Obama's Speech on the NSA: The Empire's SPIES & LIES

Demonstration in front of Supreme Court, Washington, DC, November 2013. Photo: Cat Watters
Revolution Newspaper | February 3, 2014

Seven months ago, shocking media reports began surfacing about how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) runs the biggest and most intrusive electronic surveillance operation in the world and in history. These revelations are based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor who courageously stepped out as a whistle blower in order to make people aware of the existence of this vast, secret spying by the U.S. (and its closest ally, Britain).

The NSA programs include bulk collection of information on every phone call in the U.S. about who is calling whom, duration of calls, etc. (known as “metadata”) which can be used to draw out links between different people and patterns of actions, and as a basis for homing in on specific individuals, including the content of calls; vacuuming up data directly from the servers of major U.S.reviewer providers like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook; massive spying on phone and internet communications around the world, targeting ordinary people as well as government officials—not only rivals of the U.S. but also allies like Germany and organizations like the United Nations. The NSA spies on literally billions of people, within the U.S. and across the globe.

New revelations continue to stream out. Among the latest: the NSA and its British counterpart have been developing their ability to collect user data from widely used smartphone apps like Google Map and even games like Angry Birds—not only phone identification codes and location details but also users’ “political alignment,” “sexual orientation,” and other information. Another recent exposure was that in 2009, the NSA spied on officials from various other countries at the global conference on climate change at Copenhagen, Denmark.

As light has been shed on the incredible scope of the NSA spying, and as millions in the U.S. and around the world questioned the legitimacy of massive government intrusion into the details of their lives—Obama responded on January 14 with a speech to announce “concrete and substantial reforms” relating to the NSA and other intelligence agencies. The speech began with Obama saying there was “potential for abuse” in government surveillance—and ended up basically reaffirming the activities of the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, with a few inconsequential changes. (See the accompanying article, “‘Reforms’ Aimed at Keeping Mass Surveillance Intact.”)

A State That Sees Potential Threats Everywhere

Obama’s misdirection and lies about NSA “reforms” need to be exposed and opposed. But what is even more crucial is to challenge and break out of the whole framework pushed by Obama, aimed at leading people to think in a certain way—that the spying carried on by the government is (or should be) about strengthening U.S. “national security” in order to keep people “safe,” and that the lives of American people are more valuable than the lives of people around the world.

Civil liberties activists, investigative journalists, and others have done very important work making what has been uncovered through the documents leaked by Snowden broadly accessible, and rightly opposing the blatantly illegal NSA mass surveillance in the face of government threats and attempts to suppress the exposure. But many among them also argue that this spying is not “effective”—that programs like the telephone metadata collection have not “stopped terrorist attacks” and actually make us “less safe.” The ACLU says what’s needed is to “rein in the surveillance state.” According to this notion of a “surveillance state” (or a “national security state”), the problem is that there is a bureaucracy that has gotten out of control. These views don’t get at the essence of what is going on—and actually end up leading people in the wrong direction.

The massive spying on all kinds of activities of people around the world is not a result of “bureaucracy gone wild.” Those who hold power in this country—the U.S. capitalist-imperialists—are facing all kinds of complex, growing challenges to their global empire. The compulsion to respond to those challenges is what is fundamentally driving them to so intensely spy—on their rivals, on their allies, and on billions of ordinary people.

A basic point that needs to be grasped is that the repressive activities of the NSA and other intelligence agencies reveal a system at work—the system of capitalism-imperialism. The NSA is part of a state that enforces the interests of the ruling capitalist-imperialist class—in other words, the dictatorship of the ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

This state serves a number of functions—but first of all and principally, it uses its monopoly on the use of legitimate violence and suppression to carry out the interests of the U.S. imperialist class as a whole, against rival powers and against the masses of people, in this country and worldwide. And the NSA and other intelligence agencies are a key part of this function of the bourgeois state.

As we wrote shortly after the Snowden leaks first came out: “This capitalist-imperialist system enslaves workers in its sweatshops in Bangladesh and its oil fields of Saudi Arabia. It has created a planet of slums and environmental devastation, its morality and culture have produced an epidemic of rape. And this system wages constant wars around the world against the threats from rivals or smaller-scale reactionary forces, and brings down violent repression against legitimate protests and opposition to its crimes. That is why this state sees the vast majority of people on this planet—billions and billions of people—as potential threats, and maintains such intense and broad surveillance. And that is why the state apparatus—the dictatorship of the capitalist-imperialist class (the bourgeoisie)—does what it does to people.” (From “Five Points of Orientation on the Revelations of Government Surveillance,” online at revcom.us.)

The Divisions at the Top—Over How Best to Maintain Power

The capitalist state also has another important function: to mediate conflicts between different blocs of capitalist-imperialists on behalf of the “larger interests” of their class. These clashes include competing economic interests, but they principally involve political conflicts. Different political representatives of the capitalist-imperialist class have different ideas on how the masses should be led to think and act, how laws should be written and interpreted, what the “acceptable limits” of political discourse should be, and other issues. These differences can at times get very sharp.

In relation to the NSA scandal, we can see how the divisions within the ruling class have become very intense, in the context of questioning among broad numbers of people about the illegitimacy of the spying and growing distrust of the government. In a poll conducted in October, 51 percent of those polled agreed that Snowden is “a hero who should be commended,” with numbers even higher in other countries—this is significant, given the repeated denunciations of him as a “traitor” by top U.S. political and media figures, and serious criminal charges leveled against him by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act.

In one sign of these conflicts in the ruling class, in December two U.S. federal courts came out with different and contradictory decisions on the NSA bulk telephone data collection—one saying it was most likely unconstitutional and the other saying it clearly met constitutional standards.

These differences among the rulers are NOT mainly over concerns about the gross violation of people’s basic rights and privacy. The contention is over how best to pursue the overall interests of their class, in the face of the huge political storm unleashed society-wide and across the globe by the Snowden leaks—over what “reforms” should be made to quiet down this storm and repair the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the people, while safeguarding the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence apparatus.

And there is a question as to what extent different sections of the U.S. ruling class are concerned that the NSA’s high-tech surveillance techniques could be used against themselves by other sections of the ruling class. Now it’s true that the rulers continually violate their own laws to keep the people down—just look at how they unleash their police to racially profile, beat, shuttle into prison, and often kill Black, Latino, and other youth of color. Or how their FBI COINTELPRO operations in the 1960s worked to attack the Black Panther Party, including through assassinations. But it is important for their overall class interests that certain rules be obeyed among themselves. If one section of the ruling class moves to break those rules, for example by using the state’s spy agencies to snoop on others in their class, that could seriously affect the functioning of their state. And when the rulers themselves can no longer agree on the rules, this can lead to cracks in the “superstitious awe of the state” that people are trained in through school and the media—in other words, it can be part of a legitimacy crisis.

There are also rules that are supposed to be obeyed among imperialist allies, like the U.S. and Germany. The NSA spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and officials of other allied governments, as well as its spying on economic targets and its efforts to crack encryption codes, has caused a huge uproar, and affected U.S. imperialism’s relations with its allies at a time of rising challenges and threats globally.

The mediating function of the state also involves allowing the masses to take some actions for reforms to address what they see as wrong—but in a way that is aimed at maintaining the overall legitimacy of the state in people’s eyes, and through channeling their sights and thinking into how to fundamentally keep the exploitative and unjust system going, rather than overthrowing it.

The Rulers’ Interests Are NOT Our Interests

It’s important to understand how these contradictions among those in power play out. But we can’t get drawn into the terms that the rulers frame all this in. The rulers’ interests and objectives are NOT in the interests of the great majority of the people in the U.S. and around the world.

Let’s examine what those in power, from Obama on down really mean when they declare that they are trying to “keep people safe” from terrorism. What they are concerned about are not the actual lives of the people in the U.S. and certainly not around the world. There is in fact a clash between the U.S. imperialists and Islamic jihadists. But the U.S. is not opposing the Islamic fundamentalists because of their reactionary program and ideology that represent a nightmare for the people—what’s driving U.S. actions is that these forces pose an obstacle to U.S. imperialism’s global interests and plans. The U.S. rulers are concerned about attacks by those forces within the U.S.—but that is because they worry that if the people begin to widely view the government as not being able to “protect” them, that will raise major questions about the legitimacy of the state. At bottom, the fundamental concern of the rulers is to maintain their empire—and they approach the question of “safety” as well as everything else in that light.

It’s NOT in the people’s interests to help the U.S. more effectively track those labeled as “enemies” in countries like Yemen or Pakistan with advanced technology and assassinate them with drones on the president’s say-so, often killing many others nearby. It’s in fact the very actions of the U.S. in its war for empire (under the cover of “war on terror”) that is putting people in harm’s way, in different parts of the world and inside this country. In this contention between the two reactionary poles of U.S. imperialism and Islamic jihad (and of the two, the U.S. has clearly done more damage and poses the greater danger to the people)—if you side with one against the other, you end up strengthening both.

There is also a fundamental point of morality involved here: “American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People’s Lives.” (BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, 5:7)

The U.S. rulers are worried about threats to their global empire from rivals and potential rivals—and as for their allies, the U.S. trusts them like a mob boss trusts his underlings. This is a part of what’s compelling the U.S.’s expanding global surveillance. The NSA spying on the global climate conference mentioned above has to do with increasingly fierce contention among various powers over resources and economic/geopolitical advantage, with implications for U.S.’s superpower position—even as global environmental catastrophe looms. We should not become a party to this fight among gangsters big and small!

And the U.S. capitalist-imperialist rulers are driven to expand their capabilities to monitor and suppress mass resistance and uprisings against the vicious workings of their system, in this country and around the world. This has to do not only with what’s going on right now, but unrest and revolts that could burst out in the future—and is a big part of what’s driving their spying on such broad numbers of people. The surveillance is not just about monitoring everyone’s thoughts now and intimidating people with the power of the bourgeois state (as horrible as that is)—it is about being able to bring the full repressive force of that state down on people quickly, when those at the top see a threat to their rule.

STOP Mass Surveillance!

This is a system that wields a huge spy apparatus, along with the military, the police and other instruments of dictatorship. But it’s not all-powerful. It is a system full of contradictions that its rulers cannot resolve—a system driven by its very nature to enforce misery and suffering, and trample on the very rights that supposedly distinguish it as the “freest country in the world.” The workings of this system lead to repeated outrages and crises, drawing millions into questioning and opposition.

Whether Obama and the U.S. rulers can tamp down the storm over NSA surveillance is not a settled question. Differences within the ruling class over how to proceed may flare up even more strongly. What Snowden did in acting on his conscience, and what others have done to voice opposition to the spying, has already changed the political landscape, and more exposures based on the leaked documents could further intensify the worldwide furor.

There is a just demand to put a STOP to the U.S. government’s mass surveillance. As revolutionaries join in the struggle with all who are outraged and refuse to go along with what they see as wrong, there is a responsibility to break people out of the deadly framework that those in power are trying to impose. And there is an opportunity and challenge to sharply bring out the illegitimacy of the whole damn system—and the possibility of bringing about a radically different and much better world through revolution.

This article originally appeared on revcom.us in the February 3, 2014 issue.