No Worry Unless You Have Something To Hide

(I have nothing novel to say here; even allowing for the technology, no state in antiquity, even Egypt under their god-king, experienced this level of surveillance. I just need to vent on this subject.)

 

President Obama’s assault on the First and Fourth Amendments is in full swing. (The Second is completely safe.) It was bad enough to learn what our government was doing – in our name – under the Bush administration, but Obama’s security apparatus and his actions to protect it are staggering. We may no longer have renditions and blatant torture (force-feeding and prolonged periods of solitary confinement may qualify), but a Democratic and supposedly progressive President is actually laying the foundations of a police state, and Congress is helping, having found a bipartisan cause.

 
The public had long been aware, if unconcerned, of the constitutionally and morally questionable things the CIA has been doing, especially in conjunction with our seemingly endless wars, but inasmuch as the operations generally affect only other countries, the American public is mostly unconcerned. The recently revealed surveillance programs of the NSA, however, do affect Americans, and while most of our citizens have probably never heard of the Fourth Amendment, they do understand when they are being spied on. And so do our closest allies, even if their spooks and governments are enthusiastically cooperating with ours.

Amerikanische Reichssicherheitsdienst

Amerikanische Reichssicherheitsdienst

The situation has become even more threatening – and surreal – with the revelation of the Insider Threat Program, something right out of Stalinist Russia. By this directive federal employees and contractors are legally bound to watch for and report “high-risk persons or behavior” among their fellow workers, and failure to do so could result in penalties, including criminal charges. And any leaks concerning the program and its operation will be treated as espionage, even if the leak reveals illegal behavior. The only thing missing to complete the journey back to Moscow in the 1930s is any reference to “counterrevolutionaries, Trotskyites and wreckers.” Will this vigilance be rewarded with medals? Perhaps “Hero of America” or “Order of Washington”?

 
But wait, there’s more! In the name of security the government will also violate the First Amendment! That’s two Amendments for the price of one administration! No government has been friendly to leakers, not because of the typically stated reason of security but since the leak usually reveals the government has been doing something questionable, like monitoring all private communications. Under the Great Engineer of American Security, however, leakers are now being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, even though they are not passing information to a foreign government, which I mistakenly thought was part of the basic definition of espionage.
Unless of course the news media is considered a foreign entity, which is certainly the view of every autocrat, even the elected ones, like Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, who is close to setting records for jailing journalists. The traditional method for punishing journalists, like Judith Miller of Valeria Plame fame, is to demand the names of their sources and then jail them for contempt when they will not reveal them. In the case of John Risen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was threatened with contempt if he did not testify against a former CIA source, a federal appeals court has just ruled that he was not covered by the First Amendment. This means that potentially every reporter is facing jail if he does not reveal sources.

 
And now there is a new twist: the journalist receiving the leaked information can also be charged with committing a crime, the exact nature of which the administration has not made clear. Journalist Glenn Greenwald was recently threatened with such a charge. Does this mean if you find a pile of classified documents on the ground, read them and talk to your friends about them, you are eligible for criminal prosecution? On the other hand, the government can spy on you all it wants apparently. For years the government has been monitoring Risen’s phone calls and emails, not in pursuit of a terrorist but to discover his sources. So, the security agencies can acquire taps on innocent civilians for the fairly specious reason that someone is revealing things to them.

 
The public opposes the NSA PRISM program by a 2 to 1 margin, but a recent effort to halt it was defeated in Congress, the amendment to the Defense bill being the subject of intense lobbying by the President (the liberal guy), the spooks and the contractors who make stuff for the spooks. Those who support the NSA of course talk about damaging our security, suggesting they know better than the average American, which has some basis in truth since we can find out virtually nothing about the program – or that it even existed until Snowden popped up. “Trust us” is not very convincing, coming from people who have regularly lied to the public.

 
The biggest joke of all is the fact that Obama touts his administration as the most transparent ever, when in fact it is actually one of the most opaque in history. The secrecy mania is out of control. In fiscal year 2011 more than 92 million documents were classified at a cost of more than $11 billion; the full numbers are unknown because at some agencies classification and its cost are classified. Are these all secrets that could harm the country if revealed?  That is hard to believe.  Classification covers mistakes, malfeasance, outright criminality and violations of the Constitution and civil rights, and very important, it enhances the status of the bureaucrat doing the classification.

 
And all this behavior for what? Because without such massive surveillance and secrecy one or two terrorists might blow up some people? Is this a sufficient reason to assault our own Constitution and freedom, especially when innocents are being killed in far greater numbers because of our love affair with the gun and inclination to solve problems with violence? Surveying the increased and constitutionally dubious powers of the government and its security apparatus and the concomitant free fall of America’s image in the world, I can only conclude that the 9/11 terrorist have won.

Advertisements

(The title is classified.)

We are now beginning to see the staggering extent to which the Patriot Act has undermined our Constitution and privacy, thanks to the actions of a man who is being labeled a traitor by politicians and a hero, if a self-righteous one, by more sensible people.  The broad and ambiguous powers granted the FBI are enough of a cause for concern, and now we learn the NSA has been conducting secret surveillance of apparently everyone on the planet who has access to a telephone, computer or credit card.  That would include Americans, whom the NSA is of course not empowered to spy on, but we cannot afford to be obsessive about details when it comes to national security.  Besides, the FBI, which is in fact commissioned to pry into our lives, is too busy with its own vastly expanded powers.

Is this process of collecting and analyzing astronomical amounts of data at all effective in combating terrorism?  Perhaps, but an independent estimation is impossible when virtually everything – including the very existence of the program – is classified, and the public knows only what the government deigns to release.  “Trust us, your elected officials,” says the President.  Trust Congress, which seems to be generally in the dark itself and in any case is focused on politics?  Trust the military, which has a long and rich history of lying to the people?  Trust the spooks, whose whole existence is deception?  Keep in mind that the Man, Director of Intelligence James Clapper, when asked before a Congressional committee if data on Americans was being collected, said no, deliberately lying to the body that is supposed to be providing oversight.

Head of the NSA

Head of the NSA

Perhaps the saddest thing in all this is that fully half the American population accepts this massive invasion of the Fourth Amendment.  This is hardly a surprise.  Judging from the apparent abandon and relish with which people, especially younger people, place personal and revealing information and photos on social media platforms, it would appear that many Americans have little interest in the Fourth Amendment.  Of course, most Americans would not be able to identify the Fourth Amendment, but most do have a sense that the Constitution guarantees privacy.  Besides, what is a little snooping if it prevents terror attacks?  Further, many are taken by the assurance – second only to national security as a reason for undermining civil liberties – that you have nothing to worry about if you are doing nothing wrong.  Well, at least until the government has some reason to find wrongdoing.

That the odds of being injured by a terrorist are infinitesimal compared to being shot or by a gun or hit by a drunk driver is seemingly unimportant.  For some obscure reason killing a couple of people with a bomb and a cause is a threat to national security, while gunning down a dozen people in the streets of Chicago is just crime.  And the mere mention of national security means the Constitution is likely to be assaulted.  I am constantly amazed that the same people who constantly remind us that men died to preserve the freedoms we exercise, especially when we criticize the government and military, are among the first to accept limitations on those freedoms whenever the cry of national security is raised.

But even more annoying than the surveillance programs and the sanctimonious defense of the same is the stupefying and frequently ludicrous application of secrecy.  Is there nothing done by our government that is not classified?  Of course, left to itself the government, in all its manifestations, would classify everything; it is the easiest way to cover mistakes, avoid blame and embarrassment and do illegal things.  The spooks obviously feel better when the public knows nothing, but generals and politicians can also operate more freely and feel superior and important when they know stuff the public is unaware of.

The constant refrain is that revealing pretty much anything about our security apparatus damages national security, though exactly how is inevitably left vague.  We are told, for example, that the outing of NSA’s PRISM program has caused “serious and irreversible damage to this nation.”  What, now all of a sudden the terrorists realize it is dangerous to use cell phones and credit cards?  Those plotting acts against America could hardly be that stupid; the stupid guys get to blow themselves up in Kabul.  Except among the stupid in the US, of whom there seem to be many (one even sits on the Intelligence Committee – Michele Bachmann), such outlandish claims only further undermine the already almost non-existent credibility of the government on these issues.  Incidentally, that same person, General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, also claimed the revelation undermined our relations to our allies, a rare burst of truth from such a source.

Why is the very budget of the NSA secret?  What can our enemies conclude from knowing exactly how much money is poured into the agency, when simply knowing that is a very large amount is enough to make a terrorist wary?  The only sensible reason is to hide the coast and extent of the NSA’s activities from the American public, which is exactly what is happening.  And for political reasons the government is now revealing little bits of information regarding the NSA’s programs.  Well, if this stuff can be declassified now without hurting our security, why was it classified in the first place?

This can get very silly.  James Clapper lied to Congress because he would have violated the laws binding him to secrecy had he replied truthfully.  Rep. Peter King, a poster child for ignorance, further explained that the Committee had placed the Director in an “untenable” position by asking him the question at all, even though Clapper was advised ahead of the hearing that he would be asked this.  Sen. Ron Wyden, who asked the question, later stated that he knew Clapper was lying but could not say so without violating his own security clearance agreements.  Clapper later explained that faced with the problem he answered “no” as the “most truthful, or least untruthful” reply.  He might just as well used the expression “truthiness.”  He lied, plain and simple, and his explanation only makes him look either disingenuous or stupid – or perhaps both.

But the whole business is in fact very serious for us, the people.  The Patriot Act is of course a public document, but apparently exactly how the government interprets its clauses is different from what one might suppose from reading the law.  Naturally, that interpretation is secret, presumably because any terrorist can read the law and thus undermine its effectiveness by understanding its provisions.  Or because the government is abusing even the broad unconstitutional powers granted by the Act.

And the most nefarious and ultimately destructive part of this compilation of police state laws is the provision for the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is to provide the “oversight” promised by the politicians.  Of course, the court is secret.  It is staffed by judges appointed by the Chief Justice for seven year terms, and this should comfort us inasmuch as the Supreme Court is the defender of the Constitution, which, however, many scholars believe has already been violated by the Patriot Act itself.  There is no defense; the Justice Department makes its case for a warrant, and the judge decides, apparently positively in the vast majority of instances.   The arguments, the targets, the outcome and the information acquired are all secret.

No one is actually being tried before this court, although the decision to grant a warrant to the FBI might be considered the first step in a judicial process that could culminate in an individual’s arrest or death.  Nevertheless, it is a secret court, an institution traditionally associated with oppressive governments.  Like blowing up American citizens with a Hellfire missile (after a secret judgment in the White House), this court rests on a very slippery slope and establishes an incredibly dangerous precedent.  The next step is a secret court to try American citizens because the evidence used by the prosecution must be kept secret in the interests of national security, a development already emerging is the trials of foreign nationals and resident aliens.  The Patriot Act is transforming the Federal Bureau of Investigation into an actual Geheime Staatspolizei.

Head of the FBI

Head of the FBI

I see little hope.  The technology of spying has become so sophisticated, especially in connection with the information and communications structures, that resistance seems futile.  Not only has it become easier for the security services to spy and keep their operations secret, but the new electronic technologies are just too damn useful to the government, particularly regarding domestic concerns, and a generally ignorant Congress will continue to legalize activity ultimately destructive to a democratic society.  The Constitution is of course protected by the Supreme Court, but some of their recent decisions do not fill me with hope.  Besides, I am guessing that most of this stuff is also kept secret from the Justices.

One final thing: is Michele Bachmann actually entrusted with secrets?