Shortly after this review appears, Robert Scheer will celebrate his 79th birthday. In 2008, he told a large audience he was born the same year as John McCain, the GOP’s presidential candidate that year. “I’m not saying McCain is too old to be president,” he added. “But I lost my car keys three times this morning.”
Not that you’re likely to catch Scheer doddering around the house. In 2005, while many of his peers were composing their memoirs, Scheer helped create Truthdig, the award-winning news website he continues to direct. Since then, he has also written two astute books: The Pornography of Power (2008), about Pentagon budget excesses in the post 9/11 period; and The Great American Stickup (2010), which recounts the Wall Street meltdown, the effects of which continue to hamper the global economy.
Since his early years at Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker, Scheer has worked the left side of the American political spectrum. He ran for office as a Democrat in 1966, but his recent books grind no partisan axes. To the contrary; they dramatize the bipartisan nature of those entirely preventable fiascos. Although many pundits have decried the failure of Democrats and Republicans to work together, Scheer has shown that when it comes to under-regulating Wall Street and overfunding the Pentagon, the major parties have cooperated all too well.
As a journalist and candidate in the mid-1960s, Scheer made a similar point about the bipartisan consensus on anticommunism and Vietnam. As a result, White House press secretary Bill Moyers anxiously monitored the vote tallies when Scheer almost unseated the congressional incumbent, an LBJ ally, in Oakland’s Democratic primary. We now know that the FBI and CIA investigated Scheer and his Ramparts colleagues despite rules against domestic espionage by the latter agency. In fact, much of what we know about CIA overreach during that period can be traced to whistleblower stories in Ramparts.
Now, a half-century later, Scheer has turned his attention to the digital world and its discontents. His new book probes data-collecting corporations, massive government surveillance, and the challenges they pose to our freedoms. Once again, Scheer finds that the two major parties are scarcely distinguishable; both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked with high-tech companies to create what the book calls “a brave new world of wired tyranny.”
Since 2001, we’ve known that the NSA was scooping up our telephone calls and digital communications. What we didn’t know was the extent to which high-tech companies were partners in that effort. That sector, of course, has always been part of the national security state; the Internet itself was the product of military-funded research. But until recently, most media coverage cast these firms as unwitting collaborators in the NSA’s project. Scheer counters that they were the trailblazers in amassing and analyzing private information. “Google is a mind-boggling financial success precisely because it breaches privacy more effectively than any enterprise before it in history,” he claims. “The NSA is piggybacking on Google rather than the other way around.”
Not all the corporate players in Scheer’s book are household names. He charts the fortunes of In-Q-Tel, the CIA-created venture capital firm designed to “identify, adapt, and deliver innovative technology solutions” for the intelligence community. He also reviews the history of Palantir, a Silicon Valley company formed to analyze the mountains of personal data collected by the CIA. Former CIA director George Tenet, who founded In-Q-Tel, and Condoleezza Rice have served as Palantir advisors, and Tenet received at least $2.3 million in stock and other compensation for his work with Palantir and three other firms. Thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that U.S. intelligence agencies spent $52.6 billion in 2013 on what The Washington Post called “a bureaucratic and operational landscape that has never been subject to public scrutiny.” Given this lack of scrutiny, one wonders whether these companies are also identifying, adapting, and delivering innovative conflicts of interest.
When it comes to protecting customer privacy, the big Silicon Valley firms haven’t covered themselves in glory. In a 2013 court filing, Google claimed “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to a third party.” (In this case, the third party was Google.) Scheer also quotes the company’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, on the topic of privacy. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” he told an audience in 2009, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Taken together, these self-serving remarks suggest that expectations of customer privacy, which Google is breaching for profit, are illegitimate and misplaced.
Schmidt’s advice is also misleading. The desire to keep information private isn’t itself furtive; as the Fourth Amendment implies, the burden is always on those who wish to violate our privacy without sufficient cause — not on us to justify our conduct, even to ourselves. Finally, Schmidt’s comment overlooks a serious danger. For what if it’s a government agency, and not the customer, that’s doing something unseemly? Unfortunately, that scenario isn’t hypothetical. The government certainly didn’t want anyone to know about its indiscriminate snooping, but when a whistleblower exposed it in 2001, the NSA didn’t stop that activity as per Schmidt’s advice. Rather, it struggled to justify its mission, and Obama’s director of national intelligence eventually lied under oath to Congress about it.
Scheer is having none of it. “For democracy,” he claims in the book’s first sentence, “privacy is the ball game.” Without the liberties guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments, both of which assume the importance of personal sovereignty, the American experiment is a hollow exercise. In contrast, the new surveillance state assumes that citizens “are all potential enemies of the government.” That assumption, in turn, has produced a bipartisan crusade “to turn the war on terror into a war on the public’s right to know.” To support his claim, Scheer devotes three chapters to the importance of whistleblowers — and to the rough treatment they typically endure. He also notes that the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, which fails to distinguish them from genuine spies, than all previous administrations combined. Along the way, Scheer identifies several unlikely heroes, including Chief Justice John Roberts, whose “defense of privacy in the age of the Internet set as clear a standard on the subject as the nation has ever enjoyed through its judicial system.”
Although the underlying issues in Scheer’s book are far from new, technology has supercharged their significance. “No government has been more far-reaching and effective in invading the private space of the individual than our own,” Scheer concludes. Moreover, everything we have learned about that invasion “resulted not from the ordinary checks and balances of our political system but, rather, from the all-too-rare example set by a few brave truth tellers risking imprisonment or worse.” Though Scheer doesn’t say so, his point also reflects the limits of traditional journalism. Many Americans assume that news organizations will detect and report government misconduct. But even in its glory days, The Washington Post needed a whistleblower to uncover the Watergate story, and today’s news organizations are shedding jobs at an alarming rate, in part because the digital revolution has decimated their business model.
Scheer directs his argument to general readers, not to constitutional scholars or policymakers. A portion of this audience may regard privacy as obsolete, and some notable liberals consider Edward Snowden a cowardly traitor. Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor and columnist at The Nation, taunted Snowden on MSNBC in 2013, presumably in an effort to defend the Obama administration from its critics. Under such conditions, one wonders how we will address, much less solve, the systemic problems Scheer identifies. But by raising them so forcefully, he continues to perform the important work he began five decades ago.
Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo and teaches at San Francisco State University. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. His new book is No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones.
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