Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “War on Whistleblowers,” provokes an important question as to why President Barack Obama, a constitutional lawyer, has gone to the lengths he has to suppress whistleblowers, especially those providing important questions about torture and national security policies which the president himself has at times questioned.
At a discussion following a recent Los Angeles screening, Greenwald quoted the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer as suggesting Obama has become “too close” to the Washington national security elite, the familiar idea that outside critics change fundamentally once they are in power. I believe such explanations are too psychological rather than structural. History, I think, proves the case.
The problem is more systemic than personal. The National Security State in particular, and all bureaucracy – according to Robert Michel – have inherent tendencies of self-perpetuation, denial, and to discredit any questioning of their decisions. This is especially the case during times of war, Cold War, or the present Global War on Terrorism.
During the American Revolution, many thousands of British loyalists were tarred, feathered and driven off to Canada. The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in a climate of fear of immigrant subversion. In the American Civil War, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and imprisoned many thousands of Confederates – he himself was killed by a Confederate conspiracy based in Canada.
During the period of the Russian Revolution and World War I, it was open season on immigrants, labor activists and anarchists who were repressed in the Palmer Raids and deported by the thousands.
During World War 2, the government outlawed strikes and ordered the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans. During the Korean War, McCarthyism ignited and artists went to prison. During the Vietnam War, the FBI, CIA and local police instigated domestic spying and the COINTEL program, and reacted with irrational fury to the release of the Pentagon Papers.
And, of course, with the Global War on Terror and 9/11, there has been domestic spying and a crackdown on whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and others depicted in the Brave New Foundation documentary.
A common thread through this long history is the notion that “alien” or secretive conspiracies represent an “enemy within” in the form of actual spies, foreign agents and “well-intended” liberals. As far as I know, American public opinion has been either supportive or tolerant of these repressive policies when they were rationalized as preventing real or hypothetical threats. At the same time, the massive expansion of official secrecy and classification system has continued to grow – even in peacetime. Put another way, Empire and Democracy are incompatible.
Why does this matter? For one thing, it is an alternative analysis to the model of demonizing the President or individualizing the analysis of blame. For another, it points to war as the cause of curtailing civil liberties, which is opposite the view often taken by many civil liberties and human rights groups, unfortunately. For example, the National Lawyers Guild was born partly in a split from the ACLU over whether to oppose the Vietnam War. Many years later, neither the ACLU nor Human Rights Watch – both defend whistleblowers – have been willing to oppose the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. They believe whistleblower protections should be treated as stand-alone issues.
But surely the Global War on Terrorism and the rise of a new Imperial Presidency have everything to do with the administration’s harsh treatment of whistleblowers. In my view there is no justification for the Obama administration’s policies, but they are most likely to be ended only when the wars – and the political atmosphere they have inspired since 9/11 – come to an end. We should oppose the current wars, not simply the “war against whistleblowers.”
If it is discovered that President Barack Obama directed the IRS to single out the Tea Party, then he will have crossed the line into Nixonland. Assuming Obama was not involved, however, we are left with the question of why his is becoming an Imperial Presidency. Based on the evidence so far, Obama is not a Nixon spying on domestic political enemies. Obama's intercepts and indictments – six in total – are about perceived terrorist threats, some real, and some imaginary. They are the logical consequence of the “war on terrorism” and the political belief that Democrats like himself can never be seen as “soft” on defense issues.
Despite protest, it is politically unimaginable for Obama to go beyond moving Bradley Manning out of Quantico to a safer prison. Civil liberties lawyers and journalists can and should make Obama pay a price for his practices, but they will not succeed until the way is found to end the “war on terrorism” framework, which governs our political priorities.