“Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of 9/11. Pardon me if I blow that whistle,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes in a column reacting to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures on secret surveillance programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
He shares, “I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistleblower. No, I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistleblower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data — where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review. It’s not ideal. But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.”
Friedman is arguing that there will be even fewer civil liberties and people like Snowden concerned with threats to freedom will find society will be even worse if another “9/11-scale attack” happens. He also is melodramatically setting up this dream fantasy where Snowden could be talked down so he did not reveal information on secret surveillance practices (which the editorial board of the newspaper he writes for thinks should never have been secret).
Though Friedman has developed a reputation as a hack, he is a hack who represents a dominant strain of commentators who have a lot of influence and power in the US media. He is one of the most eminent pre-fascist pundits in the country, trumpeting his subservience to the national security state and challenging individuals who challenge its expanding power while at the same time highlighting dictatorships in countries abroad which he finds to be wretched. [Pre-fascist because the country is not a fascist state, however, the increased power of national security agencies are gradually moving the US closer to being one.]
As Friedman professes in the column, “I’m glad I live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties. But as I listen to the debate about the disclosure of two government programs designed to track suspected phone and e-mail contacts of terrorists, I do wonder if some of those who unequivocally defend this disclosure are behaving as if 9/11 never happened — that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot how to topple our tallest buildings or bring down U.S. airliners with bombs planted inside underwear, tennis shoes or computer printers.”
The invocation of terrorists or the enemy is made to convince Americans that they should accept restrictions on their freedoms.
Not only does Friedman (like other media commentators) believe that these restrictions should be accepted, one gets the sense that there are no limits to the restrictions that he thinks should be accepted so long as those in power assert or claim they are helpful in preventing terrorist attacks.
Government does not need to be transparent and provide incontrovertible proof to the public that the chipping away at freedoms actually does make the country safer. It just has to openly claim this is the case. That enables and encourages authoritarianism.
Like Joe Klein of Time, Friedman has not experienced any civil liberties violations as a result of this surveillance so the concerns expressed by Snowden are insignificant to him.
“Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened,” he declared. “But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.”
What he fears most is that Americans will tell members of Congress, “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again,” if another 9/11 happens and that will mark an end to open society.
That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.
This is hysterical nonsense in the form of a straw man argument intended to diminish any support for Snowden and aid the hyping of danger posed by the contents of Snowden’s disclosures.
He referenced an essay by David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire” that Simon wrote in reaction to Snowden’s disclosures to reinforce his view that the vast power of the national security state and its expansion are entirely justified because not to grant government agencies the power to intrude upon the lives of all people by sweeping their data up in massive surveillance programs would make America vulnerable to terrorists.
Friedman agrees with Simon that, “This kind of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon bombing before they occur.” That is, it has become normalized, which means in both Friedman and Simon’s minds (as well as the minds of others) the activity should not be challenged because we have all decided to accept it.
While a vivid example, since Friedman has a flair for the melodramatic, it should be noted that slavery has been normal in society. It has been normal to discriminate explicitly against women, blacks, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and, in periods of history, various groups of immigrants perceived to pose threats to the United States.
What if this kind of argument had been made to justify discrimination or the subjugation of certain demographics of people? That it had become normal and acceptable to broad swaths of society?
The same could be said for pervasive surveillance. Just because citizens have conditioned themselves or been conditioned to accept it as normal, that does not make it germane, lawful or unquestionably constitutional.
Furthermore, as journalist Chris Hedges said on “Democracy Now!”, this hysteria about how this helps terrorists is lunatic:
I covered al-Qaeda for The New York Times, and, believe me, they know they’re being monitored. The whole idea that somehow it comes as a great surprise to jihadist groups that their emails, websites and phone calls are being tracked is absurd. This is—we’re talking about the wholesale collection of information on virtually most of the American public, and the consequences of that are truly terrifying. At that point, we are in essence snuffing out the capacity of any kind of investigation into the inner workings of power. And to throw out this notion that it harmed—this harmed national security, there’s no evidence for that, in the same way that there is no evidence that the information that Bradley Manning leaked in any way harmed national security. It didn’t. What the security and surveillance state is doing is playing on fear and using that fear to accrue to themselves tremendous forms of power that in a civil society, in a democracy, they should never have. And that’s the battle that’s underway right now, and, frankly, we’re losing.
This accruing of “tremendous forms of power” is not merely accepted but embraced by pundits like Friedman.
On May 13, 2013, the Associated Press announced that phone records of 20 lines in AP offices used by at least one hundred journalists were seized by the Justice Department for a leak investigation into the source who leaked information on a CIA underwear bomb plot sting operation in Yemen.
Less than a week later, it was reported by the Washington Post that the Justice Department had labeled Fox News reporter an “aider, abettor, and co-conspirator” in a leak allegedly committed by State Department contractor Stephen Kim so it could gain greater access to his private communications.
Altogether, this led to focus on how the investigations might chill investigative journalism because potential sources would not want to go to the AP or Rosen because they would be afraid the government might find out they communicated with them. Friedman, however, was not someone who focused on the implications of these investigations on journalism. The Times did, but he wrote no columns about it, and one could ask if that makes him complicit in government efforts to snuff out the capacity of press to investigate what Hedges called “the inner workings of power.”
Rep. Peter King, a Republican who is a frequent guest on news television programs, has now explicitly called for journalist Glenn Greenwald to be prosecuted. He’s called for journalists who publish classified information to be prosecuted, even though the United States has no law that specifically prohibits the publication.
How far is Friedman willing to go to prevent another 9/11 from happening? Is he for prosecuting those in his profession who publish classified information? Supporting King’s call would seem consistent with Friedman’s opinions on the need to protect the country from a situation where citizens would desire greater totalitarianism.
Finally, the framework for perpetual war—this notion that the “world is a battlefield”—gives government no boundaries. That includes surveillance. It enables there to be no programs or policies that cannot be justified by pointing out America is at war with an enemy. And, since those enemies are likely to continue to proliferate and metastasize just like the operations and powers of the national security state, it is inevitable that America keeps moving closer to being a fascist state, especially if people like Friedman who are key influencers of opinion in the establishment remain committed to defending the goodness of these operations and powers.