Scheer and Hedges: They Know Everything About You (4/7)

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A debate emerges between Bob Scheer and Chris Hedges on whether the state can reform its own surveillance practices and whether it can be held accountable by appealing to constitutional principles.

Story Transcript

CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges for The Real News. Welcome back to part four of my discussion with Robert Scheer about his book They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy.

Let’s get into this issue that we discussed at the end of part three about the reaction on the part of private corporations Google, Apple, and others, because the exposure of their complicity with the security and surveillance state (which, as you point out, is global) hurts their business model (they are beginning to create systems of encryption), and whether you think that that will be an effective check on this intrusion of the security and surveillance apparatus into our personal lives.

PROF. ROBERT SCHEER, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: I think it’s a real eye-opener for them. And I think that there’d been this incredibly naive notion in Silicon Valley. A lot of the research for this book was done talking to these people. And somehow they were the libertarians unleashed, and the government was made up of fuddy-duddy people, and they didn’t really understand modern technology. And they were creating a new culture, a new world, in which people get to see all kinds of ideas and think all sorts of thoughts and everything.

And, you know, the price of that is you still had to be nice to these government folks–for a number of reasons. You wanted tax breaks. You wanted them to intervene with foreign governments. You wanted military contracts. You know, after all, Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who bought the The Washington Post, he is now building the big cloud that is going to contain our information for NSA and the CIA.

So they are complicit. There is a profit sector in government. They are using, basically, a military creation, which was the internet, to begin with. So there was a weird relationship. And in the book I document how, you know, Sergey Brin and others at Google went off to big meetings and had highest clearance and, you know, were complicit in all this.

But they sort of had the illusion that, first of all, they’d get away with it, that no one would ever know, but also the guys government are kind of–you know, they’re beyond the thing, they don’t really get it, they don’t really know what’s going on, they’re really not that ominous. I think culturally they don’t like them. They think people, particularly when they encountered Cheney and torture and all of these, you know, gross things that the government was doing, they don’t think that’s productive. After all, they operate all over the world and get along with lots of different people. But I think they kidded themselves about the power relationship, you know, who has the power here.

And we learned there was a company, Qwest, and the guy who was running it, traditional capitalist, he said, no, I’m not going to cooperate. And he was destroyed.

HEDGES: He was destroyed.

SCHEER: Destroyed, faced with jail and so forth.

HEDGES: They wanted him to turn over his lists.

SCHEER: They wanted him to turn over the data.

HEDGES: And that was the service that Snowden used.

SCHEER: Yes. He used that–. And he said, no, this is a violation of my obligation to my customers and integrity and so forth. And they smashed him.

HEDGES: But isn’t that an indication?

SCHEER: Well, there’s no question that–and this was–you know, if you want to go back to Germany, I mean, there were people at BMW and Mercedes and others that thought they could control fascism. This was always the illusion in that corporate-government alliance. Actually, there were even some parallels with the Soviet Union. After all, Armand Hammer, you know, who did Occidental Petroleum, originally was cooperating with Lenin developing pencil factories and everything. So they’ve always had the illusion–it’s the illusion, Iran, that, you know, oh, we could actually work with the Shah and we can work with all these totalitarian leaders. And at some time, no, they turn on you. And so I think that’s what happened in this connection.

And I think the pushback from these companies, it’ll only go so far. I mean, they can be [nonlex.] you know, ’cause the feds have a lot of power. The feds can go after your taxes. The feds can intimidate you. They can blackmail you. I mean, this information can also be mined to do in the head of Apple, right?

HEDGES: Of course.

SCHEER: You know, Tim Cook. What movies did you watch? And so forth. So it’s really–.

HEDGES: But that’s how security systems work.

SCHEER: Yes.

HEDGES: And we had Feinstein allude to that when she talked about how, you know, on the release of the CIA torture report, that these people play hardball. Remember that comment? They play dirty. Well, what that said is that they have everything on me, they have everything on my staff. And when you have–and we saw it in a kind of cruder form with Hoover. When they have everything on you, they control you.

SCHEER: Yes.

HEDGES: And they have everything on us.

SCHEER: Yes. And in the case of Feinstein, who did not tell us what the government was doing as far as information, who lied to us, actually, as did Barack Obama, saying, oh, it’s only metadata and so forth, well, that turned out to be utter nonsense. They have everything on you and the content of your emails and your phone conversations and everything else. But where she panicked was when they went after her staff, and she thought, I’m a big-shot senator.

HEDGES: Right. They think they’re immune.

SCHEER: Yeah.

HEDGES: But as soon as they buck the system, they’re treated like everyone else.

SCHEER: Yeah, and they were going to frame the staff. And it’s really quite ominous. I mean, you don’t have to be–.

HEDGES: But, Bob, that is an example of if these people buck the system, why are they not going to be treated like that?

SCHEER: Oh, I think they will. I’m not saying that they are going to win. They’re not going to win on their own. And they’re not going to fight that hard, by the way. Some of this is PR. Some of this is to convince us–.

HEDGES: Well, and as you pointed out, you have figures like Bezos who have a financial interest in perpetuating the system.

SCHEER: Exactly. But the fact of the matter is, if they don’t push back, if we don’t have rules of the road, you undermine what is meant by a multinational corporation. So from a profitability, okay, if you really want to–you know, right now Google has 90 percent of the European search market.

HEDGES: Right.

SCHEER: And by having that, they have 90 percent of the data on who are Europeans.

HEDGES: And aren’t the Germans reacting to that? They’re building their own [crosstalk]

SCHEER: And they’re pushing back. And the European court, which is not–you can’t appeal it–has said, no, Google can’t define you; you have a right to change that record. That was a very important decision. So they’re push–they’re getting pushback.

And, you know, companies come and go. You know, big, proud, profitable companies suddenly–you know, we see that all the time. I mean, what happened to AOL? You know. I mean, just because you’re big now doesn’t mean you’re going to be big even three years from now. Microsoft is not the powerful company it was. So they’re very conscious things can go south on them. You know.

And so all I’m saying is–and let’s take it off them a bit: why aren’t more liberal politicians concerned? I mean, here you have this atrocity of Hillary Clinton condemning Edward Snowden as a traitor. Hillary Clinton, who was up to her eyeballs in all this as secretary of state, knew damn well what this government was doing, Hillary Clinton, who said, I can’t trust the State Department with my emails, I’m going to have them stored in my garage. Right? She’s in charge of the State Department, can’t trust the State Department with her emails, but tells us that when Edward Snowden tells us our emails are being read, he is weakening our country, he’s giving aid and comfort to the enemy. She didn’t tell us. It remained for Edward Snowden to tell us, right? So she’s saying we should trust the State Department, the CIA, the NSA to go through our emails, right, when she won’t, even though she was in charge.

So that kind of hypocrisy coming from people we would have counted on–now I’m going to exclude the good liberals who may be in the ACLU. We have principled civil libertarians. And on the left and the right we have principled libertarians. Much of the good pushback informing us comes from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups that basically are of a libertarian bent. So we’re getting as much pushback against government surveillance from principled Republicans as we are from principled Democrats. That’s really sad, to my mind, as somebody who has been more on the liberal side of things.

But the abandonment, say, by this constitutional law professor Barack Obama, he should be–he knows this stuff better than I do. First of all, he knows the extent of surveillance ’cause he’s ordering it up. But as a constitutional law professor, he knows why we have a Fourth Amendment, he knows why we have to have individual sovereignty, he knows why we have to observe the government. Why is he not using his presidency as a bully pulpit to educate us about our Constitution?

And, you know, this is a great gift America has made to the world. I was accused in the Los Angeles Times’ book review of my book of being–you know, overpraising the framers and being too much on the rhetoric of freedom. The fact is this country made a great contribution to human history in the notion of limited government, that you have a printed document, a living, printed document that guards against government overreach. That is a very basic notion. It’s a notion that people on the left who were naive about leftist governments or governments claiming to be leftist in the world–.

I interviewed Fidel Castro the night the Soviets went into Czechoslovakia. I had been waiting for this interview weeks. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t let me use my tape recorder. And in that interview, we–at that moment, he was against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He changed the position a few days later. But we had a lively debate about how did you, a Catholic radical who was not supported by the communists in Czechoslovakia until six months before you were able to get rid of Batista–are you naive about what communism came to mean? And don’t you understand? Why don’t you have a First Amendment? There I am, sitting with Fidel Castro at two in the morning with guys with guns, challenging him about what I learned in City College in Government 1A, reading the basic issues of American democracy. The great contribution of our framers was the notion of limited government.

HEDGES: Bob, it’s been–our Constitution has been absolutely rewritten by judicial fiat. None of–whether it’s privacy, whether it’s First Amendment rights, whether it is the decision by the Supreme Court to interpret unlimited campaign contributions by corporations as petitioning the government, whether it is drawing up kill lists, whether it is the misuse of the Espionage Act to shut down whistleblowers, whether it is the misinterpretation of the Authorization to Use Military Force act to assassinate, to serve as judge, jury, I mean, it’s gone. It doesn’t–. And the National Defense Authorization Act, Section 1021, where I sued Obama in federal court, won the first round, in the second round they won’t confront the issue because it’s patently unconstitutional–they deny my standing.

SCHEER: Okay. But it’s not gone in my mind and it’s not–.

HEDGES: But it’s not real anymore. It doesn’t exist in actual legal fact.

SCHEER: Well, okay. Again–.

HEDGES: I mean, do we have habeas corpus?

SCHEER: Again, let me be the naive optimist here. There was a decision by the Roberts Supreme Court–I discuss it at length in the book–last June. And, as an educational point, and with the force of law, that unanimous decision of our Supreme Court, the so-called liberals and the conservatives all signed on. But the language of Chief Justice Roberts was very clear on the most important point: do we have a living Constitution? By that I mean, does technology trump the aspirations of the framers, and particularly as relates to the Fourth Amendment? The argument–and it had been made by the tech industry–it was made by Facebook, it was made by Google, Eric Schmidt, other people there, who said, oh, get over privacy, forget it, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply, the cat’s out of the bag, technology has trumped all that. You hear that from young people. You can’t do it. The Roberts court said something quite the opposite. They said, in this decision, said there’s more information on this smart phone then there ever was in anyone’s home.

And the reason the Fourth Amendment is in there–he said the spark that started the American Revolution was the idea that is in the Fourth Amendment, that in English common law, the King of England could not enter the home of the humblest peasant, okay, the hovel, could not enter it and rummage around in his personal effects with a general writ, because that violated his rights, his sovereignty. The King of England. And when they started doing it in the colonies, you know, and when Otis was on trial and Adams was recording it, he said, that’s the spark that started the American Revolution, because you’re rummaging about with these general writs, which is what the NSA [incompr.]

Okay. When the police arrested that fellow in the decision that the court held on and then he had a cell phone and they cracked the code and got this information, the court said, you cannot use that information.

The court then said–and we should rally around it, and then we should say, okay, why don’t you apply that to the NSA? Why don’t you apply it to the CIA? Because the principle is quite clear that this technology does not trump the Fourth Amendment; it makes more vital, a more robust definition. And your personal sovereignty goes from your home with you. You have to have your basic–the integrity of your freedom established.

So, as opposed to the position–and you know I am a great admirer of your work. But I think if we accept that they’ve won this and they’ve won that and they won that, then we excuse people–this does not apply to you, obviously, because you are a fighter and you’re out there–it gives people a copout [incompr.] over. You know, I find this everywhere I speak. You know, I say, you know, there’ll be people in the audience who say, oh, unless we get Citizens United overturned, unless we get money out of politics, unless we do the–it’s all over. Well, I won’t accept that. If people can fight back in Stalin’s Russia, fight back against the Stasi, who are dissidents, or people who fought back against Hitler–there were plenty of people that tried to fight back, okay? And at least they alerted people outside of their countries. You know? There are people sitting in jail in Egypt now trying to fight back.

HEDGES: Right. But let me just–.

SCHEER: So I think you have to seize the room that we have.

And the room that we have, okay–I’ll be very clear about this–the room that we have is we have this document called the U.S. Constitution and a history around it that cannot be just dismissed by anyone who has any respect for logic, fact, or history. I’m sorry. There is a Fourth Amendment, okay? And as even the Roberts court said, that Fourth Amendment is more relevant now than ever. And you cannot read the words of the Fourth Amendment and say what the NSA is doing is constitutional.

That’s why–what drove Bill Binney into becoming a dissident, right, after 40 years of working in our national security state. He said, what you’re doing is outrageous; it’s destroying our society. It’s what drove Daniel Ellsberg, who had been a Marine, who was in the defense establishment, he writes and works on the Pentagon Papers–he says, what you are doing is destroying our democracy, you’re destroying our Constitution. That is–there’s a power in that idea and in that tradition.

HEDGES: Alright. Let me respond to that, because, I mean, that is true if we had a functioning judiciary. Ninety-four percent of people never go to trial. And this gets into the whole system of mass incarceration. If actually everybody went to trial, which was their right, the system would collapse. It’s not built to care, so that we don’t have a functioning judiciary. I mean, this presupposes a system that isn’t there.

And in terms of resistance, the reason that I think that it’s important to grapple with the darkness that has gripped the country is that if we believe it’s reformable, if we keep doing the kind of Van Jones turn, where we pump our energy back into a system that will never respond, then we’re responding not only to a non-reality-based belief system, but all of our resistance is futile. If we understand that the system has to be removed, that we have to build mass movements that call for the absolute destruction of corporate power and stop investing ourselves in a judicial system or a system of electoral politics that is at this point never going to respond, then we have hope. But I think we have to understand how bleak it is and we have to face that reality and then step out and find appropriate mechanisms to respond.

SCHEER: Okay. Now, we have a good relationship. I’m actually your editor at Truthdig. You’re going to have to give me 20 more minutes, because this is really our fundamental–and I want–you know, let’s just tell people who are watching this: this is our–a tension in our ideas, and I think it’s an important one that people should address, not because we disagree, but because it’s something we have to think about: how do you get change?

HEDGES: Right.

SCHEER: And I’ve spent my whole life, as you have, grappling with this question. And we went through this with the New Left in the ’60s, and you had groups as extreme or whatever as the Weathermen and the Black Panthers and so forth saying, you know, the system is broken. And then there were other people, one of whom’s one of your heroes, Ralph Nader, Martin Luther King, others, who said, no, if we accept that view that there’s no room to organize, there’s no way of saving the system, there’s no way of holding it accountable, and instead, no, they said–you know, here certainly Martin Luther King understood the distortions of the system as far as segregation, how rigged to the game was, how unfair the judicial system was, how contradictory the interpretation of the Constitution had been–the Constitution even denied the humanity of black people by not being fully human. I mean, it was a denial of, really, what the New Testament says about our each having a soul, ’cause if blacks in the South had a soul, right, they couldn’t be treated in that way. Right?

So this is a fundamental question. What does this tradition mean? And yes, I do seem naive and, you know, rose-colored glasses about our Constitution. The reason I invoke it is it’s like invoking–you were telling me–reading Solzhenitsyn or reading Hannah Arendt–the reason I invoke it is that these people return us to ideas that we need to be reminded of because they keep us human.

HEDGES: Alright. Well, we’re going to get into that, and I’m going to slam the founding fathers. I think we’ve given them too much of a pass here.

I’m Chris Hedges for The Real News. This is part four of my interview with Robert Scheer, the author of They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy. We are going to come back for part five.

Thank you very much, Bob.

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