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[liberationtech] Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Thu Oct 17 06:19:05 PDT 2013

Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America

Snowden's whistleblowing gives us a chance to roll back what is tantamount to
an 'executive coup' against the US constitution

Daniel Ellsberg, Monday 10 June 2013 11.30 BST

Link to video: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: 'I don't want to live in a
society that does these sort of things'

In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important
leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material – and that definitely
includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago. Snowden's whistleblowing gives us
the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an "executive
coup" against the US constitution.

Since 9/11, there has been, at first secretly but increasingly openly, a
revocation of the bill of rights for which this country fought over 200 years
ago. In particular, the fourth and fifth amendments of the US constitution,
which safeguard citizens from unwarranted intrusion by the government into
their private lives, have been virtually suspended.

The government claims it has a court warrant under Fisa – but that
unconstitutionally sweeping warrant is from a secret court, shielded from
effective oversight, almost totally deferential to executive requests. As
Russell Tice, a former National Security Agency analyst, put it: "It is a
kangaroo court with a rubber stamp."

For the president then to say that there is judicial oversight is nonsense –
as is the alleged oversight function of the intelligence committees in
Congress. Not for the first time – as with issues of torture, kidnapping,
detention, assassination by drones and death squads –they have shown
themselves to be thoroughly co-opted by the agencies they supposedly monitor.
They are also black holes for information that the public needs to know.

The fact that congressional leaders were "briefed" on this and went along
with it, without any open debate, hearings, staff analysis, or any real
chance for effective dissent, only shows how broken the system of checks and
balances is in this country.

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent
of this invasion of people's privacy, we do have the full electronic and
legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a
war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement – like the one we had against
the war in Vietnam – or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the
scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely

There are legitimate reasons for secrecy, and specifically for secrecy about
communications intelligence. That's why Bradley Mannning and I – both of whom
had access to such intelligence with clearances higher than top-secret –
chose not to disclose any information with that classification. And it is why
Edward Snowden has committed himself to withhold publication of most of what
he might have revealed.

But what is not legitimate is to use a secrecy system to hide programs that
are blatantly unconstitutional in their breadth and potential abuse. Neither
the president nor Congress as a whole may by themselves revoke the fourth
amendment – and that's why what Snowden has revealed so far was secret from
the American people.

In 1975, Senator Frank Church spoke of the National Security Agency in these

"I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we
must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology
operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross
over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."

The dangerous prospect of which he warned was that America's intelligence
gathering capability – which is today beyond any comparison with what existed
in his pre-digital era – "at any time could be turned around on the American
people and no American would have any privacy left."

That has now happened. That is what Snowden has exposed, with official,
secret documents. The NSA, FBI and CIA have, with the new digital technology,
surveillance powers over our own citizens that the Stasi – the secret police
in the former "democratic republic" of East Germany – could scarcely have
dreamed of. Snowden reveals that the so-called intelligence community has
become the United Stasi of America.

So we have fallen into Senator Church's abyss. The questions now are whether
he was right or wrong that there is no return from it, and whether that means
that effective democracy will become impossible. A week ago, I would have
found it hard to argue with pessimistic answers to those conclusions.

But with Edward Snowden having put his life on the line to get this
information out, quite possibly inspiring others with similar knowledge,
conscience and patriotism to show comparable civil courage – in the public,
in Congress, in the executive branch itself – I see the unexpected
possibility of a way up and out of the abyss.

Pressure by an informed public on Congress to form a select committee to
investigate the revelations by Snowden and, I hope, others to come might lead
us to bring NSA and the rest of the intelligence community under real
supervision and restraint and restore the protections of the bill of rights.

Snowden did what he did because he recognised the NSA's surveillance programs
for what they are: dangerous, unconstitutional activity. This wholesale
invasion of Americans' and foreign citizens' privacy does not contribute to
our security; it puts in danger the very liberties we're trying to protect.

• Editor's note: this article was revised and updated at the author's behest,
at 7.45am ET on 10 June

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