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President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell speech, given 53 years ago this day, shook a nation still struggling to move past the horrors we witnessed in World War II. He warned of a new power that had risen up in the wake of that war -- the power of America's military industrial complex -- telling us in no uncertain terms that it holds the potential to destroy our democracy.
"We must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific, technological elite," Eisenhower said. "It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society."
It would seem that his speech is more prescient now than ever before. Please, take a few minutes to watch it in full:
President Barack Obama picked today to announce a series of pathetically meager reforms to the National Security Agency (NSA), America's embattled electronic spying apparatus that has seemingly permeated every layer of our technologically driven society. The White House told reporters that the date was not selected as a nod to Eisenhower. Coincidence, however, is a funny thing.
The NSA in its present state represents a marriage of military might and technological elitism. It is, in other words, exactly what Eisenhower warned us about 53 years ago, and the threat is poses to our democracy is grave indeed.
"The NSA is collecting enormous amounts of information," Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said in a prepared statement this week. "They know about the phone calls made by every person in this country, where they're calling, who they're calling and how long they're on the phone. Let us not forget that a mere 40 years ago we had a president of the United States who completely disregarded the law in an effort to destroy his political opponents. In my view, the information collected by the NSA has the potential to give an unscrupulous administration enormous power over elected officials."
Sanders has been a leading voice for NSA reform in the halls of Congress, and recently demanded to know if the agency was spying on elected officials. In a letter, NSA Director Keith Alexander denied that the agency is spying on Congress, but he added that communications data generated by our elected representatives likely does get swept up by their massive phone and Internet dragnet.
The NSA insists that their dragnet is only intended to be used for fighting terrorism, and does not identify specific communications or even the identity of those who are swept up in it. This claim has been shown to be false. As national security reporter Marcy Wheeler recently pointed out in a piece published by The Progressive, the NSA itself published a training manual which tells its analysts that merely looking at the so-called "metadata" the agency collects can reveal the identity of their targets.
As such, not only can the NSA spy on elected officials, it can also create incredibly detailed dossiers on every single citizen of every modern country in the world. Its massive server farms vacuum up nearly everything on the Internet. Its sensors can peer within computers that are not even connected to the Internet. For a recent spy satellite launch that deployed tech which the NSA will most certainly make use of, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence selected as its mission logo an octopus with tentacles wrapping around the globe. "Nothing is beyond our reach," it boasts.
Knowing all of this, listening to Eisenhower's speech in our modern age is like hearing the words of a prophet. Here is the President whose Federal investments gave us highways and satellites, telling us that one day our military and technological elite will come to own our elected officials and eventually dominate us all.
"Down the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect," he said. "Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength."
What he described is nothing short of a road map to a more harmonious world, but that path is blocked, completely and irreversibly, by the very existence of the NSA. This agency, which overlooks the globe and peers across the horizon of human thought in search of national security threats, is now among the greatest threat to world peace.