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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Liberties Lost; Kings and Corporations Rule

The administration's position that eavesdropping was needed for terror appears beyond scrutiny in the mainstream media. Anything needed in the war on terror is apparently legitimate, whether or not it actually benefits us in the war on terror, or whatever the erosion to our personal liberities.

As a matter of fact, the ineptitude of our terror-fighting efforts really points at a political war being fought for domestic consumption--with two political groups seeing which can go farther in "protecting the American people" from a threat that can only grow as the war is mismanaged.

It's assumed that warrantless surveillance is needed and that it works; the fantasy that eavesdropping could have prevented 9/11 goes unchallenged.

The media's soft touch is something we've seen now for years. Pandering to Bush mirrors Congress' fear of appearing "soft on terror." One pathetic excuse for legalizing warrantless surveillance I saw in the media was that Congresspeople didn't want to face questions from constituents over why they hadn't authorized the President's request for surveillance of terrorists prior to their month-long recess.
They go on vacation while the terrorists talk, the argument might go.

While I hadn't planned on bothering my Congressmen, besides he's a loyal Bushite, I did write him a letter. In that letter I brought up the politicization of intelligence, which I believe is designed to restrict political opposition to the Executive.

I posed the scenario for him of Hillary Clinton's chief political aide taking control of the Department of Justice. Apparently Republicans just don't get it: Democrats are setting up the next President with a set of tools of unrestricted, unprecedented control over government. Oh how the Republicans will turn into Libertarians should a Democrat win!

The ineffectiveness of the Democratic resistance to the Bush cabal makes me yearn for the good ole days when Democrats controlled the Presidency. The Republicans were a better opposition party anyway, thwarting the Democrats' "runaway government" at least superficially--until they gained control and opened the spending floodgates themselves.

Democratic posturing is proving as superficial as the Republicans' smaller government pledge. Now no one stands in true opposition. The playing of politics is left to Presidential wannabes who make mild assertions tailored to carefully targetted segments of the electorate. Sounds a lot like Kerry's dumbed-down, watered-down excuse for a candidacy.

Hyper-sensitivity to media is a product of Presidential pageantry and focus groups. The chief goal appears to be to make as few mistakes as possible, and hit the right buttons with the right groups.

Changes to FISA

Suspicious indeed is it the the Congress seems to be retroactively changing the FISA law to accomodate previous violations of FISA. Added to the capitulation on Iraq war funding, we could quite rightly assume that the Democratic opposition lacked testicular fortitude.

Just after AG Gonzales struggled with testimony in front of Congress, the administration sought to legalize past illegalities by muddying the FISA law they'd repeatedly violated--as was made clear in Gonzales' testimony when he acknowledged the existence of surveillance programs.

In other words, the most recent FISA changes are meant to be political cover for the administration's violations of the law. There was no major need for significant changes had the law been followed, despite the prexext that change was needed based on technological limitiations--a "we are in a new Electronic Era" rationale.

This from Helen and Harry Highwater of Unknown News:
"This secret court has, since 2002, turned down exactly four requests for its OK, while approving thousands more. So in the entire history of this secret court, there are four NOs, scattered among many thousands of YESes."

Here is their take on the reason behind the changes:
"There's only one reason for the Bush administration to bypass the secret court's rubber stamp approval: The White House knew that their spying was so outrageous, so unjustified, that even the rubber-stamp secret court would say no.

Which leads to the question the media hasn't asked: Who could the Bush administration be spying on, that they knew even the rubber-stamp court wouldn't allow it?

To answer the question, eliminate anyone who's even remotely, even implausibly connected to any group that presents any actual, or remote, or imagined danger to America, because it would obviously be a cinch to get the secret court's OK to wiretap anyone who comes within miles of presenting any real risk.

No, if the White House needs to circumvent the rubber-stamp secret court, then the targets of surveillance would have to be people who aren't even the slightest, vaguest, pig-in-a-poke threat to national security.

Reporters. Or activists. People who criticize the Bush administration's policies.

Logically, who else could it be?

Business intelligence perhaps. If a government entity could tap anyone's phone line, why not go for the best information? I'm sure stock traders would pay handsomely for information on upcoming mergers and trade on the basis on what they can illicitly discover.

And what of the most obvious targets for warrantless surveillance: the so-called political opposition! I sure hope Hillary has the latest and greating anti-spying technologies at her disposal or the campaign could be full of ugly surprises!

If after all the spying programs aren't transparent and the Administration need not be held accountable, why not abuse the process? Everything I've seen in the Rove-inspired Bush junta hints at Machiavellian motives behind an usurpation of our government by the Executive. Ever since John Woo and then-White House Counsel Gonzales wrote memos supporting "harsh interrogation techniques", the will of Congress and the impositions of the Constitution (Bush's "goddamn piece of paper") have been seen as nothing more than obstacles to the Unitary Executive, the theory that the President knows best and can do as he pleases.

The manner in which the new security paradigm is being managed reeks with the abuse of authority and thrashing of our Constitutional right aginst unreasonable search and seizure. Asked for data on private clients, Internet Service Providers have long had their legal options scuttled. Through the use of National Security Letters, the government can demand private information without a warrant. The recipient of NSL cannot disclose that they received the NSL.

Large phone and ISP companies aren't the only recipients of NSLs. There are cases of librarians receiving NSLs. Libraries do offer internet access and thus provide a theoretical conduit for terrorists. Yet the practice of issuing NSLs means recipients enter a legal limbo, unable to speak to the media about the de facto warrant they've received.

NSL and eavesdropping may also be open-ended, meaning the government can spy on the individuals sending e-mails and maybe every past recipient of an e-mail. This creates a tapestry of peepholes into the private lives of Americans who had no connection with terrorism or even with the original sender of an e-mail. Thus the surveillance society deploys one more contagion to undermine if not destroy our right to privacy, a right made vulnerable in the Digital Age.

Lie Down, Congress; Roll Over, Congress

Congress has done well to force the administration to make changes in the law. Maybe they believe they can force the Bushites to operate more in the open by appeasing their demands. If after all the White House and its Department of Justice--among other subordinate entities--have been unwilling to follow the law, or at least considered it their mandate to break FISA, a broader law might encourage compliance.

The "post-9/11 everything-has-changed chestnut" (I phrase I borrowed from the VIPS people) has been given as a reason to abandon all precedent, legal or otherwise. There's clearly opportunity in change, and the White House, hungry for a second term, seized on the broader anti-Arab theme in generating support for an invasion of Iraq.

Likewise the need to take bold action against terrorists was seen a reason for Bush to sign numerous Executive orders and defy Congress or whatever pre-9/11 obstacles--legal or otherwise--that stood in the way of a robust counter-terror capability.

Some might confuse Bush's reaction to the threat of terror with zeal. The zeal was in fact for re-election and a continuation of the regime. Just as we see Democrats now pandering to the case for security, Bush and his cabal saw lashing out at Iraq as means to make himself seem stronger versus the threat: in that case a threat wholly fabricated and manipulated for popular consumption.

I read that Congress had rewritten the FISA law four times since 9/11. The premise that FISA had been outdated and in need of technological updating may be valid on a few levels, for a few changes, but not if the law has to be modified continually.

The most recent technical change is in the tracking of communications between one alleged terrorist (or sympathizer or anyone who can in any way be labelled a terrorist) and an American. I'd read that the law means to make foreigner-to-foreigner communications trackable in the United States, through which international calls pass. The technical specifications are spurious--I wouldn't have thought that where the call originated or where it passed would have deterred the Administration in the least. FISA would not have restricted the coverage, neither would have any sense of obligation to comply with the law, FISA or any other, if the terrorist was really a terrorist.

I've been confused of the changes in the law, because it seemed to me as if foreigner-to-foreigner calls could be tracked wherever they went, regardless of where they lived or where the call went. So the real changes in the law pertain to communication in which an American receives or sends a call to a foreigner.

The way I see it, the FISA changes legalize spying on the American recipient of an e-mail or phone call from any foreigner being tracked. In other words, we are all now vulnerable to eavesdropping. Whether we are talking about matters related to terrorism, or our personal affairs, or perhaps our business dealings, we can be monitored. No Court would need know, we would have no redress should we find out we'd been tracked.

I believe it was the intent of the Constitution to prevent our government from doing this to us, whether in the Colonial, Industrial, or Digital Age. We've been systematically denied our Constitutional right against search and seizure, which was a big beef we had with the British, who confiscated property upon arbitrary searches. Given royal approval to maintain monopolies, representatives of the Crown sought to stymie competition with colonial merchants, which kept competition low and prices high, and along with them, taxes.

Privileges given representatives of our government shouldn't be allowed to trump the rights of citizens. We now have in the US a situation not all that different from the days of a greedy monarchy; taxes represent government's power to take from us and these grow year after year. And what of our representation? 70% of the people--a clear mandate--want out of Iraq, but they have few champions in Congress. The two-party duopoly is really a status quo of selling out: so-called conservatives to an ever-growing Big Government, so-called liberals to the need for "security" and foreign intervention.

Where my argument against changes to FISA is weak, I do have a "gut feeling" (to borrow Chertoff's words) that our government is forcing our nation down the road towards fascism, what could be called a corporate-run tyranny. The rights of the individual are being repressed in a broader trend that may be centuries late in coming, a historical shift back to the days before the revolutions in our country and France ended their monarchy and elevated the people to self-governance.

A Feudal Age of Kings and Corporations

Are we headed back to the Dark Ages? As I discussed in my review of the movie Children of Men, darker times may indeed require a reining in of individual rights, ostensibly for the preservation of our society. As our Earth warms and seas rise, it's easy to paint a bleak future with oppressive government if people cannot comply with lower emissions demands. How else can we change our society to avert disaster? As CO2 levels rise, so too will our planet's temperatures, with the effect perhaps lagging decades so that even if we stop CO2 emissions entirely, our planet will continue warming.

Global warming or its by far better name--Global Climatic Change--may in fact be a political catalyst, one the forces individuals to obey and serve rather than exercise rights of individual freedom. Perhaps the individual nowadays exercises inadequate responsibility to ensure the safety (survival?) of the group. Exercising personal freedoms, in this case the right to use fossil fuels, jeopardizes the group and makes all suffer for the pollution created by a relatively small minority.

While the strong may survive--as in the animal kingdom--we can hardly be proud of ourselves if our society is nothing more than the culmination of the strong strengthening and weak dying. In essence, capitalism may be a process where corporations--treated in Randian philosophy as people themselves--grow stronger as the vast majority grows weaker. If corporations are people--they aren't--then the system we have clearly favors them with preferential tax treatment and access to capital, not to mention legal cover and political clout. They are in short the New Centurions of an unrestrained age of capitalism.

Many believe that corporations can do more to address our common problems than individuals. Individualism does require the expenditure of considerable personal responsibility: what better example of a breakdown in personal accountability as people avoid making changes necessary to confront a problem the world faces in Global Warming? Its clearly easier to imaging there is no problem than it is to make changes--look at the continuing PR battle that petroleum producers are still waging to deny the existence of the phenomena.

The rise of Republican rule has seen ever-greater privatization; neo-conservatism does try to re-shape government in the corporate image. The conjunction of coporate and government interests has never been stronger--look no farther than the massive unrestrained flow of illegal immigrants to see the effect of a corporate thrist for cheaper, non-union labor on the enforcement of our nation's laws. (And where ICE has acted, there seems to be a preponderance of union activity, indicating that the law is being selectively enforced, meant to benefit politically connected corporate constituencies unwilling to pay union wages.)

A zero sum game is being played where corporations win and people lose. Global warming already seems to be disproportionally affecting the poor. The thrust towards bio-fuels, our apparent solution to the CO2 problem, depletes the Southern Hemisphere and Third World of a good chunk of natural habitat as lands are converted to the production of agricultural exports for Northern Hemisphere/First World biofuel needs.

The Tragedy of the Commons is another justification for suppressing the rights of the individual. The Commons were and still are areas where anyone could graze their sheep or collectively share. Yet what happens is that larger groups exploit the Commons so that there is less and less fresh pasture available for smaller herders.
Eventually, the Commons degrade environmentally because they belong to everyone and thus no one. The government that administers the commons ends up devoting more and more of its resources to servicing the larger commerical entities that grow as they exploit the shared resource, to the detriment of smaller users who probably bear a disproportionate share of taxes.

During hard times, it may simply not be enough to let the strong grow stronger. An offset may be needed to prevent the strangulation of a society. In principal, the levelling of the playing field makes sense. Our taxation system has had a distinct Robin Hood element that I think we could argue is weakening: Warren Buffett recently bemoaned the fact he paid a lower tax rate than his maid! Hedge fund managers have come under fire for personal tax rates that hover around 15%.

It's not the inherent unfairness of the rich growing richer that plagues the system, it's the fact that we all have become individuals beholden to no one or nothing beyond the expansion of our personal wealth. The accumulation of material goods has become the main focus of our society and such a course of materialism is doomed to bring unhappiness for the many, as a life of ritual consumption is measured only in immediate gratification and the call always for more, for "better than."

Eventually, like the Commons, our Earth becomes worn down, exploited by the few who grow stronger and consume more of what fundamentally belongs to all of us.

Maybe it's communistic to fight consumerism, but Marx did acknowledge communism can only work in nations which had experienced a full flowering of capitalism, and reached a point where explotiation of the working classes becomes obvious and continuously worsens as the owners of the means of production grow grotesquely wealthy as their exploited workers wallow in their depreciations.

Arguably, the increase in the wealth for rich gives them even more control of the society. Yet there are limits to maintaining standing armies and in the ability of the few to rule the many. The rich can't rule by wealth alone--they need rituals and institutional mechanisms to validate their rule. The monarchy has been a traditional means for the elite to perpetuate their rule while giving it legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Monarchies utilized the power of organized religion to justify their powers and preserve their authority. Religion also plays prominently into what we now see as perhaps the preeminent source of resistance to secular modernism: radical Islamic fundamentalism.

I just read in "A Sort of Peace in Gaza" written by Andrew Lee Butters in Time of how crime has dropped off in Gaza since Hamas has taken over. Gone are corrupt Fatah police and in are the fundamentalists. How radical Hamas is seems open to debate as apparently barbers are not killed for shaving beards. Liquor is out though.

Yes there's a trade-off: a loss of personal freedom in a society based on Sharia law or some tamer equivalent. But there is also peace. Look at Africa. Plagued by AIDS, something powerful happens where Islamists take over: prostitution is greatly repressed, slowing the spread of the virus. Societies that practice Sharia law are in no ways immune from vice, but they are definitely far less permissive.

So religion is the counterweight to the tragedy unique to modern secular society: one of consumerism and fundamental inequality. And in dark times, like those we saw in the Middle Ages before the Age of Enlightenment, religion's cold and solem embrace may provide great calm and relative stability.

9/11 did serve the fundamentalist Right here in this country well in creating a mood of fear where organized religion (and especially theirs) could calm the unnerved and give average people an inner peace that could never come from materialist pursuits, no matter how much we "little Eichmans" accumulate in our banking accounts.

Odd how fundamentalist goals can be fulfilled by a dismantling of the existing order. We in the United States have the world's best laws to protect individual liberty but we see these under constant attack. The momentum has shifted towards Bigger Government and the change threatens our civil rights in ways the Founders fully anticipated. Yet we do nothing as Bush leads our nation into uncharted waters in his fight with terrorism, a war that appears to do more to chip away our Constitutional rights (along with those of the terrorists perhaps) than to actually stop the enemy.

People cling to things like religions in times of crisis. Things themselves--land, property, rights--really don't do enough to preserve the common good and safety, particularly when the post-industrial world sees more and more wealth cloistered in the hands of fewer and fewer, in a Marxian prophecy fulfilled. People yearn for solutions and security as seas rise and our climate destabilizes.

And dangerous indeed are those who can present themselves as part of the solution to the problem, for people will invest in them an almost divine level of belief, siding with their solution and remedies for the great unpredictability of life.

We saw Hitler appease his people during the Depression. It's highly likely that the raw progress of capitalism will produce a similar state of calamity which would then encourage the rise of a similiar dictator, perhaps even in this nation.

Mussolini defined fascism as a perfect union of govenrment and corporation. We already have a government that considers itself beyond public accountability; the lack of transparency may be only a first step in a transition to a more malignant form of government.

Whatever the future prognosis, it's clear that changes in our laws like those concerning FISA head us away from an Age of Enlightenment that embraced the primacy of individual rights. Yet for the downtrodden change could bring good things or at least slow the slide towards anarchy, a state which our invasion in Iraq has undeniably seeded.

Holding the keys to peace and stability, providing an end to the despair and chaos, the elite can claim to be helping the little guy, whether they huddle in some FEMA trailer or wander the Mideast as refugees from Iraq. Yet history proves that solution to systemic woes like wars and depressions will bring only more suffering, and that there are no quick fixes.

Radical fundamentalists--Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whichever--need to admit their limitations in bringing a solution to all peoples, but their blind obedience to what they perceive as God's will encourages hate and distrust with non-believers, seeding endless violence like we see in Iraq. Is the desire of the Zionist to wage war on Arabs that much different from the terrorists' religious fixations? If our government is seeded with religious fundamentalism, we will have endless war, an endless Crusade, since the other side is also led by zealotry and hatred for the non-believer.

Am I an athesit? No. But I do recognize that organized religion has led the practice of faith into the political and economic arenas, where they're leveraged to maximize fiscal gain and political power for their proponents. Ecological catastrophes caused by global warming, and/or some unwinding of the Western economies, could well bring an Age where religion can play an even larger role in shaping our government and daily lives. And as our Constitutional liberties break down under an unrelenting bipartisan barrage in the name of fighting some anonymous foe named terror, and as the State grows larger by the day, it is clear the Age of Enlightenment is ending.

Perhaps the Commons can be saved, and the wealthy humbled, and the environment protected from ecological ruin. But at what cost to individual rights? And who will hold the reins of power? I think it likely that the power now being given the executive (or seized by it) could well sow the path for the rise of a despotic leader here in the US.

The methods to prevent global warming, to give one example, could seem quite despotic. And during the Civil War, with our nation at risk, Lincoln resorted to tyrannical methods to keep draft dodgers and dissenters hushed. The practice worked; whether such measures were necessary to preserving the Union is still being debated.

Similarly Bush now thinks himself our protector, when the threat to the survival of our nation is far less indeed than for Lincoln. We are led to believe that we need to have "more security", with Bush and his crew naturally the ones best able to deliver it. What we get out of Bush's terror war is far different from that which we are promised, the security which is presumably our reward for offering up our rights as individuals. If anything, our war of conquest in Iraq--launched under the pall of terror rhetoric--is bleeding our treasury with no end in sight.

Whatever the outcome, the scope of the problems we face determines the scale of the preemptive action needed. To our leaders today and their dwindling circle of supporters, this justifies taking extreme action, curtailing our liberties if necessary, in the name of fighting terror. And if we wait too late, we will be left to pick up the pieces of anarchy and destruction. In the war on terror, this will be the clean-up after a terror attack.

Our leaders presume quite confidently that we will be able to prevent such an attack through the sheer tenacity of our preemptive effort, an effort which presumably forces Americans to sacrifice their liberties in the process and occupy foreign nations, even those with no connection to terror, indefinitely.

Pending economic and environmental disasters justify taking action now. In times of crisis, people find themselves drawn to dominant male figures and look up to them as all-powerful protectors. If the German example holds true, we will pick a strong, self-willed leader to save us from our fate. Like them, we appear be willing to give up our freedoms to gain our security, while we are really losing both, as Ben Franklin would have said.



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