The NSA spy scandal is only the beginning to a potentially far more severe challenge to the U.S. government’s legitimacy than Watergate.
The Watergate scandal began quietly enough with the 1972 burglary of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) at the Watergate complex in D.C. Over time, however, this “third-rate” break-in eventually cascaded into revelations that forced the first and only U.S. President, Richard Nixon, to resign. The scandal that was uncovered included Nixon engaging in a full-scale cover-up of his White House team’s warrantless wiretapping of the anti-war movement, his attempts to discredit and prosecute whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (who came by his information through his work as an analyst at the Rand Corporation, a think tank working with the Pentagon), and most unforgivably and significantly from the standpoint of his companions in the ruling circles, his attempt to strong arm by spying upon the Democratic Party with hidden listening devices and break-ins.
Ironically, one of the most decisive factors in Nixon’s eventual resignation was the recorded Oval Office conversations that revealed the real Nixon to the nation – humorless, vindictive, coarse, and contemptuous of the Constitution, the law, and other institutions – in other words, a glimpse into many of the attitudes, especially the last three in this list, of those who run things at the highest levels, then and today.
While it is not my point here to argue that Watergate and NSAgate are eerily similar to each other, there are aspects to each that are similar. Obviously, that which sealed Nixon’s doom in Watergate, his breaking of the unspoken agreement among the two major parties that they would not treat each other the way the parties treat others below them (i.e., the public), is being carried out daily and minute by minute now: every single public official, every single judge and bureaucrat, every single inspector general and internal affairs police officer, every single prosecutor and public defender, is being snooped on and all of their electronic communications are being collected, stored, and monitored.
The difference is that in ruling circles today, this ubiquitous snooping is accepted, with both major parties’ leadership colluding to police not just the whole world’s population by surveillance, state-sponsored violence, and suspension of fundamental civil liberties, but to exact discipline within their own ranks. The purpose of everyone in a position of political power knowing that their every conversation and move is being monitored by the NSA is to forestall any of them from truly breaking ranks. The much vaunted “separation of powers” that you learned about in grade school no longer exists. As former NSA insiders cum whistleblowers Thomas Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirk Wiebe told USA Today, and as summarized by The Atlantic Magazine:
- “The idea that we have robust checks and balances on this [NSA spying] is a myth.”
- Congressional overseers “have no real way of seeing into what these agencies are doing. They are totally dependent on the agencies briefing them on programs, telling them what they are doing.”
- Lawmakers “don’t really don’t understand what the NSA does and how it operates. Even when they get briefings, they still don’t understand.”
See also the revelations of NSA whistleblower Russ Tice, cited in a Business Insider article:
“In the summer of 2004, one of the papers that I held in my hand was to wiretap a bunch of numbers associated with a forty-some-year-old senator from Illinois… That’s the President of the United States now.”
Tice added that he also saw orders to spy on Hillary Clinton, Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, Gen. David Petraeus, and a current Supreme Court Justice.
“The abuse is rampant and everyone is pretending that it’s never happened, and it couldn’t happen. … I know [there was abuse] because I had my hands on the papers for these sorts of things: They went after high-ranking military officers; they went after members of congress — Senate and the House — especially on the intelligence committees and the armed services committees, lawyers, law firms, judges, State Department officials, part of the White House, multinational companies, financial firms, NGOs, civil rights groups …”
Suppose a situation where a public official actually does understand what’s going on and moves to end the illegal and dangerous activities that he or she sees. Recall what happened to then-NY Governor Eliot Spitzer when he publicly declared his intention to clampdown on the corrupt and exceedingly dangerous practices of the major financial institutions literally months before the 2008 worldwide economic crisis. He was told by unnamed powerful individuals to leave it alone or his career would be ruined. He persisted nonetheless. As a reward for doing his ostensible job as the NY governor to monitor Wall Street, he was outed for his penchant for high-priced call girls and driven from office. Not long after this the crisis that he saw coming and tried to avert was headline news the world over.
We have been dealing with the wreckage of that crisis ever since. Now comes a situation that Snowden has blown the lid off of that actually dwarfs in significance the 2008 economic crisis.
As Snowden put it a few days ago, in response to a question about US government efforts to suppress and eliminate him:
All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.
I believe that Snowden’s statement here can be read, and was probably intended to be understood, on several levels.
First, in the narrowest sense, Snowden is warning the U.S. Government that he has distributed in various ways and presumably into various trusted hands, documentary evidence that should they eliminate him by killing him or incapacitating him, will be released. He is not doing this because he is trying to negotiate his personal safety and promising that if he is not killed or rendered that some of the explosive material that he has will be withheld. He already made his decision when he decided to come forward as a whistleblower that he was not going to be bought off. He is assuring the people of the world that the truth will come out, whether he is around any longer or not. Snowden, therefore, really is the metaphorical and mythical “ticking time bomb” come to life. Oh to be a fly on the wall in the corridors of power now! Or perhaps, to be a mosquito-sized drone listening in on them?
Second, Snowden is also saying that the full truth has not yet come out. When he says the truth “cannot be stopped” he is also possibly referring to how profound and fundamental the level is of NSA’s penetration into the lives of everyone here and in the world. The full dimensions of this intrusion into everyone’s lives and all of our institutions and the egregious other practices that the NSA has engaged in have yet to be fully revealed and appreciated.
Third, when he says that the truth is coming and it cannot be stopped, he is at the very least mining (miming?) the stance of political heroes and heroines who declare that the side that should win is going to win: the people should and will come to know the truth in contrast to the outrageous lies and obscene practices that authorities have been responsible for all these years.
Snowden is not revealing a sex scandal, bribery, venality, adultery, pedophilia, rape, or domestic violence by a public official. He is revealing something that is even worse on a societal level – one of the deepest, darkest, most deeply disturbing revelations – when people fully come to hear, see, and appreciate what it is precisely – that can be uncovered. If people do come to fully know what this is, they will be shaken to their core, and their disillusionment will strike at the very heart of Obama’s ability to continue to govern and the ability of the Empire that he presides over to remain intact.
Let us remember that one of the immediate consequences of Bradley Manning’s whistleblowing led to the Tunisian Revolution that initiated the Arab Spring. Arab Spring in turn helped to trigger the worldwide Occupy Movement, which while seriously set back at this point by police repression and certain internal political weaknesses, is being succeeded by the re-emergence of massive popular resistance in Turkey and Brazil.
The contagion is spreading and not being “cured” by brutal repression and fancy rhetoric.
It has been the wet dream of governmental snoops since governments came into being that they could achieve “total information awareness” and have at their fingertips everything there is to know about those they rule over, including their rivals among their political peers. The technology to do this is here and they have been and are using it. Machiavelli would be envious.
Note in this regard that Obama has been stung so badly by this scandal that he has had to go into full damage control mode, including making statements on the public record that will in all probability down the road be shown to be unmistakably conscious lies. He might be able to claim later on that he was not told by the NSA that they have been listening in on the content of Americans’ domestic communications and that when he unequivocally said that this was not happening, that this is what he really believed to be true, but it is likely that under the circumstances that are going to exist accompanying such an admission that his credibility is going to be severely if not irreparably damaged.
Of particular importance is the fact that Obama specifically depends for his continuing ability to keep the U.S. empire intact and ongoing on his ability to appear to be a truth-teller and not your run of the mill public official. Obama, remember, came into office on the crest of a wave of relief and revulsion against the transgressions and disasters of Bush and Cheney. Two more repugnant representatives of “Ugly Americans” – entitled, narrow-minded, smug, philistine American Mandarins – would be hard to find than Bush and Cheney, short of someone like a President Rush Limbaugh with Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck as his Vice-President. Obama’s color was and is an asset and his charm and articulateness are part and parcel and necessary to the Obama persona and “charisma.” His whole act, however, centers upon his truly exceptional ability to present himself as a “man of the people” who moves easily among all walks of life, “feels what we feel,” and when he does anything that would be roundly condemned and people take to the streets in the thousands or hundreds of thousands if done by Bush or Cheney or anyone else of their ilk, he does so “reluctantly” and with the “very best of intentions.” It troubles him, he says, to order people killed with drones, and he agonizes over it. Or so he says.
Obama surpasses anyone else in the ruling circles in his ability to dissemble and make it believable to many people. Hillary Clinton can’t do this and after her, who is there in the national or state-level political scene that can rope people to the degree that Obama can into believing their lies? No one can. While it is possible that someone might step forward out of the blue to carry on in the wake of a severely politically damaged Obama administration, it is extremely unlikely. The GOP would be a sideshow to such a scenario given the political balance of forces that would be in effect. The rightwing and Democratic Party as led by Obama would be severely compromised and the political left would have the initiative.
What allows governments to retain their legitimacy? Governments such as this one that rests upon worldwide exploitation and plunder are like a grand castle built upon sandy soil, if an earthquake should happen, this grand castle’s foundations can liquefy for a few minutes and the whole structure crumble.
Governments stay in power through two inter-related factors. First, as Max Weber succinctly put it, political authority holds power because of its monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. This concise definition for state power can be broken down into two parts: governments govern and stay in power because of their use of coercion and persuasion. Weber’s definition combines these two aspects by describing the use of violence by states as their monopoly not over the use of force per se but the fact that it is seen by enough of the populace as legitimate.
What is probable – though its unfolding depends upon what politically conscious forces do now and in the coming weeks and months – is that Snowden’s revelations will continue to rock the Empire, growing numbers of people here and elsewhere in the world will pour into the streets and in other arenas of public and private life sharply piercing the now suffocating political atmosphere dominated by reactionary and immoral policies and discourse, and the Obama Administration and the rest of the U.S. ruling class and other governments elsewhere have to scramble to try to hold onto their legitimacy to rule. We see this unfolding in Turkey and Brazil today. This scenario growing bigger, wilder, less predictable, and more powerful depends entirely upon what the people do. And when I speak here of the people I mean first and foremost those who see more clearly what is up now and who step up and wage a relentless campaign to lift people’s sights and understanding and struggle with them to enter the political fray and make their mass presence felt. This is not something that Snowden and Glenn Greenwald can do themselves. That is something that the people must and can step forward now to do. If the powers that be survive and contain this crisis without being driven reluctantly into a legitimacy crisis, then I will be sorely disappointed and the world will suffer terribly for it.
Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo