Monday, June 17, 2013

Keeping up with the surveillance state news, or trying to, anyway

Following the domestic-spying stories is enough to make anyone's head spin. It occurs to me that it's times like this when we could really use press institutions that inspired confidence when it came to stories like this. The days in which the Pentagon Papers leaks could be treated as an important story that would lead newspapers all over the country to defy the Nixon Administration's preference that those classified documents not be published is long gone. So long gone they are a bit like John Steinbeck's Second World War news stories appeared to him a decade or so later: you almost wonder if that was a dream.

Between the various programs, the extensive secrecy, the hair-splitting wordsmithing by those with full(er) access, and the restrictions on what those who get classified briefings can actually say, it's like a detective story trying to tease out what the information in the public record actually means.

Here's Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies taking a shot at the current information, What Makes the American Security State Necessary? The Real News 06/13/2013. She is carefully fuzzy about what the government may be doing with phone information; there seems to be a question about whether the phone records being stored include audio of the calls. She makes an important point near the end that sweeping up too much information can interfere with getting the most relevant information:

I'm convinced that the privacy of the American public isn't being adequate protected with these programs. The philosopher Hegel had a concept that I find very useful, the transformation of quantity into quality. One house fire is a fire. When it spreads, it becomes multiple fires. When there are enough of them and they reach a certain intensity, it becomes a firestorm and behaves differently than other fires.

One angry protester is one thing. A thousand angry protesters would start to look awfully like a mob. When strong winds get to a certain point, we start calling them a hurricane.

I mention this because it's very relevant to the surveillance state issues that have fortunately been a major news story for days now. Giving my e-mail to the Des Moines Register in exchange for getting to look at their stories means that I get more spam. Having eBay extrapolate from my purchases means that I get annoying pop-up ads targeted to what marketers think my interest might be, and maybe one time in 1000 I'll actually follow up on the ad.

But when the NSA or any of the other various organizational components of the surveillance state are accessing and storing by phone call records for years; and tracing and storing my e-mails, Facebook posts, blog entries, comments on blog entries and news articles; and storing my DNA and cross-referencing it 500 ways; and collecting video surveillance data on me from public and commercial security cameras; and secretly accessing my library records to see what I'm reading online and off; and looking at my health and insurance records; and accessing and storing my checking account, credit card and debit card activity; and considering "dissent" broadly-defined as a national security threat; and collecting all the commercial data that eBay, Verizon, Amazon, and the local grocery store have on my activities; and outsourcing a huge amount of the collection and/or analysis to private for-profit contractors like Booz Allen; and doing it all in a context where everyone involved wants to make a name for themselves by tracking down evildoers by using the latest in cyber-tracking - then you have a qualitatively different picture.

eBay and Amazon can annoy me with ads. The federal government can arrest me, spread rumors about me, even (under current law) hold me indefinitely as an "enemy combatant" without Constitutional protections for the arrested and accused.

Now, though I'm writing this in the first person, I'm not going to go all Edward Snowden here and speculate about how the government might be wanting to assassinate me. For high-profile leakers and reporters, concerns about serious retaliation would be more rational. One thing we don't have to rely on intelligence officials telling the truth in public to know is that Obama Administration has been more aggressive in its prosecution of leaks than any Administration, including its unprecedented use of the Espionage Age in such prosecutions. (Joshua Keating discusses this in Is the Obama administration abusing the Espionage Act? Foreign Policy 02/27/2013)

This warning from Stephen Walt is worth quoting again, reminding us that the fact that we don't really have to worry about a government agent publishing how many books like Fifty Shades of Gray we have ordered online doesn't mean that we won't be affected in a bad way by the current domestic spying programs (The real threat behind the NSA surveillance programs Foreign Policy 06/10/2013):

The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn't have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn't matter: Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.

Does this danger sound far-fetched? Recall that when former diplomat Joseph Wilson published an op-ed debunking the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to score uranium from Niger, some government officials decided to punish him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent and destroying her career. Remember that David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director because a low-level FBI agent began investigating his biographer on an unrelated matter and stumbled across their emails. Recall further that long before the Internet age, J. Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in power at the FBI by amassing vast files of dirt on public figures. Given all that and more, is there any reason to believe that this vast trove of data won't eventually be abused for political purposes?

My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can't be sure that someone inside the government won't take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct -- even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand -- might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.
Fred Kaplan writes about the concerns of antiterrorism expert Brian Jenkins about domestic spying in "The Foundation of a Very Oppressive State": Why one of America's top terrorism analysts thinks U.S. government surveillance has gone too far 06/07/2013. Of course, with today's national security state and its outsourcing contractors, how many thousands or tens of thousands of people have some legitimate claim to be antiterrorism experts today? Still, these sure seem like legitimate concerns to me:

Jenkins, in fact, is a pioneer in the field of counterterrorism. A former Special Forces soldier and longtime RAND Corporation analyst, he compiled the first database of international terrorists back in 1971, wrote one of the first monographs on the subject in 1974, and has since served as a frequent high-level consultant on the subject.

And yet, Jenkins thinks that the U.S. government's counterterrorism policies—which he’s helped influence over the decades—have gone too far. "What we have put in place," he said, "is the foundation of a very oppressive state."

The oppressive state doesn't yet exist, he said, but if a president wanted to move in that direction, "the tools are in place now." The choice to do so "could be made under circumstances that appear perfectly reasonable," he went on, noting, "Democracy does not preclude voluntary submission to despotism. Given a frightened population, Congress can legislate away liberties just as easily as tyrants can seize power. That seems to be what has started to happen."
Jenkins also talks about the role that plain old fear plays in this:

"We are driven," he continued, "by fears of what might happen, not by things that have happened." He noted that since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been 42 terrorist plots in the United States. All but four of them were halted. Three of those succeeded and killed a total of 17 people. "Not that this isn't a tragedy," he said, "but, really, in a society that has 15–16,000 homicides every year, it isn't a lot.["]

"The point," he said, "is that if we are fearful of what might be, and if there is no visible end to this — you can always fear what might be—then there will be no occasion for reconsidering the measures we've put in place."
Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel has been covering this story carefully and is definitely worth following for those particularly interested in this whole complex of issues.


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