Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How Secure Are We?

During his confirmation hearing as the new head of the FBI, James Comey, told Congress that he thought that the government surveillance of everyone's phone conversations was justified because it was making us safe.
We have been hearing that for a long time from a long series of government officials, many of them in the military, who have told Congress not to worry about our progressive loss of civil rights.
Anti-terrorism actions may make us more secure against terrorism attacks. But there are many other dimensions of safety which they do not affect at all. In many respects, Americans are unsafe regardless of threats by terrorists. Anti-terrorism acts affect only a small part of the security of American citizens:
During their lifetime one in six women are the victims of attempted or completed rape. 26,000 soldiers, men and women, have been sexually assaulted in the military in the past year and it is quite obvious that, so far, the generals and the admirals and the other big shots are unable (or unwilling?) to deal with this problem.
The government taping phone messages – only “meta-data” of course-- will not reduce sexual assaults in the US.
Here are some other data about how secure we are: The US incarcerates more of its citizens than any other society. At any time, 37% of young black men are behind bars.
The New York police has, in recent years, adopted an aggressive stop-and-frisk policy. 87% of those stopped and frisked are black men. That is hardly being safe.
And now George Zimmerman has been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Of the 1600 nursing homes in the US, one third have been cited by state authorities for abuse of elderly residents.
I could go on and on, with reports about the treatment of migrant farm workers, of harsh conditions for low wage employees, for inmates of mental institutions. I could go on and talk about illegal home foreclosures, about the troubles of the homeless, but the message would always be the same.
It will take a lot more than taping meta-data on phone messages to make many Americans safe. The progressive infringement on civil rights by our government does nothing to make large numbers of Americans more secure than they are today.
(On the contrary, the current extension of government power to invade the privacy of citizens is a serious threat to each of us. But that is the topic for another blog.)
But we need to ask a second question: how insecure are we, how serious is the threat of terrorist acts? The government claims that its infringement of civil rights has allowed it to prevent many terrorist attacks and thus has saved lives.
But here is the rub. We don't know how many security threats the government actually uncovers and manages to prevent. Because all of this stuff is supersecret. Were it not for Edward Snowden we wouldn't even know about the taping of phone calls.
We are deprived of civil rights for our own good, and for our own good the government does not provide any evidence for that. We need to trust big brother government—for our own good.
But how can we trust a government that lies again and again? In testimony before Congress several higher-ups in the surveillance apparatus have in recent weeks denied point blank, that the government is engaging in surveillance of phone calls or of reporters. A few weeks later it emerged that they had been lying.
Even the government knows that citizens are not that gullible. So when someone lets out some secret information, the government uses its extensive powers of arm-twisting to make sure the whistle-blower is apprehended and punished harshly. In the case of Pfc. Manning they made it very clear that they are prepared to be brutal in stopping leaks. In the world-wide arm twisting of countries considering giving asylum to Edward Snowden, the same unflinching violence is manifest.
The government is quite clear that it will stop at nothing in punishing those who break the veil of secrecy. Would they have to be so harsh and vindictive if their conscience were clear?
These snake oil salesmen are armed and dangerous.
So if Comey or other government officials come before Congress and boast that they have been protecting us against terrorist threats, we have no way of telling whether they are lying to us or not. Governments have consistently lied to their people in order to justify military and other violent actions they thought desirable. Pres. Lyndon Johnson invented an attack on an American warship in order to justify escalating the Vietnam war. President Bush invented weapons of mass instruction in order to justify the invasion of Iraq.
We have good reasons to be really suspicious of the assurance by government officials that they are violating our rights is in our own best interest.
Before we let the NSA scandal pass, we should insist that the government come clean on the actual success of the counter terrorism efforts. Some people have been in court and have been convicted. Have any of them been railroaded by phony charges or perjured witnesses?

Obama should give Edward Snowden the presidential medal of freedom and then follow Snowden's example and open the books on the so-called war on terror.