Lots of recent articles (including ones in The Stranger) have been writing around the edges of domestic surveillance drones, clumsily stumbling through the ethics and implications of this new technology. Why the clumsiness? Because this technology is so new, moving faster than the laws or philosophical underpinning that should govern it, that anyone who's trying to sort it all out is basically groping in the dark.
But this piece by Glenn Greenwald—"Domestic drones and their unique dangers," over at the Guardian last month—nails why drone technology is a difference of kind, not just of degree, in state surveillance. It's well-reported, clearly written, lucidly argued, and is required reading for anyone who cares about drones—supporter or critic—or civil liberties.
And the issue of domestic surveillance drones, it turns out, is also an opportunity for hope for those of us worried about state surveillance:
What is most often ignored by drone proponents, or those who scoff at anti-drone activism, are the unique features of drones: the way they enable more warfare, more aggression, and more surveillance. Drones make war more likely precisely because they entail so little risk to the war-making country. Similarly, while the propensity of drones to kill innocent people receives the bulk of media attention, the way in which drones psychologically terrorize the population - simply by constantly hovering over them: unseen but heard - is usually ignored, because it's not happening in the US, so few people care (see this AP report from yesterday on how the increasing use of drone attacks in Afghanistan is truly terrorizing local villagers). It remains to be seen how Americans will react to drones constantly hovering over their homes and their childrens' schools, though by that point, their presence will be so institutionalized that it will be likely be too late to stop.
Notably, this may be one area where an actual bipartisan/trans-partisan alliance can meaningfully emerge, as most advocates working on these issues with whom I've spoken say that libertarian-minded GOP state legislators have been as responsive as more left-wing Democratic ones in working to impose some limits. One bill now pending in Congress would prohibit the use of surveillance drones on US soil in the absence of a specific search warrant, and has bipartisan support.
In particular, a committee was formed in the Congress and the Senate, and it was headed by someone named Frank Church, who was a Democratic Party of the United States senator from Idaho who had been, in the Senate, at this time, for 20 years as one of the most widely regarded senators, and was chosen because of that. And he led this investigation into these eavesdropping abuses and tried to get into the scandal. One of the things that he discovered was that these eavesdropping abuses were radically more pervasive and egregious than anything that had been known at the start of the investigation.
It was by no means confined to the Nixon administration. In fact, it went all the way back to the 1920s, when the government first began developing the detective audio capability to eavesdrop on American citizens and heightened as the power heightened through the 1940s, when WWII would justify it; into the '50s when the Cold War did, and the 1960s when the social unrest justified surveillance. What Senator Church found was that literally every single administration under both Democratic and Republican presidents had seriously abused this power.
And not in isolated ways, but systematically. This committee documented all the ways in which that was true, and the realization quickly emerged that, allowing government officials to eavesdrop on other people, on citizens, without constraints or oversight, to do so in the dark, is a power that gives so much authority and leverage to those in power that it is virtually impossible for human beings to resist abusing that power. That’s how potent of a power it is.
But the second thing that he realized beyond just the general realization that this power had been systematically abused was that, there was an agency that was at the heart of this abuse, and it was the National Security Agency. And what was really amazing about the National Security Agency was that it had been formed 20 years ago back in 1949 by President Truman, and it was formed as part of the Defense Department. It was so covert that literally, for two decades, almost nobody in the government even knew that it existed, let alone knew what it did. Including key senators like Frank Church.
And part of his investigation — and actually, it was a fairly radical investigation, fairly aggressive even looking at it through cynical eyes and realizing that the ultimate impact wasn’t particularly grand, but the investigation itself was pretty impressive — and he forced his way into the National Security Agency and found out as much as he possibly could about it.
And after the investigation concluded, he issued all sorts of warnings about the Surveillance State and how it was emerging, and the urgency of only allowing government officials to eavesdrop on citizens, that they have all kinds of layers of oversight in the courts and Congress, but he issued a specific warning about the National Security Agency that is really remarkable in terms of what he said. And this is what he said — and you can find this anywhere online, in the New York Times, everywhere — he said, as part of a written report, and in an interview:
The National Security Agency’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.
There would be no place to hide. If a dictator takes over the United States, the NSA could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.
And if you look now, 30 years later to where we are, not only would you never, ever hear a U.S. senator stand up and insinuate that the National Security State poses this great danger or use words like “tyranny” and “dictators” to describe the United States the way that Frank Church did only 30 years ago. Now it’s virtually a religious obligation to talk about the National Security State and its close cousin, the Surveillance State, with nothing short of veneration.
Just a few weeks ago, Chris Hayes, who’s an MSNBC host on the weekends, used the opportunity of Memorial Day to express this view in this very tortured, careful and pre-apologetic way that maybe it’s the case that not every single person who has ever served as an American soldier or enlisted in the American military is a hero. Maybe we can think about them in ways short of that. And this incredible controversy erupted, condemnation poured down on him from Democrats and conservatives, liberals and the like, and he was forced in multiple venues in the course of the next week to issue one, increasingly sheepish apology after the next. That’s how radically our discourse has changed, so that you cannot talk about the National Security State or the Surveillance State in these kinds of nefarious terms, the way that Frank Church, who probably knew more about it, did just a few decades ago.
The second remarkable aspect of that story, of that quote to me, is that the outcome of that investigation was a series of laws that were grounded in the principle that, as I said earlier, that we cannot allow government officials to eavesdrop on American citizens or in any way to engage in surveillance without all kinds of oversights and checks. The most illustrative of which was the FISA law, which said that no government official can eavesdrop on the occasion without first going through a court and proving to a court that we’re actually doing something wrong and getting the court permission before they can eavesdrop.
There was a similar controversy in the mid 2000s and in 2005 when the New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had been using the NSA to do exactly what Frank Church warned against — which is spying on the communication of American citizens. And the outcome of that was not new laws or new safeguards to constrain these sorts of abuses, it was exactly the opposite. In 2008, the Democratic-led Congress, with the support of President Obama, most of his supporters in the Democratic party and almost all Republicans basically gutted that law. Repealed it in its core and made it much, much easier for the government to eavesdrop on American citizens without constraint, and then immunized the nation’s telecoms that had participated in that illegal program.
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