Last week, McClatchy published a pretty frightening report into the Obama Administration’s program to eliminate whistle-blowers and leaks, creatively and not-at-all-chillingly named the Insider Threat Program:
President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of “insider threat” give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.
Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material. They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.
“Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy for the program that was obtained by McClatchy.
I had a similar reaction as Charles Pierce did, and he describes it better than I can:
You want “Nixonian”? This, right here, this is Nixonian, if Nixon had grown up in East Germany. You’ve got the entire federal bureaucracy looking for signs of “high-risk persons or behaviors” the way Nixon sent Fred Malek out to count the Jews. You’ve got created within the entire federal bureaucracy a culture of spies and informers, which will inevitably breed fear and deceit and countless acts of interoffice treachery. (Don’t like your boss at the Bureau Of Land Management? Hmm, he looks like a high-risk person. Tell someone.)
I don’t want to hear about “safeguards” because I don’t believe in them any more. I don’t want to hear about “transparency” any more because the president lost his privileges on that word when he cited the secret rubber-stamp FISA court as the vehicle for transparency last week. I don’t want to hear about “oversight” because, really, stop kidding us all. And I especially don’t want to hear about how all the administration’s really done is “formalize” programs that were already in place, as though giving the creation of a culture of informers the imprimatur of the presidency makes it better.
This report came right just as we were finding out that the administration has decided to charge NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden with espionage, and I’m sorry, but there’s no amount of linguistic contortion that (warning: linking to Greenwald here) can make “whistle-blowing” into “espionage,” even if you think the whistle-blowing in question is misguided or downright harmful. This administration’s efforts to classify “leaking to the press” as “spying” are chilling to say the least, not to mention absurd (unless the press is now also Our Enemy).
or Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, or the Alien and Sedition Acts, or the Sedition Act of 1918, or any of countless other examples of America’s Constitutional principles being undermined in wartime. We survived all of those assaults on basic liberties pretty well in my opinion, but what they all had in common was that they were all instituted in response to specific events (World Wars I and II, the Civil War, the Quasi-War with France) that had foreseeable end points. What concerns me about the abuses we’re seeing in the War on Terror is that the end point is actually unforeseeable.
I am no 9/11 conspiracy theorist. I don’t believe the Bush Administration knew (anything at all! BOOM! thank you! tip your waitstaff!) that the attack was coming and deliberately did nothing to stop it, let alone that they actually masterminded or aided the plot. But I do worry that in our panicked response to 9/11, we’ve turned the keys to the kingdom over to the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about, although these days maybe it’s better described as a military-intelligence-industrial complex, and the folks to whom we entrusted the keys have crafted the perfect set of circumstances for themselves. A state of war allows governments to do all sorts of things that they might not otherwise get away with, but an indefinite war can make those things a permanent part of society. A society at war, or under threat of war, has the incentive to spend a significant chunk of its resources on the things it requires to wage that war, and to shower money on the companies that provide those things, but a society that is indefinitely at war can simply make massive defense and intelligence spending a routine part of the budget, and huge payments to a sprawling universe of defense and intelligence contractors just an everyday fact of life in Fortress America. It’s the indefinite part that really ought to worry us.
We’re in a war that has no end apart from an arbitrary one that we might someday declare. There’s no foreign capital that can fall, no leader who can declare unconditional surrender to American military might in a way that will definitively announce the cessation of hostilities. There will always be terrorists in the world, and as long as America is one of the preeminent powers in that world some of those terrorists will always want a piece of us. The only way this war ends is for us to decide we’ve had enough, but the people who make those decisions are not only well-compensated by private contractors who make more money if we don’t end this war, they’re also terrified of being accused of “letting our guard down” when the next attack comes, as it inevitably will. The abuses of our freedom in the name of defending us against terrorism can go on indefinitely, until we’ve raised an entire generation of Americans who’ve known nothing but the post-9/11 status quo, where the government asserts the right to collect (but they won’t look at it, they promise! unless they want to!) communications data on American citizens, where a massive and growing private security apparatus eats bigger and bigger portions of our federal budget and devours more and more of our freedoms in order to justify its cost, and where government employees (and maybe regular citizens, eventually?) are encouraged to spy on each other and report any suspicious behavior they think they see. You know, America.
Once all the folks who remember what life was like before 9/11 are gone, what chance is there that the pendulum will ever swing back in the other direction?