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The Political Animal

The State of Surveillance

God knows your calling patterns. God knows your friends on Facebook, your pages liked, your rants and your dissenting comments. More – and better than the NSA or FBI – God knows what you think.

Or, if there is no personal God,  if that term is just a word made of letters – G-O-D – then what we refer to by the word but that does not exist does not know all these things about us.

The fact is, though, that we do not know which of these states prevails. Are we divinely surveilled by an all-knowing being, all our sins and virtues, our decencies and transgressions known, or do we retain the secrecy of our private, individual, and fallible selves? As long as we do not know, we can pretend what we wish, believe what pleases us, until the day may come, if it ever does, that we have cause, like Job, to say,

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.

This blind living in the state of surveillance, the surveillance state, provides the story of ultimate import arising from the NSA PRISM and data mining revelations. There are other, related stories deserving of attention, but all of them are iterations of what will further be repeated in our human future whatever the outcome this time around: acts of conscience or betrayal, bad journalism, demagoguery. For too many public voices, however, these subsidiary if genuine subplots have become a distraction from the greater story. They have allowed their perspectives on terrorism or counter-terrorism, on the leaker and the reporters, and on the ideological tendencies these all represent to skew their perception of the significance of technological surveillance in human development.

For some, the prime role of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald in reporting the story and cooperating with leaker Edward Snowden has determined their view. If Greenwald helped break the story and if any elements of his work and conduct are questionable, then the story itself is first suspect, then readily dismissible. If the story arises from Greenwald’s anti-American animus and programmatic terrorist apologia, then a story, calling into question the sweep and nature of the U.S. counter-terrorism surveillance is fatally tainted.

Greenwald justly produces a level of antagonism among his foes equal to the moral shoddiness and intellectual dishonesty of his work. But the import of the story is independent of his motivation and any mistakes he may have made in reporting it. Greenwald remains an ongoing story in his own right, but the animus toward him should not distract us from greater concerns.

Then there is Edward Snowden and however much the surveillance story can be tainted by tainting him. The Greenwald, Wikileaks, and hactivist elements and sympathizers have crowed about how defenders of secrecy would try to destroy the messenger, for displeasure with the message and the messenger’s allies, and they were right. The effort was immediate and has been relentless.

Snowden did not help himself, certainly. Whatever convenient educational and social deficiencies he offered for the better educated and more established to sneer at and belittle, Snowden might have stood tall and dignified above all his critics had he done only one thing – had he revealed himself at a press conference in Washington D.C. with a lawyer at his side and declared himself righteously prepared to make the case for his actions, in defense of the democratic and constitutional system before which in good faith he would now submit himself. We have, in our civilizational memory the example of Socrates as first precedent. In our national memory, so recently, we have Martin Luther King, Jr.: the enactment of conscientious civil disobedience. Yet it is striking how few of those styling themselves as Snowden’s more cultivated betters even raise this single determinant of a person’s conscience. But we live in a time of so much preening conscience and much less redeeming conscientiousness – conscience without conscientiousness – that so few think how they might place themselves preemptively above assaults on their character, whatever the attacks on their choices.

So Snowden did not behave as the exemplar from whom we should take too serious instruction, and now, over the weekend, there is news via Snowden from the South China Morning Post of NSA spying on Hong Kong and Mainland China and again via Snowden from the Guardian unremarkable but embarrassing news about spying on then Russian President Medvedev while he was in England. Snowden has now unequivocally passed from any claim to protector of American civil liberties to, like his Guardian sponsor, active opponent of the U.S.’s legitimate national security activities.

This now is Edward Snowden’s story, and it, too, will unfold wrapped in folds of sub-plots and counter narratives. But he also is not the greater interest we should have.

Another distracting vein has been the assertion by some that there is, in fact, nothing new in these so-called revelations. These ho-humers dig up a news account from here or there, from six or eight years ago, and say, see – we knew all along, or should have. If we had read the USA Patriot Act, we would have known what was going on.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

These are, at the same time, oddly defensive and retaliatory arguments. At once they seem aimed at defending the government from charges of extraordinary or improper activity – even as government officials are daily claiming that national security has been harmed by revelation of what was not previously known – just as they seem aimed at discrediting the reporting as hype. Neither suggests a clear and proper focus on the deeper issue. It little diminishes the implications of such pervasive surveillance to argue that the citizenry should have gotten it before.

What’s the matter with you? Weren’t you paying attention? Too late. No makeup exams.

Let those who wish argue about the meaning of a phrase in five-year-old news articles or on an NSA power point. Let them bicker about a technical protocol and whether it was previously known. Part of the danger of technology is the confusion of its expertise for deeper knowledge or even wisdom. There is a bigger picture here, and to that picture too we received a contribution this weekend, from the AP: Secret to Prism Program: Even Bigger Data Seizure. What is a major source of this bigger seizure? The undersea cables that carry so much internet and teledata and that the NSA requires no FISA permission to tap.

The government has said it minimizes all conversations and emails involving Americans. Exactly what that means remains classified. But former U.S. officials familiar with the process say it allows the government to keep the information as long as it is labeled as belonging to an American and stored in a special, restricted part of a computer.

That means Americans’ personal emails can live in government computers, but analysts can’t access, read or listen to them unless the emails become relevant to a national security investigation.

The government doesn’t automatically delete the data, officials said, because an email or phone conversation that seems innocuous today might be significant a year from now.

What’s unclear to the public is how long the government keeps the data. That is significant because the U.S. someday will have a new enemy. Two decades from now, the government could have a trove of American emails and phone records it can tap to investigative whatever Congress declares a threat to national security.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has compared this to a vast library of books and, redefining the word “collect,” has argued, in defense of the charge that he has already lied to congress when denying that the NSA “collects” data on Americans:

To me collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.

Consider some parallels. With or without a warrant, government or law enforcement representatives enter your home and collect, that is, gather up and take away items from your life and store it. They do not, they claim, look at it. Would you not consider the government to have pried into your life and collected information on you? The government might not then view and process the information, but it has, of course, collected it by every normal meaning of the word, unless you are a government official engaged in the kind of dissimulation government officials engage in to cover up lies. More – most vitally – this information is now in the government’s possession. Officials may claim that there are rules they would have to follow to access that information – to take that book off the shelf – but two options of personal autonomy are now foreclosed to you: any real meaning to your grant of assent to view the information (they already have it) or, in extremis, even to resist the “collection” of it (they already have it).

Imagine this scenario, analogous to the telephony metadata collection. Via multiple legal means, including the basic security camera that is beginning to record us everywhere no less than NSA intercepts, government agencies record the activity to and from, in and out of, every physical address in the United States, both of physical mail and of people. No attached record is maintained of who lives or works at these addresses, but for untold years, the interconnecting movements between these addresses are simply recorded.

The records go on a “shelf.”

Good people, otherwise smart people are assuring the public of the safeguards built into these processes, as if history, including recent and very contemporary history in the U.S. itself, is not replete with violations and abuse of the public trust in security matters. The Church Committee was only short of forty years ago. Just six years ago there were revelations of massive FBI abuse of the post 9/11 National Security Letter process.

One can believe ardently in, and argue with great coherence for, the necessity and moral legitimacy of counter-terrorist espionage and surveillance activities and still recognize the magnitude of the moment and the deep consideration necessary as we face it. Some slopes are actually slippery: what is required in the warning is some evidence of the accumulating ice.

The worst responses to the civilizational transformation that awaits us are the stupid-blasé and the conventional-cynical. Of the former, we have this example from Chez Pazienza.

It isn’t because you never know who’s watching you. It’s because everyone is watching you. You’re always under surveillance. Everyone is connected to the social media hive mind. Whether you’re jacked in yourself, by yourself, putting your own information out there for all to see, or the person next to you is commenting on what’s going on in his or her general vicinity and you just happen to be a part of the action, you have no expectation of privacy anymore.

You can let this paralyze you. You can let it make you crazy. Or you can let go.

You have no idea where the guards of this prison are or how many of them there are at any one time. But you always know they’re there. You have no idea exactly who’s watching you. But you know you’re being watched. That’s the Panopticon.

But if you don’t know who’s watching, whether it’s the NSA or the guy sitting across the street from you on a date, is it really that big a deal? Remember: distance and ignorance. Widen the scope big enough and far enough — make the eyes invisible — and who really has time to care?

Let go. Let it wash over you. Enjoy it. The matrix is fun. Who needs bodies? Who needs reality? (And hey, man, what’s reality anyway? Know what I mean?) If everyone is watching you, it’s like no one is –get it? While their eyes were watching God, God snoozed.

Until he wakes up.

Somehow, under much more low-tech surveillance, the minions behind the Iron Curtain did not discover such a bearable lightness of being. Pazienza, it appears, is ready to love Colossus.

Of conventional thinking, always ready to dismiss the extraordinary development or solution, outside of any equivalents of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, you will find no greater repository than government officials and their establishment political journalist compeers, who are often prone to consort with conventional thinking’s evil twin, cynicism. Those who do not are prone to think as if the dysfunctional, striving liberal topia that is the United States of America is the end of history, and other than the GOP trying to roll back abortion rights in state legislatures and reconfigure Jim Crow, nothing calamitously degenerative can ever happen to American democracy until, one presumes, the Sun burns out.

It would do well to remind, then, that in the aftermath of 9/11, when government security professionals felt challenged by the demand to imagine the threats we might face, they turned, of all places, to Hollywood. Or look back at the record of diplomats and science fiction writers and check who has had the better record of anticipating what the future would deliver, especially through technology.

We have been called on the plane to look out the window, and even it was by some guy from a Twilight Zone episode, there is frost on the wing. It’s time for deicing.

AJA

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Amnesty’s Arrogance

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For those whose vision is not obscured by their own committed advocacy, the map of how Amnesty International lost its way over the past decade and more is there to be read. From irreproachable defender of human rights to clearly ideological activist on behalf of one vision of political development, an organization now easily impeached, the loss to human rights advocacy is profound. Once it was obvious that nearly only tyrants challenged an Amnesty International report. When a free nation did, it was an embarrassment for that democracy in the eyes of nearly all, its rationalized misbehavior an otherwise indisputable black mark drawn by an organization with an unassailable reputation. Now, those always unsympathetic to Amnesty’s work can point to its own clear biases in dismissing the NGO’s judgments. How much easier, for instance, to seek an accounting of a United States torture and war prisoner abuse regime in the immediate post 9/1 years were AI not chargeable as anti-American in its advocacy.

I won’t retread here well-known paths. The road AI has traveled is on the record, and I’ve written about it multiple times before. The markers are both subtle and as obvious as broken tree limbs. The former kind shows up in a sentence like this, from the introduction to Amnesty’s 2012 report.

At the heart of many of these conflicts were economic development policies that left many, particularly those living in poverty and marginalized communities, at increased risk of abuse. [Emphasis added]

The kinds of “economic development policies” to which this sentence refers – would those be “neoliberal” economic development policies; I think they would be – are certainly arguable and grounds for a debate on economic development policy as a basis for social development. That these policies are also highly arguable as a focus of attention for a human rights organization is now beyond AI’s institutional ability to recognize.

What kind of marker represents the more obvious variety? How is this?

Amnesty International Calls on Sweden to Assure Julian Assange Won’t be Extradited to the United States

(Washington, D.C.) — Amnesty International calls on the Swedish authorities to issue assurances to the United Kingdom and to Julian Assange that if he leaves Ecuador’s London embassy and agrees to go to Sweden to face sexual assault claims, he will not be extradited to the United States in connection with Wikileaks.

Now Amnesty International is the philosopher king of the free and unfree worlds, the NGO Solomon seeking to divide the mother of judicial possession from the grasping arms of selfish enmity. How wise AI must be to take itself for a vision of justice made politically flesh and infallible.

Amnesty International believes that the forced transfer of Julian Assange to the United States in the present circumstances would expose him to a real risk of serious human rights violations, possibly including violation of his right to freedom of expression and the risk that he may be held in detention in conditions which violate the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

No, that is not a paragraph about the Soviet Union in 1966. Yes, the “forced transfer” distortion is a conscious, prejudicial substitute for legal “extradition.” Is it now the postion of Amnesty International that the United States is illegitimately governed, its legal system not merely to be questioned, but opposed, with the organization advocating that other nations forswear action in accordance with legal treaties of cooperation with the U.S.?

Arrogance is always striking, regardless of the repetition, but AI’s defensive advocacy of Julian Assange and Wikileaks is neither new nor surprising. The introduction to its 2011 report began,

The year 2010 may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power.

Later it added,

This year Wikileaks, a website dedicated to posting documents received from a wide variety of sources, began publishing the first of hundreds of thousands of documents which were allegedly downloaded by a 22-year-old US Army intelligence analyst….

Wikileaks created an easily accessible dumping ground for whistleblowers around the world and showed the power of this platform by disseminating and publishing classified and confidential government documents. Early on, Amnesty International recognized Wikileaks’ contribution to human rights activism when Wikileaks posted information related to violations in Kenya in 2009. [Emphasis added]

The intellectual dishonesty of an organization with so exalted a sense of its own rightness should give one pause: imagine it as a nation-state and you might imagine it little different from any other in its process of blind self-justification. “Downloaded” is an awfully innocuous term. It masks the notions of theft and espionage and violation of national security, particularly as engaged in by a member of the military. “Whistleblowers” are cool; “spies” not necessarily so much, and what Amnesty elides in every presentation on the subject I have read is the nature of the relationship between Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, which is precisely the area in which the legitimate consideration by the United States of criminally prosecuting Assange is to be found. Here is AI in a published Q & A on Wikileaks.

Would prosecution of Julian Assange for releasing US government documents be a violation of the right to freedom of expression?

The US government has indicated since July 2010 that it is conducting a legal investigation into the actions of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange for distributing secret documents.  A range of US political figures have called for a criminal prosecution of Assange.

According to Amnesty International, criminal proceedings aimed at punishing a private person for communicating evidence about human rights violations can never be justified. The same is true with respect to information on a wide range of other matters of public interest. [Emphasis added]

Notice that the focus here is on Assange’s releasing the documents and not on the process of acquiring them. What, also, if it is not only evidence of human rights violations that is released, but if this information is contained in what is really a much larger dump of legitimately classified and national security information? And what is the nature of this “information on a wide range of other matters of public interest” the illegal transmission of which AI justifies, on what legal basis?

Is it legitimate for governments to seek to keep their diplomatic discussions and negotiations confidential when they perceive it to be in their national interest?

Governments can of course in general seek to keep their communications confidential by using technical means or by imposing duties on their employees; it is not, however, legitimate for governments to invoke broad concepts of national security or national interest in justification of concealing evidence of human rights abuses.

Also, once information comes into the hands of private individuals, states cannot rely on sweeping claims of national interest to justify coercive measures aimed at preventing further public disclosure or discussion of the information. [Emphasis added]

“Comes into the hands of.”

Is Amnesty International concerned about the potential for harm to individuals as a result of the leaked information?

Amnesty International has consistently called on Wikileaks to make every possible effort to ensure that individuals are not put at increased risk of violence or other human rights abuses as a result of, for instance, being identifiable as sources in the documents.

However, risks of this kind are not the same as the risk of public embarrassment or calls for accountability that public officials could face if documents expose their involvement in human rights abuses or other forms of misconduct. [Emphasis added]

This last is very curious. The first sentence seems to warn against the possibility of individuals coming to “harm” – “increased risk of violence or other human rights” – as a consequence of unauthorized national security document releases. Let’s be clear, which AI is not, that what we mean by using such language in this context is death, and you would think, given the nature of an organization like Amnesty, and its hallowed history, that it would hold no higher goal than to work against such death. In that consideration “every possible effort” is pusillanimous, even deceptive, diplomatese. As it might be uttered by the nations committing the violations AI opposes, it means, “We tried, but in the end, other things were more important.” So the assurance-of-principles messaging is already muddled.

But the second, “however” sentence is totally incoherent. Given that the first sentence predicates the importance of protecting life (or, at any rate, making “every possible effort”), a “however” contrast would naturally introduce an exception to that paramount concern:

risks of this kind are not the same as the risk of public embarrassment or calls for accountability.

Well, I’m confused. “Not the same” how, exactly? Are they greater risks? Lesser? Of more importance? Diminished importance, in the greater scheme of things? Given the preceding statement, the however contrast should logically be telling us diminished – the potential harm to individuals is of diminished importance when weighed against the greater goal of “calls for accountability that public officials could face if documents expose their involvement in human rights abuses or other forms of misconduct.”

But Amnesty International, the defender of human rights, of, in the good old days, individual human rights – every individual’s – cannot possibly mean that?

Can it?

AJA

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National Security Leak

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Something is leaking. I’m sorry, that’s someone. Or ones. About the U.S.’s continuing drone campaign against Al-Qeada and our ongoing cyber warfare against Iranian nuclear capabilities. A fascinating fissure in the negative reaction to the inside dope is its left-right nature. At the farther left reaches, President Obama is decried as no more than an extension of Bush-Cheney – only, in fact, better, more effective. From the right borderlands, little credit is given for aggressive and expertly pursued national security objectives; rather, as the Hannity jerks the GOP chain, comes a flooding outcry that the President has – through the leaks for which the right thinks him surely responsible – actually endangered national security, and even lost the trust of allies who will feel they cannot rely on our secrecy as clandestine conspirators.

Everybody plays their assigned roles. Does the public never tire of these morality plays? Or is it more likely powerless to prevent them? The actors will apply their makeup, don their costumes, and take the stage in the town square – ticked buyers be damned.

Righteous bags of windy high dudgeon are shocked, shocked that Obama is deciding who gets targeted by drone. Really. Who did they think was deciding – the national security advisor, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the remote pilot? Imagine the outcry had the case been revealed that lower level, unelected officials were making such life and death decisions. Of course, in war, very low-level unelected officials – privates – will in fact commonly make such decisions, and they do not ask for passports before pulling the trigger. We might turn the decision over to a judicial panel, as some, like The New York Times, have suggested. Wait, then, for the Times somewhat later, along with Karl Rove, to accuse the President of creating a Star Chamber.

We already knew, too, about the Stuxnet virus. Now there is the Flame virus, which according to Kapersky Labs, though more sophisticated than Stuxnet, may actually predate it and which appears to share some code with the earlier virus, indicating some level of cooperation or alliance among the designers. It is so sophisticated that upon revelation of its existence, it was apparently terminated by transmission of a suicide code that destroyed much of the evidence of its origins and nature. Now the handwringing is over what the U.S. might be unleashing by such cyber warfare. You can check on your own whether they are the same or different hands that have been tying themselves in knots for some years now over the threat of Chinese (and others’) cyber warfare against the U.S. Is the thought, seriously, that if the U.S. does not develop these capabilities others will not, and use them?

One wonders, too, if those worried about the consequences of cyber warfare are among those concerned also about a nuclear weapons program in the arsenal of a tyrannical, eschatological theocracy, but who warn of the dangerous consequences of any conventional attack on Iranian facilities. Are they parties who believe, Trita Parsi and Roger Cohen fashioned, that Iran would be likely to negotiate away its ambitions if only the U.S. was more open to its adversary’s other-minded, but still genuine good will? Are they people who are willing, really, to do anything at all?

The particular outcry against the leaking of this information is a correlative without an objective. We know, know that no administration before has ever revealed classified information through back or journalistic channels intended to serve either, or both, its national security and political objectives. Who would wish to live in such a world?

In reality (and welcome to it) if you are a left/libertarian political opponent of the government and of the required apparatus of secrecy in national security pursuits, then revelations of classified materials intended to embarrass the government, as those by Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, are an honorable calling and “whistle blower” prosecutions an oppression. If you are a Republican, then you become the touring theatrical company of John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Graham said Obama and Biden’s altered positions constituted “the biggest double standard in recent times.”

The harsh criticism flared as McCain introduced a resolution calling for an independent investigation and the uncommon bipartisanship lawmakers had first displayed when the issue of the security leaks came to the fore openly disintegrated.

Replied Attorney General Holder,

“We have brought more leak cases . . . than any other administration,” Holder said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I was getting hammered by the left for that only two weeks ago, and now I’m getting hammered by the right for potentially not going after leaks. It makes for an interesting dynamic.”

A low lying truth beneath all the high drama is that these “revelations” revealed little.  The “baseball card” terminology for the information cards on which Obama receives his summation of each Al-Qaeda figure manages to reduce in its play lingo the moral seriousness of the enterprise, but the President was reported to be doing nothing other in a war than he should be doing – unless you are opposed to the activity to begin. David Sanger’s New York Times article on the administration’s commitment to a cyber campaign against the the Iranian nuclear program was published on June 1. It was on May 28 that Iran’s Maher center publically announced its own discovery of Flame. The Center had already been studying the virus and obviously had already known about it for some time by that date.

Certainly, it is worth noting how close together are the Iranian revelation, the Sanger article, and the suicide command. What is clear is that the leaks informed no party critical to this issue or the drones issue of anything it did not already know. What the leaks may have done is told other parties some things the administration wanted them to know. Critics from the left may not like any exercise of American power. Republicans may not like the added national security credibility these stories give Obama, stories that are, nonetheless, a pale political shadow of Nixon’s 1968 “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War or his 1972 October surprise, or Judith Miller serving as the Bush administration’s classified Scooter Libby pipeline to the public. But no one has identified, in the light of these realities, any actual detriment to American national security, and national security can leak in more than one way only.

AJA

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