Glenn Greenwald: The Assault on Civil Liberties & the Growing Climate of Fear in America (VIDEO)
Much thanks to all of you who visited The Dissenter yesterday and made the first day that this space was up and running a successful one. Now, I would like to share with you a transcript and full video of Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald’s speech at Socialism 2011 a couple weeks ago.
I’ve already posted a majority of the interview in parts here at Firedoglake. I have transcribed the whole speech and posted the video here as a way to celebrate the opening of this space here at FDL. Greenwald really embodies the kind of spirit and zeal that I would like people to expect from The Dissenter. He makes the kind of hard-hitting and unconventional arguments that need to be made about the state of civil liberties in America. And so, I invite you to, at some point during the weekend, enjoy his speech that he gave on the climate of fear that justifies the escalated assault on civil liberties in America and how Obama is just as bad on civil liberties as Bush was and in two key policy areas actually worse than Bush.
I speak at a lot of events these days, a lot of college campuses and conferences and the like, and this is definitely the most—What’s the right word? Energetic. (Applause)
It’s interesting. A lot of times if a lot of people gather for the purpose of engaging in systemic critiques of political systems and political power and the like this sort of gloominess sets in. I’m sure you’re familiar with it and have encountered it. It’s kind of grounded in this defeatism—this sense that we’ve spent all this time talking about how horrible things are and all the impediments that we face to change and now I’m depressed and feel like I’m impotent and nothing can be done. And, the exact opposite energy is very palpable at this conference. Not just this commitment to talking about the need for change but this real belief in the possibility for it. And, it’s really encouraging and inspiring to be around a gathering of so many people from so many different age groups and backgrounds, who really are committed to that vision. And so, I’m really glad I came and glad to be here.
I talk about—I write a lot about civil liberties in the age of Obama and have given a lot of talks and have had a lot of discussion in venues over the course of the last two and a half years. In the beginning of the Obama presidency—and even as recently as say a year ago, if one were to stand up, as I’m going to do in a second, and make this observation that Obama has continued virtually the entirety of the Bush/Cheney approach to the war on civil liberties and terrorism, one would have to spend most of one’s time speaking, offering proof to convince people that that was true. And the reason was not all that long ago that was a fairly controversial and provocative observation to make. People just instinctively found it repellent—the idea that this wonderfully, sophisticated, educated, progressive, constitutional lawyer, who ran on a platform of denouncing these policies and vowing to unroot them and reverse them, would actually be continuing and in many cases actually worsening them. It was just something that despite the abundance of evidence proving it was true was something that people intuitively reacted to in a negative way. You had to spend a great deal of time persuading them that it was actually the case by assembling all the evidence to prove it.
That’s no longer necessary. It’s so obviously the case, so self-evidently true, that what was known two years ago in Democratic circles as the shredding of the constitution that is now called Democratic consensus—It’s so overwhelming and glaring that even people who want not to see it have come to not only recognize it but openly acknowledge it so that it’s no longer conventional wisdom that this is the case. It’s no longer slightly provocative or controversial to say it. I don’t need to waste your time or mine systematically proving it to be the case.
Suffice to say, it is acknowledged across the political spectrum that Barack Obama has continued virtually all of George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s once controversial terrorism and civil liberties policies. And what I find very interesting about that acknowledgment is that, as I said, it spans the ideological spectrum. And mostly it is now a consensus among what had been a couple of years ago the Bush-following American right. The reason why I find it interesting that even the right wing is willing to acknowledge these policies have continued in the Obama presidency is for decades the Republicans have gained really potently on a political level from accusing Democrats of being weak on national security or soft on terrorism in the age of terror.
Now, weak on national security in American political parlance doesn’t mean that somebody shies away from acts of strength and courage. And similarly, strength and national courage doesn’t mean that one acts strongly or engages in acts of courage. It means the opposite. What strength and national security means is a willingness to send other people’s children off to war to risk their lives to kill large numbers of civilians in foreign countries. (Applause) That’s what strength and courage on national security means. And, when Republicans have spent all these decades accusing Democrats of being weak on national security, what they mean is that they’ve been slightly less willing to send other people’s children to foreign countries to kill civilians. Now, happens not to be true. Democrats are very willing to do that and, if you add up body counts and the like, you might even argue the Democrats are more willing. But this has been a successful political attack on the part of Republicans so much so that they do it instinctively.
The minute there’s a Democratic candidate or a Democratic president, Republicans will start accusing them of abandoning strong national security policies or being weak on national security and soft on terrorism. And at the beginning of the Obama presidency you saw this attack, because it’s just reflexive. You just wind up a conservative and this is the sort of stuff that comes out of their mouth. So you saw the spawns of some right wing figures, like Irving Kristol’s son Bill and Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz form some groups like Keep America Safe and the like and they ran around saying, “Obama is weak on national security. He’s abandoning the policies that keep us safe and is going to endanger us. And, he’s going to trigger a terrorist attack.” But after a few months, it became so unbelievably obvious, so self-evident that that was completely false—that in fact Obama was continuing all those policies and in many cases was strengthening them. That even given the extremely permissive standards of truth and accuracy in our political discourse (Laughter) it no longer became sustainable to articulate that attack. It just couldn’t be said with a straight face even on places like Fox News that Obama was doing this because it was so obvious he wasn’t.
And so, what Republican figures began doing instead, even the most right wing figures, is they began openly praising President Obama in the national security context for continuing these policies and they began acknowledging because they had to because he was continuing all these policies. So, I just want to give a couple examples because I find them so inclusive and find them so persuasive in terms of the state of civil liberties under President Obama.
The first example is Jack Goldsmith, who was a high-ranking lawyer, right wing ideologue in the Bush Justice Department, who approved things like “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the civilized world calls “torture,” Bush’s illegal eavesdropping and the like—A very far right radical ideologue lawyer who was put there to approve these policies. And, he wrote in an article in May 2009 in The New Republic. And it was one of the first and earliest acknowledgments on the right that this event was taking place and he was basically criticizing Dick Cheney’s daughter and Irving Kristol’s son for accusing Obama of abandoning these policies. And what he wrote was:
This premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.
And, we in this room would look at that observation and find it incredibly depressing and even outrageous, but Jack Goldsmith was celebrating it. He thought this the greatest thing ever. And, the reason he was celebrating it is he understood that what the implication of Obama’s doing that is what was once seen as controversial policies, as I talked about in last night in the context of war—What were once viewed as right wing radical policies had become the un-debatable policy of both political parties, that had become bipartisan political consensus, that by doing so had actually strengthened the terrorism policies of George Bush and Dick Cheney. What he wrote was, “The changes has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long run,” meaning it has entrenched these policies for what will likely be a generation or more because Democratic partisans no longer pretend to find them objectionable.
Then there are other instances of similar right wing and even more right wing extremists praising Obama’s approach to terrorism and civil liberties. General Michael Hayden, for instance, was the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2001 and oversaw the implementation of the illegal NSA spying program. He then became George Bush’s CIA chief for the last three years of his administration. And, so radical and extremist was Michael Hayden that Barack Obama while he was in the Senate actually voted against his confirmation as CIA chief on the ground that he had broken the law so flagrantly with implementing this domestic eavesdropping program that the rule of law required senators to take a stand against his confirmation. So, anyway this same Gen. Michael Hayden gave an interview at the beginning of this year to CNN and he gushed about President Obama in national security context and he said,“There’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and the 44th president.”
The head of the Heritage Foundation’s National Security program told the New York Times in October, “I don’t think it’s even fair to call Obama Bush-lite. It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric.” And then the face of evil in progressive circles himself, Dick Cheney, gave an interview to NBC News at the beginning of this year and he also praised President Obama and he said he had been wrong in the beginning of the administration to accuse Obama of being weak on national security, that instead, “I think he’s, in terms of a lot of the terrorist policies, the early talk of prosecuting people who have been carrying out our policies, all of that has fallen by the wayside.” Said Cheney, “I think he’s learned that we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate so I think he’s learned from experience.”
So that’s a pretty impressive array of right-wing extremists acknowledging what they don’t want to acknowledge but have to, which is that President Obama has continued the heart and soul of George Bush and Dick Cheney’s terrorism and civil liberties policies.
Similar acknowledgments are very common now on the left as well in liberal circles where this observation was resisted for a long time. A Yale law professor, who is a liberal, who was one of the most outspoken critics of the Bush Administration, Bruce Ackerman wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in March, talking about the war in Libya and Obama’s belief that he can wage war without Congress, “Obama is bringing America closer to the imperial presidency than Bush ever did.”
Jack Balkin, who’s also a liberal Yale law professor, told the New Yorker magazine, in an article that everyone should read if you haven’t already about Obama’s war on whistleblowers, “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national security state. Obama has systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.” And then my favorite quote, the last one, is from the Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, who addressed a progressive conference last year and he was going to speak about Obama and civil liberties and he stood up and said I’m going to begin my speech with a fairly provocative remark and he made good on that promise immediately by saying, “I am disgusted by this president.” That’s the Executive Director of the ACLU.
So, given that rather extraordinary and unambiguous consensus across the political spectrum, I don’t actually feel a compulsion any longer to prove to very many people that this dynamic has in fact prevailed. It’s widely recognized. It’s even conventional wisdom. That’s quite a sea change because those of us who are pointing this out early on in the Obama presidency were met with huge amounts of resistance notwithstanding the abundant amount of evidence months ago that this was going to be the case.
I want to talk about a few of the most significant instances in which what was once condemned as right wing radicalism has become Democratic Party policy under the Obama presidency. And, as I said I could spend several hours going one by one through all the instances with which these policies have continued but I just want to highlight a few of them. And what’s interesting—The point is not that these policies that were in place when Obama was inaugurated haven’t yet been uprooted. It’s not a critique that he’s been too slow to reverse them. The critique is the opposite. It is that he has affirmatively embraced them as his own and in many cases extended far beyond where George Bush and Dick Cheney ever dreamed of taking them.
The first area that we find this to be true in is in the area of indefinite detention. The idea that you can take people, human beings, and put them into a cage for years, indefinitely, without so much as charging them with a crime or giving them any opportunity in a court of law to defend themselves or prove their innocence, to contest the validity of the charges. This was the heart and soul of the controversy over Guantanamo, over Abu Ghraib, over the universal worldwide system of detention that was created under the Republicans in the War on Terror—The idea that we can simply on the president’s say-so, on the accusation untested and unproven that someone is a terrorist or consorting with terrorists, put them into a cage for life without a shred of due process.
And, this controversy is typically talked about in the context of Guantanamo, where Obama ran for president not as an ancillary promise but as a central promise to close Guantanamo and hasn’t and isn’t going to. And, if you talk to Democratic partisans and apologists of the president, what they will say is that the reason that he hasn’t close Guantanamo is not his fault. The reason is that Congress passed a law or a series of laws impeding his doing so. And that’s not necessarily untrue. Congress did pass a series of laws barring the closing of Guantanamo, in effect. But, before that ever happened, the president’s plan for a “closing of Guantanamo” was not really to close Guantanamo at all. It was simply to move it a few thousand miles north to Illinois, where the aspects that made it so controversial—namely imprisoning people for life without due process—was going to be fully preserved and maintained.
Now, the controversy as I understood it during the Bush presidency about Guantanamo was not, “Isn’t so outrageous that George Bush and Dick Cheney are imprisoning people without due process on an island in the Caribbean rather than doing it in Illinois?” So then if we just move it a few thousand miles north the controversy is just diffused and problem solved. The controversy, as I understand it, was about the fact that it was profoundly unjust to imprison anybody without due process let alone with thousands of people who had been imprisoned especially since it turned out that thousands of them were completely innocent. And yet before Congress was going to act at all, the president announced that he had intended to continue that policy but to bring it on to American soil, which is arguably worse since it could infect the entire judicial system.
Another policy that Obama has continued and even worsened is the idea that even habeas corpus, the minimal right that a prisoner can have that’s guaranteed under the constitution—It’s far less than being charged with a crime where you’re charged with a crime and you get to go into court and the state has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that your guilty before it can punish you. Habeas corpus simply allows a prisoner to go in and make the state prove that there’s some minimal evidence to justify the accusations against that person. And, the Supreme Court in 2008, in one of the rare instances where it actually imposed some limits on executive power, said in the Bouemediene case that prisoners at Guantanamo have the right to habeas corpus.
That’s the only right they have. They don’t have the right to be charged with a crime but at least they have a right to habeas corpus, a one shot at getting into court and making the state prove that there is evidence, credible evidence, to justify the allegations against them. And since that Supreme Court was issued in 2008, 82 Guantanamo prisoners have gone to court asserting habeas rights and 53 of them have won. And to win a habeas case it means that the court finds, not that the preponderance of evidence is in your favor or that there’s some reasonable doubt—The court has to find there is zero credible evidence to justify your incarceration and over 75% of Guantanamo detainees have been successful in their habeas cases since 2008 at the time when even the Obama Administration was insisting that only the worst of the worst were at Guantanamo.
Now, despite the horrendous record of not just imprisoning people without due process but imprisoning obviously innocent people without due process, the Obama Administration took the position that this right the Supreme Court recognized applies only to people in Guantanamo but not anywhere else that the US imprisons people, such as at Bagram, Afghanistan or in places in Yemen or any other places where the US maintains prisons, such as in Iraq. And the Obama Administration has thus far won in court with this argument, meaning it has won the right to circumvent that Supreme Court decision that says that habeas corpus is a right that detainees have if you’re at Guantanamo. You simply don’t bring them to Guantanamo anymore. Instead, you bring them to Bagram or you put them in Iraq and that’s what the administration has been doing. So, thousands of prisoners continue to be detained, increasing numbers all the time without a shred of due process as a result of this circumvention.
Then, there’s the issue of one of the most controversial aspects of the Bush assertion of executive power, which is the warped version of the “state secrets” privilege that the Bush presidency developed and pioneered. And it’s a somewhat technical doctrine but it’s critically important in terms of how it was being used and is continuing to be used because it basically destroys the rule of law, literally.
The state secrets doctrine was once, starting in the 1950s and then applied through the next several decades, was a doctrine that said that, in certain cases involving national security and certain judicial cases, some documents may be so secretive that, even though they’re relevant to the litigation, even though they’re relevant to the case, even though in all other instances they would be allowed to be used, some documents are so sensitive and risk triggering the disclosure of important state secrets that they can’t be used in the case, even if they’re relevant. And what the Bush presidency did was it converted this doctrine from a document-specific privilege, that said certain documents couldn’t be used, and they developed a new theory that said certain topics are so secretive that they cannot be the subject of litigation, even when the president is accused of breaking the law. And that was basically the tool the Bush presidency used to shield itself from any judicial review for its actions, even the most illegal ones.
And the Obama Administration has continued this doctrine to the point where policies that Obama once condemned as blatantly criminal, like illegal eavesdropping, rendition and torture, are now under his administration declared to be such vital state secrets that they cannot even be the subject of judicial review, meaning even if the president broke the law he can’t be put into court and have the court find that what he did is illegal because what he did was too secret. It literally removes the president from the rule of law.
And then there are two policies that are brand new for the Obama Administration, ones that did not exist under the Bush presidency. The first of these is the idea that the president has the right and the power—not just in theory but it’s actually a power that he’s exercising—to target American citizens, not with just eavesdropping without warnings like Bush did and not just with detention without due process the way Bush did, but with assassination. So, the Washington Post in January 2010 reported there were four Americans on Obama’s list of individuals, wh he has declared without any due process to be terrorists, who the CIA is now not just permitted but instructed to hunt down and murder. One of who is Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born American citizen in Yemen who the US government hates because he speaks effectively to the Muslim world about the violence that the US commits in that part of the world and the responsibility of Muslims and the need of Muslims to stand up to this violence. The US hates him because this message is resonating and so the solution is not to charge him with crimes, because he’s not committing any crimes because you have the First Amendment right to say the things you say. It’s not even to detain him without process. They’re not bothering with that. They’re trying to kill him. They’ve shot cruise missiles and used drones at at least two occasions in the last year to try and kill this US citizen without due process, not on a battlefield but in his home, in his car, with his children, wherever they find him. And, this power is one that the Obama Administration has asserted for itself in a way that George Bush and Dick Cheney never did.
And then the other policy that is brand new is what I refer to earlier as, and it is a literal description, the war on whistleblowers that is taking place in the United States. Now the reason that this is so important is because if you combine the extraordinary secrecy powers of the US government that I just talked about with the unbelievable subservient establishment media that won’t disclose any facts or truths without getting permission from the US government, with very few exceptions—Whistleblowing is one of the very few avenues left that we even have to learn about what our government does. That’s why there’s a war on whistleblowing because it’s one of the few threats left to the US government secrecy powers.
Not only is the Obama Administration trying to criminalize what WikiLeaks is doing; there’s a very aggressive grand jury in northern Virginia to try to turn what they’re doing into a crime, even though all it is is the core of investigative journalism—revealing the secrets of the world’s most powerful corporate and government factions. If that’s turned into a crime, then meaningful transparency and journalism are dead, but they’re also doing a whole other variety of things like trying to invade the social networking communications who anyone who is even suspected of supporting WikiLeaks. And they’ve even gone so far as to execute a policy of detaining anyone they suspect of being associated with WikiLeaks at airports when they try to reenter the country, American citizens. And they’ve not only detained them but they’ve seized their laptops and other electronic devices like thumb drives and the like, memory drives. And then they just seize them and copy their contents, sometimes don’t return them, sometimes return them after a couple months—All without any form of judicial oversight or search warrant. They literally go through and do it routinely. It’s a form of pure harassment.
And then you add thing like the drastic increase of surveillance powers that the Obama Administration is seeking to demand that Internet companies not be allowed to construct networks without giving the government a back door into the networks in order to engage in surveillance and that dictate from the president that Bush officials, who got caught breaking the law in a variety of ways, not be prosecuted. When you combine all these policies and a whole bunch of other ones that I’m not going to talk about, what you really do see is not just, as the individuals that I began by quoting have acknowledged, a continuation of these policies but an aggressive expansion of them.
What’s really quite amazing about it is that these policies literally could not be more antithetical to core guarantees of freedom as set forth in the constitution. It’s amazing the Tea Party movement began the session of Congress by reading from the constitution, very melodramatically. And they seem to think that things like providing health care to citizens is an offense to the constitution, even though you can’t find anything in the constitution that suggests that’s true. And, yet, all of these policies that are literally the very powers, what the constitution expressly says cannot be exercised, don’t seem to bother them or many other people at all.
If you look for example at the Fourth Amendment, what the Fourth Amendment says is the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated and yet you have the Obama Administration literally taking American citizens and detaining them and seizing their laptops and copying their contents and storing them without a whiff of probable cause or search warrants. Or, you look at the Fifth Amendment and what it says is no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law and yet we’re allowing the government to target American citizens for murder, the ultimate deprivation, without any form of even a pretense of due process. Or, you look at the Fourteenth Amendment and its guarantee of equal protection under the law and you see that President Obama is shielding criminals in the Bush Administration from law-breaking through decrees of immunity at the same time that the United States builds the largest and most merciless prison state in the world for even trivial offenses. A more violent breach of the equal protection clause can’t be really imagined. You really do wonder if we allow these sorts of things, these kinds of breaches of constitutional freedoms without much backlash or objection, what is it that we would object to? Or what would trigger real backlash? That I think is an important question to answer.
One of the things I want to do to close the talk is talk about what I think are the implications of this continuous and now fully bipartisan assault on civil liberties.
Now, it shouldn’t really be necessary to talk about the implications or the harms of violations of civil liberties because violations of civil liberties are wrong unto themselves. It doesn’t matter what the implications are. It doesn’t matter what the benefits are or the harms are. Putting people into cages without due process or trying to kill them without letting them have an opportunity to defend themselves are things that are inherently unjust and tyrannical. And so it doesn’t really much matter what the consequences are, in terms of proving that we shouldn’t be doing these things, but the consequences are extremely serious in my view so I do want to spend a few minutes highlighting what I think are the most significant ones.
So, one of them is one that I’ve already talked about, which is the idea that by having a Democratic president adopt these policies it’s converted these things into bipartisan consensus. The way American political discourse works in establishment media circles is that, if Republicans and Democrats agree on a certain proposition, it no longer gets debated. It’s simply removed from the realm of what’s discussed. If you ask journalists to this day why they didn’t do a more diligent job, for example, of subjecting claims in the run-up to the Iraq War to critical scrutiny, what they’ll tell you is there were no Democrats calling me up and objecting or complaining them. There was no disagreement between the two parties. That’s what defines what journalists believe is worthy of conversation. What you also have is that you have huge numbers of people that are so loyally devoted to one of the two parties that even policies that they spent years screaming and ranting and raving about as horrendous and horrific, an assault on freedom, the minute their party adopts those policies they will become the most vigorous defenders of them.
I know from writing about these things I spent years having very virulent arguments with followers of George Bush and the Republican Party. Almost always now, when I critique these policies, the defenders who pop up to justify them are not Republicans at all but Democrats. And that has really changed the scope of how these policies are discussed.
The second implication that I think is critically important and not appreciated much at all is that when the government systematically proves that it is both willing and able to transgress the limits that it is supposed to be subjected to, supposed to be because when the people got together to start the country they said we consent to your authority as long as you honor and respect these limits—Once a government is able and willing to systematically cross those lines without any real consequence, what arises is a climate of fear in the country. That’s not just the outcome but the purpose. And I just want to talk about a couple of instances where this climate of fear has become really visible to me.
I spent a long time over the past year writing about WikiLeaks. And, I first started writing about WikiLeaks before most people had heard of it, before there were very many disclosures that made news in the United States, before the “Collateral Murder” video had been released showing the murder of civilians in Iraq by US helicopter. And, I learned about WikiLeaks because there was an article in the New York Times that described this top secret Pentagon report that had talked about WikiLeaks and identified them as an “enemy of the state,” literally. And ironically and appropriately enough this report got leaked to WikiLeaks [Laughter] And the New York Times article was very vague. It just talked about how the Pentagon thought they were a huge threat. The Pentagon was talking about ways to destroy WikiLeaks by planting fabricated documents with them, by exposing and invading the confidentiality of their relationships with their sources and destroying their credibility.
I didn’t know much about WikiLeaks at the time but the fact that the Pentagon viewed them as an enemy of the state and was seeking to destroy them was enough for me to believe that they warranted a lot of attention and even support. [Laughter and applause] I started looking into WikiLeaks and found that they had actually had some extraordinarily impressive achievements in terms of bringing transparency to very powerful factions and exposing corruption. And, I wrote a long piece about WikiLeaks and I wrote about why they deserved support and I interviewed Julian Assange at the time and I posted the lengthy discussion that I had with him, the audio of it, with this article that I wrote about WikiLeaks and I encouraged everybody to donate money to WikiLeaks because they were suffering some budgetary constraints and wanted to expand their staff and wanted to do a lot of other things they weren’t able to do because of the budgetary constraints. And, I had a link to a page where you could go donate to them.
In response to this article I wrote, I had enormous numbers of people, readers and others, who told me in various ways, email, comments section, when they saw me at various events and in other ways, tell me that they agreed with everything I had said about WikiLeaks. They too thought it was endeavor highly worth supporting, but they were actually afraid to donate to WikiLeaks because they thought that if they did they would end up on a government list somewhere or even at some point be subjected to some form of criminal liability for aiding and abetting what could be declared a terrorist organization.
Now, at the time I didn’t think those concerns were valid because this was an organization that had not been declared a terrorist organization. But, what really struck me was these were people who were not prone to conspiratorial or paranoid thinking. These were sober individuals, who were literally were saying they were afraid to exercise this right that they had to donate to an organization. To me, that was incredibly eye-opening. WikiLeaks is an organization that has never been accused of, let alone convicted of, committing a crime. And yet there were huge amounts of American citizens petrified of exercising what is undoubtedly their constitutional right of freedom of assembly and freedom of association and their First Amendment free speech rights to donate to an organization whose political activism they support because of a fear that the government would somehow punish them. And that level of fear was very striking to me.
It became even more striking to me as I began to get to know a lot of the people who worked in the WikiLeaks organization. And I spoke with a lot of them, met with a lot of them and what all of them said almost to a person—it’s really quite unbelievable especially foreign nationals—is there were a lot of people who were working very intricately and importantly in WikiLeaks who have stopped working in WikiLeaks, who are no longer willing to do so. And some of the people who continue to work there are very afraid, even though they continue. And what they will tell you to a person, what they fear the most, is not that their government is going to charge them with some sort of a crime or indict them—They say there’s a possibility that might happen. They don’t fear that because they’ll get lawyers and they believe they did nothing wrong and they’ll defend themselves and they believe that they will ultimately prevail. What they fear the most is that one day their government is going to knock on the door and say that the United States has requested your extradition to the United States the way the United States is trying to do with Julian Assange. And, that having seen what the US does to especially foreign nationals accused of jeopardizing the national security of the United States, the legal black hole that we’ve created for people, that is what they are petrified of the most, of ending up in the grip of the American justice system.
The fact that we have spent decades lecturing the world on what justice requires and what rule of law means and declaring ourselves the leader of the free world and yet people around the world are most petrified of ending up in the American justice system speaks volumes about what the state of civil liberties has become. And I think what is important to understand is that this is not just an implication. This is the purpose of why these things are being done.
I wrote about Bradley Manning and [Applause] the incredibly oppressive and inhumane conditions, which he was being detained. I wrote about that in the middle of December. And I know that a lot of people, even people who were horrified by it, was an inability to understand why the Obama Administration would do that. It seemed counterproductive. Even their State Department spokesman, a very loyal government official PJ Crowley, stood up in public and said this is incredibly stupid and an unproductive thing to do just from the prosecution standpoint itself. Why would they be doing it? And the same question gets asked about why they are trying to criminalize WikiLeaks. Why are they trying to criminalize WikiLeaks? What good would that do? Even if you put Julian Assange in prison for life and destroy WikiLeaks, the technology and template has been created for how these secrets are going to be leaked. You cannot possibly stop it.
The answer to both of those questions, why would they do it, is the same answer to the question, why would the Bush Administration create a worldwide regime of torture and put people on a Caribbean Island in orange jumpsuits in shackles and show the world what it is that we’re doing? The objective to all this behavior is to send a message to anyone who would dare impede the will of the US government or to prospective would-be whistleblowers, who would discover corruption, deceit and illegality and think about disclosing it to the world, that there are no limits on what we can do to you and what we will do to you if you try and impede us in any meaningful way. It’s a campaign of intimidation, of thuggish intimidation to create this climate of fear. And it’s worked.
What this climate of fear really does is it changes the relationship between the populists and the government. Because when the population fears the government—fear grounded in the knowledge that this government can transgress any limits without consequence—It’s no longer necessary to take away rights formally. Because what this climate of fear does is induces people to relinquish their rights on their own. They become afraid to exercise them. And, rights that people are afraid to exercise are worthless. You can offer all the array of rights in the world, but if you create this climate of fear that is potent enough and strong enough, it no longer makes a difference what rights you purport to offer. And, that’s what I think this assault on civil liberties, more than anything else, has really accomplished.
The last implication that I want to highlight to close up is that when you have a government and a political culture that constantly inculcates its citizenry with fear—and fear is always and in this case continues to be the primary tool that’s used to justify this assault on civil liberties—what eventually happens is the character of the citizenry begins to change and it starts to change if this assault continues long enough and if the sphere is inculcated long enough it changes irreverently so that the national character becomes radically different. It becomes fundamentally transformed.
And, one of the most vivid instances where this was really driven home for me was in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Because what happened there was there was a debate about whether or not—There were all kinds of legalistic debates about whether or not this was a legitimate act of military force and whether or not the US had the legal right to do it and I want to set all those debates to the side. What really struck me the most was the reaction on the part of the citizenry, the celebratory, chest-beating joy that came from this accomplishment. And, to me this was highlighted most effectively by what President Obama said when he announced the killing at roughly ten o’clock at night when he addressed the nation. And, this sentence in particular really struck me, he said, “The cause of securing our country is not complete. But, tonight we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history.”
Now, the reason I found that so striking is because in principle there are things you can find in American history that prove that assertion to be true. We sent the man to the moon. We developed cures for diseases that saved lives around the world and continue to. There were technologies developed that have improved people’s lives. There were corrections to the evils that were embedded within the American founding that constituted genuine progress in the emancipation of slaves and the ending of Jim Crow and the franchisement of women and non-property owners of the like. These are things that you can point to in history that can justify nationalistic pride. But, what’s so interesting is there have been very few instances over the past decade or even several decades that have really justified this kind of sense of national unity and nationalistic self-esteem. And what was amazing to me is that what we are now reduced to as a nation, what now gives us nationalistic purpose, what in Obama’s words proves “that we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to,” is that we can ferret somebody out and hunt them down and riddle their skull with bullets and then dump their corpse into the ocean. That has become the thing that now enables us to justify our nationalistic sense of achievement and pride. And that to me really reflects what the degradation is of the national character of a country that is inculcated with fear and that suffers systematic assaults on our civil liberties.
So, one of the things I think is interesting and I just want to close with this is that these policies happily enough or appropriately enough actually contain with them the seeds of their own destruction. Because one of the things that you see throughout history or constant throughout history is that empires cannot sustain themselves. Imperialism is unsustainable. Militarism is unsustainable. And a population that is inculcated with fear and that purposely gives up its own rights becomes a citizenry that is paralyzed and incapable of continuing to propel national prosperity.
I think that one of the things that you are seeing as the United States declines in strength and influence and other countries increase in that influence is an effort to hold on to these policies as tightly as possible because declining empires always cling to militarism and civil liberties assaults more tightly at the end than they do anything else in part because it’s what enables leaders to remain in power. If they can continue to scare the population enough with threats of foreign evil and foreign villains, they will overlook the raping and pillaging taking place domestically that these leader are engaged in and get behind these leaders.
And more so, all of these policies I talked about, the climate of fear they enable, the ability of the government to exercise even the most tyrannical powers, are necessary to prevent a citizenry from getting too restive and from becoming too aggressive in its assertion of dissatisfaction. And yet, one of the things, that you look at interviews from and discussion from Osama bin Laden and other members of al Qaeda that they talked about was their goal was to trigger the US into doing what it ended up doing. They knew that a single attack on US soil, very minimal in scope compared to the level of violence that we bring to the world and have been bringing to the world for decades, would trigger these bankruptcy-inducing policies. And that is what we’re seeing. Ironically, the only thing that could stop this kind of growing assault on civil liberties, the militarism that accompanies it, is a weakening of the US to the point where they’re no longer sustainable and the weakening is happening precisely because of these very policies. And oftentimes if you’re in the United States and you talk about a weakening of the United States, it’s considered to be a think that we want to avoid like it’s a very bad thing. But, I think it’s a very good thing.