On June 7 Barack Obama made his first public statements about the NSA surveillance programs leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. After justifying the programs as subject to congressional and judicial oversight, he insisted he did not want “to suggest that, you know, you just say ‘trust me, we’re doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are.’”
But, he added, “If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”
The problem isn’t so much that the American people don’t trust their government with unprecedented powers in the realm of national security, but that the government continues to insist on our trust despite an incontestable track record of deceit and incompetence.
Generations of political leaders have lied the country into war, feigned ignorance of illegal activities they personally administered, and knowingly violated countless Americans’ constitutional rights. And yet, despite his sarcastic denial of a “trust me” doctrine, one of Obama’s central tenets, in an unprecedentedly secretive administration, has been exactly that: trust us.
The debate over NSA spying prior to Edward Snowden’s leaks was inappreciable. In total silence the Obama administration was carrying out and expanding the agency’s surveillance operations.
In a now notorious exchange, Sen. Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, director of national intelligence, four months before Snowden’s leaks, whether the NSA collects data on millions of Americans. An awkward, reluctant Clapper, displaying the classic poker tell of avoiding eye contact and scratching his perspiring brow, responded, “No, sir.” Pressed by Wyden, Clapper clarified, “Not wittingly.”
Following the Guardian’s release of classified documents that irrefutably contradicted Clapper’s answer, the director apologized with an explanation that would have made George Orwell blush. The lie he told was simply the “least untruthful” answer he could think of.
The White House and several members of Congress have been regularly telling the American people that the NSA programs are legal, constitutional, and checked by thorough congressional oversight.
But members of Congress have openly complained that the NSA systematically denies them basic information about surveillance programs. And in a 2011 FISA court ruling, significant parts of the NSA’s domestic spying activities were found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment. And finally, as the Washington Post reported in August, an internal audit found that the NSA “has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008.”
In August, the president appeared on Jay Leno’s show and misleadingly said, “There is no spying on Americans.”
A mere two days later, the New York Times reported, “The National Security Agency is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance, according to intelligence officials.”
The report added, “While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching — without warrants —through the contents of Americans’ communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations.”
“This is a truly incredible state of affairs,” the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez wrote weeks before the leaks. “We are being asked to take it as an article of faith that this [surveillance] is absolutely necessary to the security of the United States, even though similar claims about the original [Bush administration] warrantless wiretap program could not be substantiated by later internal audits.”
In other words, defenders of the NSA programs are saying, “Trust us, despite the fact that we have been repeatedly exposed as liars.”
A history of deceit
It isn’t just the administration’s flatfooted response to getting their hands caught in the cookie jar that makes trust difficult to achieve.
In an August 9 press conference, Obama insisted that the government “is not interested in spying on ordinary people.” The problem is that history tells us otherwise.
The 1975 Church Committee discovered that the NSA, in a program begun in 1947, had been monitoring Americans’ telegram messages at a rate of 150,000 per month.
The FBI’s counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO, spied on the peaceful, constitutionally protected activities of Americans from the 1950s to the 1970s. Tactics included exerting psychological warfare against political dissidents, forging documents, false propaganda, wrongful imprisonment, and even assassination.
“The Central Intelligence Agency, directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups in the United States,” New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh revealed in 1974.
Hersh also uncovered “dozens of other illegal activities by members of the CIA inside the United States, beginning in the 1950s, including break-ins, wiretapping and the surreptitious inspection of mail.”
The abuse continues to the present. In 2012 a Senate investigation found that the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence-sharing hubs, called fusion centers, disrupted no actual terrorist plots and mostly targeted Americans with no connection to terrorism.
The internal investigation found that fusion centers were “circulating information about Ron Paul supporters, the ACLU, activists on both sides of the abortion debate, war protesters and advocates of gun rights,” according to the Associated Press.
The problem with trust goes far beyond domestic-surveillance issues. The Bush administration similarly demanded America’s trust when it deceived the American people in order to justify a war with Iraq.
An investigation by a committee in the House of Representatives in 2004 identified “237 misleading statements about the threat posed by Iraq that were made by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell, and National Security Adviser Rice. These statements were made in 125 separate appearances, consisting of 40 speeches, 26 press conferences and briefings, 53 interviews, 4 written statements, and 2 congressional testimonies.”
Not only did it deliberately insinuate that Saddam Hussein had some connection to the 9/11 attacks, but the Bush administration exerted significant pressure on the intelligence community to provide justification for the Iraq War on the grounds of a WMD threat. According to John Brennan, who was deputy director of the CIA at the time, “We were being asked to do things and to make sure that that justification was out there.”
The leaked minutes of a conversation between British intelligence officials and Prime Minister Tony Blair, referred to as the “Downing Street memo,” encapsulates the entire disingenuous case for war. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD,” the secret memo reads. “But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Going to war on false pretexts has a long history too. Last August marked the 49th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed overwhelmingly by a Congress that was told by the Johnson administration that U.S. warships off the coast of Vietnam had been attacked without provocation by “communist aggression.”
That escalated the Vietnam War to what it eventually became: a pointless quagmire that cost more than 50,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese. But a secret NSA account of the Tonkin Gulf incident, declassified in 2005, found that, contrary to claims that justified the war, “no attack happened that night.”
The NSA “withheld” the entirety of the intelligence, the declassified account revealed, “in order to substantiate that claim” that the United States “had been deliberately attacked by the North Vietnamese.”
The Obama administration has mostly avoided telling lies to justify war. Instead, he tends to keep his wars secret. But the dishonesty about the drone war, for example, has been flagrant.
According to the most comprehensive estimates, Obama has ordered more than 500 drone strikes, which have killed thousands of people in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond.
John Brennan, then Obama’s national security adviser, said in June 2011 that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death [over the past year] because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”
To close observers of Obama’s drone war, that sounded absurd. And indeed it was: despite Brennan’s claim, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented hundreds of civilian casualties in the drone war.
The president has also claimed that he targets only “specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces” involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks. “It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative,” Obama said on CNN.
But according to classified documents obtained by the McClatchy newspaper group, the U.S. government has deliberately targeted for death by drone “groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as ‘foreign fighters’ and ‘other militants.’
“At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.”
That provided “proof that the United States has lied in the drone wars,” in the words of Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
That kind of serial lying understandably undermines the public’s trust in government — just as when the Reagan administration secretly and illegally sold weapons to Iran in order to continue supporting the ruthless Contra rebels in Nicaragua in violation of explicit congressional action to stop that support.
“The power of the presidency is often thought to reside within this Oval Office,” Reagan announced in a televised address on the scandal. “Yet it doesn’t rest here. It rests in you, the American people, and in your trust.”
The president proceeded to violate that trust in his very next utterances by playing dumb and claiming not to have known what his own administration was doing, a dubious claim at best.
The Obama administration has overseen an extraordinary growth of secret surveillance and covert war. Keeping a lid on it all has proven difficult, but the extreme secrecy in the administration’s management of national security often allows it to bypass Congress and the courts and public scrutiny. In place of those checks and balances are supposed to be blind faith and trust that abuses won’t happen.
Given recent history, that is simply too much to ask.
This article was originally published in the December 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.