“Terrorism” doesn’t always mean what you think it means

On Wednesday evening, something happened in the US House of Representatives that seemed unthinkable before the revelations of mass NSA surveillance leaked by Edward Snowden. The House defeated by a margin of only 12 votes an amendment to the 2014 defense spending bill that would have defunded the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Specifically, the amendment, sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Amash and co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. John Conyers, would have cut off funding under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which the Obama administration claims empowers it to conduct dragnet electronic surveillance. As Conyers explains, Section 215 includes no language that would support this interpretation. On the contrary, it “authorized the government to obtain certain business records only if it can show to the FISA court that the records are relevant to an ongoing national security investigation.” Even the original author of the PATRIOT Act, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner, has come out in opposition to this NSA program, arguing that the indiscriminate collection of phone data violates Section 215.

The administration, meanwhile, has fought every step of the way to keep even the legal opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (i.e., the de facto interpretation of the written law) from being made public. On Tuesday, the White House sent NSA Director Keith Alexander to lobby lawmakers to reject the Amash-Conyers amendment. In addition, the administration released this surreal statement urging the House to vote against the amendment, claiming, “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.” As Glenn Greenwald points out,

The highly surgical Amash/Conyers amendment – which would eliminate a single, specific NSA program of indiscriminate domestic spying – is a “blunt approach”, but the Obama NSA’s bulk, indiscriminate collection of all Americans’ telephone records is not a “blunt approach”. Even worse: Amash/Conyers – a House bill debated in public and then voted on in public – is not an “open or deliberative process”, as opposed to the Obama administration’s secret spying activities and the secret court that blesses its secret interpretations of law, which is “open and deliberative”.

The amendment was defeated, but much more narrowly than expected. As the final vote results show, both parties were highly split – with a majority of the GOP backing the administration, and a majority of Democrats opposing it.

As usual, Republicans like John Boehner and Peter King teamed up with top Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman Schultz to defend the national security state. Those who honestly believe that the GOP opposes everything Obama tries to do would surely have been shocked to hear Rep. Michele Bachmann’s impassioned argument that the NSA leaks – and subsequent efforts to limit the Obama administration’s surveillance powers – only help “Islamic jihadists”.

For the first time in the post-9/11 era, however, the coalition between authoritarians in the leadership of both parties was opposed by another trans-partisan coalition. Aligned with the increasingly overwhelming majority of Americans who say mass surveillance violates US privacy rights, the 205 votes in favor of Amash-Conyers included liberals like Barbara Lee and Alan Grayson as well as Tea Party Republicans like Louie Gohmert and Jason Chaffetz.

How meaningfully the emerging coalition will be able to stand up for constitutional rights in the future is unclear. What’s beyond doubt is that this Congressional backlash seemed unlikely before Snowden’s leaks. Even now, it’s still somewhat incredible that this vote played out the way it did. It’s tempting to conclude that public opinion in the wake of the leaks pushed Congressional Democrats and Republicans to flout their respective (identical) party lines. That can’t be the whole story, though. Most important issues find both parties opposed to what the majority of Americans want. And it’s not as if there have been mass demonstrations in the US over the recent spying revelations. In very nearly cutting off funding to a major bulk surveillance program, members of Congress may even be out in front of the US public.

For example, while generally repulsive politicians like Gohmert made good (for once) on their rhetoric of limited government, some liberals and self-identified progressives still insist that they don’t see what all the fuss is about. After all, if you already consent to hand your electronic data to big bad corporations, what’s wrong with the government using that data to catch “Islamic jihadists”? As I discussed in my first post on the NSA leaks, this argument presupposes (incorrectly) that surveillance powers haven’t been used by the US government as a tool of repression – and won’t be in the future. But there’s another implicit assumption in this argument that’s worth highlighting: That corporations and the government are distinct, even opposing forces, rather than active collaborators.

As a matter of fact, according to the FBI, the biggest target of domestic counterterrorism operations aren’t violent jihadis or the increasing number of neo-fascist militias, but rather, left-wing groups that pose a threat to corporate power: Anti-war, animal rights, environmental, and Occupy Wall Street activists.

In 2002, the ACLU detailed how the PATRIOT Act makes the definition of “domestic terrorism” so broad that it could be used to investigate nonviolent acts of protest. In 2005, the FBI’s top domestic terrorism official, John Lewis, declared that, “The No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement.” How can this be explained when right-wing violence has increased by 400% since 1990? Who suffers from the violence of white supremacy and patriarchy, and who suffers from “eco-terrorism”? The answer is clearly that while far-right extremists kill and terrorize ethnic and sexual minorities, environmental and animal rights activists damage corporate property and profits.

The US government is right that surveillance is a vital tool in investigating potential threats. The question is: threats to whom? FBI documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund reveal that Occupy Wall Street activists were monitored as domestic criminals and terrorists as early as a month before the first encampment in Zucotti Park – this despite the FBI’s acknowledgement, in those same documents, that OWS organizers did “not condone the use of violence”.

The heavily redacted documents show that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, local law enforcement, and corporations (including Wall Street firms) coordinated extensively to spy on and contain Occupy protests across the country. According to the PCJF’s Executive Director, they are likely “the tip of the iceberg” regarding federal agencies’ function as a “de facto intelligence arm” of the corporate class.

Another FOIA request in 2011 revealed that the FBI monitors – and recommends prosecuting – those who investigate factory farms as terrorists. Under the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and various “Ag Gag” bills passed at the state level, activists and journalists who go undercover to document animal abuse and cruelty can be prosecuted as terrorists.

On one hand, these laws and practices suppress and punish acts of journalism and nonviolent civil disobedience aimed at protecting the most vulnerable beings in society; on the other, they shield corporations who can now commit all sorts of atrocities with impunity. And mass surveillance makes it all but impossible for conscientious individuals and groups to engage in dissent without subjecting their entire life history – including everything, illegal or legal, they’ve ever done – to the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. 

President Obama and Michele Bachmann will keep insisting that it’s necessary for them to know everything in order to protect us from America’s Enemies. When you say you have nothing to hide, what you really mean is that you’re not going to challenge the US government in any meaningful way. Fine.

But our friends and community members who complain about “money in politics” would do well to remember what that actually means in practice: When you say you have nothing to hide, what you also mean is that you’re not going to challenge corporate power in any way that matters. Corporate influence isn’t just a slogan; it has far-reaching implications that we ignore at our own peril. One of them is this: When even those nasty “Islamic jihadists” can be a strategic ally in the US elite’s pursuit of global dominance, the only true “enemies of the state” are the enemies of capital. 


One thought on ““Terrorism” doesn’t always mean what you think it means

  1. Pingback: No post this week | The Red Fury

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