On NSA Spying, What’s With the Silence of the Lambs?

trouble in the data minePlease, let us have no more talk of “freedom-loving Americans.” That phrase is now completely inoperable. We might note that the Leader of the Free World spent the weekend in broiling Palm Springs trying to find an opening to plead with Mr. Xi about good behavior in cyberspace.

Our politics are so thoroughly polarized that the Left, including the Religious Left, is now extremely leery of speaking out against the breathtaking scope of surveillance taking place in the name of national security. The denunciatory words that flowed so freely during the reign of Bush the Younger now curdle in the throat.

But I still want to say that we cannot afford to sit this one out, even though speaking out against the NSA’s activities at this time may well give a slight bump to conservative whining about an intrusive (more like clueless) IRS. The issue of Orwellian-scale data mining absolutely requires active, unbuttoned critique and protest.

What the great Louis Brandeis called the “freedom to be left alone,” though nowhere spelled out in those words, still comprises the very core of the First Amendment, as our president—the constitutional law scholar—surely knows.

That freedom is now clearly gone. The president mewls in defense, “but we are leaving you alone: we’re not even actually listening.” That answer is nowhere near good enough, as (again) he surely knows. First-year law students can see how lame that answer is. The fact that the government is not now acting against me, on account of what it knows about my associations and beliefs, does not mean that I should sleep easy at night.

It shouldn’t even be necessary to say any of this, obviously. That’s the part that most sickens: the absence of a community of active and intelligent and spirit-filled resistance, the sense that everyone is making sure their bed corners are properly turned down, the faint sound of heels clicking.

nobody listeningGiven gruesome past instances of prying, spying, and coercion of the conscience by state actors over centuries, one might imagine that American religious leadership would be up in arms at this moment. Our bloody history makes clear that all religion that is not state-dominated has a dog in this fight. But all we’re hearing from the religious sector so far has been a whimper, not a roar. It seems that the faithful also now live according to the economy of fear.

Last week I took part in an interfaith delegation to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s L.A. office to urge her (via her staff) to do whatever she can to make public the Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture. As we were meeting on Thursday morning, news was breaking back East about Feinstein’s pitiful and shameful defense of FISA Court-authorized spying. If you suppose that our mutterings of protest about that seemed feeble and feckless under the circumstances, you would be correct.

What we should have said, loud and clear, is that state secrecy and state torture are intimately connected, as any reality-tour of terror-laden 20th (and early 21st) century history will show.

What we should have said is that relying on leaks (and leaks from people who will almost surely be prosecuted, at that) in order to have even basic information about what our government is up to is not what we thought Candidate Obama had in mind when he said he would replace Bush-era executive abuses with a new era of transparency.

We don’t recall our chief executives, and we actually need this one to stand against the troglodytes in other arenas. But we on the religious side CAN do one thing: We can make it clear that we withdraw our moral approval—that we withdraw our moral consent—for someone who has so recklessly continued and expanded the trashing of constitutional protections regarding personal privacy.

peter laarman

As for the safety question, it’s still going to be good police work—not data mining—that actually keep us safe. Bear in mind that they want the data because they now have the tools to collect and analyze it, not because they want to protect our security. How many times do we have to be warned about letting available technology set the agenda for the human experiment?

The last century saw the rise of the Thought Police and their concomitant persecutions. Their tools may have been crude, but their methods of intimidation were ruthless. Do we suppose that today’s Thought Police, who have far more intrusive tools, will be more benign toward persons and groups whose behavior they regard as suspicious?

Let us be servile, if we must. But let us not be self-deceived about where this is going.

Peter Laarman
Religion Dispatches

Monday, 10 June 2013


  1. Ryder says

    Indeed…. the total absence of mentioning the vastly more Orwellian notion of using government favor or denial to advance or retard certain ideas, in this case the IRS scandal, is conspicuously missing.

    Republicans are split over the NSA’s actions in this scandal, about half finding it acceptable and the other half not… and given that the IRS scandal hit first, (specifically subjecting right wing groups to delays and unusual scrutiny), this explains rather well why their trust in the NSA to monitor phone records has fallen 25% points since 2006 (PEW research center). Once bitten, twice shy.

    The Democrats, however, are totally unexplainable. At least by rational means.

    Today, FOLLOWING the scandal news, more Democrats approve of the NSA’s monitoring than ever, approaching twice what it did in 2006!!! (37% approval in ’06, now 64%!!).

    These numbers say: Democrats approve of an abusive state, the more they hear about abuses… which I don’t buy. What it really says is: Democrats succumb far more to conditional morality than they would like to admit. If a democrat is in the oval office… they approve overwhelmingly of abuses. If a republican in in office, they disapprove overwhelmingly.

    This is what Larrman is getting at, I think.

    The rank and file on the left bend and twist as much as Obama bends and twists with political winds… pointing toward conditional morality as a powerful organ in the body politic of the left.

    There was a time when the left was far more principled. I’m old enough to remember.

  2. JoeWeinstein says

    I disagree a bit with Laarman. Do we really ‘need this one [president] to stand against the troglodytes in other arenas’? If so, too bad. He’s used to bending, not standing.
    But I do agree with Laarman on his basic point: at least we can withdraw our moral consent.
    Actually long ago I withdrew mine, when it became obvious that in every arena of public concern (including genuine national security), Obama is all for show without substance or value. Which in many cases means a macho display of the USA shooting (or droning, drug-warring, CPI’ing, fracking or wolf-delisting) … itself in the foot.

    As in this case. Ironically but predictably a major effect of the massive Orwellbama state spy operation is going to be utter constipation of anything that might pass for a genuine security apparatus. As both Laarman and another insightful analyst, Barry Rubin, have pointed out, more ‘data’ is not necessarily better when it comes to doing effective intelligence and analysis – especially when you have only a limited number of intelligent analysts who can make real sense of the data.
    And even less will these data help when – as in this administration – the top guys are anyhow determined to ignore – and get the media to squash – implications of the analysis if it doesn’t fit their working ideological postulates: for instance, Obama’s postulate that (aside from Al Qaeda) Islamo-supremacists – for instance Erdogan and Morsi and Khamenei – are really good guys or anyhow will eventually become so after being swayed by Obama’s superior reason.
    The Big Brother operation will amount to atomic cannon to try to kill fleas. What Snowden has revealed will simply to lead to more of what we had decades ago during the height of the cold war: FBI files stuffed mainly with irrelevancies, starting maybe with notes on actual (if mostly utterly innocuous) communists but losing no time embracing possible communists, possible friends of possible communists, one-time friends of possibly future communists, etc etc.

    Look on the bright side: Obama has once again lived up to a clever promise – in this case a ‘new era of transparency’. To be sure, the ‘new’ is not the ‘new’ that most folks optimistically imagined (and which he figured they would optimistically imagine). But then that’s Obama’s one strength: he sure knows how to phrase promises. So, now his administration is indeed doing ‘more about’ climate change (i.e., promoting it harder); and indeed he’s managed to ‘end business as usual in Washington’ (by a combination of filibusters in DC and doing more deals outside DC).

  3. Joseph Maizlish says

    Thanks for mentioning the safety issue. Critics of the spying usually ignore it — leaving the fear-conditioned public believing the choice is between being alive but with truncated first and fourth amendments rights and dead with those rights intact. Not a tough choice if those are the alternatives.

    Indeed good police work is part of the response. And even more: Respecting the rights and grievances of the populations of the lands which the attackers claim to represent, and revising the relationship of the U.S. government with those lands and peoples will weaken the popular base on which the attackers draw and will make those populations readier to cooperate with the normal police work and intelligence gathering for whatever hazard remains.

    Meanwhile, it appears that the imperial system is determined to persist in its decades-long interference, intervention, and its attempts to control the politics and resources of distant lands — cost what they may in terms of lives and liberties in those lands and in this one.

    Part of that persistence is the Along with that determination persecution/prosecution, and claims that only it can “keep Americans safe” while it endangers Americans and everyone else.

    Exasperating as it may be to encounter a public which is willing to endorse the killing of tens of thousands on speculation that it will prevent harm to them, our starting point with most people has to be helping them face their safety concerns constructively.

    Not coincidentally, Rev. Laarman and readers may find this similar to the way safety concerns function as thought-stoppers in other issues, including one he and I are involved in: The “justice” system, incarceration, and the attempts to revise that system.

    In these and other issues the needed approach is similar: take the fears seriously, and show those whom we can reach that those very fears are the reasons for us to keep our whole brains functioning, to think matters through thoroughly, and to deal with the upstream causes, be they correction of unjust international policies or the nearby social injustices.

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