Privacy SOS

The silent guest at the State of the Union

Last night, President Obama book ended his State of the Union address by praising the US military. The beginning of the speech:

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban's momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

The end of the speech:

Which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation, leaving no one behind.

The defense industrial complex was likely thrilled. Americans can unite in war, the message went. 

Obama's speech predictably described his economic outlook and plans for reasserting US dominance in the global marketplace. It addressed education, war, the mortgage crisis, jobs, manufacturing, immigration, energy, infrastructure, deficit reduction, institutional reform in Washington, popular cynicism with the government, and veterans issues, among others.

But there was a major, symbolically resonant hole in the speech. Obama only said the word 'liberty' once, in reference to the revolutions of North Africa. He said 'freedom' once, but in the context of the US military, not civil liberties. He did not say the word 'transparency,' and he said 'accountable' twice, both in the context of the financial crisis. 

The out of control, civil liberties destroying federal 'intelligence' and surveillance bureaucracy got a pass. Listening to Obama's speech last night, you wouldn't know that the billions of dollars a year surveillance industrial complex exists, or that it is intimately integrated with the defense industrial complex through private corporations like Booz Allen, which profit massively off of both. The speech likewise didn't mention that the US system provides a constitution with robust liberties that should keep such a system at bay.

The constitutional law scholar in chief made no mention of those rights we hold most dear. In a year dominated by vigorous social movements in the United States, he did not even pay lip service to freedom of expression at home. On the other hand, nor did he brag about any of his administration's attacks on our core rights.

He made no mention of his FBI's investigations of antiwar activists in the Midwest, or of the DOJ's numerous prosecutions of young Muslim men on terrorism charges only possible because the FBI set them up.

Obama and his political advisors didn't see fit to describe the FBI's massive biometrics gathering scheme, or Immigration Customs Enforcement's contributions to said program. They did not brag about the historic levels of secretive government spending dedicated towards spying on ordinary US Americans. They did not describe the sixteen federal agencies that receive hundreds of millions or billions of taxpayer dollars every year towards this endeavor, completely absent public debate.

Yesterday on this blog, we addressed Obama's miserable civil liberties record, describing his attacks on whistleblowers and his war on transparency and accountability at the highest levels of government. The surveillance state that underlies these abuses is the subject of most of what we do here at Privacy Matters.

Obama did not say one word last night about this massive government bureaucracy, because the surveillance state can only succeed when it operates in the shadows. That's why it is up to us, ordinary citizens and muckraking journalists, activists and Twitter leaders alike, to shout and investigate and protest and agitate. We must expose the underbelly of the US system, the secretive monitoring and data gathering and tracking, before it is too late.

The President will not discuss these issues in the light of day, in part because he doesn't have to: the expansion of the surveillance state has become a bipartisan project.

Obama made one thing clear by avoiding the issue last night: we are our only hope if we want a vigorous defense of liberty and core political rights. Last night's speech shows us that no President, Democrat or Republican, will willingly give up the many powers the office has usurped. 

Like the revolutionaries who are celebrating one year into their fight for the rule of law in Egypt, we are our best shot. If we want the rule of law restored at home, we must fight for it.

Don't let the political class silence us, even by omission. Don't be silenced by the fear campaigns. 

As renowned internet freedom fighter and high-profile target of government surveillance Jacob Appelbaum has said, courage is contagious. The first step is breaking the silence about surveillance.

Pass it on.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.