U.S. Credibility Takes Another Hit

By Fulton T. Armstrong

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Foter.com / CC BY

The domestic spying programs under the Bush and Obama Administrations further erode U.S. moral leadership in the hemisphere and probably beyond.  At crucial junctures since President Jimmy Carter made human rights a pillar of policy in Latin America, U.S. moral authority has been decisive in persuading regimes on the right and the left to open the way for pluralism and democracy.  Lecturing governments and militaries on the need to eschew torture, domestic spying, and other abuses, U.S. diplomats and politicians could have been charged with arrogance, but on these specific aspects of the U.S. government’s treatment of its own people, not serious hypocrisy. The U. S. had its racial and economic injustices, but trends were positive, and the country stood for the rule of law, skepticism of State Security officials’ penchant to use information for power, and a pretty solid respect for due process. Even before Carter, the Watergate scandal – and resulting resignation of the President and overhaul of the intelligence agencies – was a clarion signal that agencies created to monitor foreign affairs must keep their focus far off U.S. shores.

Latin American media have carried primarily factual stories revealing the “PRISM” program, which collects data from hundreds of millions of e-mails and other electronic communications each day and stores it for exploitation by targeters (now called “analysts”) on the lookout for alleged potential terrorists, based on secret profiling.  Some papers have reported that Director for National Intelligence Clapper lied to the U.S. Congress without batting an eyelash when asked directly if such activities were ongoing.  Coming after reports in recent years of the use of torture (and the impunity granted to the perpetrators), the so-called “extraordinary renditions” (and the cases in which kidnap victims were innocent), the use of “black prisons” (in which security services in new democracies were encouraged to circumvent their elected officials),drone attacks (even against U.S. citizens), and the continued detention of prisoners without trial at Guantanamo (giving human rights violations in Cuba a new meaning) have all been noted throughout Latin America.  PRISM may no longer be considered newsworthy.

The fact that British and American newspapers eventually brought the domestic spying programs to light may hearten some in Latin America, as evidence that an essential element of democracy – a probing press –shows signs of life despite reports of Justice Department harassment of the Associated Press and other media.  But sentient Latin Americans know the implications of PRISM – and what enterprising State Security “analysts” can do with years of data about even the most mundane aspects of potential targets’ lives.  The Obama Administration’s defense of PRISM as necessary to defend against supposed terrorists doesn’t sell well in a region that knows how information never sits unused.  The Bush Administration gave the Medal of Freedom to Colombian President Uribe, who deployed his secret intelligence agency to harass opponents and allowed his military to disappear thousands of youths.  The Obama Administration’s lectures to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador on the need to give more space to opponents – however warranted – ring sort of hollow when, in Latin Americans’ minds, it has nurtured its own Frankenstein state-security apparatus that lacks credible checks and balances.  Washington can argue that U.S. moral authority doesn’t matter, and that the “terrorist threat” it faces calls for extraordinary measures, but it will be a long time before an American statesman can wag his finger at a Latin American counterpart for doing the same thing.