A poem for Chelsea Manning on her birthday

US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning turns 27 in prison today, serving 35 years for leaking proof of torture and other US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the eve of her show trial in summer 2013, I wrote this poem for Chelsea (then known as Bradley).

As I explained in that post, I’d been reading a lot of Adorno: The title is a reference to his infamous dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz would be barbaric”, while the epigraph is a quote from a poignant passage in Dialectic of Enlightenment about the knowing resignation with which Americans accept their powerlessness in the capitalist economy.

We’ve let Chelsea down, and we’ll let her down every day of our lives until we honor her actions by our own courage to seek justice.

“No poems after Auschwitz”

KS 6/1/2013

It’s a free country

But freedom has rules:

You can say what you want about the Market

but if you don’t play ball

you’re not one of us.

We don’t leak the wrong footage

of the wrong Apache helicopters

swarming over Baghdad

picking off civilians like flies.

And on a rainy Tuesday in November

every four years

we pick Dear Leader

like free people do.

You’ll never change the world.

But to those who will try –

The risk you bear is


it’s terrifying


I am a failure, sagt der Amerikaner. – And that is that.


Bradley Manning’s trial is still an unmitigated disaster for press freedom

On Tuesday, US Army Private Bradley Manning, the whistleblower who leaked evidence of US government misdeeds (including torture and other war crimes) to WikiLeaks, was convicted by a military judge on 20 counts, including 5 counts of violating the Espionage Act. Army Col. Denise Lind acquitted Manning, however, of the most severe and outrageous charge, that of “aiding the enemy” by helping to publish documents that were then (allegedly) read by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

As legal experts and civil liberties advocates have been pointing out, besides carrying a life sentence for Manning, the prosecution’s “aiding the enemy” charge posed an existential threat to the future of US journalism, particularly on national security issues. The Obama administration and federal prosecutors have essentially claimed that it is an act of treason to make public any information about the government – classified or not – that could be of interest to “the enemy” (whoever that might be).

It’s hard to overstate how radical this theory is – even for an administration notorious for having prosecuted more whistleblowers for “espionage” than all other administrations combined. For that reason, there was something about the “aiding the enemy” charge, beyond the simple injustice of it, that didn’t sit quite right with me.

Then, after the verdict was read, I scanned the corporate media headlines, which ranged from some form of “Manning Is Acquitted of Aiding the Enemy” or “Manning spared on ‘aiding the enemy'” to the truly ludicrous, like this headline from MSNBC’s Now with Alex WagnerManning supporters relieved over verdict”.

The truth is that there’s very little cause for relief, whether you’re Manning, a prospective whistleblower, a serious journalist, or just a good person. This verdict leaves Manning facing up to 136 years in prison – much more than a life sentence – for exposing state crimes. Instead of equating whistleblowing with treason, this military court has magnanimously equated whistleblowing with espionage.

Julian Assange made exactly this point on Wednesday’s Democracy Now!, arguing that the “aiding the enemy” charge seemed fishy precisely because it was a “red herring”: “[W]hile it has attracted a lot of people’s attention, because it has a possible life sentence or death penalty, really, it was just part of the extent of overcharging in this case.”

Let’s be clear: small victories should be celebrated and learned from. Tuesday’s verdict, regardless of what Manning’s sentence will be, is nothing of the sort. In response to the verdict, the ACLU released a statement that read,

While we’re relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Since he already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information – which carry significant punishment – it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders echoed this concern, adding that fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden “would have every reason to fear persecution, as defined by the Geneva Conventions, if he were to return to the United States.”

RWB brings up another point as well, which I think is crucial: “Persecution” doesn’t just refer to the charges against Manning or the final verdict, but also to the Obama administration’s treatment of him since his arrest. On June 1, two days before the court martial was set to begin, I wrote,

The response of the Obama administration has been ruthless, charging Manning with “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda and imprisoning him for over 1,000 days without trial. He has been held in solitary confinement for much of that time, prompting the UN special rapporteur on torture to denounce his treatment as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

Notwithstanding the US government’s habit of redefining torture to exclude its own “interrogation techniques”, the President who “ended torture” saw fit to subject this young man to prolonged psychological abuse. In addition to social isolation, Manning endured arbitrary “prevention of injury” measures (resulting in physical humiliation) and sleep deprivation (which even the US State Department considers “torture”).

President Obama had Manning tortured for three years. Why? As a matter of fact, to punish Manning before any judicial process violates both civilian and military law, no less than the President’s 2011 statement that Manning “broke the law” made a mockery of the presumption of innocence.

Never mind that top Pentagon officials, including then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are on the record as saying that the government’s review found no harm has come about as a result of the leaks. Never mind the complete lack of evidence that Manning intended to “aid” anyone other than the people of the US and the world. Manning threatened the US government, and its clients worldwide, with transparency and accountability, and for that, Obama made an example of him.

At the same time, it’s possible that the administration wanted something more concrete from Manning as well, and hoped to “break” him through torture. The most plausible explanation is that Manning would be very useful in the US government’s persecution of WikiLeaks and Assange, who has been claiming for some time that the Justice Department has prepared a sealed indictment against him.

If so, then Manning’s show trial, as grotesque a performance as it’s been, is also a prelude to the next act of the Obama war on dissent. The President’s personal intervention to keep Yemeni reporter Abdulelah Haider Shaye in prison isn’t so much an anomaly as it is a sign of what this administration does to dissident journalists when it thinks no one will care.

Until now, the White House and its lapdogs have been more or less successful in convincing US journalists that Assange and WikiLeaks are not “one of them”. And hardly anyone has heard of Barrett Brown, the journalist facing 105 years in prison for exposing a secret plan, cooked up by the private security firm Stratfor, to mislead and then publicly discredit WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald.

Peter Ludlow’s Nation article about Brown’s reporting on Stratfor, and the DOJ’s wildly fallacious charges, is worth reading in full, but maybe the most startling thing is this: One of the main charges is that Brown committed fraud by posting a link to hacked Stratfor data, which happened to contain someone’s credit card information. I can’t think of a more straightforward example of how the government and multinationals can abuse electronic surveillance to punish those who publish leaks without White House authorization.

This past May, it was revealed that, in an FBI affidavit used to seize James Rosen’s emails, the DOJ had named the Fox News reporter not as a witness to a leak, but as a “co-conspirator” in the leak. And only two weeks ago, a DC Circuit Court ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t protect New York Times reporter James Risen from having to testify against the source of a leak he published. 

The Obama personality cult has convinced many liberals that this President is really “on our side”, that they can trust him not to abuse authoritarian powers. There doesn’t seem to be much we can say to change their belief. But maybe they can learn from one of Obama’s heroes, a President who, after being caught in a lie, once admitted to his Fellow Americans: “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”

“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. 

What Germany can tell us about the growing US surveillance state

A lot has been made in recent weeks of the comparison between the US’s global spying apparatus and the Ministry of State Security (“Stasi” for short) in the German Democratic Republic.

In its time, the Stasi was notorious for being the world’s most ruthlessly efficient intelligence agency; however, in the US, “Stasi” is often used as a vague stand-in for “not-freedom”, so that Americans who haven’t seen The Lives of Others (and some who have) have only the faintest idea what made the ministry so deserving of its reputation. Although comparisons between US and GDR surveillance vary in their merits, they’re almost all instructive as we take stock of how far our civil liberties have been eroded, and where we might be headed if we don’t change course.

Most notably, US whistleblowers like former NSA analyst Thomas Drake and “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsberg (widely considered the most important whistleblower in US history) have invoked the Stasi in their defenses of Edward Snowden. In a Guardian op-ed, Drake explains that in his time as a German-Russian crypto-linguist in the Cold War, he became an “expert on East Germany, which was then the ultimate surveillance state…they had a huge paper-based system that held information on virtually everyone in the country – a population of about 16-17 million.”

The Stasi collected information on East Germans (as well as foreign nationals) by monitoring communications – tapping phones, bugging residences, intercepting mail, and so on – but also through a network of civilian informants known as “unofficial collaborators” or IM. IM, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, could be citizens who faced punishment for a real or alleged infraction, or they could simply be using their access to government targets in order to enrich themselves. This apparatus had a chilling effect on political dissidence.

Back then, domestic law prohibited US secret services from conducting this kind of mass surveillance on Americans. Today, as Ellsberg points out, “[t]he NSA, FBI and CIA have, with the new digital technology, surveillance powers over our own citizens that the Stasi…could scarcely have dreamed of.” Interestingly, this sentiment is echoed by ex-Stasi official Gotthold Schramm, who recently said that, “Compared to NSA surveillance today, what we did was like a children’s game.”

Bearing in mind the possibly self-serving nature of Schramm’s claim, he, Ellsberg, and Drake bring up a crucial point. It makes no sense to see the post-9/11 national security state as an intermediate stage on the road to some horror we’ve already seen. Advances in technology, and US global dominance, have made surveillance far more “total” (and far more covert) than was ever possible in so-called totalitarian states.

That’s why the strict opposition – as articulated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others – between Stasi practices and those of “democratic states” is so off-base. In a Washington Post editorial this past week, Charles Lane defends Merkel’s comments (and Obama’s spying) by falling back on the same tired binary:

In East Germany, the purpose of surveillance was to protect an unelected party that exercised a monopoly of political and economic power on behalf of a foreign military occupier, the Soviet Union. The Communist Party’s ideology politicized every aspect of life, rendering the pettiest deviations, in word or deed, threatening – and thus subject to secret official scrutiny. Unchecked by any law, Stasi spying evolved into an end in itself. East Germany really was a “surveillance state.”

As Scott Horton notes in his commentary for Harper’s, however, the GDR actually had an “elaborate network of laws that empowered surveillance and eroded the rights of citizens specified in the country’s constitution.” Like US intelligence, the Stasi operated within a formal legal system that lent an appearance of legitimacy to the state’s violations of its laws and constitution.

What really separates the US and the GDR, for Lane, is that the US government’s stated intention to protect its citizens from harm is fundamentally noble and sincere, while the East German government’s stated intention to do the same was fundamentally cynical and authoritarian. 

The Stasi’s credo was “to know everything”; the US surveillance state’s motto, according to NSA Director Keith Alexander, is “collect it all”. The Stasi used hundreds of thousands of IM to keep its population in fear and stamp out political opposition; the Obama administration’s Insider Threat program forces government employees to monitor their colleagues’ behavior and report potential leakers – or face criminal charges themselves.

As I’ve written previously, whistleblowing may be the most vital form of dissent in the US today. Nothing confirms Obama’s attitude towards dissent more clearly than his unprecedented persecution of those who inform the public of government misdeeds. And it’s precisely total surveillance that enables the government to nip truth-telling in the bud.

That Germans are, on the whole, more sensitive than Americans to this reality of mass surveillance is clear from the reaction to recent spying revelations, including a report in der Spiegel that the NSA collects data on 500 million communications per month in Germany. The Merkel administration initially pled ignorance, a dubious claim that lost all credibility when Snowden, in a subsequent Spiegel interview, explained that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) cooperates extensively with the NSA to collect bulk data on its citizens. Even conservative politicians like Markus Ferber, a member of Merkel’s ruling center-right coalition, decried “Stasi methods, American-style”.

While the German government, like the US’s other lackeys in Western Europe, will continue to cow-tow to Washington, commentaries like Jakob Augstein’s in der Spiegel are more indicative of German (and global) attitudes towards mass surveillance: “Those who thought that we are on the good side and that it is others who are stomping all over human rights are now opening their eyes,” he writes. “A regime is ruling in the United States today that acts in totalitarian ways when it comes to its claim to total control.” Der Spiegel doesn’t have a direct US equivalent, but it’s something like a cross between Time and the New York Times. A brief glance at the Times‘s editorial page shows just how differently pundits in the US and Germany view these revelations.

While conservatives in the leadership of both US parties have united, no less in their defense of mass spying than in their witch-hunt for Snowden (and even Glenn Greenwald), NSA and BND surveillance is shaping up to be a wedge issue in Germany’s federal elections in September.

Chancellor Merkel’s main challenger, Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück, has called for Germany to grant Snowden’s asylum request after the Merkel administration rejected it. Opposition parties are ready to attack Merkel’s coalition on the grounds that dragnet electronic surveillance violates Article 10 of the Grundgesetz (the German Constitution), which protects the privacy of mail and telecommunications.

Of course, one has to take with a grain of salt the indignation of the Social Democrats and Greens, who were in power as recently as 2009 and 2005, respectively (The Left Party has yet to be part of a ruling coalition at the federal level). It’s more useful to see this debate as an index of broad public dissatisfaction with the “terrorist” bogeyman trotted out to excuse the worldwide elimination of privacy.

And while much attention has been focused on German memories of Stasi repression, it’s worth noting that the former West German (now just “German”) government has been collaborating with US intelligence to violate civil liberties and human rights since the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In 2012, historian Josef Foschepoth revealed for the first time that secret Cold War agreements gave US intelligence the authority to gather communications data through the BND and the Verfassungsschutz (the FRG’s domestic intelligence agency) that those agencies were themselves constitutionally forbidden to collect. This authority was given a legal basis in 1968, when the administration of Social Democrat Willy Brandt signed a law lifting the constitutional requirement that the targets of surveillance be informed that they’re being monitored.

Why is it so important to oppose the US’s global network of spying, killing, and imprisonment? Because Colin Powell sold bad German intelligence to the UN as proof of Iraq’s nuclear weapons, and with it, sealed the fate of 1.5 million Iraqis. Because when the US government says it’s preventing “terrorism”, it doesn’t always mean what you think it means. Because even “democratic” states have used warrantless, unaccountable surveillance to silence movements for change. They use it now to keep Muslims in fear of the government and the rest of the public in fear of Muslims. Why would they stop now?

Shameful national chauvinism

In a statement yesterday to human rights groups at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden announced his formal acceptance of all current and future offers of asylum:

As we have seen, however, some governments in Western European and North American states have demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law, and this behavior persists today. This unlawful threat makes it impossible for me to travel to Latin America and enjoy the asylum granted there in accordance with our shared rights.

It’s worth taking some time to consider exactly why that is.

“At a certain point, someone mistakenly referred to Latin America as the United States’s backyard,” Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patiño, told RT on Wednesday. “In Latin America, this kind of era has come to an end, and we will never be anyone’s backyard”. The notion that Central and South America are the property of the US has been a key premise of US regional dominance since the Monroe Doctrine. The backyard analogy has been commonplace in “foreign policy circles”, but Patiño may have been specifically referring to a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry this past April in which he declared, “The western hemisphere is our back yard [sic]”.

While some colonial practices have fallen out of fashion among US elites, the arrogance of the colonial mindset is alive and well. As I’ve written previously, the revelations of mass surveillance leaked by Snowden have shed light on the US government’s unconstitutional (and yes, illegal) spying on Americans. But recent disclosures show that warrantless domestic surveillance is just one part of an unprecedented global spying network. As Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has so far published most of Snowden’s leaks, put it in an interview with Democracy Now,

the NSA is in the process, in total secrecy, with no accountability, of constructing a global, ubiquitous surveillance system that has as its goal the elimination of privacy worldwide, so that there can be no electronic communications – by telephone, Internet, email, chat – that is beyond the reach of the United States government.

For a great many Americans, the scandal uncovered by these leaks is that the NSA spies on them as indiscriminately as it spies on citizens of other countries. And while in the US, public opinion is turning against the Bush and Obama administrations’ assault on civil liberties, the backlash has been dwarfed by the outrage in Latin America, where according to Greenwald (who lives in Brazil), “most people had no idea that their electronic communications were being collected in bulk by this highly secretive US agency.”

Citing documents leaked by Snowden, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo revealed last week that the NSA has been collaborating with local telecoms to gather and store the phone and internet data of people in most Latin American nations as part of its “FAIRVIEW” program. The program targets not only countries with strained relationships to the US, such as Venezuela and Ecuador, but also the US’s most loyal lapdogs in the region (like Mexico and Colombia) – and everyone in between: Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica.

As I’ve discussed in my posts on the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, the recent wave of more or less reformist governments in Latin America has seen the region as a whole move towards greater autonomy and away from subservience to US power. The O Globo report has triggered not only massive popular outcry, but also indignation on the part of those governments.

In Brazil, the administration of President Dilma Rousseff has promised to open a criminal investigation. If this sounds like an overreaction, consider that in 1964, a CIA-backed military coup left Brazil in the hands of a dictatorship for over two decades. Instrumental to the junta’s reign of terror was its practice of eavesdropping on the calls and reading the mail of anyone suspected of being a dissident. 

The revelations have only compounded the fallout from the US’s heavy-handed attempts to make an example of Snowden. After Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia (all members of the Bolivarian Alliance or ALBA) indicated they would grant Snowden’s request for political asylum, the US had its lackeys in Western Europe force the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales to land – on suspicion that Morales, en route from a conference in Russia, had smuggled Snowden on board.

Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy all denied Morales’s plane permission to fly through their airspace, bouncing it back and forth until the pilot, unsure of how much fuel he had left, made an emergency request to land in Austria. Never mind that Morales’s plane didn’t even take off from the airport that Snowden is reportedly in. Needless to say, when the plane was finally searched, Snowden was nowhere to be found.

It should be fairly obvious that this attempt by the US to flex its muscles, besides endangering Morales’s life and those traveling with him, violates the diplomatic immunity enjoyed by all heads of state. Even if the US and the EU were at war with Bolivia (they’re not) or designated Bolivia a hostile nation (they don’t), it’s a precondition of national sovereignty that the President of Bolivia has no less of a right to move from one country to another than President Obama or German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Yet the US saw fit to order its vassals to divert the plane of the Americas’ first indigenous head of state, and the Europeans saw fit to oblige. This action makes a mockery of Obama’s assurance that he won’t be “scrambling jets” to catch a “29-year-old hacker”; moreover, it makes a mockery of the very idea of diplomacy.

The fact that Snowden wasn’t on the plane doesn’t mean much in the end. After all, it’s the thought that counts. When Ecuador suggested it would consider Snowden’s asylum request, our cuddly, gaffe-prone Vice President Biden was quick to inform President Rafael Correa that aiding Snowden would cost Ecuador its trade benefits with the US. Let me repeat that: The Obama administration threatened to punish a poor South American nation with economic sanctions if it were to grant Snowden’s right under international law to freedom from political persecution. Is this “diplomacy”? If it is, it’s the kind of diplomacy that’s indistinguishable from extortion. The administration’s message is clear: Governments who dare to defy the US by granting asylum to people the US doesn’t like will be treated as criminals.

Of course, the US’s global surveillance system already treats virtually everyone in the world as a criminal, whose every communication must be stored for future use. Even before the most recent revelations, Latin American leaders closed ranks around Morales. The growing solidarity among these governments – and the social movements that brought them to power – was aptly expressed by Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner: “I got chills down my spine when I went back to Bolivia and saw that a fellow president had been detained for 13 hours as though he were a thief…I got chills down my spine when we discovered that they are spying on all of us through their intelligence services”.

Meanwhile, the regime media in the US continue to report on these leaks as if they were just a plot device in a spy novel, as if the story were really about Snowden and not the crimes of the US government. If anyone thinks I’m exaggerating, I invite you to watch this breathtaking clip from MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner. Professional Obama apologist Joy Reid’s interview – no, interrogation – of WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson is as hostile as it is littered with irrelevant pop psychology, but the segment’s crown jewel is this strange tirade by Melissa Harris-Perry:

It seems clear to me that [Snowden’s] willingness to take refuge in countries whose own position on public information, on human rights, is in fact worse than that of the United States of America…is clearly simply to save his own skin. In this country, those who have decided to take a position of civil disobedience because they love and care about their country, and want to extend the Constitution, have always done so with a recognition that doing so also means standing for the consequences of breaking those laws. …But this going on the run thing, this is different. This is dangerous to our nation.

This rhetoric should sound familiar to everyone who pretended to find it objectionable during the Bush administration. If Snowden cares so much about principles, he should, on principle, refuse the aid and protection of any government willing to grant him asylum. Instead, he should do the patriotic thing and return to the US, which has a stellar human rights record, to face either life in prison or execution. Why? Because America, that’s why. Whatever the President calls our “national security interests” trump human rights and international law. There’s enough rabid nationalism in this alleged progressive intellectual’s “commentary” to make Joe McCarthy blush. And that’s a shame.

Mass surveillance is a weapon in Obama’s escalating war on dissent

As Bradley Manning’s trial continues (mostly ignored by corporate news outlets), the story of another crucial national security leak has sent shockwaves through the US establishment. Over the course of last week, Glenn Greenwald and other journalists at The Guardian published convincing evidence that the NSA – in direct contradiction to statements by top officials under oath – is engaged in mass wiretapping and surveillance on an astronomical scale, including dragnet surveillance of Americans.

This leak marks the first time that government documents have publicly confirmed the numerous reports (dating back to 2005) of widespread domestic spying by the NSA. It’s also the first time a leaker has disrupted the Obama administration’s routine for whistleblower prosecutions by preemptively claiming responsibility in a series of interviews published by The Guardian. Edward Snowden, as we now know, is an ex-CIA analyst who’d been working under NSA contract for the private company Booz Allen Hamilton. Witnessing firsthand the ongoing expansion of the national security state, Snowden grew so alarmed that he decided to release a carefully selected series of documents to Greenwald. “A lot of people in 2008 voted for Obama,” he told Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in Hong Kong, where he’s seeking political asylum. “I voted for a third party. But I believed in Obama’s promises. I was going to disclose it [but waited because of his election]. He continued with the policies of his predecessor.”

Of all the alleged journalists who report on these issues in the US, Greenwald (who lives with his husband in Brazil) was the one Snowden trusted most to do real journalism: that is, not to censor himself under the threat of government retribution. Thanks to Snowden and Greenwald, we now have proof of the following NSA surveillance operations: 

1. The NSA collects the call records of millions of Verizon customers every day, as evidenced by a top-secret FISA court order. The telephone records include information about whom a customer called, from where the call was made, and the length of the conversation.

2. A top-secret program called PRISM gives the NSA “direct access” to the servers of nine internet giants, including Google, Apple, and Facebook. This means the Obama administration does not even have to request information from these internet companies in order to archive and search the electronic communications of users, Americans and non-Americans alike. The Guardian has obtained an internal PowerPoint presentation on the program consisting of 41 slides, of which it has published 4.

3. The NSA can effectively suck up the entire world’s communications under the program dubbed Boundless Informant, a name so apt that it’d be comical were it an invention of Philip K. Dick’s imagination and not an actual US government program. The program doesn’t collect an equivalent amount of data for all countries: Rather, a color-coded map included in The Guardian‘s exposé indicates how much surveillance individual countries are subject to, with Iran the most intensively monitored country.

Fellow NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake has since confirmed that “Snowden saw what I saw”: “The NSA programs that Snowden has revealed are nothing new,” he wrote in The Guardian. “[T]hey date back to the days and weeks after 9/11. I had direct exposure to similar programs, such as Stellar Wind, in 2001.” Stellar Wind, Drake explains, “was a highly secret program that, without warrant or any approval from the Fisa court, gave the NSA access to all phone records from the major telephone companies, including US-to-US calls.”

Both Drake and “Pentagon Papers” leaker Daniel Ellsberg, widely considered the most important whistleblower in US history, compare the current US intelligence apparatus to that of the notorious Ministry for State Security (“Stasi”) in East Germany. In a piece called “Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America”, Ellsberg writes,

In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material…Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an “executive coup” against the US constitution.

Specifically, regardless of their extremely dubious legality, the NSA programs revealed by the leaked documents unquestionably violate the Fourth Amendment, which I encourage everyone to read. The national security state under Obama – as much as (if not more than) under Bush – violates virtually everyone’s constitutional rights virtually all of the time. This, I think, is the crucial point, which is why I won’t spend time picking apart the various attacks on Snowden and Greenwald by partisan hacks and self-serving authoritarians in the media. Others have already done so. I want to zero in on a question I’ve heard a lot in recent days, not only from professional Obama apologists, but from ordinary people: Even if these practices are unconstitutional – even if they’re illegal – what’s so troubling about the government storing information that you already “choose” to hand over to evil corporations?

This question, as articulated by liberals, seems to assume that the government is mostly benign – especially since a former constitutional lawyer and his party full of hip, reasonable people happen to be in power. Snowden’s own answer is worth quoting in full:

[E]ven if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently, by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

It might sound like an obvious point, but apparently, it needs to be made: When the government seizes and codifies authoritarian powers, that enables it to then abuse those powers at any time in the future. When I had the chance to speak with Greenwald at Brooklyn College earlier this year, I asked him why he thinks it is that Americans seem so unwilling to think these and other policies through to their logical conclusions. For one thing, he said, the partisan mentality is so pervasive that all political and ethical questions are reduced to trusting and defending “your guy” and “your team”. For another thing, Americans seem curiously wedded to the belief that some form of fascism or dictatorship might overthrow liberal democracy in other countries, but not in the US. To quote Sinclair Lewis, “It can’t happen here”.

It can happen here. It can get much, much worse, and it’s already begun to. As Mohamad Tabaa points out in an article for Salon, Muslims in the US have already been the victims of mass surveillance since 9/11. Data ranging from emails to library borrowing records aren’t only collected, but used as evidence in court. Entire communities haven’t just been robbed of their privacy; they’ve been criminalized by the very apparatus that claims to keep us safe: “[T]hese powers have since evolved – as was inevitable – well beyond the simplicities of mere surveillance to include deliberate cases of FBI entrapment, which have resulted in innocent people being sentenced to decades in prison.” 

It’s well known that the US government’s COINTELPRO used unconstitutional, sometimes illegal, and ethically repulsive methods to silence radical and progressive voices. Most notoriously, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI hounded Martin Luther King, Jr., using the fruits of their surveillance to blackmail him. When that failed to shut him up, they tried to use what they had to discredit him publicly. A genuine challenge to power may not exist in the US right now, but as poverty and inequality grow, so will resistance to the status quo.

That behind the assault on privacy is really an assault on dissent is apparent from the bipartisan calls, from right-wing Republicans like Peter King and right-wing Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, for the prosecution not only of Snowden, but of Greenwald as well. Greenwald has been a lonely voice of principled opposition to the most shameful policies of both the Bush and Obama administrations, and his readiness to publish these leaks in defiance of the state’s demand for secrecy and obedience has drawn ire from “both sides of the aisle”. Meanwhile, Greenwald has promised that more documents are forthcoming.

For now, it’s likely that retribution will be focused primarily on Snowden. But the Obama administration’s attitude towards journalists who expose its crimes is most clearly illustrated by the case of Abdulelah Haider Shaye. As Jeremy Scahill has documented, Shaye, a Yemeni journalist, dared to report that the US had dropped Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs on one of the poorest villages in the south of Yemen. Shaye revealed that the claims of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government – that it was responsible for the airstrike, and that the target was an Al Qaeda training camp – were patently false. Al Majalah and its inhabitants had been shredded by the US Joint Special Operations Command, which reports directly to the White House. Saleh had Shaye imprisoned and tortured, triggering a huge public outcry. When Saleh considered releasing Shaye, he received a call from President Obama himself, ordering him to keep Shaye in prison indefinitely.

What’s the difference, from Obama’s point of view, between imprisoning Greenwald and imprisoning Shaye? The answer is that Greenwald is a citizen of the US, where the Constitution protects his right to do real journalism and shed light on what the government does in secret. Our civil liberties are inextricably linked to each other. Our right to privacy is essential to our right to voice our opposition and reveal elite wrongdoing. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” – In which authoritarian state is that not the case?

A poem for Bradley Manning

Today, June 1, is the international day of solidarity with Bradley Manning, the US Army whistleblower charged with leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. Among other things, the leaked documents exposed Bush-era war crimes, including running torture centers and death squads in Afghanistan and Iraq. The response of the Obama administration has been ruthless, charging Manning with “aiding and abetting” Al Qaeda and imprisoning him for over 1,000 days without trial. He has been held in solitary confinement for much of that time, prompting the UN special rapporteur on torture to denounce his treatment as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

The most notorious of the leaks was this video footage of a 2007 US airstrike in Baghdad, dubbed “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, which shows helicopters massacring a group of unarmed men (including two Reuters war correspondents) with the chilling glee of someone playing a video game. At a pretrial hearing in February, Manning said that, “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables, this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general, as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.” That debate has yet to occur, and the culture of bloodlust and impunity surrounding every act of state violence, past and present, remains intact.

As I struggled to come to terms with our silence, I wrote this poem for Bradley. At the time, I was deeply immersed in the work of Theodor W. Adorno. The title refers to Adorno’s dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”: After the horrors of fascism and the Holocaust, it’s clear that achieving the height of culture hasn’t civilized us. On the contrary, it has distracted from, and rationalized, our other achievement – the apex of our disregard for individual human life. The poem’s epigraph is a quote from a passage in Dialectic of Enlightenment about Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s impressions of Americans (Since the English in the quote is also in English in the original, I’ve left the German words [sagt der Amerikaner, “the American says”] untranslated). Americans, they write, judge their self-worth based on their market value; they aren’t ignorant of their powerlessness in the capitalist economy, nor do they celebrate it – rather, they accept it.

We’ve met with willful indifference the actions of a young man whose courage and plight should’ve been a wake-up call to a nation that claims to value human rights and freedom. We – not only the government, not only the media, but we, the people of the United States – have let him down.

“No poems after Auschwitz”

KS 6/1/2013


It’s a free country


But freedom has rules:

You can say what you want about the Market

but if you don’t play ball

you’re not one of us.


We don’t leak the wrong footage

of the wrong Apache helicopters

swarming over Baghdad

picking off civilians like flies.


And on a rainy Tuesday in November

every four years

we pick Dear Leader

like free people do.


You’ll never change the world.

But to those who will try –

The risk you bear is


it’s terrifying


I am a failure, sagt der Amerikaner. – And that is that.