Why MSNBC Defends NSA Surveillance

President Obama seems more willing to alienate his base of young supporters who object to the growing Surveillance State than to offend the national security apparatchiks who run it. But Obama’s crackdown on leakers also has found apologists among MSNBC’s “liberal” talkers, as Jeff Cohen reports.

By Jeff Cohen

I was a young person when I first heard the quip: “How do you know when the President is lying? His lips are moving.” At the time, President Richard Nixon was expanding the war in Vietnam to other countries and deploying the White House “plumbers” to commit crimes against antiwar leakers.

Forty years have passed. Sadly, these days, often when I see President Barack Obama moving his lips, I assume he’s lying. Like Nixon, our current president is prolonging an endless, borderless and counter-productive war (“on terror”) and waging a parallel war against “national security” leakers that makes the plumbers’ burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office look almost quaint.

Radio and TV host Ed Schultz.

The World War I vintage Espionage Act, originally used to imprison socialists for making antiwar speeches, has been used by the administration against whistleblowers with a vengeance unprecedented in history: eight leakers have been charged with Espionage under Obama, compared to three under all previous presidents.

The Obama administration has prosecuted not a single CIA torturer, but has imprisoned a CIA officer who talked about torture with a journalist. National Security Agency official Thomas Drake, who was unable to get abuses fixed internally, now has a criminal record for communicating with a reporter years ago about sweeping domestic surveillance.

So there I was watching Obama’s lips move about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden at a June 27 press conference. Saying he wouldn’t be “scrambling military jets to go after a 29-year-old hacker,” Obama added that he would not “start wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited.” I didn’t believe a word of it.

Given Obama’s war on whistleblowers and journalists who utilize them, and given the Army’s abusive treatment of military whistleblower Bradley Manning (apparently aimed at getting him to implicate WikiLeaks), it’s inconceivable that Obama was truly blasé about Snowden. To deter future whistleblowers, Snowden would have to be caught and made an example of – and probably mistreated (like Manning, in hopes of getting him to turn against WikiLeaks and even journalist Glenn Greenwald).

As his lips were moving, Obama knew well that he would go to extreme lengths to prevent this articulate young man from securing asylum in some Latin American country, where he could continue to inform the world’s media about the Surveillance State that has blossomed alongside the Warfare State under the Bush and Obama administrations.

That Obama wasn’t truthful became clear when the U.S. campaign of “wheeling and dealing” led to possible asylum countries retreating in fear one after another (Vice President Biden was deployed to pressure Ecuador’s president by phone). And even clearer with last week’s outrageous, international law-breaking that effectively forced down the presidential plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales.

And if Obama eventually does scramble jets to force down a plane with Snowden on board, the commander-in-chief will be applauded for taking bold and decisive action by mainstream TV talking heads, “national security” experts and the opposition he seems most intent on pleasing: conservatives. Criticism from civil libertarian and peace voices (or unions and environmentalists, for that matter) has rarely daunted Obama.

The bipartisan consensus in support of our bloated Military/Surveillance State – which so undermines our society as a whole – is reflected in Congress and both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as mainstream media.

When it comes to issues of U.S. militarism and spying, the allegedly “progressive” MSNBC often seems closer to the “official network of the Obama White House” than anything resembling an independent channel. With a few exceptions (especially Chris Hayes), MSNBC has usually reacted to expanded militarism and surveillance by downplaying the abuses or defending them.

Had John McCain or Mitt Romney defeated Obama and implemented the exact same policies, treating whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden as foreign espionage agents, one would expect MSNBC hosts to be loudly denouncing the Republican abuses of authority.

But with Obama in power, a number of MSNBC talking heads have reacted to the Snowden disclosures like Fox News hosts did when they were in hysterical damage control mode for Bush – complete with ridiculously fact-free claims and national chauvinism that we’ve long come to expect from the “fair & balanced” channel.

As Snowden arrived in Russia from Hong Kong, MSNBC host Ed Schultz blustered on about Snowden as a “punk” and “coward.” Railing about the “security of the country” in tones Sean Hannity would approve of, Schultz questioned Snowden’s patriotism and credibility, asking: “If the United States of America is doing something so egregiously wrong in its surveillance program, how come he’s the only one speaking up?”

In Bill O’Reilly-like blissful ignorance, Schultz seemed unaware of the three NSA whistleblowers who’d loudly spoken up way earlier than Snowden – and gathered for an illuminating USA Today interview a week before his tirade.

I watched one MSNBC host function as an auxiliary prosecutor in Obama’s Justice Department, going after Snowden – while trying to link WikiLeaks and journalist Glenn Greenwald to criminal flight.

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry has been condemning Snowden by contrasting him with civil disobedients who “love their country” and submit to arrest – while Snowden just wants to “save his own skin.” She proclaimed: “This is different. This is dangerous to our nation.”

Should we similarly dismiss Dan Ellsberg, who leaked the top secret Pentagon Papers to a dozen newspapers in 1971 by going on the lam from the FBI. Or Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” who saved his own skin by hiding his identity for 30 years after leaking secrets that helped crash the Nixon presidency? [See, for instance, Ellsberg’s op-ed in The Washington Post, “Snowden Made the Right Call When He Fled the US”]

In a bizarre monologue attacking Snowden (who’s risked plenty, in my view), Harris-Perry hailed those who engage in civil disobedience for being willing “to risk your own freedom, your own body in order to bring attention to something that needs to be known. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested, attacked, smeared. Nelson Mandela went to prison for 27 years.” (My emphasis.)

Nelson Mandela? He wasn’t a civil disobedient who gave himself up. He was a fugitive, fleeing the apartheid police. He was on the lam domestically, like Snowden is now internationally. And some reports indicate that South African authorities were able to nab Mandela thanks to the U.S. CIA (one of the agencies now working to apprehend Snowden).

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has also disappointed. After doing a typically thorough presentation on the force-down of President’s Morales’s plane, she ended her report by expressing displeasure only that Washington had apparently gotten allies to go out on the limb “for nothing.” Her objection to the harassment seemed to be: it hadn’t succeeded. I didn’t hear opposition to the action had Snowden actually been on board and apprehended.

The Snowden/NSA story proves once again that – especially on so-called “national security” issues – we need strong, independent media not enmeshed with the corporate/political power structure and not allied with one of the two corporate parties.

We can’t count on MSNBC to heed the lesson taught by legendary independent journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone, after years reporting from Washington: “All governments lie and nothing they say should be believed.”

Jeff Cohen was an MSNBC pundit and senior producer in 2002-3 until being terminated for political reasons, along with Phil Donahue, on the eve of the Iraq invasion. He is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. He cofounded the online action group RootsAction.org, which has petitioned for Snowden.

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28 comments on “Why MSNBC Defends NSA Surveillance

  1. Hillary on said:

    “we need strong, independent media not enmeshed with the corporate/political power structure and not allied with one of the two corporate parties.”
    .
    And we should keep looking upwards to see those pigs flying high in the sky .

  2. charles sereno on said:

    “In a bizarre monologue attacking Snowden (who’s risked plenty, in my view), Harris-Perry hailed those who engage in civil disobedience for being willing “to risk your own freedom, your own body in order to bring attention to something that needs to be known…”"
    I’m wondering how Melissa Harris-Perry thinks Snowden DIDN’T risk his freedom and his own body. Bizarre indeed, even for a pundit.

    • gregorylkruse on said:

      I haven’t trusted Harris-Perry since she got therapy for the removal of her lisp.

  3. Suzanne Benning on said:

    Thank you Jeff Cohen. My sentiments exactly! MSNBC and Rachel have disappointed me on so many issues but at least we still have the internet and honest, courageous
    reporters like you to speak the truth.

  4. Frances in California on said:

    Harris-Perry’s off my “Good Guy” list, too. Something about MSNBC totally captures otherwise good people. They slumber on.

  5. Wallace on said:

    MSNBC is just another corporate shill acting like they are journalists. Obama’s policies are just wrong! The fact that the so-called progressive network has done little, if anything to call out this President’s wrong doing is not really surprising, just disappointing. Kudos to you Jeff for pointing this out.

  6. gregorylkruse on said:

    Remember when Keith Olbermann’s Countdown was on MSNBC and he brought Maddow onboard? Those were the days, now long gone. I knew the end was near when Maddow, when told by Bill Moyers on her show, that there are some things she was forbidden to talk about, and she denied it. She will either rebel and quit/get fired, or turn into a female David Gregory. Any bets? I’m a financial supporter of FAIR, and I have as much respect for Jeff Cohen as I do for Robert Parry.

  7. Chuck Zlatkin on said:

    MSNBC is Fox News for for the left of center.

    • DHFabian on said:

      No, you don’t find a whole lot of left ideas expressed on MSNBC. The last I saw, there was the issue of marriage equality,… um… yah. Based on what I saw of both stations, no, MSNBC and Fox are different. Fox rather blatantly misinforms viewers, while MSNBC seems to now present only those facts that the Dem Party leadership wants presented.

      • AnneC on said:

        I still enjoy MSNBC because they have great links to recipes sometimes and to funny pet photos. There was a cute picture of a german shepherd puppy beating the heat by curling up for a bath in a toilet.

  8. I suggest that those of us who have ever held a security clearance, disavow that now and spill the beans. Perhaps the small minority of courageous folks could make a real difference in letting the truth be told, even though only a few thousand could take the challenge now. We don’t need a central source to spread our secrets. We should find as many sources as possible. NSA would have to hire tens of thousands of readers to try to get us all. If you are a writer, write a true short story and send it with a suspicious title to an online magazine. At least you’ll get some extra readers.

  9. Lisa Hastings on said:

    One thing that all the “Snowden should have stayed” folks never mentioned is
    that in pre-9/11 America, or at least before the 1970′s, people, even real spies and whistleblowers, could still get a fair trial in America, and those arrested for being noble at least had a chance to say publically and in court what they did and why. But now, it’s not just a case of getting a “fair” trail—people are no longer guaranteed to have any trial. In America today, Snowden could have been captured and held forever in secret detention, with who knows what happening to him under unknown conditions, and without a lawyer.
    The truth is, America is no longer a Constitutional democracy where individuals have guaranteed liberties. The government has guaranteed powers, but people have no guaranteed liberties. It’s not that Snowden or others like him are cowards, it’s that they’re not suicidal that they leave.

    • DHFabian on said:

      Until the 1980s.By the mid-1970s, there was a general sense of malaise, being “stuck in a rut” that would only get deeper. Reagan successfully pulled the country to the right, although weirdly, much of what he wrote/said now sounds so liberal compared to the post-Clinton “New Democrats.” As for “individual liberties” — that is determined (with very rare exception) by your economic status/class. I think the US finally dropped that nonsense about being the world’s protector of human rights.

  10. Michael R. on said:

    The attitudes towards Snowden expressed by Maddow and some of her MSNBC colleagues (the exception being the super-prog wonk Chris Hayes, and sometimes Lawrence O’Donnell) is disappointing, to say the least. But then, I look at the policies of Bush continued (or even expanded) by Obama (such as “renditioning”) and I can see that my disappointment with MSNBC is merely a continuation…Obama’s policy towards whistle-blowers, secret-leakers and journalistic investigators (e.g., via FOIA requests) is more than disappointing…it’s disquieting, it’s troubling. Something happens to a politician of professed principles when he/she assumes the reigns of power — they become the emissary of the Authoritative State. It is forced upon them. Thus, only people can protect democratic principles. The challenge is that those in power have and use many means to keep people with common interests opposed to each other (partisan politics being the most obvious means)…fighting each other, when the real threat is the monstrous over-reach of an authoritarian state. Though I am a liberal-progressive and proud of it, I sometimes wonder if the the Right wing is (despite its native paranoia, privilege, and prejudice) is right about big government (in general)…I just wish the Right could see beyond its own self-interest (god, goods and guns) and apply this concern to all matters political and governmental. Maybe somewhere down the road,t he two camps will find common ground…I can already here the powers that be trembling in their boots.

    • AnneC on said:

      I have been reading comment sections in libertarian conservative sources. They recognize the dangers of state and corporate invasion of privacy. They also realize the dangers of the Obama drone policy. Although I do not agree with Rand Paul on some issues that are very important to me, he has had the guts to oppose the CIA. It is one thing for the military to used drones against people who are shooting at our soldiers. It is something frighteningly different for the CIA to be free to use them anywhere in the world. When working-class conservatives see how much Guantanamo is costing us they also will realize that it is much better to use our normal court system to try terrorists. Discussing the morality of torture with fans of Michelle Bachman is a waste of breath. It would be much more useful to point out that torture is not an effective way to obtain truthful information. In the middle ages torture was a great way to produce pornographic confessions from alleged witches. Since the witches were presumed guilty facts were not really important. Conservative relatives of the national guard kids who were repeatedly deployed to Iraq have also noticed that there were not weapons of mass destruction there. We the people need to start talking to each other and leave the mud slinging to our “superiors”.

  11. Michael R. on said:

    The attitudes towards Snowden expressed by Maddow and some of her MSNBC colleagues (the exception being the super-prog wonk Chris Hayes, and sometimes Lawrence O’Donnell) is disappointing, to say the least. But then, I look at the policies of Bush continued (or even expanded) by Obama (such as “renditioning”) and I can see that my disappointment with MSNBC is merely a continuation…Obama’s policy towards whistle-blowers, secret-leakers and journalistic investigators (e.g., via FOIA requests) is more than disappointing…it’s disquieting, it’s troubling. Something happens to a politician of professed principles when he/she assumes the reigns of power — they become the emissary of the Authoritative State. It is forced upon them. Thus, only people can protect democratic principles. The challenge is that those in power have and use many means to keep people with common interests opposed to each other (partisan politics being the most obvious means)…fighting each other, when the real threat is the monstrous over-reach of an authoritarian state. Though I am a liberal-progressive and proud of it, I sometimes wonder if the the Right wing (despite its native paranoia, privilege, and prejudice) is right about big government (in general)…I just wish the Right could see beyond its own self-interest (god, goods and guns) and apply this concern to all matters political and governmental. Maybe somewhere down the road, the two camps will find common ground…I can already hear the powers that be trembling in their boots.

  12. Michael R. on said:

    The attitudes towards Snowden expressed by Maddow and some of her MSNBC colleagues (the exception being the super-prog wonk Chris Hayes, and sometimes Lawrence O’Donnell) is disappointing, to say the least. But then, I look at the policies of Bush continued (or even expanded) by Obama (such as “renditioning”) and I can see that my disappointment with MSNBC is merely a continuation…Obama’s policy towards whistle-blowers, secret-leakers and journalistic investigators (e.g., FOIA requests, AP reporters) is more than disappointing…it’s disquieting, it’s troubling. Something happens to a politician of professed principles when he/she assumes the reigns of power — they become the emissary of the Authoritarian State. It is forced upon them. Thus, only uncompromised people (the ordinary citizens of our nation) can protect democratic principles. The challenge is that those in power have and use many means to keep people with common interests opposed to each other (partisan politics being the most obvious means)…and fighting each other, when the real threat is the monstrous over-reach of an authoritarian state. Though I am a liberal-progressive and proud of it, I sometimes wonder if the the Right wing (despite its native paranoia, privilege, and prejudice) is right about big government (in general)…I just wish the Right could see beyond its own self-interest (god, goods and guns) and apply this concern to all matters political and governmental. Maybe somewhere down the road, the two camps will find common ground…I can already hear the powers that be trembling in their boots.

  13. Wayne Dickson on said:

    I think MSNBC’s pissing on Snowden and their reluctance even to say the name “Bradley Manning” are linked.

    One night Maddow was talking with David Corn and Micnael Isikoff about their just released book. Context made it clear that Isikoff was about to mention Manning, but he visibly caught himself and sucked the speech bubble back in before it had fully emerged. Direct orders from upstairs, or self-censorship based on anticipation of consequences? Amounts to the same thing.

    Just a few minutes ago Lawrence O’Donnell was going on about how the more we hear from and learn about Snowden, the uglier he looks. His guest (Ari Melber, as I recall) tried to get him to focus also on the evil of the NSA, but O’Donnell insisted on ignoring that and continuing to obsess about Snowden.

    MSNBC can be entertaining, but – for whatever reason – it can’t be relied on for courage or perspective.

  14. DHFabian on said:

    I haven’t watched MSNBC in quite a long time. Ed Schultz did actually present progressive ideas (and guests) prior to his temporary suspension from MSNBC some time ago. He learned his lesson. I’m a bit disappointed,if not surprised, to read that Lawrence O’Donnell apparently found it expedient to condemn Snowden. Like Molly Ivins said, “You gotta dance with them that brung ya,” and good-paying jobs are hard to come by.

  15. Anon on said:

    This spying has been going on for years. Presidents have very little control over it. The Republican court appointed by John Roberts does. This is all about teabagger Snowden and Greenwald doing what ever they can to smear the President. Us older folks have known all this was going on for years. It just got worse under Bush. With 11 Republican Judges on the Fisa court the President has not much power over it. God forbid what it would be like under another Republican President. We need more liberal judges confirmed. Wake up liberals, your anger is directed toward the wrong people. Republicans are running this country, the President has little power over these matters. Leaking America’s secrets to other countries is not a heroic thing. This has only been orchestrated to smear the president and get teabaggers elected in 2014 and 2016 elections. Don’t be so naive for God’s sake.

    • S Koopmans on said:

      Thanks, Anon. This type of surveillance has gone on for decades. Go back and study J. Edgar Hoover’s techniques. And, I was told many, many years ago by early computer programmers that nothing on the Internet is private. Also, Rachel Maddow is the only one I have heard who pointed out the agency Bush started, headed by John Negroponte, that instigated this same type of surveillance. Knowing a bit of history will show that none of this is new.

  16. F. G. Sanford on said:

    It would have been about 2007 when I listened to Ed Schultz on a radio show for the last time. Somebody mentioned Viagra, and as if to assert his man-creds, Ed immediately insisted, “Oh, no, no, no my friend, my wife and I still do it the natural way”. I immediately concluded that this gasbag is just ass big a hypocrite as Rush Limbaugh. Probably uses more Viagra, too.

    • Eileen Siedman on said:

      Remember that MSNBC is corporate NBC. Want to stay employed? Follow the corporate dictates. So sad. . . We need a truly liberal network. In my lifetime?

  17. jason zenith on said:

    NSA Whistle-Blower Edward Snowden: Hero Or Villain

    I define a hero as someone who willingly puts themselves at significant risk for the sake of specific other people or for the greater good. I think that is the most succinct expression of the fundamental meaning of the word. Probably the Snowden-haters would agree with that definition of “hero.”

    It cannot be debated that Snowden put himself, consciously, at risk. Thus the only thing that is arguable at all here is whether what Snowden did was for “the greater good.”

    For anyone who is pro-human, there really is no argument that it was. Human beings are obviously entitled to live their lives free of the malevolent monitoring of a murderous empire, or indeed of any state. Human beings are entitled to live their lives, which to live decency requires personal privacy. The NSA and USA are ushering in the nightmare world George Orwell envisioned in 1984. In that world, an all-powerful state monitors every action of its subjects down to the minutest detail, making resistance to its oppression impossible and imposing compulsory enthusiastic support for its wars.

    Those wedded to the U.S. power structure are operating under a different value system. From their perspective, Snowden is loathsome and evil because his actions, by exposing their crimes, threaten to undermine their power by possibly sparking resistance.

    Thus the fundamental conflict here is between those two value systems- the human value system, vs. the power value system.

    These excerpts are from my essay at jasonzenith.blogspot.com

  18. Rowena Millis on said:

    Jeff Cohen;
    Thank you for your article bringing to light what ANY Obama needs to realize: MSNBC is an arm of the Obama Administration.
    Every chance I get on Huffington Post, the effort is to denounce the MSNBC shows like Maddow, Perry, Schultz, etc.
    I voted for Obama in 2008, being a livelong Dem. But in watching who he filled with cabinet posts and his purported “caving in” to the Repubs. it soon became very evident he was/is a corporate-owned smooth-talking politician.
    In 2012, I voted for Jill Stein, partly as a protest vote against O and Romney. Ditto will be for Hillary Clinton, or any mainstream candidates on either side of the political aisle.

  19. Paul G. on said:

    That reference to the CIA setting Mandela up was priceles; a low mark for an already despicable organization in a increasingly despicable Federal Government.

  20. Speed on said:

    “…our Government is the CIA and the Pentagon, with Congress reduced to a debating society… We won’t build Dachaus and Auschwitzes; the clever manipulation of the mass media is creating a concentration camp of the mind that promises to be far more effective in keeping the populace in line … I’ve learned enough about the machinations of the CIA in the past year to know that this is no longer the dream world America I once believed in … Huey Long once said, “Fascism will come to America in the name of anti-fascism.” I’m afraid, based on my own experience, that fascism will come to America in the name of national security.” – New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, 1967