By Dr Tim Stanley
Those crazy American conspiracy theorists who live up trees with guns and drink their own pee don’t seem quite so crazy anymore. It turns out that a “secret court order” has empowered the US government to collect the phone records of millions of users of Verizon, one of the most popular telephone providers – a massive domestic surveillance programme and a shocking intrusion into the lives of others. For the first time in history, being an AT&T customer doesn’t seem such a bad thing after all.
Of course, it isn't the first time that a US administration has spied on its own people. The origins of this particular order lie first in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and then in Section 215 of the Patriot Act, backed by George W Bush and passed by Congress after 9/11. Normally, domestic surveillance only targets suspicious individuals, not the entire population, but in 2006 it was discovered that a similarly wide database of cellular records was being collected from customers of Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth. There was plenty of outrage and plenty of lawsuits, but the National Security Agency never confirmed that the programme had been shut down. It would appear that it’s still in rude health: the latest court order for collecting data runs from April 25 to July 19.
A few observations. First, America is so conscious and proud of its history as a beacon of liberty that it often overlooks the tyranny that occurs on its own shores in the name of safeguarding democracy. The national security state has expanded to the point whereby it now functions outside of democratic control and with clear disregard for the Constitution. What’s especially creepy about this case is that the state felt no legal obligation to tell citizens that it was spying on them – or at least considering it. The result is a disturbing paradox: it’s legal to collect information from companies but illegal for the companies to try to tell their customers about it. It seems that the law prefers to take the side of the state.
Second, you get what you vote for – and both Republicans and Democrats keep on voting for authoritarians. There’s a frustrating hypocrisy that many conservatives applauded the accrual of state power under Bush for the sake of fighting the War on Terror only to scream blue murder about it now that it’s happening under Obama. Likewise, many liberals resented the domestic espionage programme of Bush but have been less vocal about opposing it under Obama. The journalist Martin Bashir has gone to far as to claim that the IRS scandal is a coded attack upon the President’s race, that “IRS” is the new “n word”. Sometimes it feels like Obama could be discovered standing over the body of Sarah Palin with a smoking gun in his hand and liberals would scream “racist!” if anyone called him a murderer. Their capacity for self-delusion knows no bounds.
Finally, totaling every scandal up – IRS, AP phone records, Fox journalists being targeted, the Benghazi mess – this has to be the most furtively authoritarian White House since Nixon’s. We don't yet have a "smoking email" from Obama ordering all of this, but it can’t be said often enough that there is a correlation between Obama’s “progressive” domestic agenda and the misbehavior of the other agencies governed by his administration – forcing people to buy healthcare even when they can’t afford it, bailing out the banks, war in Libya and the use of drone strikes to kill US citizens. This is exactly what the Tea Party was founded to expose and oppose. All the laughter once directed at the “paranoid” Right now rings hollow.