Friday, July 12, 2013

Thoughts on Government Surveillance and Political Opposition

Let me just summarize what we've got:

1) Mounting criticism of the President and a scandal that won't go away over foreign policy decisions.
2) Government surveillance and alleged FBI break-ins targeted at political opponents.
3) IRS audits and alleged harassment of religious groups that have been critical of the administration.

Oh, and all of this happened thirty years ago during the Reagan administration.

I bring all of this up not because I'm trying to defend the current Obama administration by saying "Hey, look, Reagan oversaw similar government intrusions, so it's all ok!" Instead, I bring it up only because I find the (admittedly inexact) similarities very interesting, and I think they point to a larger problem with our political system.

In Reagan's time, foreign policy criticism centered on U.S. support for anti-communist regimes and rebels in Central America, most notably the contras who attempted to oust Nicaragua's Sandinistas. As documented in books such as David Swartz's Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, or Christian Smith's Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central American Peace Movement, the criticism took shape in various forms, but was heavily influenced by religious groups and ideology. By 1983, the Catholic Church and nearly every mainline Protestant denomination had questioned U.S. policy in Central America. Many churches participated in the Sanctuary movement, in which they offered to provide care and shelter for Central American asylum-seekers who were trying to escape conflict. Since many of the asylum-seekers did not have legal approval to be in the country, the INS cracked down on the movement. They embedded undercover operatives within churches, gaining the trust of church members and leaders over the span of months before the INS descended and arrested those involved (Side note: can you imagine the outcry from conservatives if the government embedded secret agents within conservative churches?) Church members who were arrested for providing sanctuary claimed First Amendment "free exercise of religion" as their defense.

Another religious organization involved in the Central American peace movement was Sojourners, Jim Wallis's "evangelical left" magazine/organization that presented theologically-conservative but socially-radical views. Sojourners (among other groups) took up a campaign called "Witness for Peace" in the mid-1980s, which sought to bring American citizens to Nicaragua to see for themselves the Sandinista-led country, and to rally support to protest any attempted American intervention. The original Witness for Peace statement of purpose read:
"To develop an ever-broadening, prayerful, biblically based community of United States citizens who stand with the Nicaraguan people by acting in continuous nonviolent resistance to U.S. covert or other intervention in their country. To mobilize public opinion and help change U.S. foreign policy to one which fosters justice, peace, and friendship. To welcome others in this endeavor who may vary in spiritual approach but are one with us in purpose."
The Witness for Peace campaign, combined with the magazine's harsh denunciations of Reagan's foreign policy, led the IRS to audit the organization in 1986. The IRS asked the organization why it "did not present all sides and facts" of U.S. defense policy issues, and threatened to take away its tax-exempt status, leading Sojourners to complain of harassment and intimidation. According to historian David Swartz, there was also a bungled FBI investigation of Sojourners, which apparently involved wire-tapping and other forms of tracking. Furthermore, from 1984 to 1986 the Boston Globe reported on a number of church break-ins in which churches sympathetic to the Central American peace movement were repeatedly vandalized, and had documents taken from the premises. The churches claimed that the FBI was involved, although the FBI denied their allegations (at least one former FBI agent has confirmed that he was involved in break-ins at a number of churches that were critical of the Reagan administration's foreign policy).

I present all of the information above fully realizing that, depending on the reader, it is likely being filtered in two different ways. If you are a conservative, then you are probably seething that no mention was made of the Sandinista's own human-rights violations. You're probably thinking that it's no surprise that the mainline churches would sympathize with communists, or that it makes sense that the government would try to stop illegal activity (i.e. harboring illegal immigrants) by any means necessary, even planting secret agents in church communities.

And if you're liberal, then you're probably nodding your head, thinking of the hypocrisy of the conservatives who wail against the Obama administration for doing things that they would not speak a word against if it was ordered by conservatives. You might, like so many Daily Show clips, be thinking of the lack of historical perspective that conservatives seem to have. But both filters are wrong, because overzealous government targeting and harassment is wrong, whether it happens during Reagan's administration or Obama's. And until we as the American people can reach a true consensus on that, then nothing will change.

Recent reports of Egypt's coup (side note from LL Cool J: don't call it a coup...we've been here for years!) are instructive. By most accounts, Morsi's problem (among others) was that he could not contain the bureaucratic state apparatus that had mushroomed during Mubarek's regime. Even though the Egyptian people had elected Morsi into office, there was still the matter of the entire Mubarek system. Upending it would have led to disarray, so Morsi kept much of it intact, inadvertently allowing his opponents to combine military and state power with popular outrage to remove him from power.

In the United States, we have our own monster of a bureaucratic apparatus that chugs along no matter who assumes power every four years. It seems to have a life of its own, overpowering even those who are supposed to keep charge of it and keep it under control. But instead of reforming the monster, politicians from the opposition consistently use it as a foil to get elected and to assume power over it. When Bush was in office, Obama played on American outrage over government intrusions and misguided foreign excursions to get himself elected. Now that Obama is in office, Republicans are leveling similar criticisms against Obama. You'll have to forgive me if I find that their sudden critiques of "unprecedented" government surveillance ring hollow (Ron Paul is the exception here, of course, but I find him too naive for my liking in many other aspects of policy).

Until liberals and conservatives will both recognize that they, themselves, have overlooked the log in their own eye in order to point out the speck in the eye the opposition, then I'm afraid that little will be done to reign in the dangers to liberty imposed by a government that has enormous data-gathering and tracking capabilities. Perhaps I am a bit naive, but I happen to believe that Obama and Bush and Reagan are not sinister, and that they are a lot like most other people. They are selfish, they seek power, but they also want to do good in the world and to make America a better place. In their efforts, they often fail, and fail miserably, in no small part because they serve as the symbol for everything that could possibly go wrong (or right) in the entire American state system.

But I don't think that they as individuals are primarily responsible for the abuse of government power. Blame must also be placed on those who play the tribal game of pragmatic election-oriented partisan politics, who assume that their side is the good side, who give the benefit of the doubt to leaders who share the same political affiliation (but not to the other side), and who thus allow for the perpetuation of the unfettered government surveillance apparatus. In other words, to answer the question of who is to blame, it seems there's at least one answer we need to start with:

We are.