Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Edward Snowden and his critics

Cenk Uygur and The Young Turks have been covering the domestic espionage story.

Mass Blanket Surveillance - Obama is NOT the 'Change' We Believed In 06/07/2013:

NSA Surveillance - Does Obama Have ANY Credibility Left? 06/07/2013:

Edward Snowden: American Hero or Traitor? 06/11/2013:

Jeffrey Toobin writes that Edward Snowden Is No Hero New Yorker 06/10/2013:

What, one wonders, did Snowden think the N.S.A. did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn't been paying very close attention. In any event, Snowden decided that he does not "want to live in a society" that intercepts private communications. His latter-day conversion is dubious.

And what of his decision to leak the documents? Doing so was, as he more or less acknowledges, a crime. Any government employee or contractor is warned repeatedly that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime. But Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling. "When you see everything you realize that some of these things are abusive," he said. "The awareness of wrongdoing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up. It was a natural process." These were legally authorized programs; in the case of Verizon Business's phone records, Snowden certainly knew this, because he leaked the very court order that approved the continuation of the project. So he wasn't blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety. The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done. [my emphasis]

It's not surprising that mainstream journalists would be scornful of Snowden and the stories his leaking provided. Today's journalists don't look to become stars or furthering their careers by exposing the next Watergate for finding a corruptions scandal. They aspire to be invited to the White House Coresspondents' Dinner and schmooze with the stars by kissing up to the rich and powerful.

Toobin's criticism is interesting in his lack of interest in the substance. Why, he wasn't exposing anything illegal, Toobin says. But he was committing a crime by exposing it.

Well, duh, if he were exposing something that was classified but universally agreed to be illegal, that would also be a violation of the classification laws.

But until last week's leaks on the phone call monitoring and the PRISM program, we didn't know this information about the scope what the Administration of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Constitutional scholar Barack Obama was actually doing. Yes, we knew that extensive domestic spying had been legalized by Congress. But we did know how extensive the actual programs were.

And are they really legal? If Toobin has been giving this story with any sort of attention, he knows that the legality of it has never been vetted in a federal court in which the program was contested in an adversary procedure. The FISA court is arguably better than nothing. But it's essentially a Star Chamber court as far as its powers reach. The proceedings are secret. And attempts to uncover and challenge domestic spying programs like PRISM in legal proceedings has been frustrated by the Administration's insistence that the programs' existence is secret and the courts' willingness to accept the notion that since the government doesn't admit the programs exist, plaintiffs don't have the standing to claim they were harmed by it. And I would be surprised if former Wall Street securities attorney Eric Holder's Justice Department use the same approach to blocking any new legal challenges based on the latest revelations.

And anyone who doesn't know that both the Bush and Obama Administration have been radically short-circuiting previous standards of determining liability also hasn't been following what's in the public record about how the opinions of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). For more information, do a search of John Yoo's opinion on the legitimacy of crushing a child's testicles to persuade his parents to give information.

Part of the scandal of the Obama Administration's draconian policy toward prosecuting whistle-blowers, of which its safe to assume that any well-known national reporter like Toobin is very much aware, is that they give a pass to their own leaks. That is, those self-serving leaks that make the Administration look good in the anonymously-sourced stories they produce and are ubiquitous in the corporate press, but which are just as illegal as those made by Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden. Digby writes about one just today in A new leak. Will it be investigated too? Hullabaloo 06/11/2013.

I love Toobin's sneering at the notion that "Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling." Something inconceivable to a Establishment journalist these days.

I understand some of the skepticism about Snowden's motives. And also some of the impatience with anyone acting like they're "shocked, shocked" about such government domestic spying going on.

But as matter of news value, it seems to me there's a real difference between knowing that Congress had authorized the government to go to the FISA court to ask for broad surveillance authority, and knowing what we know after last week about the actual programs of phone-record surveillance and the PRISM program of e-mail and other electronic surveillance and the fact that bizillobytes of this stuff are being stored for who knows how long?

Yeah, anyone with a little caution should have known for years not to conduct their dealings with loose wimmin in the Sudan or Saudi Arabia over their regular e-mail and phone accounts.

But it seems to me these revelations of the actual current programs raise some important issues: about privacy concerns; whether the feds are sensibly focusing their anti-terrorism efforts; how seriously Congress is taking its oversight function; how valid are the Administration's efforts to block legal challenges to these programs on the grounds that their existence is secret; and, what the risks are to stockpiling so much data with a minuscule likelihood of being related to real law-enforcement or defense concerns.

It's also not clear to me that the content people voluntarily reveal on public forums like Facebook is so much more subject to abuse than, say, the phone records. The earlier NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake claims that the phone "metadata" is actually more valuable for investigators - and therefore also more open to abuse - than the contents of the phone calls. In a Scientific American Online interview with Dina Fine Maron, he says (Former NSA Whistleblower Sheds Light on the Science of Surveillance 06/11/2013):

The distinction here is metadata versus content. It’s like when you get physical snail mail, it has a certain shape, weight and type of envelope, and an address and a return address and a stamp and usually a date and routing numbers. And it’s going to a particular mailbox at a particular address—that’s all metadata. The content is what it’s inside the envelope. In a digital space the metadata is always associated with content. The content would be the actual phone call—the conversation. The fact is the metadata is far more valuable to them because it gives them an index of everything. If they want to, the data is available and the capability exists to store it, then later they can access the content as well with a warrant. You can learn a tremendous amount about people by looking at the metadata…phone records include location information. At that level you can track them as well and know who they speak with, the time of day and all of that. By definition a phone number is always associated with somebody or some business—believe me, subscribers all have names. Think of the White Pages; the White Pages equal metadata. If I store that, that gives the government a phenomenal power in secret to track all kinds of information about a person without going to content.

Chauncey DeVega (PRISM and Altruism: Is Edward Snowden Too Perfect a Hero and Public Servant? WARN 06/11/2013) is also cautious about crediting Snowden so quickly with mainly public-spirited motives. But, he writes:

Ultimately, the man Edward Snowden should matter less than the facts and information he shared. We do not live in a perfect world. As such, the messenger will be scrutinized at least as much as the policies he chose to bring out of the shadows and into the public light. ... PRISM is bigger than any personal failings of the messenger.
Charlie Pierce is dubious about Edward Snowden and his theatrical self-portrayal. But in The Snowden Effect Esquire Politics Blog 06/10/2013, he writes:

... there are issues beyond Edward Snowden, and whatever comes next, and these are issues worthy of an open and national debate, and they should be examined in the light of day.

First of all, it's past time to re-examine everything that was done in such a panic after 9/11. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was warning us about the NSA and secrecy three decades ago. Jim Bamford has made his living writing about the NSA. These problems are not new. This re-evaluation especially includes the Patriot Act, which keeps getting renewed by a Congress which long ago abdicated its oversight role in intelligence as thoroughly as it has abdicated its War Powers. (Senator Mark Udall is all over this, and good for him.) The answer, "Well, we stopped a bunch of attacks we can't tell you about" ought not the be adequate any longer. Second, it's time for the president to differentiate, clearly, himself from his predecessor. What did he do that you haven't? What have you done that he didn't? The attempt to pry these revelations loose from the history that led to the programs that are now being revealed guarantees that the discussion will slide into commonplace political argument, which will get us approximately nowhere in discussing the real problem, which is the place of privacy in a democracy that insists on surveilling itself to death. If this whole thing comes down to Obama-is-better-than-Bush vs. Obama-is-history's-greatest-monster,and there's too much of both right now, then the opportunity goes a'glimmering. ...

Unfortunately, the real test will come after the next terrorist attack that succeeds. It seems as though the surveillance stepped up in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. I don't recall anyone warning about that in the immediate aftermath. If you want to see what effect, if any, Edward Snowden's revelations have had on the country, and on what it's doing to itself, look for it there. I would almost guarantee you that you won't like what you see. Fear is the new normal. I lived through the Church Committee hearings. That was the last time the secret state-within-a-state was revealed to this extent, and that was by an empowered congressional committee. Business as usual opened again in 1980. We are not the country we say we are. What we are arguing about is the distance between the two. [my emphasis]
This is part of why I like Andrew Bacevich's use of "the Long War" to include both the Cold War and the ongoing War on Terrorism. Excessive fear was a hallmark of the Cold War. And most Americans now voting have spent most of their lives learning the rituals of fear that characterized it. I wrote here a couple of years ago (John Steinbeck on war and the Second World War (1 of 3) 07/14/2011):

John Steinbeck published a collection of his newspaper articles as a war correspondent during the Second World War under the title Once There Was a War (1958). The title reflects the position he takes in the Introduction, in which he looks back on the war as though it were a kind of fairy tale or dream.

But not a dream of the Good War, as it is now revered in the general American culture. Steinbeck understood the war and its purposes. He wasn't taking some isolationist position that the US should not have been part of the war. Nor was he arguing that the war aims weren't good or that the defeat of Hitler Germany and militarist Japan were unworthy results.

What he means is more like the following. I first read this Introduction years ago. And re-reading it now, I was surprised at how I found something on almost every page that I remembered and that made a particular impression on me. But this portion, which gives a sense of the title, is what stuck with me the most:

For what they are worth, or for what they may recapture, here they are, period pieces, fairy tales, half-meaningless memories of a time and of attitudes which have gone forever from the world, a sad and jocular recording of a little part of a war I saw and do not believe, unreal with trumped-up pageantry, so that it stand in the mind like the battle pictures of Crécy and Bunker Hill and Gettysburg. And, although all war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal, still there was in these memory-wars some gallantry, some bravery, some kindliness. A man got killed, surely, or maimed, but, living, he did not carry crippled seed as a gift to his children.

Now for many years we have suckled on fear and fear alone, and there is no good product of fear. Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness. And just as surely as we are poisoning the air with our test bombs, so are we poisoned in our souls by fear, faceless, stupid sarcomic terror. [my emphasis]
Biologists and anthropologists would quarrel with a literal assertion that fear produces "no good product." After all, the famous fight-or-flight reaction presumably offered humanity some comparative advantage over millennia of natural selection. (By "sarcomic," Steinbeck apparently meant "cancerous."

But the kind of generalized, sometimes hysterical fear of the early Cold War period about which he was commenting in 1958 does yield the kinds of results Steinbeck describes, "Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness."
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