Quick! Look Over There!

Like many children of my generation, I ate school lunches from plastic trays lined up tightly against each other on folding tables in the school gym. As we ate, teachers milled about. Their job was to keep an eye out for any sign of raucous or anti-social behavior. As we got older, enterprising classmates learned to exploit the situation for their own ends.

A favorite trick of one of my more clever seatmates was to break the monotonous conversation--sixth graders are generally still not expert in entertaining small talk--with an excited phrase like, "Watch out! Here comes Miss Robinson!" And as I, like most of my companions, would turn to locate the imposing woman with the red beehive hairdo, he would swiftly move a chunk of government surplus cheddar from my tray to his mouth.

Though most people don't realize it, the technique of my enterprising sixth grade classmate is a key pillar of the US establishment's strategy to keep a potentially restive population in position of generally docile compliance before its increasingly illiberal policies.

Last week the New York Times published a long article about how the US State Department is developing systems designed to allow dissidents in other countries to circumvent government-imposed controls on the free flow of information through the internet, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

The authors of the piece, James Glanz and John Markoff, describe in a tone of groupie-like awe, how a group of hip young technology contractors is working with the full support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to develop an "internet in a suitcase", technology that, when placed in the hands government critics in repressive places like Iran, Syria, Libya and Venezuela, will allow them to continue to organize and resist the diktats of their overlords. As the prime architect of the program puts it in the article: "The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people's fundamental human right to communicate".

I think we can all agree that helping people pursue their "fundamental human right to communicate" is great and admirable stuff. The problem resides not in the fact that State Department is promoting this, or that the media is reporting on it, but rather in the way both parties frame the problem of government interference in the free communication between citizens.

Shaping citizen perceptions of the broad world they inhabit--and do not think for a moment that the branches of government dealing with foreign affairs are not obsessively concerned with this--involves many things. And what is described or reported in declarative sentences is only one small element of this process.

Of equal or greater importance in many cases, is what is not said, or to put it another way, what is silently assumed to be true.

Reading the article in question, it is clear that both the US government and the Times reporters view control of citizen communication as a problem that exists primarily, if not exclusively, in other places. Also assumed is the notion that our government would never want to watch over its people the way governments in those "bad places" do.

Oh, if only it were so. The truth is so much more complicated and sad. In fact, at a time when agents of public diplomacy and their pliant mouthpieces in the press are directing our collective gaze to the problems of information control in other places, the US government is moving quite swiftly and deliberately to circumscribe our "fundamental right to communicate" without interference.

You think I am exaggerating? Well, consider these things:

--We know from both the reporting of James Risen and the testimonies of the ATT whistleblower Mark Klein that the major telecom companies have, since the early years of the Bush Administration, granted the government virtually unlimited access to the phone and internet communications of millions of American citizens. And despite the widespread impression among liberals that Obama has taken care of the problem, there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. Indeed, his Administration's aggressive stance against allowing litigants to engage in discovery and redress in any matters related to this type of surveillance gives us every reason to believe these practices continue unabated.

--According to NSA whistle-blower Russell Tice, the NSA regularly rummages through the private phone calls, emails and credit cards of millions of Americans in a single year in search of "suspicious" activities or patterns.

--We know that the practice of using National Security Letters, documents that grant the FBI virtually unlimited access to the personal records of American citizens (completely unbeknownst to that same citizen) is completely out of control. This legal device, one of the several "neat" law enforcement "gifts" contained in the recently renewed Patriot Act, has facilitated the invasion of privacy thousands and thousands of completely innocent Americans. Though FBI director Mueller admitted these problems as early as 2007, we have no clear indication of how, if at all, these problems have been resolved. As far as we know, no citizen has been compensated for having the intimate details of their lives spread out on a screen before a team of FBI agents. The stark fact is that the Government still has, through this device, the virtually unlimited and completely unchecked (in the sense of not having to answer to any meaningful oversight) ability to "go after" the most personal details of the lives of any American citizen.

--Last summer Joe Lieberman introduced legislation to give the President of the US the authority to shut down all or part of the internet in the event of a "national emergency". Since then the scope of the President's powers under the bill has been somewhat diminished. However, it still grants the Chief Executive sweeping powers over the functioning of the internet should he, and he virtually alone, decide that the country is immersed in a "National Emergency".

When faced with information such as this, one of the more common reactions of people, especially liberals, is: "Don't exaggerate! You can't compare these programs, which are designed to protect us, with programs in other places aimed at repressing the citizenry. That's like comparing apples and oranges."

People who respond like this obviously don't know much about history, or the rhetoric of repressive regimes. Virtually all of them have repressed their people in the name of security and/or stability.

Nor, I suspect, do they know much about the recent campaign by people in the government with virtually unlimited access citizen personal data, to "go after" the esteemed bloggers Juan Cole and Glenn Greenwald because these people forcefully advocated positions that undermined the policy claims and plans of high-level government officials. And these are only the most recent and well-known cases.

Should we arrive at a point when the stakes involved with policing dissident thought become larger in the minds of government officials, do you really think they will curb their appetite for controlling the shape of public discourse through slander or the "strategic release" of unflattering personal facts?

So the next time the NYT or any other establishment outlet tells you about how we, with our love of liberty, are helping benighted people in other places achieve freedom, enjoy the story. But then do some research about how the situation over there really differs from the situation here. In other words, do your best to keep your eyes trained on the plastic lunch tray before you.

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