firm representing NSA whistleblower Tom Drake had computers, and only computers, stolen from its office.

In these years, the FBI has brought two other NSA wartime tools home. The Bureau now uses a device called Stingray to recreate those battlefield fake cell phone towers and track people in the U.S. without their knowledge. Stingray offers some unique advantages: it bypasses the phone company entirely, which is, of course, handy in a war zone in which a phone company may be controlled by less than cooperative types, or if phone companies no longer cooperate with the government, or simply if you don’t want the phone company or anyone else to know you’re snooping. American phone companies seem to have been quite cooperative. Verizon, for instance, admits hacking its own cellular modems (“air cards”) to facilitate FBI intrusion.

The FBI is also following NSA’s lead implanting spyware and other hacker software developed for our war zones secretly and remotely in American computers and cell phones. The Bureau can then remotely turn on phone and laptop microphones, even webcams, to monitor citizens, while files can be pulled from a computer or implanted onto a computer.

Among the latest examples of war technology making the trip back to the homeland is the aerostat, a tethered medium-sized blimp. Anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will recognize the thing, as one or more of them flew over nearly every military base of any size or importance. The Army recently announced plans to operate two such blimps over Washington, D.C., starting in 2014. Allegedly they are only to serve as anti-missile defenses, though in our war zones they were used as massive surveillance platforms. As a taste of the sorts of surveillance systems the aerostats were equipped with abroad but the Army says they won’t have here at home, consider Gorgon Stare, a system that can transmit live images of an entire town.  And unlike drones, an aerostat never needs to land. Ever.

Welcome Home, Soldier (Part II)

And so to Bradley Manning.

As the weaponry and technology of war came home, so did a new, increasingly Guantanamo-ized definition of justice. This is one thing the Manning case has made clear.

As a start, Manning was treated no differently than America’s war-on-terror prisoners at Guantanamo and the black sites that the Bush administration set up around the world. Picked up on the “battlefield,” Manning was first kept incommunicado in a cage in Kuwait for two months with no access to a lawyer. Then, despite being an active duty member of the Army, he was handed over to the Marines, who also guard Guantanamo, to be held in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia.

What followed were three years of cruel detainment, where, as might well have happened at Gitmo, Manning, kept in isolation, was deprived of clothing, communications, legal advice, and sleep. The sleep deprivation regime imposed on him certainly met any standard, other than Washington’s and possibly Pyongyang’s, for torture. In return for such abuse, even after a judge had formally ruled that he was subjected to excessively harsh treatment, Manning will only get a 112-day reduction in his eventual sentence.

Eventually the Obama administration decided Manning was to be tried as a soldier before a military court. In the courtroom, itself inside a military facility that also houses NSA headquarters, there was a strikingly gulag-like atmosphere.  His trial was built around secret witnesses and secret evidence; severe restrictions were put on the press — the Army denied press passes to 270 of the 350 media organizations that applied; and there was a clear appearance of injustice. Among other things, the judge ruled against nearly every defense motion.

During the months of the trial, the U.S. military refused to release official transcripts of the proceedings. Even a private courtroom sketch artist was barred from the room. Independent journalist and activist Alexa O’Brien then took it upon herself to attend the trial daily, defy the Army, and make an unofficial record of the proceedings by hand. Later in the trial, armed military police were stationed behind reporters listening to testimony. Above all, the feeling that Manning’s fate was predetermined could hardly be avoided. After all, President Obama, the former Constitutional law professor, essentially proclaimed him guilty back in 2011 and the Department of Defense didn’t hesitate to state more generally that “leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.”

As at Guantanamo, rules of evidence reaching back to early English common law were turned upside down. In Manning’s case, he was convicted of espionage, even though the prosecution did not have to prove either his intent to help another government or that harm was caused; a civilian court had already paved the way for such a ruling in another whistleblower case. In addition, the government was allowed to label Manning a “traitor” and an “anarchist” in open court, though he was on trial for neither treason nor anarchy. His Army supervisor in the U.S. and Iraq was allowed to testify against him despite having made biased and homophobic statements about him in a movie built around portraying Manning as a sad, sexually-confused, attention-seeking young man mesmerized by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Finally, the same judge who essentially harassed the press throughout Manning’s trial issued a 24-hour advance notice of her verdict to ensure maximum coverage only of the denouement, not the process.

Given all this, it is small comfort to know that Manning, nailed on the Espionage Act after multiple failures in other cases by the Obama administration, was not convicted of the extreme charge of “aiding the enemy.”

Not Manning Alone

Someday, Manning’s case may be seen as a bitter landmark on the road to a post-Constitutional America, but it won’t be seen as the first case in the development of the post-Constitutional system. Immediately following 9/11, top officials in the Bush administration decided to “take the gloves off.” Soon after, a wounded John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, was captured on an Afghan battlefield, held in a windowless shipping container, refused access to a lawyer even after he demanded one as an American citizen, and interrogated against his will by the FBI. Access to medical care was used as a bribe to solicit information from him. “Evidence” obtained by such means was then used to convict him in court.

Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who clumsily plotted to detonate a nonexistent “dirty bomb,” was held incommunicado for more three years, over a year of which was in a South Carolina military jail. He was arrested only as a material witness and was not formally charged with a crime until years later. He was given no means to challenge his detention under habeas corpus, as President Bush designated him an “enemy combatant.” Pictures of Padilla being moved wearing sound-proof and light-proof gear strongly suggest he was subjected to the same psychosis-inducing sensory deprivation used as “white torture” against America’s foreign enemies in Guantanamo.

Certainly, the most egregious case of pre-Manning post-Constitutional justice was the execution of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by drone in Yemen, without due process or trial, for being an al-Qaeda propagandist. In this, President Obama and his top counterterrorism advisors quite literally took on the role of judge, jury, and executioner.  In a similar fashion, again in Yemen, the U.S. killed al-Awlaki’s American teenage son, a boy no one claimed was connected to terrorism. Obama administration lawyers went on to claim the legal right to execute U.S. citizens without trial or due process and have admitted to killing four Americans. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted.”

Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, asked in a Congressional hearing if the FBI could assassinate an American citizen in the United States, replied that he simply did not know. “I have to go back. Uh, I’m not certain whether that was addressed or not.” He added, “I’m going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice.” As if competing for an Orwellian prize, an unnamed Obama administration official told the Washington Post, “What constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war.”

Post-Constitutional America

So welcome to post-Constitutional America. Its shape is, ominously enough, beginning to come into view.

Orwell’s famed dystopian novel 1984 was not intended as an instruction manual, but just days before the Manning verdict, the Obama administration essentially buried its now-ironic-campaign promise to protect whistleblowers, sending it down Washington’s version of the memory hole. Post-9/11, torture famously stopped being torture if an American did it, and its users were not prosecutable by the Justice Department.

Similarly, full-spectrum spying is not considered to violate the Fourth Amendment and does not even require probable cause. Low-level NSA analysts have desktop access to the private emails and phone calls of Americans. The Post Office photographs the envelopes of every one of the 160 billion pieces of mail it handles, collecting the metadata of “to:” and “from:” addresses. An Obama administration Insider Threat Program requires federal employees (including the Peace Corps) to report on the suspicious behavior of coworkers.

Government officials concerned over possible wrongdoing in their departments or agencies who “go through proper channels” are fired or prosecuted. Government whistleblowers are commanded to return to face justice, while law-breakers in the service of the government are allowed to flee justice. CIA officers who destroy evidence of torture go free, while a CIA agent who blew the whistle on torture is locked up.

Secret laws and secret courts can create secret law you can’t know about for “crimes” you don’t even know exist.  You can nonetheless be arrested for committing them. Thanks to the PATRIOT Act, citizens, even librarians, can be served by the FBI with a National Security Letter (not requiring a court order) demanding records and other information, and gagging them from revealing to anyone that such information has been demanded or such a letter delivered.  Citizens may be held without trial, and denied their Constitutional rights as soon as they are designated “terrorists.” Lawyers and habeas corpus are available only when the government allows.

In the last decade, 10 times as many employers turned to FBI criminal databases to screen job applicants. The press is restricted when it comes to covering “open trials.” The war on whistleblowers is metastasizing into a war on the First Amendment. People may now be convicted based on secret testimony by unnamed persons. Military courts and jails can replace civilian ones. Justice can be twisted and tangled into an almost unrecognizable form and then used to send a young man to prison for decades. Claiming its actions lawful while shielding the “legal” opinions cited, often even from Congress, the government can send its drones to assassinate its own citizens.

One by one, the tools and attitudes of the war on terror, of a world in which the “gloves” are eternally off, have come home. The comic strip character Pogo’s classic warning — “We have met the enemy and he is us” — seems ever less like a metaphor. According to the government, increasingly we are now indeed their enemy.

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  1. allcoppedout

    In the UK we have RIPA (2000) – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. If one ever discovered oneself under surveillance, one has to go to Judicial Review at great expense (no legal aid available – so this is a law discriminating between rich and poor) to try and find out why and stop the process. Even then you can simply be told you may or may not have been under surveillance and may or may not be told what it was all about – totally at State discretion.

    All the points in this excellent review apply throughout Europe. The real killer is that jobs are now very scarce and police checks are being made that are irrelevant in 99% of cases. We had an outfit called the ‘Economic League’ here – neo-con scum with a blacklist. Such must be much easier to put together now. This is an area where the big data approach would catch us all – neo-con scum being enough to black list me – and they might also list everyone else on a blog with a black-lister.

    It’s dire and I found that even I had ‘conspiracy’ feelings as I read – this is an indication of the extent to which they have got ‘retaliation in first’ even amongst those of us who already believe they have gone too far.

    1. from Mexico

      There was a time when George Orwell could boast that “it was not possible” for the members of the British ruling class “to turn themselves into mere bandidts, like the American millionaires, consciously clinging to unjust privileges and beating down opposition by bribery and tear-gas bombs.” (Orwell, “England Your England”) He could furthermore boast that the British ruling class, if it were completely corrupt, would have come to an agreement with Hitler. “But — and here the peculiar feature of English life that I have spoken of, the deep sense of national solidarity, comes in — they could only do so by breaking up the Empire and selling their own people into semi-slavery. A truly corrupt class would have done this without hesitaiton, as in France. But things had not gone that distance in England.”

      I’m not as sanguine as Orwell, and have a much more cynical view of what impeded the British ruling class. It wasn’t so much an abiding sense of noblesse oblige, but imperial overreach and national decline that stopped them in their tracks. “The Weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of its fate,” as Joseph Chamberlain told the Colonial Conference in 1902.

      But regardless of whether the British ruling class could or could not legitimately claim moral one-upmanship on Europe and the US in 1941, such claims these days completely lack legitimacy.

      This is where Morris Berman and I part ways. Earlier this year Berman gave an interview to the radio station at the University of Monterrey. The subtext of his discussion was this — blame America for everything. However, I believe many of the things Berman blames on America are better laid at the feet of the Enlightenment, Modernism, the Western tradition, or human nature itself.

      Here’s the interview:

      1. TimR

        fM, Berman doesn’t give the Enlightenment/Science/Modernism a total pass if you read his _The Reenchantment of the World_, where he talks about the valuable parts of pre-modern worldviews that have been rashly (if inevitably) discarded..

        Also, on the Brits not collaborating w/ Hitler- I just read an interview (Lars Schall and G. Preparata, author “Conjuring Hitler”) where the latter talks about how the actual history is much more complicated (or at least little known) than the storybook WWII we all get.. I can’t condense it because I’m still absorbing it, and need to read more about it.

        1. nobody

          The book can be found here:

          I, for one, do not know what to make of it. There are several reasons to be wary of his assessment. For one thing, I have read Veblen’s review of The Economic Consequences of the Peace more than once and I just don’t see what Preparata thinks he sees in it (“The Veblenian Prophecy”). Second, it seems problematic to me to be citing David Irving. Third, apparently he believes in a Christian cosmology and truly thinks that human events are to be understood in terms of a struggle between spiritual forces. That said, my gut instinct is that there is a substantial gap between the real history of the last century and what we think it is, and that there are veins in his work worth mining.

  2. polistra

    We’ve been “post-constitutional” for a LOOOOOOONG time.

    Lincoln eliminated the 10th Amendment, and successive regimes have calmly deleted nearly all of the rest.

    Basically the only parts that aren’t routinely violated on a daily basis are: (1) Obsolete stuff like letters of marque and reprisal. Nobody is doing those things anyway, so the government doesn’t violate the rules about them. (2) Some of the bits that specify terms and conditions of employment. President must be 35, senators serve 6 years, etc.

    Everything else is gone.

  3. ambrit

    On a close to home front here in America, we have local cops cruising the parking lots of retail vendors scanning license plates. These were private property rights issues once. Now they are Police State issues. If the cop finds an outstanding warrant, he or she gets an easy bust, another object of tribute to the Imperial Treasury. The rest of the information goes somewhere, to flesh out some Aparatchiks State Security Algorithm. There’s the rub; the numbers don’t lie, but the uses to which you put them to most certainly can.
    The only consolation in all this that I can find is that nothing lasts forever.

  4. Maju

    From abroad: absolutely in agreement. It even feels a bit mild and incomplete (but understandable because it’s just so overwhelmning).

    Since 9-11 the USA, Europe and almost the whole World have been suffering that slide to totalitarianism which has not almost been challenged at all (certainly not from mainstream politicians nor journalists, with the rare and shy exception). On September 2013, Obama will sign again the emergency state decree that has kept, along with other measures, the USA under exceptional legislation for more than a decade already.

    In many aspects it reminds of the rapid evolution of the Roman Republic to the Imperial rule: neither “imperator” nor “princeps” were originally monarchic or even any kind of official titles, just institutional flattery to the de-facto strongman who arose after decades of “unconstitutional” rule by the triumvires; the Republic was never abolished, it just became irrelevant and new militaristic institutions arose to take its role.

    Exactly as it’s happening right now before our eyes. The difference may be that this seems to be a more conscious effort to replicate the Roman transition to the imperial dictatorship. It is ironical that, in the name of patriotism and defense against a ghostly and surely fake enemy, the whole USA is being dismantled in favor of something relatively new and in any case totally anti-democratic.

    I still hope that the whole conspiracy (not “conspiranoia”) will not succeed because of the extreme challenge that such an imperial rule poses, especially in the midst of a major economic crisis and the most complex ecological catastrophe that Humankind has ever met, and also because of the new social and political networking ways arosen with the Internet… but it is very scary in any case.

    1. from Mexico

      Maju says:

      Since 9-11 the USA, Europe and almost the whole World have been suffering that slide to totalitarianism which has not almost been challenged at all (certainly not from mainstream politicians nor journalists, with the rare and shy exception).

      A few days ago a Mexican writer, Pierre Charasse, published a couple of articles in one of the Mexico City dailies in which he grappled with the conundrum of why Europe would so blithely concede to such an outcome:

      He attributes Europe’s obeisance to what he calls “the new Stockholdm Syndrome.”

      That the European ruling class is marching in lockstep with the US ruling class is undeniable, and was fleshed out by a post from links a few days ago:

      In this second phase, the German political elite has shifted its feet; rather than trying to deny any involvement whatsoever, they have instead tried to interpret the possibility of something really outrageous as being necessary for your security, and part of fundamental alliance commitments which cannot be questioned within the limits of respectable discourse. The ur-text here is Die Zeit‘s interview with Angela Merkel, in which Merkel argues that she knew nothing, further that there was a balance to strike between freedom and security, that although some kinds of spying were unacceptable, the alliance came first. The effectiveness of this, at least in the context of the interview, can be measured by astonishingly uncritical questions like the one in which she was asked “what additional efforts were necessary from the Germans to maintain their competitiveness”.

      I see things a little bit differently than Charasse, however, because I view the neoliberal project as being a supranational endeavor. From my point of view the complicity of the European ruling class is explained by the fact that it is working for the same paymaster as the US ruling class: the transnational corporate class.

      1. allcoppedout

        My sense as a young Britisher was that the US was the beacon of democratic hope – but I was brought up on half-stories sometimes as wrong as that Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 53 BC. WW1 & 2 were both fought by a democratic Britain against fascist, authoritarian Germany. In the same trance, I imagined the Opium Wars about the Royal Navy chasing down drug pushers! I wasn’t really disabused of this until I found myself in Northern Ireland “protecting” against the Marxist-Leninist IRA. This bunk is still around to swallow, and is best summed-up in the ‘nuke Rio’ attitude during the Falklands. By then I had hands on experience of doing ‘British protection’ – a matter of deep shame for me and colleagues from them I still know. This despite a deeply socialist father.
        Now I’d probably go further than Mexico. Our anti-Nazi group before WW2 was led by Churchill, a ghastly creature who ordered troops to fire on striking miners (1890s) and may have been a US agent. Whatever the truth, the Boys Own history won’t do, but is continued in our media.
        Further back, the ability to take the lash amongst European peasantry is legendary and what revolutions we have had generally produced tyranny, hardly much encouragement to try again.
        My working hypothesis is that today’s information gathering has been going on since the Byzantine Empire and the electronic form changes much less than we think. With the exception of Scandinavia we have all failed to bring about democratic foreign policy and prevent engagement in imperialist wars. It has remained utterly obvious that the rich get much more favourable treatment under our laws, often because representation is non-existent. My guess is we cannot face up to real history in an almost Freudian sense of pushing it away. We are also getting old in population proportion.
        We should remember Canadian soldiers were kept in appalling conditions in Wales after WW1 – some died – because the establishment considered them a rebellion risk – and broke Britain just happened to have an 80,000 man army in Egypt in 1956 and we killed 28,000 Indonesians in a secret war, mostly under genuine Labour government in the 70s.

        My guess is we have been under the cosh for a very long time and preferred to look away. That the big data is not being used against the banksters, but we bring harmless jokers to court and convict them should tell us all. Apathy is the main European emotion, maybe even in our sex.

        1. psychohistorian

          The Transnational Corporate class reports to the folks that own it all, and have for centuries.

          I believe that the fringes of this inheritance fed plutocracy changes over time but the core is and has been the result of consistent, conscious linage…..accumulated private ownership of property.

          When is Michael Moore going to do a expose on INHERITANCE?

        2. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

          You mentioned the Opium Wars, about which I suppose few Brits today know the real history. As you may know, around 1900 there was the “Boxer Rebellion” in late Qing Dynasty China, and the Siege of the (Diplomatic) Legation Headquarters, 1900. The Great Powers sent troops to break the siege:,_Beijing_1900
          Sterling and Peggy Seagrave wrote a book on the Dowager Empress of China who was nomimally in power (late Qing…) at the time. They say that she was falsely portrayed in the West, and they say that more looting of Chinese treasure than has been acknowledged happened during the break of the Siege of the Legations. All that was 113 years ago. In my opinion, Foreign Office archives about that should be declassified entirely, if it hasn’t already happened (but I would not bet on all having been made publically available at the UK National Archives).

      2. Chauncey Gardiner

        Agree regarding the supranational character.

        Their stealth template (Link from CNN)?

        “Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution before anyone knew. It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don’t we learn from that method?” —Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso; August 1, 2013

        In 1933, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists turned the democratic Weimar Republic into a dictatorship using “a combination of legal procedure, persuasion, and terror,” according to the U.S. Library of Congress.

        Hitler used a fire that burned down the parliament building as a pretext to suppress the opposition through an emergency clause in the constitution. He then pushed through the Enabling Act, which allowed him to govern without parliament and vastly extend the Nazis’ grip on power. —

        The strategy and tactics being applied appear to be similar.

        1. from Mexico

          Nothing has really changed since the 1870 to 1945 era. The imperialist project, previously known as liberal internationalism or liberal imperialism, has a new name – neoliberalism – but other than that everything else is the same. Europe and the non-US Anglosphere are now junior partners, but they are still very much on board with the imperialist project. And imperialism and its racist ideology still come cloaked as patriotism, lurking behind the more beguiling disguise of nationalism — of national unity and national interest — as Hannah Arendt explains:

          The curious weakness of popular opposition to imperialism, the numerous inconsistencies and outright broken promises of liberal statesmen, frequently ascribed to opportunism or bribery, have other and deeper causes. Neither opportunism nor bribery could have persuaded a man like Gladstone to break his promise, as the leader of the Liberal Party, to evacuate Egypt when he became Prime Minister. Half consciously and hardly articulately, these men shared with the people the conviction that the national body itself was so deeply split into classes, that class struggle was so universal a characteristic of modern political life, that the very cohesion of the nation was jeopardized. Expansion again appeared as a lifesaver, if and insofar as it could provide a common interest for the nation as a whole, and it is mainly for this reason that imperialists were allowed to become “parasites upon patriotism.”

          Partly, of course, such hopes still belonged with the old vicious practice of “healing” domestic conflicts with foreign adventures. The difference, however, is marked. Adventures are by their very nature limited in time and space; they may succeed temporarily in overcoming conflicts, although as a rule they fail and tend rather to sharpen them. From the very beginning the imperialist adventure of expansion appeared to be an eternal solution, because expansion was conceived as unlimited. Furthermore, imperialism was not an adventure in the usual sense, because it depended less on nationalist slogans than on the seemingly solid basis of economic interests. In a society of clashing interests, where the common good was identified with the sum total of individual interests, expansion as such appeared to be a possible common interest of the nation as a whole. Since the owning and dominant classes had convinced everybody that economic interest and the passion for ownership are a sound basis for the body politic, even the non-imperialist statesmen were easily persuaded to yield when a common economic interest appeared on the horizon.

          These then are the reasons why nationalism developed so clear a tendency toward imperialism, the inner contradiction of the two principles notwithstanding. The more ill-fitted nations were for the incorporation of foreign peoples (which contradicted the constitution of their own body politic), the more they were tempted to oppress them. In theory, there is an abyss between nationalism and imperialism; in practice, it can and has been bridged by tribal nationalism and outright racism. From the beginning, imperialists in all countries preached and boasted of their being “beyond the parties,” and the only ones to speak for the nation as a whole…

          The cry for unity resembled exactly the battle cries which had always led peoples to war; and yet, nobody detected in the universal and permanent instrument of unity the germ of universal and permanent war.

          –HANNAH ARENDT, The Origins of Totalitarianism

          I of course disagree with Arendt when she asserts that “Neither opportunism nor bribery could have persuaded a man like Gladstone to break his promise.” Here I side with John Adams:

          Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.

          Or to put it much more bluntly:

          It is a common phenomenon for a ponerogenic association or group to contain a particular ideology which always justifies its activities and furnishes motivational propaganda. Even a small-time gang of hoodlums has its own melodramatic ideology and pathological romanticism. Human nature demands that vile matters be haloed by an over-compensatory mystique in order to silence one’s conscience and to deceive consciousness and critical faculties, whether one’s own or those of others.

          If such a ponerogenic union could be stripped of its ideology, nothing would remain except psychological and moral pathology, naked and unattractive.

          –ANDREW M. LOBACZEWSKI, Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes

          1. psychohistorian

            Nice quotes.

            I think the current ideology is in the process of being deprecated because it isn’t working for many.

            To me the social agreement around inheritance and ongoing accumulation of private ownership of property is essential to understanding our class structure. If we could change that structurally and “eliminate” the top 10%, I think it would change social incentive drastically for the better. But there also needs to be a way to disabuse ourselves of the theory that this planet is ours to use up, and I put the blame for that at the foot of Xtianity.

            The secrecy exposures are so critical because they are showing the iron fist in the velvet glove of “animal spirits” is a reality, not a conspiracy theory.

            What are your current thoughts about where we can/should/will go from here?

      1. nobody

        If you do not hope, you will not win that which is not hoped for, since it is unattainable and inaccessible. There is nothing permanent except change. War is the father and king of all.

  5. Clive

    What’s even more creepy to me is when you’re working for a big corporation how you’re expected to show Moonie-like devotion to the cause (that cause being far, far from wholesome) and the enterprise surveillance system and other measures such as performance monitoring are extremely adept at spotting the potential miscreants. It’s not that many steps away from being the Thought Police.

    Never having lived in a country with a documented constitution, I’ve always been a little sceptical that it brings an awful lot of protection to the average citizen (US residents seem to take it very seriously though so maybe I’m wrong and it does represent a significant limit to the power — and potential abuses — of the state).

    But a fat lot of good that is if the only work you can get is with one of a succession of enterprises that a) want to own your whole life and b) will expel you if you’re not a True Believer. The counterargument is, you can quit and get another job. But the more the world of employment turns into cookie-cutter replicas of the same model, the harder this turns out to do in practice.

    As for me, I’m faking it as hard as I can. But it’s more and more difficult to keep one step ahead, I’ll get found out eventually !

    So sorry Bradley, you were doomed from the start.

    1. hunkerdown

      Frankly, it serves as the national monarch. The figurehead to which all citizens must adhere and whose fall must never be imagined.

  6. Skeptic

    Opting In or Out of your Default Life

    A technique now in use by the Stasi and Corporations is the Optout or Optin Option. The most famous use is at the airport by the Inyerpantsers. It is your right, of course, to optout of the scanner abuse. But if you do so, holy hell breaks out and you are pointed out to all present as a pariah, anti-American, possibly a terrorist or someone who sympathisizes with them. So, exercising a right in America has become a wrong. You will be punished. This is classic Schoolyard Bully.

    A variation of this which we seem to see and hear of more and more is by the police. “Can we search your car, house, computer……” If you exercise your right to say no, particularly at 2AM, you may be dealt with harshly and, again, a pariah, anti-American, possibly a terrorist or someone who sympathizes with them.

    The latest American Poodle in England, David Cameron, successor to the last lap dog, Tony Bliar, is running an Optin variation in England. One of the big reasons for the English decline is pornography according to Cameron. Therefore, the default for Internet providers will be NO PORN. If you want porn, you, you despicable, degenerate, etc. non-human must OPTIN to get it. So, there, have your porn, you……..

    This leads also to the fact that apparently most users of a service accept the defaults and never change them. Thus we have more and more corporations using optin optout. So, next time, you may just get that Apple Pie because that’s the default.

    Governing all the above, there now seems to be a prevalent belief in America today that the only rights you have are the ones a majority of the population thinks you should have. I would suspect that the Stasi are working overtime on these coercive techniques probably with the assistance of expert Game Theorists, Psychologists and Sociologists.

    So, NSA, here’s a good name for your program OPTERATION BAFFLE.

  7. David

    This passage from Solzhenitsyn came to mind during the GW Bush years, but it’s probably more apt now: “If … we count the numbers imprisoned … and then add three times that number for the members of their families – banished, suspected, humiliated and persecuted – then we shall be forced to admit to our astonishment that for the first time in history the people had become its own enemy, though in return it acquired the best of friends – the secret police.” The Gulag Archipelago Two, Chapter 10: In Place of Politicals

  8. Brooklin Bridge

    Manning was held in prison for (10?) months without being formally charged with a crime. That alone would have commanded a full front page of all major news papers only 20 years ago. It seems you can get away with anything as long as you burry it in enough outrageous other stuff you are getting away with.

    American manufacturing invented world scale volume but since “materialism” is so, ahem, vulgar, we turned our ingenuity to manufacturing something more abstract, corruption, rather than material things, but on the same overwhelming scale.

  9. Brooklin Bridge

    If your computer isn’t protected against things like key-stroke capture, then all The Onion Routers in the world won’t hide a thing.

    I wonder if anything is safe (or private) short of pre 2001 hardware and software.

  10. Jerry

    Just how much is being spent on all this during this economic recession/depression? Isn’t this just a side door to continue to provide money to the military instead of providing for the needs of communities? And all those distractions…blame for everything else…too much spent on education, welfare, retires, …sudden chatter about attack. It’s the old pick pocket game….distract (or scare) them while you rob their pockets!!!
    But we’re too smart to let them rob us to give the money to the military/NSA and corp welfare….let’s not loose our focus that it is the 1% and over government that are the real problem. Time for a new political party.

  11. William Falberg

    The solution; if you can see how the dots connect:

    28th Amendment (aka Corporate Firewall Amendment)
    Corporations are not persons and shall be granted only those rights and privileges that Congress deems necessary for the well-being of the People. Congress shall provide legislation defining the terms and conditions of corporate charters according to their purpose; which shall include, but are not limited to:
    1, prohibitions against any corporation;
    a, owning another corporation,
    b, becoming economically indispensable or monopolistic, or
    c, otherwise distorting the general economy;
    2, prohibitions against any form of intervention in the affairs of government by means of;
    a, congressional lobbying
    b, electoral sponsorship or advocacy
    c, educational sponsorship or publication
    d, media news reporting
    3, provisions for;
    a, the auditing of standardized, current, and transparent account books
    b, closing the FRB and the establishment of state-owned banks
    c, civil and criminal penalties to be suffered by corporate executives et al for violation of the terms of a corporate charter.

    Optional: (or possible 29th amendment)
    The 16th Amendment to the United States Constitution is hereby repealed and Congress shall re-write the U.S. Code to reflect the changes embodied herein.
    (While we’re at it, we could also repeal the 17th amendment)

      1. psychohistorian

        Capitalism does not exist anyway so what are we doing?

        We need as a species to regulate against our anti-social tendencies. Things like rule of law and the sort have value if they are kept simple and managed consciously on an ongoing basis. We have not done this in the past, we jamb a stake in the ground with lots of good intentions but do not do enough follow up in the long run or create processes that are designed to evolve within the core purpose.

        Since we will soon be faced with nuclear management for a thousand generations or so, why don’t we design social systems that will keep a safe environment for that imperative nuclear management to exist?

        1. William Falberg

          That IS the problem, isn’t it. We’re living in a social system designed by and for the benefit of corporations and the predators that use them to gain un-earned advantage. Incorporation is the process by which we form governments; not businesses. (Not unless you want to be ruled by corporations, that is.)

          We really need more thinking folks like you to take the ideological lead and social responsibility needed to de-bunk the notion that corporatism is the same as capitalism. They’re not the same at all.

          It won’t all fit in a bumper sticker but I think you “get it”; and thanks for jumping in.

          1. nobody

            We’re living in a social system that is several millennia old. It’s not question of “corporations” and “capitalism.” It’s older than that.

            1. William Falberg

              “It’s older than that.”
              Yes. But it is evolving. Do you want to control that evolution, or are you content to let the predators do that?

              If political philosophers and journalists don’t step up and speak for humanity you can be sure the predators will establish a system that best suits their ambitions. So far, corporatism is working quite well – for them. How’s it working for you?

              1. nobody

                “Do you want to control that evolution, or are you content to let the predators do that?”

                I want to see that d/evolution collaboratively transformed. I think we need to describe the situation correctly if ecocide is to be forestalled. I think that describing the situation in terms of “capitalism” and “corporations” is too shallow.

                “If political philosophers and journalists don’t step up and speak for humanity you can be sure the predators…”

                Most political philosophers and ‘journalists’ aren’t, and won’t. The Wolinses and the Hedges are pretty few and far between. I don’t expect that to change, for reasons best explained by Upton Sinclair (“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”).

                “…will establish a system that best suits their ambitions.”

                Such a system is already established.

                “So far, corporatism is working quite well – for them. How’s it working for you?”

                It’s not working for me. And I doubt it will work well for them either, in the near to middle future.

                1. William Falberg

                  “………describing the situation in terms of “capitalism” and “corporations” is too shallow.”

                  That depends on whom you ask. For most folks, the difference between capitalism and corporatism is too deep. For tactical reasons it’s probably best to keep it simple.

                  The details are in the amendment if you examine it closely.

                  1. Maju

                    For most folks there is absolutely no difference: who owns the capital? Corporations (or more precisely their individual major stockholders, whose real identity is often opaque). There’s absolutely no difference between Capitalism and its historical legal tool: the corporation.

                    Only right-wingers rant about there being any difference, and only in the USA.

                    1. William Falberg

                      “There’s absolutely no difference between Capitalism and its historical legal tool: the corporation.”

                      Is there, then, no difference between the carpenter and the hammer?

                    2. Maju

                      You’re trying to be nit-picky. However your metaphore fails: unlike Capitalism and corporations, Carpentry existed long before hammers: only since the Metal Ages began nails to be used, previously carpentry pieces were sewn with ropes and strings or joined with mortar-and-tenison joints (so no obvious need for hammers, not sure if they used them at all). This is rather the opposite: corporations existed before Capitalism and were a key part of the seed from which it grew. Corporations are in the genetic code of Capitalism, surely like wood is at the very essence of carpentry.

        2. Maju

          How come “capitalism does not exist”? Do you guys even read Marx and the Marxists at all?! Who coined the name “capitalism”? I’ll tell you: Engels, based on Marx’ ideas. Capitalism is not about mere markets but about large scale global exploitation via corporations, sometimes under state protection.

          Capitalism is the system in which capital (the means of production) are not controlled by the producers (workers) but accumulated by a few individuals (capitalists), who profit from that act of state-protected speculation. The corporation is as old as Capitalism or even older: usually the Dutch East India Company (VOC) is considered the first ever corporation.

          You guys seem to live in a capitalist ideological bubble in which the most basic economic and socio-political notions are distorted beyond recognition.

          This we live in is Capitalism and is re-evolving to its purest, crudest forms at very fast pace. Assuring that people has a decent livehood, as happened in the Cold War, is a concession to Socialism. A concession that Capitalism had to do to survive and that it doesn’t find useful or profitable anymore.

          Corporations are Capitalism, state protection of private profit is Capitalism, unbound private property is Capitalism… but truly free markets are not necessarily a key part of Capitalism, which has an intrinsical and self-destructive monopolistic tendency that its advocates seem to ignore, based only on “economic theory” (that is usually much more ideological dogma than empirical science).

          And when the capitalist (or bourgeois) class is primed so much in the legal and social order against the vast majority (worker class), they accumulate all resources of power and use them to their advantage. And that is Capitalism perfected, it’s stinky and bloody perfection in which only a few oligarchs control everything.

  12. LifelongLib

    In the U.S. since the 1950s at least there has been a large bloc of people who were unhappy with court rulings on schools, civil rights, criminal law, abortion. Thanks to 9/11 we can now get around the courts. Most of the same people think we lost in Vietnam because of student protesters. Now we can restrict public protests. Much of the militarization of police forces stems from the “War on Drugs” which started long before anyone heard of al Queda. Now this can be even more overt.

    9/11 was the excuse, not the cause.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      No need to “get around” the courts. The courts have been pivotal in enabling the haves to pillage the have-nots in such things as a re-definition of the very meaning of ownership and part of that process is their blind unconstitutional encouragement of the secrecy state in all it’s grizzly aspects as expressed in ruling after ruling.

  13. diptherio

    Your tax dollars at work…keep on payin’, suckers.

    It is appalling how many people are willing to knowingly finance their own repression. Afraid of the tax man, people will lay down their dough to support policies they consider evil, pony up their cash to fund that which they profess to despise. It’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic. What will it take, I wonder, to cause a majority (or even a large minority) to withdraw their assent?

    1. jrs

      If a minority (ie one person here and there) does it, it won’t lead anywhere except to the IRS eventually pursuing them. If lots of people did it? Well it would be very visible, so there is that, but we don’t actually need taxes to fund the government right?

  14. Ric Can

    Nothing in this article is a revelation and its scope is intentionally limited yet even this short list of transgressions shows how far “over the rainbow” we’ve gone.

    Secret “classified” law? That’s laughable, or would be if wasn’t so serious. We’ve always understood “ignorance of the law is no defense” and we accept it because the law is published, it’s “on the books” for all to see. We can read it and consult counsel before we break it.

    But now we’re answerable for crimes that only a select few even know exist? My government is actually telling me I can be prosecuted for violating a statute that’s deliberately hidden from me, from the citizenry? There has to be more to the story. Will Diane Feinstein and Mike Rogers’ committee get to the bottom of it? Even if they could be trusted to do so their discovery would undoubtably be classified. Like I said, “over the rainbow.”

    Unfortunately secret courts and secret law, along with the Best-House-Intelligence-Committee-Money-Can-Buy is just one of many offensive developments (offensive in every respect) of America’s perpetual global war on ____?____ (your choice, “terror,” “drugs,” “alien immigration” etc. The list flexibly accomodates the reigning political / financial interets.)

    How can so many of us remain unmoved, placid and deferential regarding this state of affairs? I ask that question even as I wonder whether we are as docile as the MSM would lead viewers to believe. Consider the reporting of the protests happening now, today in America (fast food workers, the Dream Defenders); it’s non-existent on the evening news and the national print media seems to be AWOL as well.

    We do have some good news concerning the overreach of the NSA and government syping. The latest Pew poll finds that for the first time since the question was asked (2004) more Americans believe the government has “gone too far” restriting citizens’ rights in the name of protecting us from terrorism, as opposed to “not far enough.” Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian published an article about the poll and its implications last week. He notes that Jim Sensenbrenner is now openly questioning the efficacy of the Patriot Act…so there’s hope my friends. We’ve allowed our government to haul us “over the rainbow” but at least now it seems we’re finally able to see it.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Unfortunately secret courts and secret law, along with the Best-House-Intelligence-Committee-Money-Can-Buy is just one of many offensive developments (offensive in every respect) of America’s perpetual global war on ____?____ (your choice, “terror,” “drugs,” “alien immigration” etc. -Ric Can

      How about:

      […] America’s perpetual global war on it’s citizens.


      […] America’s perpetual global war on democracy.

    2. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

      The Public law or laws, say the Patriot Act, is a matter of public record, even if it runs to ‘X’ pages (‘X’ can be anything). There’s something called the Government Printing Office, on the Internet. I think what’s classified (“secret”) is memoranda (singular: memorandum) of law written by Executive Branch attorneys that interpret or justify or explain how things are done pursuant to some section of the Patriot Act and other public laws. Obama mantra #34: Secrecy is good for you.

  15. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

    In French, we have the expression “soupe du jour”, for the soup specially made by the Chef on a certain day. I’m frustrated with the apparently evolving US Constitution, because it’s baffling. So, I have this neologism: “la Constitution du jour” . zfb

  16. Bobito

    The US’s many prison systems have a total size comparable in per capita terms to the size of the much decried Soviet Gulag. Perhaps there are not as many purely political prisoners (though there are some, something no one in the US likes to admit), but the sheer size of the thing should worry everybody. It should worry us not because of some abstract socio-political argument, but because empirically nations with very large and harsh prison systems have been horrible places to live.

    The same argument counters all defenses of surveillance/police state – empirically nations with comparable systems have been terribly repressive. It is delusional to think that now it will be otherwise.

    1. Maju

      Excellent point Bobito: the US prison system, often fed with arbitrary arrests and made-up sentences (mostly to Black People, who in many senses are still treated as slaves) just to make sure that the American Capitalist Gulag is profitable, is a very important, maybe the keystone of what is happening in the USA.

      In the 50s, as part of the anti-communist campaign, White American workers were facilitated to obtain property (homes especially but also cars, etc. the famous “American way of life”) so they became solidarious with the bourgeois oligarchy, by having something to lose. This did not just happen in the USA, Fascist Spain did exactly the same a few years later, for example (although homes here mean small urban apartments rather than suburban whole houses with a garden). But the resulting “crime scare” is a very American thing and a clear symptom of the failure of the state to keep order by clever means of limited redistribution, exactly the same as the homeless epidemic, etc.

      And part of that American way of doing things was to keep Blacks excluded from the benefits of this bourgeois-identification drive (the invention of the “middle class”) and treated as an internal colony (let’s not forget that Apartheid and colonialism was still “normal” back in the day). As result the 60s civil rights and integration campaigns had obstacles that could not be fully overcome: the socio-economic differences were excessive and the majority of African-Americans were bound to marginality (never mind breaking the racist mentality, always difficult, much more if there are class differences like these).

      African-Americans are still the bulk of imprisoned peoples, some are real criminals, arguably driven to that lifestyle by real need and lack of options, but many are convicted on totally absurd lesser crimes. The severity of the prison system is such that you can serve many years for just having some marihuana or cocaine in your pocket, or maybe for stealing a candy bar in the supermarket.

      This fulfills at least two functions: keeping the corporate prison-manufactures (true capitalist gulags) fully manned (and many are framed for that, almost invariably Blacks, exactly the same that many were under Stalin to fill the quotas to be sent to Siberia) and protecting to the extreme the Capitalist order because even the smallest deviations are severely punished. The backfire is that, by comparison, more serious crimes become the logical next step: after all if you will end in prison anyhow, so better be for something big and not a stupid candy bar.

      It’s worth reminding that the California prison system is experiencing a huge hunger-strike against another aspect of the prison system: the arbitrary and extreme punishments for something as normal as greeting another prisoner who is claimed to be a “gang member”. One prisoner has already died.

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