We've Built A "Turnkey Totalitarian State" Former Ambassador Tells MIT Audience

We've Built A "Turnkey Totalitarian State" Former Ambassador Tells MIT Audience

George H.W. Bush's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia channels Chomsky in his critique of US intelligence policy

  • Posted on: 14 December 2013
  • By: stannenb

The United States government is a "vastly more potent threat to the traditions and civil liberties of our republic and to the rule of law than al-Qaeda could ever hope to be" former Ambassador Chas Freeman told an audience at MIT Thursday night. Freeman, who spoke as if he were channeling MIT's Noam Chomsky, is no academic radical. Instead, he is a 30 year veteran of the State and Defense Departments serving in various roles including Richard Nixon's chief interpreter for his visit to China, George H.W. Bush's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, and more recently Barack Obama's nominee to head the National Intelligence Council.

In prepared remarks, Freeman called Edward Snowden's leaking of classified information a "spectacular act of civil disobedience", blowing the whistle on the "NSA’s ruthless drive for digital omniscience."

Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, provided journalists at The Guardian and the Washington Post a large trove of classified documents revealing United States operations to acquire information about every phone call in the United States and vast amounts of email and social network data as well as activities to tap the internal networks of Google and Yahoo.

Freeman appeared at MIT as part of an MIT Center for International Studies panel "The 'Snowden Affair': Intelligence and Privacy in a Wired World". Joining him was former NSA Inspector General Joel Brenner who offered a strong defense of NSA activities and denounced Snowden. This NSA scandal, Brenner told the audience, was unique in that involved activities that were legal and known to Congress. He said that while it would come as no surprise to our adversaries that we were seeking to intercept their communications, confirmation that we had succeeded could destroy years of intelligence work. Brenner bristled at the characterization of Snowden's actions as civil disobedience, noting that famous American acts of civil disobedience included that participant's willingness to serve jail time.

Freeman, who with Brenner holds a law degree from Harvard, said that Snowden feared the prospect of not having a fair trial, being subject to cruel and unusual punishment, and being silenced in order to preclude an informed public policy debate. But, rather than being able to dismiss such fears as outlandish, post 9/11 justice, according to Freeman includes:

practices not seen in our political culture since the abolition of the Star Chamber by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1640 have again become commonplace. Such practices include – but are not limited to – detention without charge or trial, various forms of physical and psychological abuse, and the extrajudicial murder of American citizens on the orders of the president. All of these are facilitated by electronic eavesdropping, as is state terrorism by drone and death squad. Like the inhabitants of countries we condemn for gross violations of human rights, Americans are now subject to warrantless surveillance of our electronic interactions with each other, the arbitrary seizure at the border of our computers and private correspondence, the use of torture and degrading practices in interrogation and pretrial detention, and prosecution upon evidence we cannot see or challenge because it is “classified.”

Signals intelligence, the rubrik under which the NSA collects all manner of communications, derives from battlefield commanders' need for situational awareness, and should not be restrained, said Freeman. It is the transition of this function from the battlefield to threats "only tangentially related [...] to our national security" that fails to build "intelligence activities in a manner supportive of our liberties and our alliances with foreign nations"

We are not yet in a police state, Freeman said, but we are building its infrastructure and, because of the hollowness of judicial and legislative oversight, are depending on the "self-restraint" of those in authority. Self restraint is not sustainable, Freeman observed, saying "[h]istory protests that if one builds a turnkey totalitarian state, those who hold the keys will eventually turn them."

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Thank you stannenb. This is an important issue and we need all the information we can get if we are to deal with it sensibly.