Under Obama’s administration, if you meet with someone in a terrorist group and advise them to turn to nonviolent means, then that’s material assistance to terrorism.
Mike Stivers: Anyone following issues of civil liberties under Obama knows that his administration’s policies have been disastrous. The signing of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which effectively legalizes indefinite detention of US citizens, the prosecution of more whistleblowers than any previous president, the refusal to close Guantanamo, and the adoption of ruthless positions in trials such as Hedges vs. Obama and Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project don’t even encapsulate the full extent of the flagrant violations of civil, political and constitutional rights. One basic question that a lot of people seem to be asking is, why? What’s the rationale?
Noam Chomsky: That’s a very interesting question. I personally never expected anything of Obama, and wrote about it before the 2008 primaries. I thought it was smoke and mirrors. The one thing that did surprise me is his attack on civil liberties. They go well beyond anything I would have anticipated, and they don’t seem easy to explain. In many ways the worst is what you mention, Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project. That’s an Obama initiative and it’s a very serious attack on civil liberties. He doesn’t gain anything from it – he doesn’t get any political mileage out of it. In fact, most people don’t even know about it, but what it does is extend the concept of “material assistance to terror” to speech.
The case in question was a law group that was giving legal advice to groups on the terrorist list, which in itself has no moral or legal justification; it’s an abomination. But if you look at the way it’s been used, it becomes even more abhorrent (Nelson Mandela was on it until a couple of years ago.) And the wording of the colloquy is broad enough that it could very well mean that if, say, you meet with someone in a terrorist group and advise them to turn to nonviolent means, then that’s material assistance to terrorism. I’ve met with people who are on the list and will continue to do so, and Obama wants to criminalize that, which is a plain attack on freedom of speech. I just don’t understand why he’s doing it.
The NDAA suit, of which I’m a plaintiff – it mostly codifies existing practice. While there has been some protest over the indefinite detention clause, there’s one aspect of it that I’m not entirely happy with. The only protest that’s being raised is in response to detention of American citizens, but I don’t see why we should have the right to detain anyone without trial. The provision of the NDAA that allows for this should not be tolerated. It was banned almost eight centuries ago in the Magna Carta.
It’s the same with the drone killings. There was some protest over the Anwar Al-Awlaki killing because he was an American citizen. But what about someone who isn’t an American citizen? Do we have a right to murder them if the president feels like it?
On Obama’s 2012 election campaign web site, it clearly states that Obama has prosecuted six whistleblowers under the Espionage Act. Does he think he’s appealing to some constituency with that affirmation?
I don’t know what base he’s appealing to. If he thinks he’s appealing to the nationalist base, well, they’re not going to vote for him anyway. That’s why I don’t understand it. I don’t think he’s doing anything besides alienating his own natural base. So it’s something else.
What it is is the same kind of commitment to expanding executive power that Cheney and Rumsfeld had. He kind of puts it in mellifluous terms and there’s a little difference in his tone. It’s not as crude and brutal as they were, but it’s pretty hard to see much of a difference.
It also extends to other developments, most of which we don’t really know about, likethe surveillance state that’s being built and the capacity to pick up electronic communication. It’s an enormous attack on personal space and privacy. There’s essentially nothing left. And that will get worse with the new drone technologies that are being developed and given to local police forces.
That expansion of the surveillance state, do you see that as another facet of expanding executive power?
It’s an enormous expansion of executive power. I doubt that they can do much with this information that’s being stored. I’ve had plenty of experience with the FBI in simpler years when they didn’t have all this stuff. But they had tons of information. They were just drowning in it and didn’t know how to use it. It’s sort of like walking into the New York Public Library and saying “I want to be a chemist.” You’ve got all the information there, but it’s not doing any good.
Might that change with enhanced technology and search capabilities?
There will be new ways of combing through the data electronically to pick up things that look like suspicious connections, almost all of which will mean nothing, but they may find some things. It’s kind of like the drone killings. You have what’s called “intelligence.” Sometimes it means something; other times it means nothing. It also means that if you have suspicions of somebody for some reason, whatever it is, you can go in there and find all sorts of incriminating stuff. It may not be legally incriminating, but it will be used to intimidate people – threatening to publicize things people meant to be private.
Do you think nonviolent, verbal dissent could eventually be criminalized?
It could be criminalized. Anybody who has looked at law enforcement at all knows that one of the techniques is to try to force confession or plea-bargaining by just using material that the person doesn’t want publicized. That’s very common. You can threaten to expose something even if it didn’t happen, or it’s just a rumor. That’s a powerful weapon to get people to cooperate or submit, and I suspect we’re going to see a lot of that. We already do see a lot of it in the criminal courts. Most cases don’t come to trial. They’re settled. And a lot of them are settled in this way.
There’s an alarming quote from Chris Hedges in reference to the NDAA suit. He said, “If we lose [the suit], the power of the military to detain citizens, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in military prisons will become a terrifying reality.” How much weight does this case hold?
We’ve already lost that right. If you look at the criminal systems and the truly oppressed populations, like the black male population, for them, due process is sometimes existent, but overwhelmingly they just don’t have it. You can’t hire a lawyer; you don’t get a decent defense and you don’t have resources. That’s how the prisons are filled.
Do you think the left in general could become another oppressed population in the future?
I don’t think there’s much of a threat there. I doubt that there’ll be anything like what there was in the 60s. We’re nowhere near the days of COINTELPRO. That was the FBI, and it was pretty harsh. It went as far as political assassinations. Again, the worst of which was directed towards blacks. It’s harder to attack privileged whites.
It’s the same with the drug wars. The police can go to downtown Harlem and pick up a kid with a joint in the streets. But they can’t go into the elegant apartments and get a stockbroker who’s sniffing cocaine.
You can see the same with incarceration rates, which are increasing outrageously. That all started with Reagan. He started a race war. There’s a great book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. She points out, and she’s quite right, that it’s very analogous to what happened after reconstruction when slavery was technically eliminated, but it just turned into criminalization of black life. You ended up with a large part of the black, mostly male population in jail, and they become slave labor. This runs deep in American history. It’s not going to be easy to extricate. Privileged whites on the left will never be subject to this, though. They have too much political power.
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Posted by The NON-Conformist