Mickey Z. -- World News Trust
June 29, 2013
“There will come a time when it isn't 'They're spying on me through my phone' anymore. Eventually, it will be 'My phone is spying on me.'”
- Philip K. Dick
When the U.S. government charged Edward Snowden with three felonies, two of those charges fell under the auspices of a 1917 statute called the Espionage Act.
“Prior to Barack Obama's inauguration,” writes Glenn Greenwald, “there were a grand total of three prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act. That's because the statute is so broad that even the U.S. government has largely refrained from using it. But during the Obama presidency, there are now seven such prosecutions: more than double the number under all prior U.S. presidents combined.”
“The Obama administration has been quite hypocritical about its promises of openness, transparency and accountability,” says Jesselyn Radack, the director for national security and human rights at the Government Accountability Project. “All presidents hate leaks, but pursuing whistle-blowers as spies is heavy-handed and beyond the scope of the law.”
This once-obscure legal salvo has its roots in what has been called “perhaps the most effective job of large-scale war propaganda the world has ever witnessed”: the Committee on Public Information. Run by veteran newspaperman George Creel (with help from others, like Edward Bernays), the campaign used all available forms of media to promote the noble purpose behind World War I: To keep the world safe for democracy.
“Conformity will be the only virtue”
At the start of WWI, most Americans were notoriously wary of any hint of the United States entering the bloody conflict. As a result, men like Creel and Bernays were called upon to change some minds with some good old-fashioned propaganda and persuasion.
The Creel Committee (as it came to be known) was the first government agency for outright propaganda in U.S. history; it published 75 million books and pamphlets, had 250 paid employees, and mobilized 75,000 volunteer speakers known as “four minute men,” who delivered their pro-war messages in churches, theaters, and other places of civic gatherings.
The idea, of course, was to give the war effort a positive spin. To do so, the nation had to be convinced that doing their part to support global military conflict on a scale never before seen was indeed a good idea.
“It is not merely an army that we must train and shape for war,” President Woodrow Wilson declared at the time, “it is an entire nation.”
The age of manipulated public opinion had begun in earnest…
Although Wilson won reelection in 1916 on a promise of peace, it wasn’t long before he severed diplomatic relations with Germany and proposed arming U.S. merchant ships -- even without congressional authority. Upon declaring war on Germany in April 1917, the president proclaimed, “conformity will be the only virtue and any man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty.”
In time, the masses got the message as demonstrated by these (and other) results:
Would you like some freedom fries with that?
“Insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny”
With the legislative ground made fertile by the Creel Committee, the aforementioned Espionage Act was passed in June 1917. It read in part: "Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than 20 years, or both."
This act cast a wide net and predictably, civil liberties were trampled. In Vermont, for example, a minister was sentenced to 15 years in prison for writing a pamphlet, distributed to five persons, in which he claimed that supporting the war was wrong for a Christian.
“The essence of (this) extremely broad, century-old law,” explains Greenwald,“is that one is guilty if one discloses classified information ‘with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation.’”
Today, however, even the typically acquiescent corporate media is having trouble staying lockstep. As the New York Times opines: “The Obama administration, which promised during its transition to power that it would enhance ‘whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers,’ has been more prone than any administration in history in trying to silence and prosecute federal workers.”
“Kinship with all living beings”
Prior to Snowden, perhaps the best-known target (albeit, not for leaking) of the act was Eugene V. Debs who, after visiting three fellow socialists in a prison in June 1918, spoke out across the street from the jail for two hours. He was arrested and found guilty, but before sentencing, Debs famously told the judge:
"Your honor, years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Eugene Debs remained in prison until 1921 and roughly 900 others also did time thanks to the Espionage Act.
While some of more controversial sections were repealed in 1921, the Espionage Act obviously remains on the books today and has been used against, for example, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel Ellsberg, Bradley Manning, and yes, Edward Snowden.
Here’s more from the usually obedient New York Times: “During a point in history when our government has been accused of sending prisoners to secret locations where they were said to have been tortured and the C.I.A. is conducting remote-controlled wars in far-flung places, it’s not a good time to treat the people who aid in the publication of critical information as spies.”
“The same people who are building a ubiquitous surveillance system to spy on everyone in the world, including their own citizens,” concludes Greenwald, “are now accusing the person who exposed it of ‘espionage.’”
Never forget, comrades: This is what we're up against.
Mickey Z. is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Darker Shade of Green. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on an obscure website called Facebook. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here.
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