Monday, June 10, 2013

From the Extremes to the Mean: The Case of Edward Snowden

Sometimes it’s not so easy to know which side to be on.

Today both Glenn Beck and Daniel Ellsberg are staunchly defending the actions of Edward Snowden, the man who exposed the NSA data-mining operation to the press. If you side with Beck you also must side with Ellsberg. 

More sensibly, Max Boot denounces Snowden as a traitor. Espionage by any rationale is still espionage:

But Snowden, like Bradley Manning (and, for that matter, like Robert Hannsen, Aldrich Ames, the Walker family and other high-level spies), is a homegrown traitor who managed to escape the tightest security. It is time to readjust the assumptions on which U.S. counter-intelligence operates–and time, too, to make the most strenuous efforts to move Snowden out of China and bring him to justice for the serious crimes he has committed.

Far from striking a blow for political liberty and freedom of expression, he is unwittingly helping the most illiberal individuals in the world–jihadist terrorists–to more effectively attack us.

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey offers a judicious explanation of the need for data mining:

Even zealots do not dispute that the Patriot Act, as amended, authorizes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that was established under FISA to grant permission to gain access to the information at issue here. As to intercepting the content of foreign communications, I think it is best put starkly: The Constitution and U.S. laws are not a treaty with the universe; they protect U.S. citizens. Foreign governments spy on us and our citizens. We spy on them and theirs. Welcome to the world.

Real damage was done last week by Edward Snowden, who on Sunday claimed credit for leaking the secrets he learned while working for NSA contractors. Every time we tell terrorists how we can detect them, we encourage them to find ways to avoid detection.

Alan Dershowitz believes that we should not limit ourselves to Snowden but should question the motives of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the story:

The initial revelation was made by a man named Glenn Greenwald, who wrote about them in the Guardian and who has been all over the media taking a victory lap. Greenwald is the personification of the paranoid streak in American politics. He is more of an ideologue than a reporter. He has long been an apologist for terrorism—a word he believes serves only as an excuse for violence and oppression by America and its allies. He has pushed false stories that his paper was forced to backpedal on, such as an AP report blaming the incendiary video “The Innocence of Islam” on an Israeli Jew living in California. He is Chomsky-like in his willingness to blame most of the world’s ills on the United States, Israel, the Obama Administration and liberals who do not buy into his radical worldview. 

Greenwald inhabits the same political extreme as Daniel Ellsberg. 

For his part Dershowitz recommends that we find a middle ground between the extreme positions. We cannot fight terrorism without taking all needed measures to protect ourselves and to defeat our enemy. Yet, we need to balance the need for security with our basic liberties. Clearly, it is a matter of national debate, not a decision to be made unilaterally by an aspiring martyr.

Dershowitz explains:

And reform of the current excesses of surveillance is indeed necessary. There is too much secrecy, too little accountability, too much classification, not enough information, too much speculation. This all feeds into the paranoid streak because we don’t know what we don’t know. For those who trust the government this informational lacunae is an excuse for inaction. For those who do not trust the government, it is an excuse for ranting and raving instead of legislating compromised reform.

It is important not to lump all forms of intrusion together, but rather to consider them category by category.

Many of those who have happily nominated Snowden for sainthood are ignoring the complexities of the issue in order to proclaim that they were right all along.

Dershowitz points out that collecting information about who is calling whom is not the same as listening in on phone calls. The principle of collecting such data has been upheld by the Supreme Court in relation to reading return addresses on letters:

There is an enormous difference between listening to the content of people’s phone calls and creating a database of telephone numbers used to make and receive calls and their duration. Creating the meta-database is a fairly debatable issue and should be the subject of hearings at which non-classified information can be discussed. I, for one, would like to hear the arguments for and against such a database before deciding whether on balance the benefits of the intrusion outweigh their obvious costs. For decades, the Supreme Court has permitted what are called mail watches, under which postal authorities have the power to maintain data based on the outsides of envelopes—the address to and from which the letter is sent. We no longer send letters. Now we use quicker and more efficient forms of communication. As technology changes, so must the law.


Socially Extinct said...

Snowden could have done so much more, said so much more, if he'd really wanted.

Essentially, he merely confirmed what we suspected, and even then, this is still open to interpretation.

Snowden said his biggest fear is that after all is said and done and all disclosures are aired, nothing will change. The American populace will do nothing, demand nothing. And he's right. Just give Americans stupid entertainmentsportselectronicssmartphones and they will shut up. We are a very easily soothed culture.

Anonymous said...

The bottom line is that people do not trust the government. Modern government intrudes in our lives to an uncomfortable degree. And behind all of it is police power... the threat of force.

People do not trust Obama. He's an all-or-nothing political operator with little respect for our constitutional system. It is a burden to him. We are people who either worship him or are his enemies. That's how he sees the world.

We are losing our republic. Here the people are sovereign. Instead, we are being treated as suspects amidst a wider threat to our civilization. Instead, we have silly searches of 80-year-old widow terror threats before boarding a plane. Please. "Then don't fly," they say. That's crap. That puts the burden of proof on us. The burden of proof should be on them to demonstrate the threat and talk about it honestly. No one is talking about terrorism honestly. Old ladies armed with umbrellas are not blowing up airplanes. All the 9/11 hijackers were men in their 20s. DHS doesn't need a billion rounds of ammunition to defend the homeland. That's the military's job. A billion rounds is inventory for a police state.

What I found remarkable about Snowden was his idealism and naivete from the quotes I read. He has a very innocent view of the world. I wonder what his values are like. Is he a relativist? A nihilist? Does he like people? Does he distrust people? No doubt more will come out, but it sounds like he lives in a therapy world where everyone is just misunderstood and not talking to each other enough. Here's the link to the piece I read:

Glenn Beck is paranoid, and can give all kinds of reasons for his paranoia. So is Daniel Ellsberg, with just as many reasons. Peggy Noonan had a great analysis in her blog today which struck to the heart of the matter for me, and speaks to what Socially Extinct is talking about. We're decadently amusing ourselves to death, with little consideration of the consequences. Here's Peggy:

We are forgetting what the American Founding was about. Yes, there is more technology. Yes, terrorists can kill you faster and travel from much further to do so in more devastating ways. But the bottom line is that we have a bizarre attitude toward life. We think we should be 100% secure and 100% free. In fact, we expect it. It's bizarre. The fact is that we make choices according to our values, and relativists try to convince themselves that they don't have to and that everyone is inherently good. And then they applaud themselves for their idiocy. It's rubbish.

The conversation is around whether we want to remain free or we want to be secure. That is a sliding scale, a teeter-totter. You can't have both all the time. I choose to be free. A free people value their freedom. People who want security expect to be taken care of by someone else. "It's someone else's fault!" or "It's someone else's job!" Isn't that what the therapy culture has given us? Lots of feelings, no choices/judgments, remain a child... woobie in hand.

Freedom-loving people don't trust government. Control freaks don't trust free people. I'll leave it to you to choose which side of the line President Obama stands on. And it's not just limited to him... consider what a political class committed to self-preservation will choose. Washington, D.C. is fat and happy.


Anonymous said...

All this information gathering just seems nuts. Where does it stop?

I read the Peggy Noonan piece Tip referred to and came away with the same thing.

The slippery slope may be a logical fallacy, but not with government power. It all goes in one direction.

People on the extremes find fault with everyone. We all knew this was going on, and that its never going back.

Did anyone see on Drudge that Amazon sales of "1984" are way up? Orwell may have missed by a few decades, but the message is still the same.

Where are all the 1970s movie directors who predicted we'd all be slaves, like in "THX 1198?" Oh, that's right -- they're all millionaires and billionaires now and earnest Obama fans.

Lastango said...

We ought not to be fobbed off by government protestations that no one was listening in to individual phone calls. Consider this:


A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, Wizner wrote, concluded that “reviewing people’s social networking contacts alone was sufficient to determine their sexual orientation.”

He noted that “metadata from email communications was sufficient to identify the mistress of then-CIA Director David Petraeus and then drive him out of office.”

“The ‘who,’ ‘when’ and ‘how frequently’ of communications are often more revealing than what is said or written,’ he argued. “Calls between a reporter and a government whistleblower, for example, may reveal a relationship that can be incriminating all on its own.”

The ACLU analyst said “repeated calls to Alcoholics Anonymous, hotlines for gay teens, abortion clinics or a gambling bookie may tell you all you need to know about a person’s problems.”

“If a politician were revealed to have repeatedly called a phone sex hotline after 2:00 a.m., no one would need to know what was said on the call before drawing conclusions,” said Wizner. “In addition sophisticated data-mining technologies have compounded the privacy implications by allowing the government to analyze terabytes of metadata and reveal far more details about a person’s life than ever before.”


Another red herring is the sort of comment I read elsewhere today, to the effect that "it would be impossible for the government to listen in to every call. That would be like one person trying to digest every conversation in a football stadium".

First, it won't be people doing the listening; it will be bots skimming for keywords and phrasing style. Already, software has a remarkable ability to interpret and even imitate style. Second, they don't have to focus on everyone 24/7. The scan will be continuous and panoptic, the FOCUS will be on the people the scan finds. That's when the listening starts. And as the IRS scandal shows, once you're in the crosshairs they'll go to work to get you. Compared to IRS operatives, the thugs doing the getting will be much better protected from the consequences of their extra-legal acts because they can hide behind the cloak of "national security".