John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, was charged this week with espionage for disclosing to journalists classified information about the capture and torture of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaeda member. Before Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009, just three Americans had ever been prosecuted by their government for espionage for leaking stories to journalists. Kiriakou Is the sixth person to face such charges under Obama. In less than four years under Obama, in other words, twice as many people have been charged with espionage for leaking information to journalists as in the previous two centuries under all the presidents put together. Whatever the Obama presidency will be remembered for, it will not be for its sympathies towards civil liberties.
Obama strode into the White House promising to roll back George W Bush’s egregious attacks on liberties in the name of the war on terror. Three years on Guantanamo still stand. Last month Obama signed off on the National Defense Authorization Act which allows for indefinite military detention. He has maintained the policy of extraordinary rendition and of secret prisons, and intensified the use of drones and the programme of assassinations, including of US citizens. Obama has also endorsed the right of the government to strip citizens of legal protections based on its sole discretion. He has extended the scope of the Patriot Act allowing for warrantless searches of everything from business documents to library records. It is true that he has abandoned the Bush administration policy of ‘enhanced interrogation’ – torture to you and me – but has refused to investigate or prosecute those who might have carried out such torture.
Perhaps the biggest assault on liberties has been in the creation of a culture of surveillance. According to investigative journalist Jane Mayer, in an article profiling a previous victim of the Espionage Act, former National Security Agency senior executive Thomas Drake, the NSA now reportedly possesses
the capacity to intercept and download, every six hours, electronic communications equivalent to the contents of the Library of Congress. Three times the size of the CIA, and with a third of the US’s entire intelligence budget, the NSA has a five-thousand-acre campus at Fort Meade protected by iris scanners and facial-recognition devices.
Over the past three years, Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale, told Mayer, we have witnessed ‘the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state’. Obama has ‘systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.’
Hand in hand with the creation of this apparatus of surveillance has been an increasing clampdown on those who investigate such abuse, as witnessed by the spate of espionage prosecutions. Perhaps, then, the findings of the latest Reporters Without Borders annual report on press freedom should not be so surprising. Every year the organization analyzes the state of free speech in every country across the globe. The organization
asks questions about every kind of violation directly affecting journalists and netizens (including murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). And it establishes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations. It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticize. Financial pressure, which is increasingly common, is also assessed and incorporated into the final score….It also reflects violations of the free flow of information on the Internet.
The headline findings reinforce what most people already know. China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan and Eritrea are black holes when it comes to freedom of speech. More interesting, perhaps, are the rankings of many leading Western nations. America is at #47 in a list of 179 countries. Think about it. The land of the First Amendment, a nation that supposedly reveres individual freedom, freedom of expression and openness, has less press freedom than the likes of Botswana, Ghana, Papua New Guinea and Tanzania. France comes in at #38 behind Mali, Niger and Lithuania. Britain stands at #28 with a worse record than Namibia, Jamaica and Surinam.
So, yes, it is true that America is not like China, Iran or Syria. The trouble is, when it comes to press freedom at least, it is not like Botswana, Mali or Jamaica either.