Edward Snowden was right. Glenn Greenwald was right. The American Civil Liberties Union was right.
Throughout the Obama administration and indeed long beforehand, critics of the nation’s ever-expanding national security state have been grabbing Americans by the lapels and shaking them, trying to raise consciousness about the dangers. Their efforts too often have been in vain. Now, with president-elect Donald Trump readying for power, those dangers are more immediate than ever.
As Wired worried last month in a piece titled, “Imagine if Donald Trump Controlled the NSA”:
America has watched Donald Trump praise foreign dictators from Kim Jong Un to Vladimir Putin, vow to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate his opponent, Hillary Clinton, if he’s elected, and call for Russian hackers to dig up Clinton’s emails. “I wish I had that power,” he later said in a campaign speech. “Man, that would be power.” If that statement didn’t sufficiently reveal Trump’s lust for surveillance capabilities, he reportedly listened in on phone calls between staff and guests at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach in the mid-2000s.
This expansion intensified under President George W. Bush, with warrantless wiretaps, secret kidnappings, and torture, but much of it continued under President Barack Obama, tainting a generally progressive eight years in the White House. As Greenwald—the investigative journalist who helped Snowden blow the whistle on National Security Agency wrongdoing—wrote at The Intercept on Wednesday:
[B]oth political parties have joined to construct a frightening and unprecedentedly invasive and destructive system of authoritarian power, accompanied by the unbridled authority vested in the executive branch to use it.
As a result, the president of the United States commands a vast nuclear arsenal that can destroy the planet many times over; the deadliest and most expensive military ever developed in human history; legal authorities that allow him to prosecute numerous secret wars at the same time, imprison people with no due process, and target people (including U.S. citizens) for assassination with no oversight; domestic law enforcement agencies that are constructed to appear and act as standing, para-militarized armies; a sprawling penal state that allows imprisonment far more easily than most Western countries; and a system of electronic surveillance purposely designed to be ubiquitous and limitless, including on U.S. soil.
After the experience of the Bush years, it’s shameful that Democrats didn’t hold Obama to a higher standard on these issues. His unprecedented war on whistleblowers should have been a red flag, and Democrats should have pressured him to make more than modest NSA reforms after Snowden’s disclosures. The surest way to defend civil rights and civil liberties is to structure the government apparatus so that it can’t easily violate them.
In fact, it’s not too late for Democrats to do something about this. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, another voice in the wilderness on this issue, has called on lame-duck Obama to act now, and the nonprofit Fight for the Future made three specific requests of the president for his final weeks in office:
1. Disclose mass surveillance programs, their plans for expansion, and their legal justification. America needs to know what we’re up against.
2. Delete the data stored on Americans, and demolish the physical infrastructure needed to collect this data. If Trump wants to spy on hundreds of millions of Americans, make him build this capacity from scratch.
3. Pardon Edward Snowden, to encourage more whistleblowers to come forward if these systems continue growing out of control.
Wired asked former NSA counsel Susan Hennessey what exactly Trump could do as president. She said he could, in the magazine’s words, “rescind the executive actions of President Obama aimed at reforming the NSA after Snowden’s revelations,” and he could also “refocus American spying efforts to take the agency’s eyes off Russia and instead target that country’s adversaries, like Georgia, Ukraine, or even the European Union.”
“We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the intelligence community’s high level priorities,” Hennessey told Wired, “and the ability of the president to shift them.”
The impending Trump presidency is also setting off alarm bells for civil libertarians, and they’re gearing up to fight back. The ACLU released a report on July on why Trump represents “a one-man constitutional crisis,” and after Trump’s election the group slapped his face on their homepage with the words “SEE YOU IN COURT” (next to a “DONATE” button).
Anthony Romero, the group’s executive director, warned Trump against pursuing his unconstitutional campaign promises, including the Muslim ban, the immigrant deportation force, bringing back torture and “opening up” libel laws to sue the press.
“If you do not reverse course and instead endeavor to make these campaign promises a reality, you will have to contend with the full firepower of the ACLU at every step,” he said in a statement. “Our staff of litigators and activists in every state, thousands of volunteers, and millions of card-carrying supporters are ready to fight against any encroachment on our cherished freedoms and rights.”
The question is whether it will be enough.
“Broadly speaking,” Hennessey told Wired, “the only way to tyrant-proof the White House is to not elect a tyrant.”
All available evidence suggests it’s too late for that.