The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

July 10, 2013

Jim Scofield | In a democracy, gov’t’s plea to ‘trust us’ isn’t enough

Jim Scofield

— Our government secretly conducts a massive program of assassinations in foreign countries, and conducts a massive surveillance system on millions of Americans’ communications here.

This is all justified in the name of fighting terrorism, although terrorists are no threat to our nation’s existence, unlike the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

How these two programs keep us safe from the attacks of terrorists is wrapped in secrecy, with the Obama administration refusing to explain details of the supposed attacks that the programs have prevented. We are just to trust the administration.

Reporters even have been accused and pursued for reporting about these attacks, and whistle-blowers have been pursued with a bitter vengeance.

The surveillance system of the National Security Agency, mainly revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, working for a private government contractor, is a dragnet operation. Rather than watching those who are truly suspects, as required by our Fourth Amendment, it gathers the phone and computer messages of everyone on the assumption that some phone-users or emailers may later become suspects. 

It’s equivalent to the police stopping and searching everyone on the streets, on the theory that this lessens crime.

It’s hard to demonstrate the value of these indiscriminate searches, or determine that they have worked better than ordinary procedures, because they can’t be publicly discussed; even congressional overseers aren’t allowed to publicly debate them.

The past two presidential administrations have exploited public fears of terrorism to gain support for expanding our wars, for increasing secrecy, and for extending surveillance of individuals and groups in this country.

Yet it would appear that many other factors are more threatening, such as gun violence in our streets, movie theaters and grade schools; or the dangerous industrial conditions in our mines, fertilizer plants and such.

We do know how secretly gathered information has been misused in the past against Americans, as in the Watergate abuses of the 1970s; during the “red scare” purges of unions, schools and the entertainment industries; against civil rights and war protesters; or to justify the Iraq invasion of 2003.  

This administration has employed a mean vindictiveness against Snowden, against Wikileaks source Bradley Manning (tortured in a U.S. military prison), against other leakers, and even against Associated Press and Fox News reporters.

It has even threatened using  the Espionage Act of 1917 against both leakers and reporters, although espionage means you are collaborating with an enemy, not just revealing information of public interest.

Overseas, the record is just as scary and secret. One witness (Rosa Brooks) before a Senate committee stated that  our “government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at anytime, based on secret criteria and secret information, discussed in a secret process.”

This has been our policy, especially under President Obama. We have used U.S. special forces and drones to kill off many thousands of those the administration selects secretly, and in countries in the Middle East and Africa we aren’t at war with, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The targets supposedly are terrorists, although they often include many innocent bystanders and family members, and sometimes they seemed to have simply hit a village, such as al-Majalah in Yemen in 2009 when cruise missiles killed 41 civilians, including 12 women and 22 children.

President Obama boasted about his assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 in Yemen. Al-Awlaki, an American-born U.S. citizen and radical Islamic cleric who first supported U.S. positions after 9/11, had left the United States for his ancestral Yemen in 2004, and began denouncing U.S. war policy and praising attacks on Americans.

Since he had been jailed in Yemen in 2006 by U.S.-backed Yemeni forces, there’s reason to suppose the United States could have had him picked up again. However, Obama presented no evidence for his claim that al-Awlaki was a leader of al-Qaida and planning to “murder innocent Americans.”

There is much to suggest this isn’t true. But Obama uses “imminent threat” to cover someone who just might in the future have such plans. 

Two weeks later, U.S. drones killed his 16-year-old son, also a U.S. citizen, along with several cousins he was sitting with at a cafe in Yemen.

Nothing convincing was stated to justify this hit.

These attacks may be creating more hatred and fear of us, more terrorists than they kill.

For both this assassination policy and the extensive surveillance of U.S. citizens here, the response is, “trust us.”

In a democracy, that’s not enough.

Jim Scofield of Richland Township is an associate professor emeritus of Pitt-Johnstown.  


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