Chomsky on state power, domestic surveillance and ‘national’ security

Writing for In These Times, Noam Chomsky offered the following observations about the kind of security sought by the security-surveillance state:

In an interview on German TV, Edward J. Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” by denying the existence of a domestic spying program conducted by the National Security Agency.

Snowden elaborated that “The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.”

The same could be justly said by Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and other courageous figures who acted on the same democratic principle.

The government stance is quite different: The public doesn’t have the right to know because security thus is undermined — severely so, as officials assert.

There are several good reasons to be skeptical about such a response. The first is that it’s almost completely predictable: When a government’s act is exposed, the government reflexively pleads security. The predictable response therefore carries little information.

A second reason for skepticism is the nature of the evidence presented. International relations scholar John Mearsheimer writes that “The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the NSA’s spying played a key role in thwarting 54 terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason.

“This was a lie, however. Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, eventually admitted to Congress that he could claim only one success, and that involved catching a Somali immigrant and three cohorts living in San Diego who had sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia.”

A similar conclusion was reached by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by the government to investigate the NSA programs and therefore granted extensive access to classified materials and to security officials. There is, of course, a sense in which security is threatened by public awareness — namely, security of state power from exposure.

The basic insight was expressed well by the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington: “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”

Indeed, power does decay when made public, and we may recall here that Huntington was a leading figure of the excess of democracy movement (1970s) which sought to rehabilitate and secure state authority after federal institutions had weathered poorly the many political crises of the 1960s. American democracy was thought to be a burden for those governing America, according to these analysts. The governors could not govern if the governed refused to affirm governmental power. Today, on the other hand, the ‘excesses’ of an energetic civil society do not trouble much America’s national political institutions. The latest crisis of American democracy has another cause:

Is there a new crisis of democracy? Certainly, the American public seems to think so. Anger with politicians and institutions of government is much greater than it was in 1975. According to American National Election Studies polls, in 1964, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time.” By the late 1970s, that number had dropped to the high 40s. In 2008, it was 30 percent. In January 2010, it had fallen to 19 percent.

With trust goes authority. When trust is lacking, when citizens no longer believe their representatives, the wielders of power necessarily find themselves placed on a slippery slope with illegitimacy sitting at the bottom of the plane. If the American democracy is now in crisis, this crisis would have little or nothing to do with democratization efforts originating from below. The crisis is not a by-product of the Tea Party or Occupy movements. Nor has it issued from anti-system tendencies within the duopoly parties or from an emerging anti-system party the existence of which effectively threatens the American political system as such. Rather, the crisis originates instead in the anti-democratic qualities which now define governmental institutions in the United States, qualities which elicit mistrust in the governed. The federal government is neither responsive nor responsible, neither accountable nor transparent. Its failures are many, sometimes obvious and often painful for its citizens as well as for others subject to its operations. It has earned the mistrust it enjoys, for it is more akin to an automaton than a place where citizens gather in order to govern themselves.

updated 3.11.2014

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