William J. Astore on Edward Snowden and Turnkey Tyranny

Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours. Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state. As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had. (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.) The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.

My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview. I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.

Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:

1. People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing. (I saw the same in my 20 years in the US military.)

2. The American people are no longer partners of government. We are subjects. Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.

3. Intelligence agencies in the US used 9/11 to enlarge their power. They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them. This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism. Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11. They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere. This was a goal they achieved.

4. Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth. Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth. Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.

5. The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials. Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality. Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.

6. Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune). Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.” Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds. As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.

7. What is true patriotism? For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people. It’s not loyalty to government. Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.

8. National security and public safety are not synonymous. In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated. We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.

9. We live naked before power. Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the US government, know everything about us; we know little about them. It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).

10. “The system is built on lies.” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress. And there are no consequences. He goes unpunished.

11. We own less and less of our own data. Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government. It’s become a commodity. Which means we are the commodity. We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.

12. Don’t wait for a hero to save you. What matters is heroic decisions. You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.

In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the US government, among other governmental crimes. He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at wastore@pct.edu. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.