By PETER CASOLINO
Political firebrand Ralph Nader tore into the Obama administration’s claims of transparency Tuesday at Yale University, saying government spying and unchecked executive authority leaves the U.S. teetering on the verge of being a police state.
Joined by a trio of legal activists, Nader accused the White House of unbridled secrecy, while Congress, lawyers and the press do nothing.
Without civic freedom, “we set the country on the road to tyranny and collapse,” said Nader, during a panel titled, “Showdown for Democracy: Obama’s Prosecution of Whistleblowers, Lawyers and the National Security State.”
Nader, 80, was born in Winsted and has run for president multiple times. He is a leading figure in the history of the consumer rights movement, an environmental activist and a vocal critic of U.S. campaign finance laws.
The Yale Law School event was sponsored by the American Constitution Society, Debating Taboos Collective, Global Justice Program and Shake ’Em Up Yale Law School.
From drone warfare to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, the panel painted a dire picture of the current national security apparatus.
“We have, maybe, 30 years,” said former Reagan administration official Bruce Fein. “It’s our job to save the country from destruction.”
Fein noted that during the Watergate years of the 1970s, the Justice Department stood up to Richard Nixon; no such backbone exists today, Fein said. He despaired that there is no moral outrage when U.S. predator drones kill civilians, or when the government collects massive amounts of data on American citizens.
“The silence is incredibly depressing,” Fein said. “Is that the spirit of Valley Forge? Is that the spirit of 1776?”
Jesselyn Radack, who is counsel for Snowden and a former Justice Department official, called the extensive crackdown on whistleblowers “a back-door war against journalists.”
She said “hysteria” over national security never went away after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and that in many cases it is only the whistleblowers who are prosecuted after government misdeeds are brought to light. She also predicted that Snowden will be judged favorably by history.
“Leaking information is not a crime in this country,” Radack said. “You have a First Amendment right to go to the press.”
Beyond that, she said, comprehensive sweeps of personal data by the government is not an effective way to combat terrorism. “Instead of finding the needle in the haystack, we’re making the haystack bigger,” she said.
Edgar Cahn, a founder of Antioch Law School, told law students at the event that they can be catalysts and agents of change in important national issues. But first, he explained, they must understand the need for justice.
“I don’t know of a lawyer who can afford a lawyer,” Cahn said. “What does that say about our system of justice?”
Nader called America’s law students “the conscience of the legal system.”
But he warned that law students today face secretive government tactics more dangerous than the methods of the 1950s McCarthy era.
“That was a cakewalk compared to what’s going on today,” Nader said.