Has Snowden inadvertently unmasked the world's real rogue power? This is the last of a two part series. Read part one here.
In this light, no incident has been more revealing than the downing of the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, the democratically elected head of a sovereign Latin American nation, and not an official enemy of the United States. Angry Bolivian authorities termed it a "kidnapping" or "imperialist hijack." It was, at the least, an act for which it’s hard to imagine a precedent.
Evidently, officials in Washington believed that the plane bringing the Bolivian president back from Moscow was also carrying Edward Snowden. As a result, the US seemed to have put enough pressure on four European countries (France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy) to force that plane to land for refueling in a fifth country, Austria). There — again, US pressure seems to have been the crucial factor — it was searched under disputed circumstances and Snowden not found.
So much is not known about what happened, in part because there has been no serious reporting from Washington on the subject. The US media has largely ignored the American role in the downing of the plane, an incident regularly described here as if the obvious hadn’t happened. This may, at least in part, be the result of the Obama administration’s implacable pursuit of whistleblowers and leakers right into the phone records of reporters. The government has made such a point of its willingness to pursue whistleblowers via journalists that, as Associated Press President Gary Pruitt recently pointed out, national security sources are drying up. Key figures in Washington are scared to talk even off the record (now that "off" turns out to be potentially very "on"). And the Justice Department’s new "tighter" guidelines for accessing reporters’ records are clearly filled with loopholes and undoubtedly little more than window dressing.
Still, it’s reasonable to imagine that when Morales' plane took off from Moscow there were top US officials gathered in a situation room (à la the bin Laden affair), that the president was in the loop, and that the intelligence people said something like: We have an 85% certainty that Snowden is on that plane. Obviously, the decision was made to bring it down and enough pressure was placed on key officials in those five countries to cause them to bow to Washington's will.
One can certainly imagine that, but know it? At the moment, not a chance and, unlike in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a triumphant situation-room photo hasn't been released, since there was, of course, no triumph. Many questions arise. Why, to mention just one, did Washington not allow Morales’ plane to land for refueling in Portugal, as originally planned, and simply strong-arm the Portuguese into searching it? As with so much else, we don’t know.
We only know that, to bring five countries into line that way, the pressure from Washington (or its local representatives) must have been intense. Put another way: key officials in those countries must have realized quickly that they stood in the way of a truly powerful urge by the planet's superpower to get one fugitive. It was an urge so strong that it overrode any other tactical considerations, and so opened the way for Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua to offer asylum to Snowden with the support of much of the rest of Latin America.
Imagine for a moment that an American president’s plane had been brought down in a similar fashion. Imagine that a consortium of nations pressured by, say, China or Russia, did it and that, with the president aboard, it was then searched for a Chinese or Soviet "dissident." Imagine the reaction here. Imagine the shock. Imagine the accusations of "illegality," of "skyjacking," of "international terrorism." Imagine the 24/7 media coverage. Imagine the information pouring out of Washington about what would no doubt have been termed "an act of war."
Of course, such a scenario is inconceivable on this one-way planet. So instead, just think about the silence here over the Morales incident, the lack of coverage, the lack of reporting, the lack of outrage, the lack of shock, the lack of… well, just about anything at all.
Instead, the 21st century version of deterrence theory ruled the day, even though Snowden is the proof that deterrence via manhunts, prosecution, imprisonment, and the like has proven ineffective when it comes to leaks. It’s worth pointing out that what may be the two largest leaks of official documents in history — Bradley Manning’s and Snowden’s — happened in a country increasingly under the sway of deterrence theory.
Slouching Toward Washington to Be Born
And yet, don’t think that no one has been affected, no one intimidated. Consider, for instance, a superior piece of recent reporting by Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times. His front-page story, "In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of NSA," might once have sent shock waves through Washington and perhaps the country as well. It did, after all, reveal how, in "more than a dozen classified rulings," a secret FISA court, which oversees the American surveillance state, "has created a secret body of law" giving the NSA sweeping new powers.
Here’s the paragraph that should have had Americans jumping out of their skins:
“The 11-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, was once mostly focused on approving case-by-case wiretapping orders. But since major changes in legislation and greater judicial oversight of intelligence operations were instituted six years ago, it has quietly become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come, the officials said.”
At most moments in American history, the revelation that such a secret court, which never turns down government requests, is making law "almost" at the level of the Supreme Court would surely have caused an outcry in Congress and elsewhere. However, there was none — a sign either of how powerful and intimidating the secret world has become or of how much Congress and the rest of Washington have already been absorbed into it.
No less strikingly — and again, we know so little that it’s necessary to read between the lines — Lichtblau indicates that more than six "current and former national security officials," perhaps disturbed by the expanding powers of the FISA court, discussed its classified rulings "on the condition of anonymity." Assumedly, at least one of them (or someone else) leaked the classified information about that court to him.
Fittingly enough, Lichtblau wrote a remarkably anonymous piece. Given that sources no longer have any assurance that phone and email records aren’t being or won't be monitored, we have no idea how these shadowy figures got in touch with him or vice versa. All we know is that, even when shining a powerful light into the darkness of the surveillance universe, American journalism now finds itself plunging into the shadows as well.
What both the Morales incident and the Lichtblau article tell us, and what we’ve barely taken in, is how our American world is changing. In the Cold War years, faced with a MAD (mutually assured destruction) world, both superpowers ventured "into the shadows" to duke it out in their global struggle. As in so many wars, sooner or later the methods used in distant lands came home to haunt us. In the 21st century, without another major power in sight, the remaining superpower has made those "shadows" its own in a big way. Just beyond the view of the rest of us, it began recreating its famed tripartite, checks-and-balances government, now more than two centuries old, in a new form. There, in those shadows, the executive, judicial, and legislative branches began to meld into a unicameral shadow government, part of a new architecture of control that has nothing to do with "of the people, by the people, for the people."
Such a shadow government placing its trust in secret courts and the large-scale surveillance of populations, its own included, while pursuing its secret desires globally was just the sort of thing that the country’s founding fathers feared. In the end, it hardly matters under what label — including American "safety" and "security" — such a governing power is built; sooner or later, the architecture will determine the acts, and it will become more tyrannical at home and more extreme abroad. Welcome to the world of the single rogue superpower, and thank your lucky stars that Edward Snowden made the choices he did.
It’s eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the 20th century are now being recreated in those shadows. There, an increasingly "totalistic" if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.
We have now experienced deterrence theory in two centuries. Once it was brought to bear to stop the wholesale destruction of the planet; once — and they do say that if the first time is tragedy, the second is farce — to deter a small number of whistleblowers from revealing the innards of our new global security state. We came close enough to total tragedy once. If only we could be assured that the second time around it would indeed be total farce, but at the moment, as far as I can tell, no one’s laughing.
*[This article was originally published by TomDispatch.com.]
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