In May of this year, Barack Obama gave a speech effectively declaring the end of the "War on Terror." Like many people, I was pleased. The War on Terror, which embodies the idea that terrorism is such an existential threat that all other threats the United States has faced pale before it and therefore we had permission abandon every moral standard we ever held to and wage a global military campaign that never ends, has been a poison coursing through our national bloodstream. Its effects can be seen in things that don't on their surface seem to have almost anything to do with terrorism. And despite Obama's speech, it doesn't seem like much has changed.
It was only a few weeks after that speech that Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance began to come out, and it wasn't as though President Obama said, "You know what? This just shows how things have gotten out of hand. We're going to be dialing this stuff back." He defended every bit of it as necessary and proper. Why do we need this positively gargantuan apparatus of surveillance? The answer is always terrorism. Oh, we're using it to spy on state actors too—both enemies and friends—but it's harder to argue that Chinese officials or the president of Brazil want to kill your children, so when challenged, the justification inevitably turns back to terrorism.
The War on Terror perspective, where the most extreme overreactions become the ordinary way of doing business, has infected all kinds of government actions. I point you to this story in yesterday's New York Times by David Carr, which on first glance doesn't look like it's about the WoT, but I think in some ways it is. It's about Barrett Brown, a journalist who has reported on the activities of Anonymous, the internet hacking group. If prosecutors have their way, Brown will spend the rest of his life in prison because he posted a link. I kid you not:
From all accounts, including his own, Mr. Brown, now 32, is a real piece of work. He was known to call some of his subjects on the phone and harass them. He has been public about his struggles with heroin and tends to see conspiracies everywhere he turns. Oh, and he also threatened an F.B.I. agent and his family by name, on a video, and put it on YouTube, so there's that.
But that's not the primary reason Mr. Brown is facing the rest of his life in prison. In 2010, he formed an online collective named Project PM with a mission of investigating documents unearthed by Anonymous and others. If Anonymous and groups like it were the wrecking crew, Mr. Brown and his allies were the people who assembled the pieces of the rubble into meaningful insights...
In December 2011, approximately five million e-mails from Stratfor Global Intelligence, an intelligence contractor, were hacked by Anonymous and posted on WikiLeaks. The files contained revelations about close and perhaps inappropriate ties between government security agencies and private contractors. In a chat room for Project PM, Mr. Brown posted a link to it.
Among the millions of Stratfor files were data containing credit cards and security codes, part of the vast trove of internal company documents. The credit card data was of no interest or use to Mr. Brown, but it was of great interest to the government. In December 2012 he was charged with 12 counts related to identity theft. Over all he faces 17 charges—including three related to the purported threat of the F.B.I. officer and two obstruction of justice counts—that carry a possible sentence of 105 years, and he awaits trial in a jail in Mansfield, Tex.
According to one of the indictments, by linking to the files, Mr. Brown "provided access to data stolen from company Stratfor Global Intelligence to include in excess of 5,000 credit card account numbers, the card holders' identification information, and the authentication features for the credit cards."
Yes, that's right. He's facing 12 counts of identity theft and a possible jail sentence of over a century because he published a link to a site on the Internet. And I'm just curious: Why does Stratfor, an intelligence contractor whose business seems to be doing analysis of global events to help government and corporate clients make decisions, have credit-card information for thousands of people? I guess there's something I'm missing here.
So while the Obama administration is coming down hard on leakers, this prosecutor is doing the same to linkers. It's hard not to think of the parallels between this case and that of Internet entrepreneur and activist Aaron Swartz, who downloaded a cache of academic journal articles and was treated by federal prosecutors as though he had murdered a busload of schoolchildren. Facing those relentless prosecutors and a possible sentence of 50 years in prison for things like wire fraud, Swarz committed suicide.
This isn't the only ongoing "war" in which the invocation of the word becomes the excuse for previously unimaginable sacrifices of privacy and law-enforcement agencies coming to believe they can do anything they like. In the name of the War on Drugs, millions of Americans are still turning over their bodily fluids to employers, while police and prosecutors literally steal innocent people's money, cars, and anything else they can get their hands on, all with the Supreme Court's blessing. How can they do that? Well it's a war, isn't it? And in case you don't recall, the Obama administration said it was going to end that war, too.
Maybe Barack Obama is sincere about his desire to move past the War on Terror. We don't have an official torture program like we did during the Bush years, so that's something. But the institutional apparatus of the war is still there, and we now know that it's bigger than we could have imagined. Had Edward Snowden not revealed what he did, Obama would have been happy to keep it all secret. Meanwhile, prosecutors see "cyberthreats" in a journalist posting a link, and bring every ounce of their considerable power to bear. The mindset hasn't changed, and the war goes on.