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Could the US Stop Another Edward Snowden?

Making an example out of current whistleblowers only allows future ones to adapt

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 12:20 PM EDT

Slouching Toward Washington to Be Born
And yet don't think that no one has been affected, no one intimidated. Consider, for instance, a superior piece of recent reporting by Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times. His front-page story, "In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of NSA," might once have sent shock waves through Washington and perhaps the country as well. It did, after all, reveal how, in "more than a dozen classified rulings," a secret FISA court, which oversees the American surveillance state, "has created a secret body of law" giving the NSA sweeping new powers.

Here's the paragraph that should have had Americans jumping out of their skins (my italics added): "The 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, was once mostly focused on approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. But since major changes in legislation and greater judicial oversight of intelligence operations were instituted six years ago, it has quietly become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come, the officials said."

At most moments in American history, the revelation that such a secret court, which never turns down government requests, is making law "almost" at the level of the Supreme Court would surely have caused an outcry in Congress and elsewhere. However, there was none, a sign either of how powerful and intimidating the secret world has become or of how much Congress and the rest of Washington have already been absorbed into it.

No less strikingly—and again, we know so little that it's necessary to read between the lines—Lichtblau indicates that more than six "current and former national security officials," perhaps disturbed by the expanding powers of the FISA court, discussed its classified rulings "on the condition of anonymity." Assumedly, at least one of them (or someone else) leaked the classified information about that court to him.

Fittingly enough, Lichtblau wrote a remarkably anonymous piece. Given that sources no longer have any assurance that phone and email records aren't being or won't be monitored, we have no idea how these shadowy figures got in touch with him or vice versa. All we know is that, even when shining a powerful light into the darkness of the surveillance universe, American journalism now finds itself plunging into the shadows as well.

What both the Morales incident and the Lichtblau article tell us, and what we've barely taken in, is how our American world is changing. In the Cold War years, faced with a MAD world, both superpowers ventured "into the shadows" to duke it out in their global struggle. As in so many wars, sooner or later the methods used in distant lands came home to haunt us. In the twenty-first century, without another major power in sight, the remaining superpower has made those "shadows" its own in a big way. Just beyond the view of the rest of us, it began recreating its famed tripartite, checks-and-balances government, now more than two centuries old, in a new form. There, in those shadows, the executive, judicial, and legislative branches began to meld into a unicameral shadow government, part of a new architecture of control that has nothing to do with "of the people, by the people, for the people."

Such a shadow government placing its trust in secret courts and the large-scale surveillance of populations, its own included, while pursuing its secret desires globally was just the sort of thing that the country's founding fathers feared. In the end, it hardly matters under what label—including American "safety" and "security"—such a governing power is built; sooner or later, the architecture will determine the acts, and it will become more tyrannical at home and more extreme abroad. Welcome to the world of the single rogue superpower, and thank your lucky stars that Edward Snowden made the choices he did.

It's eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows. There, an increasingly "totalistic" if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.

We have now experienced deterrence theory in two centuries. Once it was brought to bear to stop the wholesale destruction of the planet; once—and they do say that if the first time is tragedy, the second is farce—to deter a small number of whistleblowers from revealing the innards of our new global security state. We came close enough to total tragedy once. If only we could be assured that the second time around it would indeed be total farce, but at the moment, as far as I can tell, no one's laughing.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (just published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

[Note: Special thanks go to Irena Gross who sparked my thinking about American "dissidents" and this prison planet of ours.]

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