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Mandate Of Heaven

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How to Be a Rogue Superpower

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Posted on Jul 17, 2013
Abode of Chaos (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Nothing about the “international manhunt” for Snowden indicates that the Obama administration would be unwilling to send in the CIA or special operations types to “render” him from Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, no matter the cost to hemispheric relations.  Snowden himself brought up this possibility in his first interview with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald.  “I could,” he said bluntly, “be rendered by the CIA.” This assumes that he can even make it to a land of exile from somewhere in the bowels of the international terminal of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport without being intercepted by Washington.

It’s true that there remain some modest limits on the actions even of a rogue superpower.  It’s hard to imagine Washington dropping its kidnappers into Russia or China to take Snowden, which is perhaps why it has put such pressure on both countries to turn him in or hustle him along.  With smaller, weaker lands, however, non-nuclear allies or enemies or frenemies, don’t doubt the possibility for a second.

If Edward Snowden is proving one thing, it’s this: in 2013, Planet Earth isn’t big enough to protect the American version of dissidents.”  Instead, it looks ever more like a giant prison with a single implacable policeman, judge, jury, and jailer.

Deterrence Theory the Second Time Around

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In the Cold War years, the two nuclear-armed superpowers practiced what was called “deterrence theory,” or more aptly MAD, short for “mutually assured destruction.”  Think of it as the particularly grim underside of what might have been but wasn’t called MAA (mutually assured asylum).  The knowledge that no nuclear first strike by one superpower could succeed in preventing the other from striking back with overwhelming force, destroying them both (and possibly the planet) seemed, however barely, to hold their enmity and weaponry at bay.  It forced them to fight their wars, often by proxy, on the global frontiers of empire.

Now, with but one superpower left, another kind of deterrence theory has come into play.  Crucial to our era is the ongoing creation of the first global surveillance state.  In the Obama years, the sole superpower has put special effort into deterring anyone in its labyrinthine bureaucracy who shows a desire to let us know what “our” government is doing in our name.

The Obama administration’s efforts to stop whistleblowers are becoming legendary.  It has launched an unprecedented program to specially train millions of employees and contractors to profile coworkers for “indicators of insider threat behavior.” They are being encouraged to inform on any “high-risk persons” they suspect might be planning to go public.  Administration officials have also put much punitive energy into making examples out of whistleblowers who have tried to reveal anything of the inner workings of the national security complex.

In this way, the Obama administration has more than doubled the total whistleblower prosecutions of all previous administrations combined under the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act.  It has also gone after Army Private Bradley Manning for releasing secret military and State Department files to WikiLeaks, not only attempting to put him away for life for “aiding the enemy,” but subjecting him to particularly vindictive and abusive treatment while in military prison. In addition, it has threatened journalists who have written on or published leaked material and gone on expeditions into the telephone and email records of major media organizations.

All of this adds up to a new version of deterrence thinking in which a potential whistleblower should know that he or she will experience a lifetime of suffering for leaking anything; in which those, even in the highest reaches of government, who consider speaking to journalists on classified subjects should know that their calls could be monitored and their whispers criminalized; and in which the media should know that reporting on such subjects is not a healthy activity.

This sort of deterrence already seemed increasingly extreme in nature; the response to Snowden’s revelations took it to a new level.  Though the U.S. government pursued WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange abroad (while reportedly preparing to indict him at home), the other whistleblower cases might all be considered national security ones.  The manhunt against Snowden is something new.  Through it, Washington is now punitively expanding twenty-first century deterrence theory to the world.

The message is this: nowhere will you be safe from us if you breach U.S. secrecy.  Snowden’s will surely be a case study in how far the new global security state is willing to go.  And the answer is already in: far indeed.  We just don’t yet know exactly how far.


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