Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sam Harris' Faith In Secret Government Powers

Sam Harris' recent Twitter activity on the subject of PRISM (the NSA secret spy program) brings up some important topics I've wanted to further discuss about Sam Harris and the critique of religion and faith.  Harris asked on Twitter "What's in your email that you don't want Obama reading it?" And then later asked, "If the risk of nuclear terrorism were 50% over the next decade. What freedom would you sacrifice to diminish it to 5%?" and "We can't idiot-proof the U.S. Presidency. That's why it's important to elect smart, ethical people to the office."   What's striking is not just Harris' support for the leaked secret spy program, but that he's putting his faith into an authoritarian system to protect him from terrorist attacks and not to abuse their secret powers.  It's interesting that Harris who wrote The End Of Faith is now placing great faith in the leadership of our government which is actually contrary to the philosophies of "the founders" of this republic.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."  Giving Obama and therefore all future presidents our approval to have secret programs that spy on the US public is to place confidence into men operating outside of known interpretations of law and not abuse these surveillance powers.  These programs operate on interpretations of laws that are essentially held in secret from the public that the government derives it's power from (or at least it is theoretically supposed to).  Jefferson also wrote "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."  This is the absolute check on abuses of constitutional power, but not the first check.  The first check is the rule of law, and more specifically our supreme laws found in the constitution and its amendments.

The constitution is essentially a set of laws to limit the power of those in the federal government.  It also holds that an educated public is necessary to defend the constiution and correct abuses of government power.  What's striking is that this leak was what allowed the public to have this debate on secret government surveillance programs and the public simply cannot correct a constitutional abuse if no one knows about it.  Without the education that came from this leak the public had little evidence of the massive surveillance programs being built.  Further, secret interpretations of laws and secret policies which indiscriminately target US civilians and erases the requirement of probable cause force us into simply having faith in our leaders as it's very hard to ascertain a leader's ethics or even how smart they are.  Harris himself asked on Twitter  "Twitter seems filled with people who know that Obama has been corrupted by power. Is it that easy to get a top-secret security clearance?"  The opposite would be hard to prove as well.  How do we know he hasn't been corrupted by power?  Wouldn't we have to have that same security clearance?  Perhaps this is why Jefferson and the other founders understood that men must be bound by laws or we risk these men abusing the powers.

Interestingly there is a history of US government agencies spying on the public in secret and abusing this power.  The claim that this NSA program is needed to protect us ignores that these agencies that spied on the US public abused these powers for political ends and weren't just used to keep people safe.  They were used to target civil rights groups and leaders like Martin Luther King, as well as anti-war, and environmental groups.  For anyone familiar with the Church hearings and the reports that came from these investigations, there is a long list of abuses of power from opening people's mail in secret, to the COINTELPRO project by the FBI that specifically infiltrated and disrupted domestic political activities.  In the past when government agencies have been allowed to spy on the US public in secret they have abused it.  Not only that but just being able to operate in extreme secrecy also allowed them to commit what are crimes under international law including assassination attempts on foreign leaders such as Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and the Diem brothers of Vietnam. However, Fredrick Schwarz, Chief Counsel of the Brennan Center and lead council for the Church Committee has said, "if you have secrecy and lack of oversight, you're going to get abuse."  It's entirely ignorant of history and the constitutional nature of our republic to assume that leaders are acting ethically when their policies are shrouded in secrecy.  That secrecy is what creates the need for faith in leaders rather than them having to bear burden of proof to assure us that such authorities are needed.  It also erases the knowledge needed by the people to correct our constitutional abuses.

Having an understanding of the actual nature of how our government was constrained after the revelations from the Church Committee is important.  For example CIA interceptions of telegrams between US citizens and foreign nationals was deemed illegal.  A new check on these powers were created in FISA and now domestic wiretaps had to be approved by secret courts where the government agencies had to provide a probable cause to surveil US citizens.  When it was revealed in 2005 that Bush had authorized agencies to spy on US citizens without getting warrants liberals reacted with scorn.

In fact one such liberal, Barack Obama campaigned against such abuses stating "For one thing, under an Obama presidency, Americans will be able to leave behind the era of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and "wiretaps without warrants."  However, this same liberal senator also vowed to fillabuster any attempt to give the telecom companies that participated in the program retroactive immunity, saying he would "support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies."  He later went back on this pledge and voted against a filibuster, and for the bill after his nomination as the democratic candidate was secured.  Perhaps one doesn't need top secret clearance to see Obama's subservience to or corruption by power after all.  However, Obama reasoned that once he was sworn into office he would have his "Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future."

This didn't happen.  As reported by Bill Moyers, FISA passing meant greater powers for the Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence to "approve the international surveillance, rather than a special intelligence court.  FISA Court now retroactively oversees government surveillance procedures after it's been conducted. It no longer scrutinizes individual cases.  The government can now latch onto large telecommunications switches, allowing for more comprehensive eavesdropping on fiber-optic phone and email lines.  Telecommunication companies can be compelled to allow access to switches through order by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence."  However, it's important to note that the NSA and other agencies already had the power to surveil who they wanted very quickly simply by asking the FISA court.  Over 99% of all FISA requests are accepted by the court and it's almost a rubber stamp process in the first place.  Now they have claimed the power to look at anyones digital communications without probable cause, and in passing the FISA amendment ensured that they would never have to let the courts decide on constitutionality by claiming that people have no grounds to sue the government because the programs were carried out in secret, so you wouldn't know if you were spied on.  This seems completely contrary to the 4th amendment of the United States constitution which requires probable cause for search and seizures.

As the surveillance state expanded and removed previous checks on executive powers to spy via government agencies the checks against those powers have been eroded.  This brings to mind another Schwarz quote: "when you start small, you go big...When you start in a way that seems legitimate, it inevitably goes too far."  This was Schwarz speaking on the expansion of government spying as revealed in the Church Report.

Harris is not only asking us to consider that spying is acceptable he is proposing that we should be willing to give up our civil liberties to keep us safe.  Benjamin Franklin once wrote "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  However, the threat Harris uses is nuclear terrorism.  This is striking not only because Dick Cheney frequently cites nuclear terrorism as a threat, but infamously warned that "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" in order to push for the invasion of Iraq.  What this amounts to is a fear tactic well adopted by Harris who has also adopted many other neo-conservative positions such as torture, profiling, and claims that liberals are weak on terrorism.

As it stands your chance from dying in a terrorist attack in the US is 1 in 20 million.  There are no known terrorists with nuclear weapons, and if a nuclear strike were to be used, one could argue strongly that the US would be the one to press the button.  This is because the US has not only been the only country previously to use nuclear weapons in war, but in 2002 it was revealed that, "The Bush administration has directed the military to prepare contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries and to build smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations, according to a classified Pentagon report...  The secret report, which was provided to Congress on Jan. 8, says the Pentagon needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria."  This is nothing new as the US repeatedly has drawn up plans for using nuclear weapons in places like Vietnam, Korea, and Cuba, but even Obama has stated, "all options are on the table" for Iran.  Perhaps Obama is familiar with Nixon's "Madman Theory."  The tactic of portraying government grabs of power as necessary for our own protection is an old one.  Fear of communism guided US foreign policy and was the reasoning behind wars in Vietnam, Korea, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and many covert CIA operations to overthrow even democratically elected governments in other countries.  In a post USSR world with China as one of our largest trading partners the communist threat has functionally ended.  The attacks on the world trade center in September of 2001 gave the Bush administration a new "ISM" to go after trading communism for terrorism.  Although it was a horrendous attack the retaliation would let far more blood, killing at least 50 times more civilians in Iraq alone which had no connection to the 9/11 attacks.

Why is Harris is so worried about nuclear terrorism that he is willing to support the build up of a spy state that would make Goring and Himmler's mouths water?  The answer brings me to a fundamental difference I have with Harris' critique of religion.  Although we are both atheistic his analysis of religion found in The End of Faith seems to focus merely on the nature of belief and how beliefs without evidence can lead to harmful behaviors with a specific emphasis on Islam being a belief that is a "cult of death".  I agree with his sentiments on the nature of faith in general, but there are a multitude of beliefs that are not religious and are harmful to people.  The problem is not necessarily with the nature of belief itself as at some point we all have beliefs or things we take for granted without evidence, but how those beliefs are used.  The most popular form of challenging these beliefs are through testing and becoming aware of systems operating around us.  The assumption or belief could be as small as a belief that a light switch when flicked will turn on without previously examining the circuitry or as big a believing science will provide a technology so that we need never decrease our energy consumption.  However, the nature of religious belief is different because religions are inherently hierarchal much like governments.  The real problem with religions is that they produce religious followers or even servants (of Christ or Allah) which can be exploited by other men convinced of the goodness of the religious organization.  This is identical to states or governments in that they produce citizens ready to be exploited by other men in a hierarchy often through nationalism and belief in goodness of the state.  In modern history these states have been far more deadly and oppressive than any religion although the two cannot be totally separated.

In fact in study of the development of early religions during the agricultural revolution you'll uncover evidence of religious and political power being one and the same.  Often the largest structures where the ruler would reside would be connected to the granary, and the ruler would be granted his authority through god.  In fact the oneness of political and religious leadership was still the case in most all of Europe at the time of the French revolution, with most kings claiming their right to rule coming directly from god.  Religions of all types, even Buddhism (which Harris has a soft spot for) was used by governments as a state religion in the Mauryan Empire of India.  Perhaps this collusion between religion and political leaders is what led the French revolutionaries to issue a law in 1793 making all nonjuring priests liable to death on site.  The Catholic Church after all was the largest landowner in the nation at the time and received great incomes from the tenants on the lands.  Although it is theoretically true that christians in general seek to deny their own wicked ideas and follow what they believe are the teachings of god by subjecting themselves to the perfect will of god, there always seems to be a temporal structure of power that at least influences this will.  Of course many break off from mainstream religious organizations and form their own hierarchies like Lutherans, Protestants, or even Mormons, but there always seems to be a hierarchy of some sorts which guide faith.

These religious and political organizations often have melded with each other and interacted in ways which allow a few to exploit many others.  Another thing is that there are social and cultural differences not always caused by religion but taken up by religion.  Patriarchy for example is an oft heard complaint of Harris and many other critics of Islam.  However, the development of patriarchy wasn't created by Islam or Christianity but was adopted by both.

Anthropologist David Graeber in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years wrote, "In the very earliest Sumerian texts, particularly those from roughly 3000 to 2500 bc, women are everywhere. Early histories not only record the names of numerous female rulers, but make clear that women were well represented among the ranks of doctors, merchants, scribes, and public officials, and generally free to take part in all aspects of public life...  Over the course of the next thousand years or so, all this changes. The place of women in civic life erodes; gradually, the more familiar patriarchal pattern takes shape, with its emphasis on chastity and premarital virginity, a weakening and eventually wholesale disappearance of women’s role in government and the liberal professions, and the loss of women’s independent legal status, which renders them wards of their husbands. By the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 bc, we begin to see large numbers of women sequestered away in harems and (in some places, at least), subjected to obligatory veiling."  He goes on to explain how this happened writing, "Conquest leads to taxes. Taxes tend to be ways to create markets, which are convenient for soldiers and administrators. In the specific case of Mesopotamia, all of this took on a complicated relation to an explosion of debt that threatened to turn all human relations—and by extension, women’s bodies—into potential commodities. At the same time, it created a horrified reaction on the part of the (male) winners of the economic game, who over time felt forced to go to greater and greater lengths to make clear that their women could in no sense be bought or sold."

Remember next time someone critiques Islam about their treatment of women (I also object to the religions views of women as well as christian views) that the religion merely adopted and further codified treatment of women as male property, but that until a hundred or so years ago our nations laws did similar things denying women rights to property and voting.  The point is that nations and religions grew up side by side using each other to gain power over their subjects (whether you believe for good or bad) and the true problem of belief is not just how bad beliefs can affect people's behavior but how bad beliefs can cause subjugation of our will to other men and their will.  One seems to use fear of god or a hell, while one seems to use fear of the other and offers itself as a protection against such evils.  It seems as if a religious person would ask us to have faith in a priest to lead us to heaven, but Harris would ask us to have faith in a growing surveillance state to protect us from harm.  Both ask for authority on the grounds that they're doing what's right for you or looking out for you.

However, since Harris seems to have little understanding on the nature of the cause of terrorism rejecting again and again that the motivations are political or nationalistic in favor of almost solely religious motivations.  While it's obvious that religion plays an often central role to terrorism, the attackers over and over again cite US and western foreign policy such as the stationing of troops on the Arab peninsula and support for Israel.  This leads them to believe the US is waging a war against Islam itself.  This is a sentiment Harris agrees with stating that he believes we are at war with Islam and not just terrorism.  Terrorists often then exploit religious beliefs and believers to achieve political goals just as nations have done for centuries.  It still happens today.  Murtaza Hussein recently wrote a great piece in AlJazeera about Religious fundamentalism in the 'War on Terror' which exposes christian crusaders like Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, and other US officials stating religious motivations for the war on Iraq and war on terror.  It has worked on both sides with reports of US soldiers and even generals believing the war was god's work or sanctioned by god.  It's not that shocking though because it's something that dates back early into our wars and civilizations; using religion to justify political ends achieved by killing or attacking the other.

Harris seems to be just another self described liberal now arguing for neo-conservative policies while ignoring age old liberal solutions to policies.  If we don't want to be attacked by terrorists perhaps the best method is not by illegally invading and occupying countries or launching secret drone strikes with no accountability that according to Al Muslimi had poor effects on Yemeni's perception of the US.  He testified, "What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America."  Perhaps instead of pursuing and continuing hegemonic foreign policies we should close our obscene number of military bases which anger and have angered other nations for years, and end the policy of US exceptionalism which Harris and others seem to continuously support.  The next century is already poised to be a century with a much larger concentration on the Pacific, specifically in East Asia where the US will continue to use it's military force to enforce it's will on other nations.  We cannot afford nor can we allow another century of US dominance by military force.  After all the way to stop nuclear proliferation, if we've learned anything from the cold war, is not to goad others on with threats and a showing of force which leaves them feeling threatened and vulnerable to attack, and which in turn leads them to seek more "defensive weapons."  The answer lies in cooperation and respecting each others right to life while protecting ourselves to the best of our abilities, but at home not by invading or bombing other nations or hegemonic dominance of any kind.  Perhaps it's time to follow Chalmers Johnson's advice and "liquidate the empire."

In conclusion, it's important to understand why secret authorities are a threat to not only our civil liberties, but the very nature of our democratic values.  If we sign off on this now what limits to authoritarian government are we going to draw up?  Liberals like Paul Krugman even have stated, “You can have a democratic surveillance state which collects as little data as possible and tells you as much as possible about what it's doing, or you can have an authoritarian surveillance state which collects as much as possible and tells the public as little as possible, and we are kind of on the authoritarian side.”  If you still think this isn't rank authoritarianism or an abuse of constitutional power and your argument is essentially we should trust Obama or any other leader because we have nothing to hide from the government that's been hiding a massive surveillance program from the US public with incredible possibilities for abuse; you're making an argument based on faith not reason and evidence.  Historical evidence says we should expect nothing but abuse, and that governments which escape the rule of law by circumventing constitutional protections are not deserving of our admiration.  Even if we all should come to find that we want to accept government surveillance as a necessary part of life it should be only after intense critical examination of this claimed power and it shouldn't take place in secret.  The FISA amendments were put there to protect the country and it's democratic processes after years of abuse.  Recalling them is sure to have the same effect on our society as repealing the financial regulations that we put in place after abuses that caused the depression.  Only this time it will be a moral and ethical bankruptcy that could result in an authoritarian government, and will forever blacken the name of America and the freedom its citizens are supposed to have.