George Packer and his problems

by Henry on May 28, 2014

George Packer’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair is largely based around an argument taken from Max Weber.

Edward Snowden is a child of the internet and at the same time an old American type—the solitary individual whose religion is conscience, and who follows his own regardless of where it takes him. … he type goes back to the English Protestant dissenters who settled the New World in the 17th century. Its most eloquent exemplar was Henry David Thoreau … In the famous hotel-room interview in Hong Kong that revealed his identity on video, Snowden said: “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept—and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature—you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large pay cheque for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” It sounds like the quiet desperation Thoreau attributed to most of his fellow men. But if, like Snowden, you can’t rest until you’ve tested the courage of your conviction by taking radical action, then “you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” …

Not caring about the outcome is what Max Weber, in “Politics as a Vocation,” called “the ethic of ultimate ends,” in contrast with “the ethic of responsibility.” There are many reasons to criticise this ethic and the uncompromising Thoreauvians who wear it as a badge of honour, but one has to admit that the issue of mass surveillance in America would not have come to public attention without a type like Snowden. … Snowden is a libertarian whose distrust of institutions and hostility to any intrusion on personal autonomy place him beyond the sphere in American politics where left and right are relevant categories. A temperament as much as a philosophy, libertarianism is often on the verge of rejecting politics itself, with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs; it tends toward absolutist positions, which grow best in the mental equivalent of a hermetic laboratory environment.

There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that it misstates the arguments of Max Weber. The second is that it grossly misrepresents the position of Edward Snowden.

First, Max Weber. Weber’s claims about the ethic of responsibility can be found in his classic essay (conveniently available online in PDF form), Politics as a Vocation. When Weber seeks to contrast the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of ultimate ends, he is not arguing against “absolutist positions.” For Weber, some kinds of absolutism are not only acceptable, but admirable. Instead, he is arguing against pacifists and others who do not want to embrace the ugly truths of politics – that politics is ultimately based on force, and that morally dubious actions can have politically beneficial outcomes. It’s worth quoting Weber’s arguments at length.

We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility.’ This is not to say that an ethic of ultimate ends is identical with irresponsibility, or that an ethic of responsibility is identical with unprincipled opportunism. Naturally nobody says that. However, there is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends—that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’—and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.
You may demonstrate to a convinced syndicalist, believing in an ethic of ultimate ends, that his action will result in increasing the opportunities of reaction, in increasing the oppression of his class, and obstructing its ascent—and you will not make the slightest impression upon him. If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil. However a man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said, he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection. He does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.
… No ethics in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones—and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications. From no ethics in the world can it be concluded when and to what extent the ethically good purpose ‘justifies’ the ethically dangerous means and ramifications.

Weber is arguing against a specific kind of unworldliness, which assumes that from good actions only good things come, and from evil actions only evil. His claim is that the world of politics is at best a morally ambiguous one, in which wicked means can produce good outcomes. Those who fail to recognize this should withdraw entirely (as a truly religious vocation demands) from worldiness. Those who recognize this and are not pure creatures of politics who shift their positions according to interest and convenience, are, for Weber, genuinely heroic individuals, who have truly embraced politics as a vocation.

So is Packer right in claiming that Snowden is irresponsible in the Weberian sense? Emphatically not. Indeed, Packer’s presentation of Snowden’s beliefs is actively misleading. In his review, Packer accuses Glenn Greenwald of a “pervasive absence of intellectual integrity” for claiming inter alia that Snowden had tried to protect his colleagues while failing to note a Reuters article “showing” that Snowden had borrowed logins from these colleagues. But Packer fails his own test for intellectual integrity. He presents quotes that seem to support his claims. However, not only does he fail to provide the necessary context for these statements, but he appears actively to elide bits of the quotes that undermine his thesis.

The interview with Snowden that Packer draws on is available here. And it really doesn’t say what he suggests it does. Below a more complete version of the answer provided by Snowden that Packer quotes (with some malformed HTML cruft cleaned up):

[Question] Have you given thought to what it is that the U.S. government’s response to your conduct is, in terms of what they might say about you, how they might try to depict you, what they might try to do to you?
[Snowden’s answer] Yeah, I could be, you know, rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me or any of their third-party partners. … And that’s a fear I’ll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be. You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they’re such powerful adversaries, that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you, in time. But, at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. And if living, living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept – and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature – you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But, if you realise that that’s the world that you helped create, and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation, who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.

Two things jump out here. First – Packer’s claim that Snowden says that he doesn’t care about the outcome of his actions is a gross misrepresentation of what Snowden actually says. Snowden has been asked whether he is worried about what the US might do to him in retaliation. The “outcome” that he doesn’t care about is what happens to him personally as a result of his actions. This, very obviously, is not an abdication of Weberian responsibility. In fact, it is arguably just the opposite. Weber is quite clear that the ethic of political responsibility requires that the individual political actor subordinate his individual amour-propre in his devotion to his ultimate cause. This is what Snowden looks to me to be doing. Weber again:

it is immensely moving when a mature man—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. In so far as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements) which only in unison constitute a genuine man—a man who can have the ‘calling for politics.’

Second – there is a quite extraordinary elision in Packer’s quotation of Snowden. He cuts off his quote at exactly the point where Snowden undermines his [Packer’s] argument. Snowden doesn’t say that “it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” He says “it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.” (my italics). Those are two very different statements. The one can be represented, with a bit of creative ingenuity, as a That’s-not-my-department-says-Wernher-von-Braun style abdication of moral responsiblity over what happens next. The other makes it clear that Snowden’s actions are aimed towards a specific and defensible political goal – to reveal what is going on to the American public, so that the public can decide what to do next. As Marcy Wheeler points out, Snowden is furthermore consistent over time that the US public might react differently than he would like.

“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” [Snowden] said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.” … “All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” he said. “That is a milestone we left a long time ago. Right now, all we are looking at are stretch goals.”

To be blunt, I find it hard to see how Packer’s truncation of this quote can be explained by anything other than the kind of lack of intellectual integrity that he accuses his opponents of. There’s lots about Snowden’s politics that Packer – or other people – might reasonably want to disagree with. But if you want to make an honest case that Snowden is a crazy-ass libertarian fanatic who profoundly distrusts all institutions, you’re not allowed to hide the bits where Snowden emphasizes that he believes in the democratic process. Yet that’s just what Packer does. Perhaps there is some defense of what Packer does here – but I’m not seeing what it might be.

Packer’s piece, and its problems, reflect a more general pathology among soi-disant national security liberals – an instinctive distaste for what they see as extremism in the pursuit of civil liberty, and an effort to find some intellectual justification for their revulsion (although in Packer’s defense, the article isn’t as inept as the appalling Sean Wilentz piece on ‘paranoid libertarianism’ that it namechecks and leans upon).

It’s also a missed opportunity. A real Weberian analysis of the politics of surveillance (rather than one which misemploys Weber’s arguments as a crutch for prejudice) could help illustrate the tragic aspects of surveillance politics. From a Weberian perspective, Snowden is very plausibly a hero, someone who has declared his “Hier stehe ich,” and is devoting himself to his cause, regardless of its consequences for him personally. Arguably Greenwald is too. While Packer is right that he’s a brawler, so too were the German party newspaper journalists of the early twentieth century that Weber singles out for particular admiration. But it’s plausible that Snowden’s and Greenwald’s political opponents, who adhere to a very different political philosophy, and are prepared to fight on its behalf can be described as Weberian heroes too. For Weber, what is admirable about a politician is not the righteousness of the politician’s cause, but the willingness of the politician to struggle on its behalf.

Exactly what the cause, in the service of which the politician strives for power and uses power, looks like is a matter of faith. The politician may serve national, humanitarian, social, ethical, cultural, worldly, or religious ends. The politician may be sustained by a strong belief in ‘progress’—no matter in which sense—or he may coolly reject this kind of belief. He may claim to stand in the service of an ‘idea’ or, rejecting this in principle, he may want to serve external ends of everyday life. However, some kind of faith must always exist. Otherwise, it is absolutely true that the curse of the creature’s worthlessness overshadows even the externally strongest political successes.

This means that for Weber politics is fundamentally agonistic – a realm of struggle where different political actors, devoted to different and irreconcilable purposes, each do their best to prevail. In this understanding, politics is often a tragedy, where every actor behaves as he or she must, leading to an end that none of them wants. This understanding (like all understandings) is partial – but it surely highlights important aspects of the international politics of the Snowden affair. It would be in the best interests of both Snowden and the US if they could reach an implicit accord in which Snowden found refuge in a country whose interests were less inimical to the US than Russia’s. Yet the fundamental political values both of the US state and its opponents means that this is very unlikely to happen.

{ 246 comments }

1

John Garrett 05.28.14 at 5:33 pm

And compromise is even more unlikely after Kerry’s bizarro “man up” comments: we sure manned up in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the we who fought and died have no relation to the man up guys who stayed home and marched on Memorial Day.

JG

2

Tom Hurka 05.28.14 at 7:17 pm

Snowden also talks of realizing “that that’s the world that you helped create,” i.e. he thinks about the consequences of not acting, and assigns considerable moral responsibility to you for evils that follow from your not acting.

3

geo 05.28.14 at 7:31 pm

Thanks, Henry, excellent takedown of an appalling piece, though of course you only scratched the surface. There are so many things wrong with Packer’s review and Michael Kinsley’s in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/08/books/review/no-place-to-hide-by-glenn-greenwald.html) that Crooked Timber could hold the equivalent of a book symposium on them.

4

Aaron Lercher 05.28.14 at 8:20 pm

Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras do not need to be angels in order to have good motives, and what they did seems to have had good consequences. Much of Packer’s piece is about Snowden’s, Greenwald’s, and Poitras’s characters and how they may have “drifted” from their ideals. I’ll ignore that.
Packer acknowledges that Snowden’s willingness to follow his conscience was necessary because “nothing short of that would have done the job.” Packer acknowledges that the willingness to follow one’s conscience is sometimes effective. But Packer takes the view that those who follow their conscience also have to be willing to be punished. Packer says Snowden’s refusal to give himself up to US prosecution “betrays the demanding but necessary principle of civil disobedience—from Thoreau to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King—which requires that conscientious dissenters who act against an unjust law must be willing to pay the price.”
Is the willingness to submit to punishment a morally necessary part of civil disobedience? Says who?
In some cases it may be necessary for the civilly disobedient to undergo punishment in order for their moral message to be heard. But not always. It is far from clear that this is true for Snowden.
It’s odd for Packer to claim that this is true of Snowden, when Packer also acknowledges that Snowden’s civil disobedience was effective.
It seems unlikely to me that Snowden would have a better effect on the politics or morality of surveillance in the US if he gave himself up. Would there be much opportunity for political organizing around Snowden defense? I don’t think so, because I would anticipate that the trial would be long-delayed and Snowden himself would be incarcerated during the delay. Would the moral and political meaning of Snowden’s actions be better perceived as a result of such a trial, or would the meaning be less clear understood after a trial by members of the US public? Unfortunately it likely that a trial would be more misleading than the other kinds of publicity Snowden has received.
In some civil disobedience cases where a trial helps make the moral case, and in some cases where the trial only absorbs the financial resources and time of the defendants without bringing any moral attention to the issues. Over the years, I’ve been a defendant in both kinds of cases.
I’m not saying the US government is beyond repair, although it might be. I’m just saying that the effort to repair US surveillance policy would be unlikely to be served by Snowden’s giving himself up for prosecution.
I am not a lawyer, so I have a legal question: What would happen if Snowden gave himself up? Would there be any possibility for him to raise moral or political issues of surveillance in his trial?

5

roy belmont 05.28.14 at 8:53 pm

Arguably Greenwald is too.
Super-meta-turbo-hyper-arguably.
Greenwald getting barked at by the piranha-chihuahuas of American aboveground journalism does not make him something he isn’t.

6

alkali 05.28.14 at 9:26 pm

In some cases it may be necessary for the civilly disobedient to undergo punishment in order for their moral message to be heard. But not always. It is far from clear that this is true for Snowden.

Agreed. The point of being arrested for not sitting in the back of the bus is to show that what might look like racial comity is in fact a legal regime imposed by force. The point of Snowden’s actions wasn’t to demonstrate that no one should ever be arrested for any kind of misuse of classified material, but rather to make public certain facts, which he did.

What would happen if Snowden gave himself up? Would there be any possibility for him to raise moral or political issues of surveillance in his trial?

(1) He would be in solitary confinement immediately. (2) No. (All of which makes Kerry’s comments so disappointing.)

7

Chris Andersen 05.28.14 at 10:30 pm

I take a very evolutionary approach to these debates. There are several viable survival strategies that would allow a species to survive and thrive. The correctness of any approach is simply in how they help the species achieve that goal. However, most (if not all) approaches are incomplete. They are situational. They may work under one set of circumstances while not in another. They may all have critical flaws which, if executed in full, would destroy the species that executes them.

It is when the strategies compete with each other that a greater level of evolutionary survival is achieved. The agonistic approach says that the ideas should be allowed to compete in the public sphere and that what ultimately comes out of the process in the end is never quite what the various actors wanted in the beginning, but it may be what the species as a whole needs.

I just wish that the players involved in this struggle were mature enough to accept that “I didn’t get everything I wanted” is not the same as “I failed to make things better”.

8

Barry 05.28.14 at 10:43 pm

” But Packer takes the view that those who follow their conscience also have to be willing to be punished. Packer says Snowden’s refusal to give himself up to US prosecution “betrays the demanding but necessary principle of civil disobedience—from Thoreau to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King—which requires that conscientious dissenters who act against an unjust law must be willing to pay the price.””

It’s more odious when cited by various journalists who have not and never will do things which really p*ss off the establishment. A bunch of chicken-hawks, each and every one.

And it’s amazing to me how Snowden and Manning are still such a great test for finding out who the journalists are, and who the courtiers and stenographers are.

9

Nils 05.28.14 at 10:48 pm

Interesting piece, Henry. Let me pose a thought experiment. Snowden says he’s already accomplished his mission by exposing to the light of day the surveillance that is being done to (and in the name of) the American people by the national security state. His only goal, he says, is to give them the knowledge so that they can choose. But what if the fact of American public opinion is that they in fact, now that they know what’s going on, they want to have this surveillance continued as before Snowden’s revelation? The problem here is that one can’t turn back the clock: what if (as I think is the case), now that the revelations have been made, it is in fact not possible to go back to the status quo ante — which might, plausibly, be what the general will would want (or would have wanted). Sometimes the relevation itself undermines at a material level the possibility to continue as before. In that case, Snowden hasn’t been simply a conduit of information so that Americans can make a more informed set of choices (which would be admirable if that’s all it was): he’s also changed the facts on the ground, in ways that most Americans may wish he had not.

I also think it’s quite clear that this position of Snowden, which for the sake of argument I’ll take at face value, is quite clearly NOT Greenwald’s position: he doesn’t want the American people to be able to choose for themselves: he wants to force the national security state to stop doing what it’s doing, regardless of what the majority of the American people or their elected representatives may desire. He has clearly stated that even if 99% of Americans wanted this sort of surveillance to continue as before, he wants it to stop and he wants to undermine the conditions of its possibility. I don’t know whether Snowden would agree with that — from the quotes above, he would appear not to — but that is certainly Glenn’s position.

10

PaulD 05.29.14 at 12:18 am

Nils @ 9, let me pose as a thought experiment a law of reversibility. This would state that any action made on democratic principles must be reversible, otherwise it denies us the democratic choice of returning to the status ante quo. Then we can posit that any revelation of information, that tricky public good, breaks the law: once info is out of the bag it cannot be stuffed back in. We cannot unknow and return to our blissful ignorance. Thus, on democratic principles, we should not release the sort of information that is needed for democratic decision-making, but rather, like good Burkeans, always favour the status quo.

11

Matt 05.29.14 at 12:25 am

I also think it’s quite clear that this position of Snowden, which for the sake of argument I’ll take at face value, is quite clearly NOT Greenwald’s position: he doesn’t want the American people to be able to choose for themselves: he wants to force the national security state to stop doing what it’s doing, regardless of what the majority of the American people or their elected representatives may desire. He has clearly stated that even if 99% of Americans wanted this sort of surveillance to continue as before, he wants it to stop and he wants to undermine the conditions of its possibility. I don’t know whether Snowden would agree with that — from the quotes above, he would appear not to — but that is certainly Glenn’s position.

If those are genuine differences between them then I think Greenwald has the better position. I don’t think it is legitimate for US citizens to decide that Brazilians or Germans will not be allowed privacy, no matter how superlatively democratic and inclusive the decision making might become among US citizens. I’m grateful to Snowden for raising the alarm and I hope that systemic technical changes will begin while people are still outraged so that building a “collect it all” surveillance system will be harder even after the outrage has faded.

Many Snowden critics deflect But what about China? What about Russia? You’re not going to stop their spying with public outrage! What they don’t realize or maybe don’t care about is that better defenses help protect against all spies, whether you’re personally afraid of the NSA or the FSB. You don’t have to choose between stopping Spy Team BRIC and Spy Team Anglosphere. Improve defenses and make all the spies and hackers work harder. If American companies are worried about industrial espionage from China, comprehensive improvements to computer and communications security can help with that. Spying on Petrobras can’t.

12

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 05.29.14 at 12:32 am

In that case, Snowden hasn’t been simply a conduit of information so that Americans can make a more informed set of choices (which would be admirable if that’s all it was): he’s also changed the facts on the ground, in ways that most Americans may wish he had not.

Plenty of other NSA contractors had the same information, Nils. And any of them could, or likely already has, use it for other purposes. (Spying on girlfriends, getting rich from foreign governments, whatever.)

So I don’t think your thought experiment is very interesting. It is like saying, “What if that one little boy had kept quiet, instead of shouting the emperor has no clothes on.”

Try this one: What if most Americans object to the surveillance, now that they know about it. Does our government stop it?

“In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are),” wrote Kinsley. Are we?
~

13

djw 05.29.14 at 12:44 am

Great piece, Henry.

I also think it’s quite clear that this position of Snowden, which for the sake of argument I’ll take at face value, is quite clearly NOT Greenwald’s position: he doesn’t want the American people to be able to choose for themselves: he wants to force the national security state to stop doing what it’s doing, regardless of what the majority of the American people or their elected representatives may desire. He has clearly stated that even if 99% of Americans wanted this sort of surveillance to continue as before, he wants it to stop and he wants to undermine the conditions of its possibility. I don’t know whether Snowden would agree with that — from the quotes above, he would appear not to — but that is certainly Glenn’s position.

Assuming for the sake of argument this is accurate, I’m not sure why I should care. Greenwald isn’t and won’t be in a position to change the law any time soon. This seems like another example of getting hung up on biographical trivia about these two characters, which seems trivially unimportant to the evaluation of this particular act of whistle-blowing.

14

Number Three 05.29.14 at 1:23 am

Packer is an idiot. He supported the Iraq War. That’s enough to get you kicked out of the “I get it” journalists’ club in my view.

15

CityZen 05.29.14 at 1:46 am

This is a great discussion. I find it difficult to understand how people like Packer manage to convince themselves mass warrantless surveillance of our online activities is remotely justifiable, period (quite apart from the dubious legality of the programmes in question). Why is it that, simply because I choose to communicate and interact with other persons, or institutions, or organizations or any other entities via a particular medium – namely, the internet, the cybersphere, or whatever you want to call it – my communications and interactions should in principle be accessible to the state? What makes the difference here? Telephones have been around for a long time; and bad guys have been using them to do bad things just as long. But no one would, in past days, have considered it within the realm of the reasonable to say that just because bad guys use telephones to effect their purposes, so all our telephone usage should be (presuming it technologically could be) automatically channeled through, and (to some degree or other) scrutinized by, some state security apparatus/agency. Same goes for snail mail, etc.

There is something about the nature of this novel mode of communication/interaction that makes it especially attractive to the surveillance state, and it has partly, I think, to do with the relative ease, as a technological matter, with which surveillance can be conducted. It’s almost as if the sheer existence of surveillance technologies that can be more readily deployed has, in and of itself, shifted (some/many) people’s perceptions of the issue, and of their understanding of the proper boundaries of privacy.

We are told, these days, that being on the internet is not at all a private activity; that no matter where in cyberspace you are, you should think of yourself as being out on full public display. But first of all, that is NOT what the subjective experience of internet usage – the phenomenology of internet interactions, as it were – is like. It actually does feel like a private activity – in some instances deeply so. And, secondly, the notion of being on “full public” display is rather vague: when I’m out on the street, I’m on full public display, but for discrete periods of time and to a discrete/finite public. Surveillance technologies that hoover up ALL our internet activities and store them for ALL time, somewhere out there, in some forever retrievable state, render these activities “public” in a much more radical and thoroughgoing way. (Hence the call for a “right to be forgotten”, etc.) These surveillance technologies would be more akin to you carrying a recording device around with you everywhere you go at all times, whereby everything you do gets uploaded somewhere for “safekeeping” and accessibility by external parties for all time going forward …. oh, wait, that’s exactly the potential of “google glass” + smartphones, etc., no??

But again, even if we are voluntarily adopting and using such technologies, most of us, subjectively at least, do not think of them as a means of putting ourselves out there for the state’s viewing pleasure. We use them for discrete purposes, at discrete times (in our lives), to achieve some particular/finite ends, whether for ourselves or in interaction with others. Why the state (or any other “external” entities, such as paying corporations interested in what we do for whatever reason) should be prima facie permitted to squeeze itself into these spaces is utterly beyond me – it just makes no sense. The default position should be exactly the opposite. People like Packer seem to think otherwise, at root.

So the situation is that, at the very time that very heavy restrictions are very obviously needed on mass surveillance technologies, we’ve somehow come to believe that the very ease of use, as it were, of these technologies makes their actual use somehow acceptable.

The situation is obviously perverse, and it’s difficult to understand why those who are sounding the alarm are meeting with this much resistance.

16

Straightwood 05.29.14 at 2:50 am

The Snowden affair is acting as a kind of institutional X-Ray revealing the ugly skeleton of authoritarianism that lies beneath the bland appearance of the American liberal establishment. Servitude to power, corporate or national security state power, is most evident when that power is challenged directly. There is no middle ground available for the Kinsleys and Packers in the commentariat. They depend on the goodwill of the powerful for access to the news sources that make their writing marketable.

As Greenwald has pointed out, Kinsley and Packer have dramatically confirmed all of his assertions about the servility of the mainstream liberal press. Kinsley’s absurd call for prior restraint is a stunning confirmation of the moral bankruptcy of the American news media. The willingness of the NYT to print this nonsense in a “review” of Greenwald’s book vindicates Snowden’s decision not to trust the Times to publish his revelations.

17

Bruce Baugh 05.29.14 at 3:33 am

CityZen, that was some great exposition on what it feels like in different contexts. I will probably end up quoting chunks of that in the future, as I think it’s important.

18

Sleeve98 05.29.14 at 3:54 am

Tristero said it, three times, on Hullaballoo: Greenwald’s not the story; Snowden’s not the story; analyze the characters all you wish – this is about the NSA and the modern surveillance state, a fact that will not escape even my lay attention span no matter how much the entirety of media prevaricates.

19

Martin Bento 05.29.14 at 4:06 am

So I assume Packer thinks members of the underground railroad, too, should have turned themselves in and paid the price of lawbreaking, rather than stay free to help more slaves. Aaron and akali basically have it. The necessity for civil disobedience of submitting to law depends on the nature of the situation.

PaulD, I think Nils’ position is even more untenable than that, since the world is never purely static, and maintenance of the status quo too must involve the exchange of information. Indeed, transferring information primarily is support of the status quo is the official purpose of the surveillance we are discussing. The NSA cannot unlearn what it knows, so by Nils’ principle, that alone should prohibit the surveillance, since it is possible that the public would democratically not endorse the surveillance, but the information gathered can never be fully ungathered (destroying data would also have consequences so the status quo ante is still inaccessible). What Nils’ position requires is that the state outlaw entropy. Good luck with that.

20

js. 05.29.14 at 5:29 am

Just seconding Bruce Baugh here: CityZen’s 15 is really quite excellent and contains arguments I’m extremely likely to use in the future. Especially this:

These surveillance technologies would be more akin to you carrying a recording device around with you everywhere you go at all times.

Which made me think: Suppose I’m walking down the street having a conversation with someone. I think everyone would agree this is pretty “public”, i.e. very much a conversation happening in public space, and people may well overhear. Now imagine that someone else is following closely behind with a microphone, surreptitiously recording the conversation. Suppose that they continue recording even after you ask them to stop (or you cannot ask them to stop). This is surely illegal? Honest question, that. Anyway, the point is that when people say things like “the internet is fully public”, or whatever, they are—presumably without realizing it—inventing a radically new conception of publicity, one that doesn’t at all apply in most situations we consider to be public in the ordinary course of things.

21

adam.smith 05.29.14 at 5:52 am

I was curious about the question of civil disobedience and punishment, so I read up on some things I vaguely remember, maybe interesting for other people, too. The notion that people engaging in civil disobedience should accept their punishment goes back to Rawls, who defines civil disobedience very narrowly as actions aimed at changing specific, immoral laws. The disobedient accepts the punishment to demonstrate their respect for the laws of the land in general. This definition excludes, of course, a lot of things often referred to as civil disobedience, notably Gandhi’s protest which certainly were aimed at more systemic change.

So it is not surprising to have Howard Zinn take a very different position, quoted in full because it’s really useful:

If a specific act of civil disobedience is a morally justifiable act of protest, then the jailing of those engaged in that act is immoral and should be opposed, contested to the very end. The protester need be no more willing to accept the rule of punishment than to accept the rule he broke. There may be many times when protesters choose to go to jail, as a way of continuing their protest, as a way of reminding their countrymen of injustice. But that is different than the notion that they must go to jail as part of a rule connected with civil disobedience. The key point is that the spirit of protest should be maintained all the way, whether it is done by remaining in jail, or by evading it. To accept jail penitently as an accession to “the rules” is to switch suddenly to a spirit of subservience, to demean the seriousness of the protest.

That seems about right.

22

Hand Over the Money 05.29.14 at 6:39 am

It is quite obvious that consequences are on Greenwald and Snowden’s minds, otherwise we would simply have gotten an unredacted info dump right away.

23

RJB 05.29.14 at 11:53 am

Can someone explain to me why Weber sees ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’ as focused on ends rather than means? They take responsibility for the right means, and The Lord sees to the ends, right?

24

CityZen 05.29.14 at 1:01 pm

RJB @ 23

I may not be getting it right, but I assumed Weber’s distinction basically maps on to, or parallels, the deontology-consequentialism dichotomy. His wording is a bit unusual (or so sounding to us); it strikes me that the labels “ethic of responsibility” vs. “ethic of ultimate ends” could be reversed (so for example, couldn’t we think of “ultimate ends” as meaning “foreseeable results”?). But in the actual exposition I take it he is basically referencing (what we might call) the deontology-consequentialism distinction. So, we might be able to replace “ultimate ends” with “principles”, or “maxims”, or similar.

So in the case of the Christian, I take it Weber basically means s/he will follow a given moral principle (or Kantian imperative, if you like) and whatever results/consequences follow, good or bad, are not the Christian’s responsibility but rather God’s doing (or in the Kantian picture, ultimate consequences are a function of external contingencies, or just how the world happens to be). So what happens as a result of your morally good/proper act is not, strictly speaking, your “responsibility”, or your doing – all you can do is do right, and what follows from your doing right is outside your control.

My apologies if this is misleading, but that’s how I understood it – I might be out to lunch on this.

But if I’m basically right, then Weber is proposing some kind of blending/reconciliation of deontology and consequentialism.

25

Straightwood 05.29.14 at 1:08 pm

@18

To reinforce Sleeve98′s point: an aggressive and powerful nation unilaterally sought to intercept, store, and analyze all of the world’s electronic communications (COLLECT IT ALL) without the consent of those being monitored. This extraordinary abuse of state power is the real story, and it is a shocking one.

26

NMissC 05.29.14 at 2:29 pm

To the question of what would happen if Snowden “came in.”

If the Justice Department responds true to form, they would indict him in a district where they were assured of very prosecution friendly judges (and jurors), and would appear before a magistrate saying that he was a flight risk and danger to the community and see that he was held in something like solitary confinement. The judge in the carefully picked district would make it clear pre-trial that he was not going to tolerate any attempt to turn the trial into a “political” trial, meaning that he would bar any evidence tending to justify Snowden’s action, and he would during the trial do whatever was necessary to enforce that.

That’s my guess.

Oh, and very interesting post.

27

CityZen 05.29.14 at 2:31 pm

Again, great discussion; I find myself in agreement with most of the responses.

So I take it we have 2 distinct but related issues: 1) the justifiability of mass surveillance; 2) the justifiability of Snowden’s actions.

Let’s look at 2 for a moment. Let’s try to put the Packer/Kinsey position in the strongest possible terms, for the sake of generosity at least. You could say there IS something problematic about one person, alone, taking it upon themselves to reveal to the world what the state has been attempting to do in the dark, albeit (putatively) by law. There is a difficulty with the unilateral nature of Snowden’s act. Suppose his moral-political instincts were different; suppose – just hypothetically – he had thought China was a morally or spiritually superior nation or race of people (or some such notion), and decided to give them the information for that reason – not for personal gain, but because he had a genuinely held belief along such lines, that he was advancing some greater cause, etc. I take it that would be obviously unjustified; it would probably be treason, presuming the idea of “treason” outside of war is viable in the first place (and not some vestige of more virulently nationalistic times).

It just so happened that his unilateral act was based on moral-political-legal modes of thought that happen to be widely held in our societies. That is, many people – even his detractors – admit (even if grudgingly) that what he revealed was worth revealing. And he had precedents, in Ellsberg, etc. But it could have been otherwise, and we need to acknowledge that individuals, given the right (institutional) setting, can wield a great deal of power, unilaterally. In other words, we were all rather lucky he happens to be (at least by Greenwald’s accounts) an extremely careful, scrupulous and, yes, conscientious individual.

So what’s the response? Well I’m not sure it’s all that easy, but it would run something like this: in the circumstances, it is the state that has placed us all, including individuals like Snowden, in a highly untenable position, where unilateral and extra-legal (if not illegal) action became, in effect, the only recourse – the only means to break out of the untenable situation. And what’s untenable here: well, the state wants to insist not only that it can engage in such activities, but that it can – indeed must – engage in them in total darkness, in absolute secrecy. Well, in what is ostensibly a liberal democracy, that’s just not tenable. Until Snowden came along, the vast majority of the population was unaware their internet/cyberspace activities were widely open to surveillance (yes, there were experts out there who weren’t surprised, and claimed we shouldn’t have been either … but that’s rather cold comfort).

The truth had to come out somehow, and since the state was not going to let it out anytime soon, someone, some specific person acting unilaterally, had to break it out, as it were – and they did so using exactly the means properly available for that purpose, namely the press. The classical conception of the function of journalism has come into play here; and Snowden/Greenwald have done exactly what many comments above mention, namely they’ve given us, the public, a choice. If these surveillance activities should continue at all, they should continue via some viable form of public informed consent.

What detractors like Packer/Kinsey mean, in the end, is that these ideas about the role of journalism in society, or the idea of an informed public, are either passe, or naive, or “pie in the sky”/”boyscout” thinking, or just unrealistic, or whatever. They emphasize the dangers involved in unilateral do-gooding; and they may have a point there at least. But the larger danger is that we undermine or just give up on some core values and core beliefs about what liberal democracy is all about. And what whistleblower-to-press cases show is that sometimes it takes unilateral action by private parties to help maintain the integrity of a system of freedom; or, conversely, that the maintenance of a liberal democracy is not the exclusive purview of government. That should be obvious – but apparently for some it’s not.

And this is the scary part: we live in times where there are people out there who seriously argue for things like “torture warrants”, i.e., for legally sanctioned torture (see Dershowitz, who of course is also against Snowden/Greenwald), and do so without seeing the radical contradictions involved.

28

CityZen 05.29.14 at 2:31 pm

Again, great discussion; I find myself in agreement with most of the responses.

So I take it we have 2 distinct but related issues: 1) the justifiability of mass surveillance; 2) the justifiability of Snowden’s actions.

Let’s look at 2 for a moment. Let’s try to put the Packer/Kinsey position in the strongest possible terms, for the sake of generosity at least. You could say there IS something problematic about one person, alone, taking it upon themselves to reveal to the world what the state has been attempting to do in the dark, albeit (putatively) by law. There is a difficulty with the unilateral nature of Snowden’s act. Suppose his moral-political instincts were different; suppose – just hypothetically – he had thought China was a morally or spiritually superior nation or race of people (or some such notion), and decided to give them the information for that reason – not for personal gain, but because he had a genuinely held belief along such lines, that he was advancing some greater cause, etc. I take it that would be obviously unjustified; it would probably be treason, presuming the idea of “treason” outside of war is viable in the first place (and not some vestige of more virulently nationalistic times).

It just so happened that his unilateral act was based on moral-political-legal modes of thought that happen to be widely held in our societies. That is, many people – even his detractors – admit (even if grudgingly) that what he revealed was worth revealing. And he had precedents, in Ellsberg, etc. But it could have been otherwise, and we need to acknowledge that individuals, given the right (institutional) setting, can wield a great deal of power, unilaterally. In other words, we were all rather lucky he happens to be (at least by Greenwald’s accounts) an extremely careful, scrupulous and, yes, conscientious individual.

So what’s the response? Well I’m not sure it’s all that easy, but it would run something like this: in the circumstances, it is the state that has placed us all, including individuals like Snowden, in a highly untenable position, where unilateral and extra-legal (if not illegal) action became, in effect, the only recourse – the only means to break out of the untenable situation. And what’s untenable here: well, the state wants to insist not only that it can engage in such activities, but that it can – indeed must – engage in them in total darkness, in absolute secrecy. Well, in what is ostensibly a liberal democracy, that’s just not tenable. Until Snowden came along, the vast majority of the population was unaware their internet/cyberspace activities were widely open to surveillance (yes, there were experts out there who weren’t surprised, and claimed we shouldn’t have been either … but that’s rather cold comfort).

The truth had to come out somehow, and since the state was not going to let it out anytime soon, someone, some specific person acting unilaterally, had to break it out, as it were – and they did so using exactly the means properly available for that purpose, namely the press. The classical conception of the function of journalism has come into play here; and Snowden/Greenwald have done exactly what many comments above mention, namely they’ve given us, the public, a choice. If these surveillance activities should continue at all, they should continue via some viable form of public informed consent.

What detractors like Packer/Kinsey mean, in the end, is that these ideas about the role of journalism in society, or the idea of an informed public, are either passe, or naive, or “pie in the sky”/”boyscout” thinking, or just unrealistic, or whatever. They emphasize the dangers involved in unilateral do-gooding; and they may have a point there at least. But the larger danger is that we undermine or just give up on some core values and core beliefs about what liberal democracy is all about. And what whistleblower-to-press cases show is that sometimes it takes unilateral action by private parties to help maintain the integrity of a system of freedom; or, conversely, that the maintenance of a liberal democracy is not the exclusive purview of government. That should be obvious – but apparently for some it’s not.

And this is the scary part: we live in times where there are people out there who seriously argue for things like “torture warrants”, i.e., for legally sanctioned torture (see Dershowitz, who of course is also against Snowden/Greenwald), and do so without seeing the radical contradictions involved.

29

Robert Green 05.29.14 at 3:16 pm

Just as Marx was unable to predict how pervasive the Entertainment Complex (of which I am a cog) would be, and how complete its ability to permeate (middle) class consciousness would be, so too do the arguments about effectiveness founder in the face of modern technology.

snowden doesn’t have to be arrested, or jailed, in order to be an effective dissenter. he has used the tools with which he and his peers were raised, the internet and mass media–to do the hard work for him. he doesn’t have to martyr for the cause to be heard. and martyr he would–all ideas to the contrary have been obliterated by the gov’ts treatment of manning, drake, barrett brown et al. we know that not only would he be in solitary, he would be silenced both in and out of court, making his act less effective, not more.

30

Aaron Lercher 05.29.14 at 3:34 pm

Socrates says to Crito that if he went into exile rather than accepting the punishment determined by the court, either the country that he went to would have a bad government or a good one. Those with good governments should not want a law-breaker and he should not want to go to a country with a bad government.
So Packer could argue that he’s upholding this very high standard set by Socrates. (I’m trying to take Packer seriously here.)
I disagree because this means that dissent becomes possible only when someone is prepared to suffer punishment. Punishment can mean death. It may perhaps be true that the willingness to die is the ultimate sign of moral seriousness. Many members of the Black Civil Rights movement lived up to this standard so it is not beyond our abilities. But do we want our society to refuse to accept moral arguments by dissenters unless these dissenters express their willingness to accept punishment?
@21 (adam.smith):
When Rawls says that the kind of civil disobedience he is considering involves a willingness to accept punishment, he’s making a stipulation. He’s saying: for the sake of argument, let’s just consider these cases, even though Zinn and others say that these aren’t the only cases of civil disobedience. (Section 55, note 19)
Willingness to accept punishment is not part of Rawls’s moral reasoning for justifying civil disobedience. Rawls says civil disobedience is justified when (1) a sufficiently important matter, such as a basic liberty, is at stake; (2) other recourses have been tried which failed; (3) it does not lead to civil disorder.
Rawls says the third of these is hard to define. But it is a matter of whether civil disobedience is effective as a moral argument or appeal, or whether it would not work because it would only be understood as a threat.
It seems to me that Snowden’s action meets condition (1).
It’s less clear whether condition (2) is met in Snowden’s case. But is there is a political process in the US which really allows for surveillance to be questioned? I don’t think so. So condition (2) in my opinion is met because there is no other genuine recourse. (Packer’s conclusion agrees with this point by remarking on Obama’s unwillingness to limit surveillance.)
Snowden’s action does not invite civil disorder. So Snowden meets condition (3). Not many people are willing to do what he did. Of course it is said that Snowden’s action is threatening. But that is not true.
About Rawls, I think it’s important to find a “radical Rawls” who is inspired by the idealism of Black Civil Rights movement. Rawls is only one guy. But a good one to have on your side.

31

elm 05.29.14 at 3:55 pm

RJB @ 23:

Can someone explain to me why Weber sees ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’ as focused on ends rather than means? They take responsibility for the right means, and The Lord sees to the ends, right?

I think the ultimate part of ultimate ends is crucial. In that mode of thinking, the Lord (being just and good) surely will provide good ends, as long as the action was motivated by good motivation. Furthermore, one should not consider what lesser ends will occur. E.g. “Kill them all and let God sort them out”

32

Thornton Hall 05.29.14 at 4:16 pm

Please note that I contrasted Henry’s views with Packer’s in a post that went up this morning:
http://thorntonhalldesign.com/philosophy/2014/5/28/what-does-objectivity-do

Packer goes astray because he is trying to demonstrate the truth of a falsehood: the ideal of objective media.

33

Jerry Vinokurov 05.29.14 at 4:32 pm

As usual, Packer other “national security liberals,” try to personalize the issue by making it about Snowden the man, rather than, you know, the absurd overreach of the national security state. As CityZen rightly points out, what’s being asserted here is not just the right to surveil any electronic communication whatsoever, but the right to do so without accountability and in secret. All the pearl-clutchers who are Very Concerned about one individual overriding the “democratic will” find it very convenient to ignore the fact that the national security establishment is about as insulated from democratic feedback as any institution in America.

34

bianca steele 05.29.14 at 5:09 pm

Far from not believing in any institutions, from what I’ve read, it seems to me Snowden is more the type who thinks “if only the czar knew,” with a more expansive concept of sovereignty in place of the word “czar.”

I associate his concern about not taking action for himself, as Henry documents in the OP was in fact a concern of Snowden’s, with the concern that technology and science in particular should understand themselves to be subordinate to non-instrumental ways of thinking. (Non-instrumental doesn’t mean non-utilitarian or deontological, it just means including human concerns and not just reductively scientific ones, why we might want to do this or that and not just whether or not we can.) IIRC Richard Posner discussed this at length in one of his recent books, maybe the one on Catastrophe. Obviously everybody who uses that argument probably has a certain group they think of when they think of “people who are responsible for taking care of the non-instrumental, human stuff: maybe democratic decision making processes, maybe a government bureaucracy.

I assume Packer is making a variant on the same argument, but I should probably read it again.

35

TM 05.29.14 at 5:37 pm

The OP is a 2500 word piece dissecting a piece of ugly dishonest right-wing propaganda. IMHO this is not only a waste of time and space but more importantly it is sheer liberal masochism to treat a piece of ugly dishonest right-wing propaganda as if it were worthy of genuine argumentative engagement and rebuttal.

36

TM 05.29.14 at 5:43 pm

P.S. Number Three at 14 nails it. What more needs to be said?

37

CityZen 05.29.14 at 6:01 pm

Packer:
“These are abuses, but they don’t quite reach the level of the Stasi. They don’t portend a totalitarian state “beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past,” as Greenwald believes is possible. A friend from Iran who was jailed and tortured for having the wrong political beliefs, and who is now an American citizen, observed drily, “I prefer to be spied on by NSA.” “

So, this is what it’s come to: well, we’re not the Stasi/Iran! That’s the current applicable standard. (Incidentally, we’re not the Stasi/Iran, but only strictly within national boundaries, and only with respect to bona fide citizens; extra-territorially, pretty much anything goes.)

Straightwood @16: “The Snowden affair is acting as a kind of institutional X-Ray revealing the ugly skeleton of authoritarianism that lies beneath the bland appearance of the American liberal establishment.”

I worry about this being true; I’m not sure it is, yet … or at least I hope not. But, if anything, it feels as if in the west, generally, adherence to core liberal principles/values has become grudging adherence, or perhaps a matter of institutional inertia, or a matter of adhering to the bare minimum demands of the “letter” of the rule of law as opposed to its spirit. And this as opposed to adherence to genuine liberal ideals being a background given.

38

Henry 05.29.14 at 7:21 pm

A response to TM@35, and a more general response to other comments of this genre, since this kind of thing comes up nearly every time I write something disagreeing with (or as in this case sharply criticizing) someone to my right. However much it may vex or annoy you that I wrote this post, it’s my time that I spent writing it, not yours. You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. If you believe on principle that it’s not worth responding to bad argument and logic, you’re certainly entitled to your point of view, but don’t be offended if I ignore it or discount it. And I’m only responding here, because as noted this kind of comment comes up quite frequently, and I may find it useful in the future to have a referent comment I can just link back to.

39

TM 05.29.14 at 7:52 pm

Henry, I am unsurprised to learn that we disagree on this matter and I am not offended at all but I think it is worthwhile at least registering that disagreement. I didn’t expect much of a response but if “this kind of comment comes up quite frequently”, as you say, maybe you might want to consider that there might, perhaps, hypothetically, be a slight chance that it could have some merit. Not because I may or may not be annoyed but because of the reasons that I, and those others who write “this kind of comment”, have given.

40

js. 05.29.14 at 8:05 pm

So, when a prominent political commentator completely misrepresents a major political/social theorist and the views of very much in-the-news figure like Snowden—when all this happens, one shouldn’t point out the misrepresentations and flaws in the argument but rather silently pass them over? Because that’s what’s really going to move political discourse forward? This is, umm, not the most plausible suggestion I’ve heard this week.

41

CityZen 05.29.14 at 8:11 pm

@38, @39

I agree it’s frustrating to have to respond to “propaganda”; but people like Packer are at least engaged in dialogue – propagandistic though it may be, it is comparatively more sophisticated (references to Weber and all that) – and they’re still within the “space of reasons”, as it were, even if marginally. Given his/their prominence, responding is worthwhile. As for “masochism”, some arguments reflect bad logic and some no logic – sorting out which are which can still be a bit of fun.

42

William Berry 05.29.14 at 8:13 pm

@TM: So how do you affect the zeitgeist (as we used to call it), shift the “paradigm”, move the “Overton Window”, whatever?

The establishment ideology of legitimation doesn’t have to make sense as long as it achieves its end of serving the interests of the power elites and the advancement of their agenda.

Thanks to John and others here for carrying on the good fight.

43

CityZen 05.29.14 at 8:31 pm

Packer again:
“The sense of oppression among Greenwald, Poitras, and other American dissenters is only possible to those who have lived their entire lives under the rule of law and have come to take it for granted.”

Living under the rule of law is not something for which we need to prostrate ourselves in eternal gratitude. Rather, taking it for granted is exactly the point; as they say, it’s not a privilege but a right. The rule of law, when it is present, operates as a kind of background given – it’s the basic, underlying infrastructure (a bit like plumbing) on the basis of which ordinary lives can be carry on with stability, certainty, etc. Given the sheer existence of secret laws being interpreted and applied in secret courts by way of “authorizing” secret mass surveillance, etc., can we still take the rule of law for granted with any reasonable comfort? That’s exactly the worry here, no?

44

TM 05.29.14 at 9:20 pm

Since you asked, 40/41/42: I see a difference between pointing out the “misrepresentations and flaws” in an argument, and lending it legitimacy by making it the topic of a 2500 word piece – especially when the particular argument in question quite clearly lacks legitimacy. And I think that “pointing out the flaws” on the other side, while sometimes (sic!) necessary, is actually not an effective means to “affect the zeitgeist” or “shift the paradigm”. One often gets the impression that CT is tied up with endlessly debating the latest right-wing stupidity (remember those three posts about the latest fart from Tyler Cowen?) rather than there being any effort at actually promoting something like a progressive agenda. And I fully understand that – it’s so much easier, and it is always satisfying to demonstrate one’s intellectual superiority. But let’s not kid ourselves that we are winning any political battles that way. Maybe we can all reflect a bit more on what we hope to achieve by doing what we are doing.

45

TM 05.29.14 at 9:27 pm

And please, don’t get me wrong – if you feel it important to debate the fine points of George Packer’s sophistry, by all means go for it, I have absolutely no intention of standing in your way.

46

Thornton Hall 05.29.14 at 9:32 pm

Wait, am I the only one who noticed that Packer’s critique has almost nothing to do with Weber and everything to do with setting up a bizarre false choice between good objective media and bad biased Greenwald?

His reference to Weber may be terrible, but his notion that media objectivity (invented around 1945) is all that stands between democracy and the abyss is the clear intended take-away of Packer’s piece. And it is nonsense.

47

CityZen 05.29.14 at 9:46 pm

@44

That’s fair; I’d be lying if I said I had no worries at all about the ultimate futility of doing what I’m doing here.

But here’s an observation: daily life in the Soviet bloc involved, for many people at least (my parents and their dinner table friends among them), coming up with countless viciously funny jokes based on the latest piece of propaganda emanating from the centres of power. The humour was produced by means of deconstructing, in one way or another, the sophistry of the claims being made.

I ask myself: was it all futile? I’m not so sure.

Admittedly we’re not having quite as much of a laugh here, right now, but are we doing something all that different? The gains may not be immediate or immediately tangible, but I suspect there are gains.

Responding to the sophistry/propaganda of people like Packer is not entirely a defensive game; there is a positive element here too, and besides doing this and promoting a progressive agenda (by whatever other means) are, at the very least, not mutually exclusive or incompatible.

48

TM 05.29.14 at 9:47 pm

Let me respond more specifically to 42. To shift the “paradigm”, what we need to do is shift the debate from Edward Snowden’s “guilt” to the guilt of those responsible for the erosion of our civil liberties and the establishment of a surveillance state. We need to shift the debate from whether Snowden is a coward for refusing to rot in prison (and that is what is being debated here!), to the need for criminal indictment of those engaged in unconstitutional wiretapping. For example. To affect the zeitgeist, we need to reject the terms of the debate defined by our opponents and insist on our own terms. That btw is what I have been saying many times but well who listens to me. (Wandering off into the desert.)

49

Ronan(rf) 05.29.14 at 9:53 pm

Perhaps, but that’s only an aesthetic preference. It doesn’t have any tactical, strategic or moral superiority over engaging with Cowen, Packer et al.

50

CityZen 05.29.14 at 10:01 pm

@48

But isn’t the shift you ask for at least implied in the OP? If, contrary to Packer, Snowden bears no guilt, this is (in large part) because he has rightly disclosed the guilt of those who are eroding civil liberties, etc. Endeavouring to absolve Snowden of guilt via reasoned argumentation entails, at the same time, condemning (to some degree at least) the practices he has revealed.

Now, if we’re looking for a detailed argument as to the precise nature of the criminal wrongdoing involved in the practices he has disclosed, for that we would need someone versed in the relevant legal principles, etc. That would be a great future post, if we can find a contributor to speak to these issues with some authority.

51

Thornton Hall 05.29.14 at 10:17 pm

@48 TM, you may be wandering in a desert, but it looks quite familiar. You got quite a hearing in 1999-2000. It was called the Nader campaign. The direct result was the Iraq war. I’m not sure if that’s deontologist or consequentialist.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the rest of us have noticed that shaking an angry fist and claiming that everyone who disagrees with you is a warmongering fascist is not a successful strategy for changing the world.

To me it seems like it might be useful to observe that the media that served as W’s stenographers in the run-up to Iraq is being radically transformed by the Internet. The zeigeist is changing in the way that it always changes: unpredictably.

IMHO, our best hope is to shape the norms of the emerging press, which means engaging with them with arguments and on an emotional level. One powerful argument is to point out that the he-said/she-said definition of “good objective media” is a historical anomoly that makes it impossible to see that the two parties can be both equally wrong some of the time (your main point, I think) and that one party can be totally wrong all of the time (my main point). I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

52

roger gathman 05.29.14 at 11:02 pm

I think a word should be said to the practical effect of revelations like Snowdens. I think the more of them there are, the safer the US would be. It is the intelligence agencies, working in secret, that have produced the conditions in which everything fucks up for the U.S. – from supporting the Shah in Iran to supporting the Saudis and the Pakistanis in building a network of “freedom fighting” paramilitary Islamic fundamentalists in the 80s. It does take a lot of gall to make the assumption, after all we know about, say, how 9.11 went down, that the secrets the government is keeping are vital to protect us. In fact, the entire Patriot act apparatus arose in an act of denial – denial that 9.11 was easily preventible with the tools that we had, but that the incompetent executive branch and the incompetence of the perpetually feuding fbi and cia made the attack by 19 rednecks boarding planes possible. Without the Snowdens and Greenwalds, we will be blindsided again and again.
But the creepy club of national security liberals (how they get to be liberals, I don’t know – they certainly aren’t george mcgovern’s liberals) are saturated in the fats of georgetown conventional wisdom, and never cease to comment on issues they really haven’t thought very hard about.

53

roy belmont 05.29.14 at 11:03 pm

TM 48:
the need for criminal indictment of those engaged in unconstitutional wiretapping

LA County Sheriff put Compton on 24/7 blanket snoop-down for a solid year. That’s already historical, past, done.
It is absurd to the point of pathetic to think that the mind-set behind that kind of shit could be affected by anything like “criminal indictment”.
They have the money, they have the guns, they have the tech, and a base of support that is mindless and thoroughly subservient, and will back any move they make, as long as it’s done under the aegis of paramount safety and security.

Holistic awareness of the moment’s symptomologies is hard, but it’s doable. You just have to not be afraid of Satan and his minions.
Which includes not being afraid to face the fact that that’s what you’re up against.

Greenwald’s self-aggrandizing pseudo-libertarian cartoon of derring-do has got the same relationship to the thing on the other side of the Panopticon’s lenses and microphones as the recently withdrawn “9/11 cheese plate” proffered at the Museum-at-Ground-Zero gift shoppe has to the real causes of the WTC event.

Nothing about this is anything like what it seems on the surface.
Chelsea Manning’s in the brig for umpteen years, Julian Assange is still stuck in the Ecuadoran embassy, while Greenwald steps to the podium, in the US!, to receive honors for doing a teeny-weeny miniaturized version of what Manning and Assange did. It would have had more narrative veracity if it could have been presented on the same day as Manning’s sentencing.

Nothing about this is as it appears.
From Greenwald’s employer’s cabalistic team-chess regime-change cos-play in Ukraine, not to mention the under-the-bus PayPal14, to the pig-fest of contemporary African meddling by whatever it is that’s currently doing that.
Yemen. Venezuela. Sisi. Modi.
Very long list, indicating the doers of heinosity are not much concerned with moral virtue as guiding light.
The moral paradigm is empire.

People who use robotic fruit bats to kill innocent human beings, with total impunity, are not susceptible to Constitutional reprimand. It’s a nice idea but it’s naive, and decades behind the contemporary crux.

On the other hand – Silver Lining Dept. – a whole huge bunch of creepy-ass internet weirdos have just had the invisible cloaks ripped off their scuzzy shoulders for keeps.
Subjectively.
By Snowden’s “revelations” of a surveillance architecture that’s been metastisizing and evolving for generations.
But that’s an Italian train schedule, vectoring toward dependable accuracy.

We don’t need a bunch of 20th century lawyers, we need a crack team of spiritual oncologists.

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Thornton Hall 05.29.14 at 11:11 pm

@53. Perhaps. But what is your non-naive image of cancer-free. Presumably it’s some era in human history that you can describe.

55

roy belmont 05.29.14 at 11:21 pm

Depends on what you mean by “history” white man.

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J Thomas 05.29.14 at 11:56 pm

#35
“IMHO this is not only a waste of time and space but more importantly it is sheer liberal masochism to treat a piece of ugly dishonest right-wing propaganda as if it were worthy of genuine argumentative engagement and rebuttal.”

I disagree. If you figure that propaganda is not worth genuine argument, that isn’t so different from saying that obvious criminals don’t deserve trials.

I say, it’s fine to treat ugly dishonest diatribes as if they were worthy of genuine argument. And after you demolish them, it’s also fine to point out that they were guilty, guilty, guilty, that they were dishonest from the get-go. It’s OK to be scathing, to claim (if you believe it) that their authors were not actually that stupid but they carefully constructed an argument they knew was wrong hoping to befuddle people.

There is nothing wrong with showing that worthless arguments are worthless. That does not have to involve a display of undue respect.

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john c. halasz 05.30.14 at 12:13 am

Well, at least, in defense of Henry, and contrary to TM,- (though he’s right that there is a certain CT tendency to conduct actual straw-man arguments with real straw men from the right),- the quotes from Weber were wonderful. It should be a reminder that politics isn’t reducible to morality, contrary to strong liberal tendencies to wish that it were so.

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Bruce Wilder 05.30.14 at 12:16 am

. . . for Weber politics is fundamentally agonistic – a realm of struggle where different political actors, devoted to different and irreconcilable purposes, each do their best to prevail. In this understanding, politics is often a tragedy, where every actor behaves as he or she must, leading to an end that none of them wants.

I won’t claim to be well enough briefed on Weber to referee invocations of his ideas. I would remark that while politics is always a contest to win the game as set, for symbolic or substantive prizes, it can also be fought in by-play for the prize of the game itself, that is to determine the rules of the game, rather than to win its prizes. This is where Snowden and Greenwald are involved, and where Greenwald’s reviewers and Snowden’s critics meet them. Neither Greenwald nor Packard (nor Kinsley nor any number of others) are in office or working for a party or faction seeking power for its own sake. They are conducting by-play, incidental to the main contest, and their apparent objectives and concerns bear a meta relationship to the main contest over the development of institutions and policy.

Except for Snowden (and Assange), none of the talking heads seems to have much skin in the game, or much consciousness of what having skin in the game looks and feels like. Greenwald, for all his passionate sincerity, is all abstract principle, which, in its way, is as detached as Packard’s . . . what word applies? . . . ennui and complacency.

The new technology of communication, with its abstraction layers and ethernet and cloud services, lacks tangible media, and the lack adds to this confusing detachment. Journalists have lost their journals. What does freedom of the press mean when there are no longer presses or paper?

The very meaning of privacy or secrecy is unmoored. I think we underestimate the extent to which our shared ideas, about what the concepts of privacy and secrecy mean, have been undermined by the erosion of the tangible in the transformation of communication technology. The 4th amendment promises that people have a right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” — but in our brave new world, what “papers”, what “houses” even? What good does it do to imagine expectations of privacy in the cloud? We depend on these tangible fencelines and thresholds, walls and doors, locks and whispers, to anchor our ideas in metaphor, and the anchors are gone or no longer apply.

Regarding secrecy and privacy (and intellectual property), we had arrived at conventional resolutions of the inevitable conflicts, which rested more on particulars of the tangible than on philosophical analysis, and now all we have is the philosophy, and we scarcely know how to talk about the problem, let alone resolve the conflicts.

Although he didn’t really say much that was insightful, I thought one of the interesting points Packard raised was Snowden’s personal history as a techn0-libertarian child of the internet. It wasn’t that long ago that people were all millennial about how information wanted to be free and napster, blogs, twitter, . . . [fill in the blank] would change the world, and the world changed, and here we are, worried about the surveillance state. It wasn’t that long ago that the anonymity of the internet seemed to some to create a wild west, and now, apparently, we are all visible, no one anonymous, to the government or to giant corporations intent on marketing to us, though total surveillance doesn’t seem to be effective in curbing the spread of computer viruses, on-line frauds, or unsolicited cellphone calls.

In a way, it is not surprising that so little discussion really engages with the issues of secrecy, privacy or intellectual property. With nothing tangible in the technology, there are no saliences, to suggest how a stable convention for resolving conflict could be set up. And, as long as the subject is contested in by-play, in the abstract for the most part, the most dramatic and interesting aspects are likely to be continue to be the petty personal melodramas.

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Straightwood 05.30.14 at 1:34 am

@58

These observations are wide of the mark. Political history is full of times of transitional turbulence, but that does not mean that there is no vector of progress. Magna Carta was an historic advance not because it immediately made life more pleasant for the affected parties but because it established the rule of law over personal power. The clear idea that Snowden and the other advocates of constitutional protections of privacy are defending is that no institution should have unrestricted access to personal communications. It’s just that simple.

Snowden and Berners Lee have called for a global charter of personal electronic privacy rights, and some framework of this kind will be required to control the destructive tendency of powerful institutions to destroy personal privacy. The pundit squabbling you rightly decry is just a distraction from the formation of a new consensus on privacy rights, but those rights will be elucidated, legislated, and enforced. The intolerable alternative is for all of us to live under Orwellian surveillance.

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 1:50 am

@roy belmont 55 I mean the recorded actions and circumstances of human beings. What do you mean?

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 2:04 am

In the last seven days the following two things happened:
1. Glenn Greenwald released a self-serving ode to himself that also tells the story of Edward Snowden, whose leaks revealed that the NSA keeps records of our phone calls.
2. The Justice Department announced that it will require the videotaping of all interrogations, a move that will increase the pressure on local jurisdictions to do the same.

Now if you believe that anything connected to point 1 is more important than point 2, I have news for you: you are a rich person who has never dealt with the wrong end of the law. If you know how important number 2 is, well, then you probably know what “surveillance” actually is.

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GiT 05.30.14 at 2:24 am

On the subtopic of “why do these people engage with rightwing blowhards,” one might note that you are on a site where a number of the headline contributors explicitly study rightwing thought. The constant refrain of “why are you bothering” is a bit ridiculous. Surely some people ought to study rightwing blowhards, and one ought to expect them to write about it.

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CityZen 05.30.14 at 5:39 am

@61

While the publication of Greenwald’s book is neither here nor there, I’m not sure why the broader issues its substance (apart from biographical stuff) addresses should be brought into comparison at this point with the Justice Department announcement. Nor am I sure why we need to decide which is more important, i.e., 1 or 2. The broader issues are both important for different reasons; some might be more urgent than others, but I’m not sure which is which here.

For that matter, why don’t we bring up more facts, like: over the past week 3) the Ukraine crisis escalated, 4) climate change continued, 5) a group of young children/girls remained in the clutches of a bunch of mad men etc. etc.

It’s fairly easy to make discussion of the somewhat abstract issues (e.g., the nature of privacy, the extent of state power, etc) involved in #1 look like affluent self-indulgence, or pointless or whatever … so, what? We need to shut up now? I think not.

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tenzing 05.30.14 at 6:01 am

@ Thornton Hall

Apropos of nothing, upthread you mentioned Nader’s unforgivable decision to invade Iraq. Now you want to talk about recording interrogations. What’s next? Perhaps some other things happened in the last seven days worth talking about. I made a killer tuna casserole yesterday, for instance. Oh, here’s something. Apparently the Obama administration has delayed a decision until the end of the summer which would halt deportations of undocumented immigrants. Considering immigration is something of a live issue here, some people may take issue with thousands of people being torn from their families and deported. I submit that anyone who doesn’t think this issue is more important than any other doesn’t know what it’s like to be an undocumented immigrant to their shame. Also, they’re probably rich. Furthermore, they probably are responsible for Nader’s (yimakh shemo) war in Iraq. Hmm… what’s the takeaway here? Eureka! Sometimes politicians do positive things other times they do negative things. Thornton’s Law, I’m calling it. What the relevance any of this has to a discussion of the surveillance state is beyond me though.

This is the problem with partisan Democrats, everything is a referendum on the Obama administration. Do you mind if we talk about the billion dollar money pit that is the NSA without also mentioning that Obama is a swell guy?

To establish my bona fides here since that seems to be important to you: I’m far from rich and I’ve done time in various institutions of correction. Interestingly, one of the jails I spent time in seemed to be explicitly modeled on Jeremy Benthem’s panopticon. The CO in the center (I forget what we called it) could see everything going on in the different pods, but we couldn’t see them through the one-way-mirror walls. They could see us sleep, they could see us play spades, they could see us pace around aimlessly, they could see us shit, they could see everything. It was a surreal experience. Point being, yes, I know what surveillence is.

I take your second point very seriously, being a staunch supporter of reforms to the justice system myself, and I appreciate the efforts of the Justice Department in that regard. However, the important thing connected to your first point that you’re conveniently eliding is the legitimacy of the surveillance state. You would like to shift the focus of the conversation back to Greenwald’s personality while also minimizing Snowden’s revelations and in that it seems you’re in good company.

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roy belmont 05.30.14 at 7:17 am

Thornton Hall:
I mean the recorded actions and circumstances of human beings. What do you mean?

Skirting the borders of silliness here, but when I used “historical” it meant simply not-contemporary, over, past, done.
Whereas when you asked for “some era in human history” you obviously meant something out of the historical record of your/our culture. Hence my interrogative statement, rhetorical.

The real history of humanity’s unavailable, due to the paucity of archival materials. It’s easy to make up shit about how it was, because there’s mostly no possibility of documented refutation. So the trope of constant progress toward better living. Until anthropolgical evidence refutes. Neanderthal ugga-wugga etc. then whoa! Neanderthal burial gifts, flowers.
Thus the empty assertion that “we” know everything essential about life as lived by all our ancestors. Including their spiritual wholeness.
I don’t subscribe.
-
So far the Snowden “revelations” are essentially that we’re being watched and listened to at exponentiating levels of detailed granularity – the Universal Nanny-Cam. What you’d expect from the nanny-state, right?
And the response, so far, is merely an increase in malaise, belated attempts to secure personal digital encryption software, and, as I mentioned, a big cooling down of anonymous scuzz-ball fever. On the internet the NSA knows whether you’re a dog or not.
Plus I bet porn habits are altering, mega.
Plus the apt and appropriate nascent attempt to start a campaign to guarantee digital privacy. A sort of moral EULA.

And yet the frenetic scurrying to create a cybernetic analog to the all-seeing eye of God continues apace, undiminished by exposure.
The metaphysical hollowness of that vision is terrifying to me, as is the delusional passivity that conflates it with anything actually divine.

Poetically what’s fascinating about all this is the anonymity of the watchers, the invisibility of those with access to the data in stark contrast to the the increasingly visible watched.
Until the inevitable moment when the Panopticon, in the image of its makers, sticks its head up its own ass.

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tenzing 05.30.14 at 8:14 am

Hey, roy. Pseudonymous scuzz-ball here who’s porn habits haven’t changed since the nineties and likely won’t into the forseeable future. Can you do me a solid? Something about the formatting of your comments is driving me up the wall. Could you write in like traditional discrete paragraphs, pretty please? The commenting system here can take care of the line breaks for you. Just hit the enter key a couple times after a paragraph and only then. I mean this in all seriousness. I genuinely enjoy the content of your comments however phantasmagoric/stream-of-consciousness/unconventional they may be, but for the love of god, help me with their readability.

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J Thomas 05.30.14 at 10:45 am

#64

“Apparently the Obama administration has delayed a decision until the end of the summer which would halt deportations of undocumented immigrants. Considering immigration is something of a live issue here, some people may take issue with thousands of people being torn from their families and deported.”

I am not current on this at all. Can you tell me, has the Obama administration delayed arresting a lot of undocumented immigrants? Or is it a bunch of undocumented immigrants who will wait in internment camps until the end of the summer before they can be deported?

Or are they only keeping the status quo until they decide whether to change it?

We obviously need some sort of change for our treatment of noncitizens, but I’m unclear what to do.

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 4:43 pm

Wow, excellent. A lot to think about.

@65 “The real history of humanity’s unavailable…” No matter how you qualify this statement, I’m not sure how one can believe it in any robust sense and not slip into solipsism. You state later “The metaphysical hollowness of that vision is terrifying to me, as is the delusional passivity that conflates it with anything actually divine.” As Thomas Reid said (paraphrasing), if you find yourself at the bottom of a coal pit, you may not know where you took the wrong turn, but you took one somewhere. Personally, I suspect there is a cause and effect between seriously entertaining ideas like the unknowability of human history and a feeling of metaphysical hollowness, a causal chain that is only obscured by deep dives into the meaning of the NSA.

@63 and 64 I don’t think these two events are as unrelated as you seem to believe.

But first, I don’t think what I am criticizing is discussion of “somewhat abstract issues”. What I have a problem with is when we get so focused on abstraction that we loose all sense of actual human experience. A general example of what I object to might be when a speaker declares something to be in “the national interest” but there is literally no logical way that the contemplated action could improve the lived experience of a single American.

Here, the debate is about Max Weber (who, for reasons unknown to me, seemed to have an unusal regard for the behavior of church goers) and the legitimacy of the surveillance state. My gut says: how, exactly, does this impact the lived experience of human beings? Is the NSA decreasing freedom in the same way that Reaganists rank North Dakota as more free than Massachusetts? Are people fetishizing “privacy” to the point where they think that private suffering is better than observed flourishing?

Is it a red flag that a piece about Greenwald and the value of objectivity in media (that I totally disagree with) is being analyzed as a right-wing screed in favor of a police state?

I think Packer probably accurately characterized Greenwald’s view, and the view of many in this thread as “The national surveillance state cannot be made legitimate by democracy”. My point is this: I don’t think that sentence has any meaning. I don’t think it has any content. I think it is nonsense.

If you show me a man making a false confession to protect his 12 year old son from being charged as an adult for a crime the child couldn’t possibly understand, and tell me that President Obama acted to prevent that man from being falsely charged and convicted, I would say that the world has become a better place. I think that has statement has content. It could be false (it’s not).

But if you tell me that Greenwald’s actions are heroic because “the national surveillance state cannot possibly be legitimate”, I have no idea what you are talking about. Whose life includes less suffering after Greenwald and Snowden? Whose life includes more? How exactly is “Orwellian” a synonym for “worse for people with names and lives”?

I am not saying that it’s impossible to draw a connection. In fact, I suspect that there is an optimal level of counterterrorism efforts and that is is far below our current program. But that’s not the tone here. The tone is literally that the NSA’s behavior, if allowed to continue, is a disaster of epic proportion. That we would criticize Snowden is a sign of global spiritual cancer. And that simply cannot be true, not when the actual lived experience of human beings who suffer at the hands of coercive violent power in this country is getting better, not worse.

Why bring up videotaped confessions? To juxtapose the abstract gloom and doom with the actual lived reality of an America where, after a long dark night of the soul, are finally getting better, not worse.

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Layman 05.30.14 at 4:56 pm

Thornton Hall @ 68

‘But if you tell me that Greenwald’s actions are heroic because “the national surveillance state cannot possibly be legitimate”, I have no idea what you are talking about. Whose life includes less suffering after Greenwald and Snowden? Whose life includes more? How exactly is “Orwellian” a synonym for “worse for people with names and lives”?’

To your first point, did anyone claim that Greenwald’s actions were ‘heroic’? I think they’re ‘journalistic’, which usually requires some level of conviction but not necessarily heroism.

Second, is it your view that the way to measure whether a government’s secret behavior is legal is to try and assess the impact of the secret behavior on the lives of others? Or is it only after some details of the secret behavior are revealed that you can make that assessment? Do you not see the problem?

70

Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 5:55 pm

I do see the problem and I think Packer saw the same problem. His main point (totally obscured above) was that Greenwald is a terrible choice of person to designate to solve the problem of “what do we need to know to make an informed decision”.

A few unordered points:
*The job of a journalist is to sell newspapers. “Journalistic” behavior is telling stories that sell newspapers. The fact that journalists have confused themselves over this is a contributing factor to our current democratic frustrations.1
*It is not my view that legal analysis is simply a matter of utilitarian calculation. It is my view that rants about the end of the world as we know it should at least contain a nod to utilitarian concerns.
*It cannot (logically) be true that the decision break the law by leak informationing that has been declared secret by democratically elected officials can be judged by reference to positive law.
*To live above the law, you must be honest. Ellsberg was. Snowden isn’t.

I think it would be great if everyone here read this very smart comparison of Ellsberg and Snowden from another blog:
http://balkin.blogspot.com/2014/05/ellsberg-and-snowden.html

Snowden didn’t have Ellsberg’s ability to evaluate whether the information he collected would damage national security. That’s why his actions strike me as irresponsible. In the end, Ellsberg knew what he was doing. Snowden did not. Moreover, there are many significant differences between the Cold War and Vietnam and the war we began fighting after 9/11. The most important difference I’ll highlight here is reflected in Nixon’s comments. From their point of view, the war Johnson and Nixon were fighting was both external and internal. Although they were completely wrong, they believed that the domestic anti-war movement was being led by communist agents. Thus they felt justified in ordering the use of surveillance and other intelligence techniques normally used against foreign enemies against U.S. citizens. Ellsberg’s trial collapsed when it was revealed that the Nixon administration had burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, part of Nixon’s effort to discredit the Hiss-like Ellsberg and part of the misdeeds we call Watergate.

——-
1Only a cabal of over educated, under-infomed, self-regarding, delusional nitwits could convince themselves that they are capable of producing “objective” news, and, importantly, that this “objective” news is somehow a key pillar of democracy, despite being totally unheard of before 1945. Objectivity demands two sides, it demands High Broderism, and it values access over judgement. It give McCarthy a free pass and then convinced itself that a confidential source brought down Nixon, despite the fact that all the truly bad things Nixon did were revealed by people speaking on the record.

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Layman 05.30.14 at 6:37 pm

Thornton Hall @ 70

Do you agree, then, that no one called a Greenwald ‘heroic’? Or will you point to someone who did?

For the rest of your post, it’s clear you don’t like journalists or Snowden. So what?

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Layman 05.30.14 at 6:41 pm

Thornton Hall @ 70

As for the ‘smart comparison’ you offer, the first few sentences are simply ad hominem ( Snowden is dumb); the next bit is special pleading (things are different now).

73

Bruce Wilder 05.30.14 at 6:51 pm

I think Jack Goldsmith’s critique of Michael Kinsley’s review of Greenwald’s book covers some of the issues raised in this comment thread about the role of journalism vis a vis democracy and secrets, rather well.

http://www.lawfareblog.com/2014/05/why-kinsley-is-wrong-about-the-connection-between-democracy-and-publication-of-national-security-secrets/

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CityZen 05.30.14 at 7:04 pm

@70

You might want to look up what Ellsberg himself has to say about all this.

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Matt 05.30.14 at 7:07 pm

The NSA is spying on Americans and then passing tips about crimes to the DEA, FBI, and other federal agencies. “Parallel construction” is used to hide the illegally gathered evidence that put a case in motion from the defense and from the courts. If you care about the rights of the accused in the US criminal justice system, and you weren’t previously aware of the NSA’s role in undermining those rights, you should read up:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/05/us-dea-sod-idUSBRE97409R20130805

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 7:09 pm

@layman You’re right, I don’t like journalists. I’m not sure I have an opinion about whether I like snowden. I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about, say, SOPA, with him at a cocktail party. But maybe I should have a little less faith in laymen, as well, eh? Because there is exactly zero ad hominim/special pleading in the blog I linked to. Judging Snowden as someone who was not in a position to know the likely consequences of his actions is not the same as calling him dumb. Duh!

77

TM 05.30.14 at 7:17 pm

Thornton 51, are you trolling or what?

CityZen 50, I’m not sure you are getting my intention. To spell it out one last time, the point is that by debating whether or not Snowden is guilty, instead of debating whether or not those who are taking away our civil liberties are guilty, we are accepting the system’s (for want of a better word) terms of the debate instead trying to change those terms.

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 7:28 pm

@bruce wilder. Thanks for the link. Smart post.

79

Russell L. Carter 05.30.14 at 8:15 pm

1. Snowden is guilty.
2. Everything he has said so far is consistent with my own experiences Q cleared in the security state.
3. In particular, I witnessed the beginnings of pervasive unjustified network surveillance 20 years ago. What can be done will be done.
4. I had very similar experiences with complaining to superiors as he has described. I was a coward, I quit, and ignored it. In hindsight, I got exercised over laughably insignificant transgressions, compared to what Snowden has revealed.
5. The people in this thread trying to portray him as a blind specialist incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions appear, to me, to instead be the blind.
The whole point of the classified state is the classification of everything. And everything is of crucial importance to the safety of The State. Yet here we are, a year later, and… nothing. Oh right, it is of vital importance to the preservation of the World’s Greatest Democracy Evah! that any actual damage be… classified. In exactly the same way that the vast counter-terrorist investments as a whole have thwarted exactly how many life threatening terrorist operations over the last 14 years? One, I think? And yet, the Boston Marathon thing happened.
6. People who have not been immersed in the system may not be aware that the whole state secrets apparatus is a marvelously efficient method of controlling the labor force. The frequent ambiguities an employee encounters make it nearly impossible to have a perfect track record preserving the protocols, and management knows this. And management uses that knowledge, at its discretion. Think Wen Ho Lee. It doesn’t matter whether the employee is a contractor or not. For the contractors, supposedly working closer to the efficiency optimizing magic of the free market, can you see why classifying everything would present a convenient barrier to entry for competitors?
7. Of course some secrets are important. Vitally important. That’s why those important ones are compartmentalized, on a need to know (NTK) basis. If you believe that Snowden stole vitally important secrets, launch codes, say, contemplate this: how is it that Edward Snowden could freely access compartmentalized secrets on a non-NTK basis when he already had negative letters on file from previous supervisors (cf why he resigned from NSA proper). I’m not seeing a mechanism there, unless the whole classification regime implementation is worthless for keeping, ahem, secrets. But then Alexander and Co. would have been summarily cashiered, no?

Conclusion: The system is guilty, vastly more guilty, of far worse crimes and injustices, than is Edward Snowden. AFICS his professional and personal life is destroyed. His asylum was for a single year. Maybe it gets renewed, or maybe the erratic gangster Putin decides to play a card. So in this sense, Henry’s analysis is completely correct.

I do want to thank Henry for writing this post.

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CityZen 05.30.14 at 8:25 pm

It’s true that articulating what exactly is wrongful or harmful about invasion of privacy (as in warrantless/unconstitutional surveillance), taken in isolation, is not easy. By definition it’s illegal, i.e., it’s a legal wrong, but why? What’s at stake? Being spied upon, in and of itself, is not like being tortured (or whatever “tangible” harm you wish to compare it with). The peeping tom is not a rapist. Fair enough.

First of all, it’s silly to think that the state is merely snooping. As a post above notes, there’s this practice of “parallel construction”; and that’s already deeply problematic. There’s probably other forms of “tangible” action that is being taken on the basis of the information gathered; we can be sure the data is being put to some use, and the particulars of all that are not yet known. That is, we just don’t know yet. Apart from random individuals, I’m not sure how comfortable activist organizations, NGOs or other aspects of civil society, should be feeling these days. I guess we’ll see.

And besides, I think the point Greenwald et al are emphasizing is that even if the tangible/concrete abuses are relatively minimal presently, there is a huge, HUGE, potential for abuse given the sheer existence of this mass surveillance apparatus. How much clearer can they make it for you? Can you be certain that the states that are currently making use of such technology on a wide scale will not take (an even more) radical turn given the right circumstances, say a decade or two or three from now? And in addition to the potential for abuse, there is great potential for error … Buttle/Tuttle anyone? And the broader point is that the sheer existence of this apparatus has a corrosive effect on liberal-democratic society, effects that are not immediately “tangible” or readily discernible, but real nevertheless. (The Stasi had an effect not only because it actually actively targeted many people, but just as importantly because the potential for targeting was always there, in the background; the sheer existence of such an apparatus was corrosive.)

It’s astonishing all this has to be spelled out to people, e.g. @70! Even Ron Paul gets the gist of it: http://ronpaulinstitute.org/archives/featured-articles/2014/january/17/you-cant-opt-out-10-nsa-myths-debunked.aspx

But ok, suppose we do pose the question of what’s wrong with snooping in isolation, i.e., in and of itself. What if they’re just looking, and that it’s it; or more accurately, that all your information, your vast digital footprint, is being stored and made accessible to some agency or other (even if they are not actively looking presently). And they’re doing this and nothing, but nothing, else – guaranteed, forever – cross my heart and hope to die stick a needle in my eye. (That’s not plausible, but fine.) So, what’s wrong here? Well, I don’t know: you’d have to ask someone who’s been a victim of peeping tommery, I suppose – ask them, why did you feel violated?

Better yet: I gather Greenwald will be publishing names, or lists of names, of people actually being surveilled or targeted. Suppose your name is on that list: do please tell me you’d experience no anxiety whatsoever?

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/may/26/glenn-greenwald-publish-list-us-citizens-nsa-spied/

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 8:46 pm

Citzen You are amazed I need things spelled out and then you write sentences like this:

And the broader point is that the sheer existence of this apparatus has a corrosive effect on liberal-democratic society, effects that are not immediately “tangible” or readily discernible, but real nevertheless.

If that really is the broader point, then yes, I am confused and need things like “corrosive effect” spelled out. When the cops in Albuquerque shoot the elderly in the streets is that part of the corrosion?

I am honestly not trying to be a troll. I picked a career based on Thurgood Marshall dissents in 4A cases. I think that the harm of unreasonable searches are obvious. Militarized cop breaking into my house and go through my drawers: I’m harmed. But there is no grand transitive property of privacy concerns that makes the harms of the NSA equally obvious. My point is simple: tell me the harm.

Snowden actually illustrates this. Basically, he says he spent a fair amount of time existing in the Internet. Ok. Where I exist, I walk to the Safeway nearly everyday. And every single time I see at least one cop who I recognize and who recognizes me (I parked too close to some woman’s Audi and he got me out of bed to move my car so she could get out. Actually, he was very nice about it.) Could he be very dangerous with all he knows about my habits? Damn straight. Will he? No, I’m a white guy with a college education, of course he won’t.

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CityZen 05.30.14 at 8:47 pm

@77 – I get it, really, I do. And all I’m saying is the two “debates” are not mutually exclusive or incompatible. I get it that you see one debate as totally settled, but given there are others out there who see it differently, continuing the discussion is unavoidable. And I get it that focussing on one “debate”, at this point in time, momentarily, displaces the other, but at any point in time we can switch over. @79 seems to be going there.

Alas, the “debate” about Snowden’s guilt is not as clear cut as, say, the “debate” on climate change, which they’re still having over on Fox, over and over. That debate is settled in a different way, by science. A legal/moral conclusion on Snowden’s actions is not about to be arrived at by some equivalent of the scientific community – as much as, I take it, you’d like it to be. And why? Well, in part because, at least as a moral matter, Snowden’s relative guilt or innocence is inevitably tied up with a normative assessment of the current status of a much larger entity, namely the Western liberal-democratic state (in his case, as instantiated by the USA).

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Matt 05.30.14 at 9:07 pm

I think that the harm of unreasonable searches are obvious. Militarized cop breaking into my house and go through my drawers: I’m harmed. But there is no grand transitive property of privacy concerns that makes the harms of the NSA equally obvious. My point is simple: tell me the harm.

Did you miss the article I linked to? The NSA is passing information on to domestic law enforcement so they can target people for “random” traffic stops or other pretexts to confirm the tips. The unreasonable searches that set the events in motion are usually kept secret, so there is no way to challenge them.

One current federal prosecutor learned how agents were using SOD tips after a drug agent misled him, the prosecutor told Reuters. In a Florida drug case he was handling, the prosecutor said, a DEA agent told him the investigation of a U.S. citizen began with a tip from an informant. When the prosecutor pressed for more information, he said, a DEA supervisor intervened and revealed that the tip had actually come through the SOD and from an NSA intercept.

“I was pissed,” the prosecutor said. “Lying about where the information came from is a bad start if you’re trying to comply with the law because it can lead to all kinds of problems with discovery and candor to the court.” The prosecutor never filed charges in the case because he lost confidence in the investigation, he said.

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CityZen 05.30.14 at 9:18 pm

@81

I take it you’ve gone through the roster of the sorts of things you would consider a “harm”, and you’ve found nothing that compares to being spied on under a system of mass warrantless surveillance? So, you just preclude the possibility that what these systems and agencies are (at least alleged to be) doing constitutes a harm.

I don’t think I can enlighten you further, beyond what I’ve said – which I urge you to read in its entirety. You can also see my post further above. Keep in mind also the distinction between harm and wrong: I can trespass on your property, causing no harm at all, yet still wrong you. In fact, I could improve your property, but without your consent my actions would still be (at least juridically) wrongful. There are deeper reasons for this: see, e.g., A. Ripstein, “Force and Freedom: Kant’s Legal and Political Philosophy” (though I don’t think he discusses privacy).

I’ve already tried to meet you more than halfway by reiterating the often made point that there is at least a great potential for great harm; and the risk itself is unacceptable. There’s also potential for harm resulting from error, etc. All those are obviously different answers from the one you’re looking for. And what I’m saying is, some of this has yet to be determined; the “tangible” aspects of the harms have yet to be cashed out fully. The “parallel construction” issue is a clear example, but other issues will come to light.

The “corrosive effect” I mention is also not easy to articulate: it has to do with the basic fact that people change their behaviour (in all sorts of micro ways) when they are being observed even in their most private/intimate moments. Of course, you will say: but if we didn’t have Snowden, we would not know we were being observed, so there would have been no problem. But then we get into a different kind of harm/wrong, namely the necessarily arbitrary nature of power being exercised in total secrecy, without oversight, etc.. Then, I really couldn’t tell you about what harms might have been effected because, literally, no one in the public would have known about them; that’s the effect of total secrecy.

Lastly, I’m not sure you really get the point of your fortuitous encounters with the cop – the point being, they’re fortuitous … contingent, based on luck, etc. Is that the proper basis of life under the rule of law? That the cops happen to be nice guys?

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Layman 05.30.14 at 9:22 pm

Thornton Hall @ 81

“I think that the harm of unreasonable searches are obvious. Militarized cop breaking into my house and go through my drawers: I’m harmed.”

How? Cops break in, they search, they find nothing, they clean up, they go, and you never know. Where’s the harm? How is this different different from a secret wiretap without a warrant?

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TM 05.30.14 at 9:23 pm

CityZen: As Carter says in 79, Snowden is guilty by the standards of the system. And so was Rosa Parks, and so was Nelson Mandela, and so on. They were all guilty, every one who ever conscientiously broke a law was guilty of breaking the law – no doubt about it. What you are not getting (no you aren’t) is that you the civil rights movement did not win by debating how long Rosa parks should have stayed in prison, or whether maybe the system should have been a little bit less harsh in how she was treated. The civil rights movement won by convincingly arguing the injustice of segregation. And the anti-apartheid movement won by convincingly arguing the injustice of apartheid. In the 1980s there were still right-wing arguments about Mandela deserving to be in prison. He was guilty of a crime and convicted by a proper court of law. The anti-apartheid movement won that debate not by engaging with these right-wingers but by convincingly arguing that apartheid was an unjust system.

More generally, every successful political movement has won not by engaging in philosophical argument with its opponents but by changing the terms of public discourse. The point has never been who has the better arguments – it’s always, who has the power to frame the debate. When you accept your opponent’s framing of an issue, you have already lost and it doesn’t matter whether you have the better grasp of Max Weber’s philosophy. The American Right which has dominated politics for more than 40 years now to the extent that liberals find it hard to even imagine a different reality, and their doiminance stems in large part from their ability to impose their own frame of reference (“small government”, “national security”, “free market”, “fiscal responsibility” and so on and so on) on the public discourse. American liberals are powerless because they aren’t even trying to reframe the debate.

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 9:24 pm

@Matt

This paragraph is from the linked article:
The unit of the DEA that distributes the information is called the Special Operations Division, or SOD. Two dozen partner agencies comprise the unit, including the FBI, CIA, NSA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security. It was created in 1994 to combat Latin American drug cartels and has grown from several dozen employees to several hundred.

That’s obviously a huge, huge problem. But guess what? It doesn’t take Edward Snowden to tell us that it’s happening. The militarization of civilian police force in order to prosecute the war on drugs is public information. Glenn Greenwald could tell us all about it, complete with compelling tales of the various people it has harmed. But it hasn’t harmed any white libertarians.

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TM 05.30.14 at 9:25 pm

[Apology for lack of proof-reading]

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CityZen 05.30.14 at 9:40 pm

@86 TM

You just won’t take yes for an answer. I agree with much of what you say, ok?

I only add this: at the time of Rosa Parks and Mandela, debates DID occur as to their guilt – whether legal or moral. And those debates were necessary. That’s how we got to a point where you just take the answer as a given, that’s how we got to consensus. At the timeof Mandela’s activism, his actions WERE controversial. That doesn’t taint those actions, as you seem to imply. But you cannot tell me it was all crystal clear for everyone, at the time. What you want to do with Snowden is just skip all the agonism, moral tensions, ethical contortions, etc. and move straight to the point of clear hindsight where the consensus is that he is/was a saint akin to Mandela. I’m sorry, but that’s just not going to happen. I’m not trying to be stubborn; I’m saying society/reality is.

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CityZen 05.30.14 at 9:47 pm

@86 -

“changing the terms of pubic discourse” – and how does that happen? Simply by fiat? That’s my point: of course we need to change the terms; we need to enlarge the terms; we need to expand our horizons. I agree. The “debate”/”discussion” happening here is a (small) part of all that. I thought I was agreeing here.

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 9:52 pm

@86 “American liberals are powerless because they aren’t even trying to reframe the debate.” I almost totally agree, especially with the point about terms like “small government”. But one of the big problems is that while Reaganists get their framing from William F. Buckley, liberals tend to take their cues from academia. And right at this very moment, academics insist in journals and on blogs that “ideology” is a useful way to understand politics.

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J Thomas 05.30.14 at 9:53 pm

#81

“My point is simple: tell me the harm.”

I can’t. It’s secret.

We could discuss the harm caused by some of the things Snowden revealed. But we don’t know how much he failed to find out. We don’t even know how much of what he found was cover stories, intended to protect the real secrets. We don’t even know whether Snowden was in fact working for the CIA etc, spreading scandalous disinformation to help keep the real facts from coming out.

I don’t know what they’re doing and I don’t know how bad it is. You don’t know what they’re doing and you don’t know how bad it is. We have a budget estimate that’s supposed to give us an idea how much they spend on it. That number could be faked.

Russell Carter has some idea what’s going on, but not that much more than you. When I got into a position to be told secrets, first I was given a secret that sounded immoral, to see whether I’d object. I did not and the marketing guy commented on that, that I didn’t have a problem with it. After a few days he went on with the real secrets, and I didn’t comment that the first one was not even true and I’d have looked like a fool if I got all upset and revealed it.

If you get a clearance and you learn some secrets and you quit, that doesn’t tell you whether your secrets are the real ones.

We are spending a whole lot of government money for liars. They lie about what they’re doing.

You can believe that they tell the truth. Or you can believe that they lie for the common good, and voters have absolutely no right to the truth. Either way, it isn’t your government any more. Maybe you are its subject, or its pampered pet, or something that isn’t terrible, but that government does not belong to you or to the voters. You belong to it.

You could argue that we’re better off that way. I haven’t noticed you argue that, but you could. If you believe that we are better off when the government that owns us systematically lies to us, then you will not see that it’s harm. Is that what you believe?

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CityZen 05.30.14 at 10:05 pm

94

Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 10:13 pm

We could all be brains in a vat. But life goes on.

95

Matt 05.30.14 at 10:18 pm

@Thornton:

You asked for specific harm from the NSA. I showed a specific harm. The DEA couldn’t commit these particular abuses on its own because they don’t have the same technical capabilities as the NSA. Nor can I find stories about this “parallel construction” practice to launder NSA surveillance for domestic law enforcement use that predate the Snowden revelations.

I also don’t get this posturing about how only white libertarians care about what the NSA is doing. Is Petrobras an organization of white libertarians? What about Huawei?

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Thornton Hall 05.30.14 at 10:26 pm

@84. I don’t deny the real harm that comes when a country’s citizens must circumscribe their behavior out of fear of government repression. But there it is. An articulated harm. Now, what’s the mechanism? It’s fear.

So the question becomes, why is it that I don’t fear the police officer who watches me daily, who can, based on observing my car, get to my door and rouse me from sleep. What is it that causes me not to fear that he will take advantage of this set-up? It’s not that I can prevent him from observing my life and recording my behaivor, because he can do that. I don’t fear the cop because in my experience, police officers don’t harass well dressed white men until they kill someone. A lot of people don’t have that same security, and it’s our national sin. But until your life includes information that causes you to reasonably believe that the NSA could threaten your security with impunity, you don’t have that fear and so the mechanism of harm isn’t there.

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Russell L. Carter 05.30.14 at 10:27 pm

A quibble:

“If you get a clearance and you learn some secrets and you quit, that doesn’t tell you whether your secrets are the real ones.”

I specifically said my issue concerned “networks”, which run on standard protocols. The bytes on the network, and the code and techniques do not lie. I understood immediately then what was going just by understanding the system. Nobody “told” me anything, and they also didn’t deny it when I complained. Quite the contrary. “How dare you question this” is what they said. On what, to be extra clear, in hindsight looks trivial. Pissed them off plenty though.

I’m fairly well plugged into the competent hacker discussions and there isn’t much doubt that Snowden has provided an accurate picture of how the capabilities are implemented, using standard network protocols. He’s not a genius though, just exceptionally competent at understanding both the techniques and the ramifications of network security. The consensus, after a year, appears to be that none of the tools revealed are magic. The secret sauce is comprehensive coverage and access, and a willingness to do anything at all. What can be done, will.

But those are quibbles. On the larger picture I agree completely.

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Russell L. Carter 05.30.14 at 10:55 pm

“But until your life includes information that causes you to reasonably believe that the NSA could threaten your security with impunity, you don’t have that fear and so the mechanism of harm isn’t there.”

The NSA is composed of people. In this population of people, some (hopefully small) fraction are corrupted in some way. You could say Snowden is an example, if you were literally minded.

The police operate more or less in the open, and there is a continual cycle of police corruption, some fraction of which is uncovered, and some fraction of victims largely compensated. Quite a lot of damage occurs, and some fraction of that is never redressed. Still, it should be clear that there are imperfect accountability incentives built into the interactions of the police and the populace, that reduce (hopefully) the amount and damage of police corruption.

The NSA does not operate in the open. There is no way to get redress from bad actors. There is no accountability at all.

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adam.smith 05.31.14 at 12:17 am

I’m really rather puzzled by this “the NSA does no harm” line of argumentation. I mean – the Stasi’s spying didn’t affect most GDR citizens either, unless they were either planning to flee or engaged in some type of anti-regime activism. That’s a pretty big “unless” there; given what we know about the government’s behavior in spying on activists in the past (MLK being the obvious example), the NSA’s surveillance capacities are a major source of concern. Sure, it’s based on “fear”—but contrary from what you seem to imply, that fear isn’t at all unreasonable.
Subordinate to that larger issue are a number of other specific harms, e.g. those caused by individual corrupt NSA officers abusing their powers to cyber-stalk people, the fact that the NSA has, apparently, purposefully weakened internet security and exposed people, including white libertarians, to cyber-crime, etc. etc.

(Also, and I say that as someone who isn’t a big fan of libertarians of any kind, perhaps the most prominent journalist working on police militarization and brutality is a white libertarian).

100

CityZen 05.31.14 at 12:36 am

@98, @99

Great replies (clearer than mine for sure), and solid points, thanks!

101

Cranky Observer 05.31.14 at 12:53 am

= = = So the question becomes, why is it that I don’t fear the police officer who watches me daily, who can, based on observing my car, get to my door and rouse me from sleep. What is it that causes me not to fear that he will take advantage of this set-up? = = =

Up until ~10 years ago, I didn’t excessively fear local police forces. In part that was due to cultural privilege, knowing that I was unlikely to be a target and not too likely too badly if I were detained for some reason. But in large part it was because I knew who the police were (many of them my neighbors) and that I believed that – for all the known problems with any police force – they were generally working within a framework of laws and rules, on behalf of society as a whole, to reasonably ensure peace in our community. I even provided information for several investigations in one somewhat crime-ridden neighborhood at a nonzero risk to myself.

Today I do fear the police. Because the local and regional police forces throughout our metropolitan area – and most others AFAICS – have adopted the militaristic, assault-based, lawless, admit no error, shoot first and take no prisoners approach of the most extreme authoritarians and militarists in our society – those who brought us the Iraq War and the “war on (some) terror”.

And we know know that those militarized police forces are using information illegally collected by the NSA and similar organs of state security, greywashed through various classified programs and ‘coordination centers’, and deployed against citizens who whether or not they were committing crimes were no threat to ‘national security’. And illegally, in violation of their own explicit rules, denying to defense counsel and in sworn statements to judges that any such information was used in the investigation or prosecution.

We’ve also started to see the outline of this “national security” information being used to track down and punish citizens who participated in the Occupy movements. Clear violation of the constitutional rights to assemble and petition the government, and also misuse of information collected under the guise of ‘national security’. We’ve only seen the outline and I imagine the rest is buried very deep, but not hard to figure out what is going on even from public reports.

So I’m not quite sure from whence stems your belief that the harms are theoretical. They are occurring today based only on what we know. And we also know that the government is deploying a wide variety of tools and tactics to prevent not only challenge of its actions in court but any discussion of its actions at all. National security letters, gag orders, prosecutions conducted in secret with no counsel present followed by gag order (Lavabit), prosecutions of journalists, selective leaking by administration officials, etc.

The Cheney/Bush Administration apparently believed that “24″ was a reality show not fiction. I’m well past wondering if anyone in the Obama Administration has ever seen or read “A Man for All Seasons”.

Cranky

[1] Yeah, I know, with notably rare exceptions

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Thornton Hall 05.31.14 at 1:51 am

@101 I may have communicated that I think the harms are theoretical, but that is not what I believe. The point I was trying to make is that a discourse that takes for granted that the “illegitimacy of the surveillance state” is an obvious crisis for civilization is more or less meaningless. The shorthand thinking elides the fact that nobody is actually clear on how the harm comes about. And I think the closer you get to actually articulating the way the “mass surveillance state” could actually damage real lives, the closer you get to realizing that the potential harms are the same as the actual harms currently being suffered by the officially marginalized members of our community. I think there is a real actual serious harm that could come as the result of the mass surveillance state. It happens to be the exact same harm that is currently actually and really being suffered by Americans right now who have the misfortune of being born to the wrong parents. But you’ll never notice that if you identify the harm as “corrosion” or “cancer” or whatever other metaphor you want to use to distance yourself from the fact that you fear that the mass surveillance state might subject you to the treatment actually suffered by real black and brown people every god damn day.

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Thornton Hall 05.31.14 at 2:16 am

Look, I’m getting boxed into defending some things that aren’t even close to what I believe. I did it to myself. True enough. What I actually believe is this:
A. The NSA’s data collection program does close to zero good in protecting Americans.
B. Power corrupts and people at the NSA need someone looking over their shoulder.
C. People at the NSA, do in fact have people looking over their shoulder.
D. The systems and institutions conducting the oversight of the NSA do not inspire much confidence.
E. Somebody should do something about D.
F. Obama is doing something about D, including adding an adversarial process where the public is represented by a lawyer whose duty is to advocate for privacy rights.
G. It’s never enough. There could always be more. Human beings need for the feeling of security will always be in excess of the probability of an actual threat.
H. Meanwhile, our country has a long and, since the Civil Rights Movement, completely public history of using surveillance combined with violence to prevent the spread of prosperity with disfavored minorities . These actual harms are the exact same potential harms threatened by the NSA.
I. Believe it or not, the tide has turned on H. We are winding down the war on drugs, step-by-step we are removing the laws that led to mass incarceration, we’ve passed peak deportation and peak militarized SWAT teams. Increasingly, elections are being decided by voters who completely reject the in-group/out-group distinctions held dear by the septuagenarians watching Fox. Global poverty is shrinking rapidly. I’m not Dr. Pangloss, but there is no way on hell I would rather live in any past era of post agriculture human history. Dick Cheney was no worse a person than the Dulles brothers or J. Edgar Hoover, and his time in power was minuscule in comparison. Ted Cruz is not Joe McCarthy and Rand Paul is no Goldwater. If we end up living our lives in cyberspace, then I fully expect to see cops on the street corners. I will still hate their guts.

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roy belmont 05.31.14 at 2:47 am

Yes, Tenzing, for the love of God.
Enjoy that Amontillado while you’re in there.

There used to be a searchy way to get to past comments here, but it’s vanished.
In one of which there is, by me, a lengthy reply to exactly that complaint.
Others have complained. Others have always complained.
It is what it is.
Thanks for the left-handed compliment though.
-
Thornton Hall-
I’ve been the subject of pretty much steady concerted surveillance since I was in high school. Fact.
The only time I’ve felt the psychic spatial freedom of not being under the reptilian gaze of the demi-urge was on the morning of the actual day of 9/11. When the Archons were glued to the news feed.
This is not an academic issue at my house.
-
I remain convinced, intuitively, inductively, and just generally for sure, Snowden’s doing something other than what Snowden is purported to be doing. He has heart, I believe this.
However.
Could someone please address the odd-to-the-point-of-cognitive-dissonant-head-explosion Greenwald deal with Sony? The makers of Zero Dark Yada-yada on board for the Saga of The Leaking Whistle?
After G’wald trashed exactly that film for being USGov propaganda.
Also G’wald’s boss, Mr. Omidyar, has ties to one of Modi’s top guns. Modi is a pig of the first water. Ukraine’s in the hands of oligarchical swine, and Omidyar had/has money in that game.
Whatever Snowden’s doing, Greenwald’s just flat-out bullshitting.

It’s like listening to a snotty teenager, who knows you know he’s lying to you, but knows you can’t do anything about it, because of the constraints of civilized adult behavior. Plus his dad is really rich.

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J Thomas 05.31.14 at 2:56 am

#94

“We could all be brains in a vat. But life goes on.”

Not responsive. Cheap trick. As if you can’t find an adequate answer so you brush it off and pretend it doesn’t matter.

106

J Thomas 05.31.14 at 3:08 am

#101

“The Cheney/Bush Administration apparently believed that “24″ was a reality show not fiction.”

That reminds me. If you are ever in a position where you must torture somebody in a ticking bomb scenario, then your duty is to go ahead and torture them, and after the bomb is disarmed you must turn yourself in for a public trial. Maybe a jury of your peers will declare you not guilty. Maybe Obama will pardon you. But when you have to break the law to prevent great harm to the republic, you have the responsibility to surrender to the law and accept whatever punishment the law prescribes.

If you believe that applies to Snowden then it absolutely has to apply to government employees who see that to do their jobs they must break the law.

Do what you have to do and then take your punishment like a man.

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J Thomas 05.31.14 at 3:15 am

#103

“Meanwhile, our country has a long and, since the Civil Rights Movement, completely public history of using surveillance combined with violence to prevent the spread of prosperity with disfavored minorities . These actual harms are the exact same potential harms threatened by the NSA.”

There’s a difference. Those injustices have happened because a large influential part of the public approved of them. Mostly. There were secrets that caused a degree of scandal when they got out, but the general outlines were known and they had a lot of support.

But the new injustices are secret. We don’t get to decide whether we approve, without assuming what it is we think is happening. They are trying to make it thoroughly illegal for the public to find out what’s going on.

Maybe if we knew what’s really happening, enough voters would approve that nothing could be done about it. But we don’t get that choice. The will of the people has become mostly irrelevant.

108

Bruce Wilder 05.31.14 at 6:44 am

No fly lists are very troubling, and the potential to make outlaws of people by administrative fiat are multiplying. Remember how quickly wikileaks lost access to credit card payments and PayPal. I read the other day that porn stars and others paid by the pornography industry can have trouble keeping bank accounts. Credit checks and drug testing for employment raise a number of problems. Expediting the paperwork for mortgage securitization has undermined the property rights for the individual. Bankruptcy is no longer an option to escape student debt. Imprisonment for debt is making a comeback. The President has claimed a legal (?) right to detain indefinitely or assassinate. Seizing property and cash in the drug wars is a local scandal in a number of places. As another commenter noted, local police now have a lot of military weaponry. The suppression of Occupy across the country was well-coordinated.

It is in the context of these other developments that the surveillance state has emerged. I don’t understand complacency, I do understand paranoia. Democracy is disappearing, replaced by an administrative state and made for teevee spokesmodel politicians.

Just an historic note: yes, there was once a lot of exclusion from resources and oppression, based on race, sex, ethnicity and religion. And, it backfired, because it created the mass-membership organization that overthrew those regimes. The new neoliberal regime is less discriminatory, but it undermines identification between elites and ordinary people, and encourages passive non-engagement by masses of people. It is no less oppressive, potentially — look at the number mired in student debt or the numbers entangled by the criminal justice system.

The surveillance state is troubling on its own merits, but it is in context of

109

Layman 05.31.14 at 1:58 pm

Thornton Hall @ 103

” Obama is doing something about D, including adding an adversarial process where the public is represented by a lawyer whose duty is to advocate for privacy rights.”

…only because Edward Snowden exposed A through E, and Greenwald & several others reported it.

110

Thornton Hall 05.31.14 at 5:20 pm

@108 Two things:
I’m not complacent. I don’t like mass surveillance, I don’t think it protects anybody from anything and I think it should be stopped. It has been abused and the potential is for much more. I think the way to stop it is to make terrorism a laughing matter. Three thousand people died on the highway in the span of this comment thread. If we treat asymmetric warriors who blow themselves up when they hug their comrades goodbye with the derision they deserve we might stop overreacting.

If you want to worry about the secret actions of a secret state whose activities and existence are, by your own definition, unknowable, more power to you. But comparing this masochistic mental masturbation to worrying about the unknowable possibility of being a brain in a vat is not a cheap trick. It’s an apt comparison.

Finally, I realize that my coming off as just fine with the NSA (which I’m not) and totally opposed to illegal leaks (which I’m not) would be annoying to someone who disagrees. But on my side, I find the utter lack of historical perspective to be seriously disturbing. I honestly think you are a terrible person if you think our oppression of disfavored minorities is a thing of the past. I’m less aghast, but still dismayed, to find well educated people who can’t see that while terrible, the power to indefinately detain citizens at the boarder (and it is terrible), is not even close to what all three branches of government openly did to innocent Japanese citizens during WWII.

Palmer raid, Joe McCarthy, surveillance of MLK, the alien and sedition acts; our history is littered with warnings about state power abused in the name of safety and order. But if you take those lessons seriously, then you have the sense to see that Snowden revealed that it could happen again. If you think it already has happened then you just don’t know your history. You’re just wrong.

111

Ed Herdman 05.31.14 at 6:35 pm

This might not be your point, but I am suspicious of any attempt to make exceptional the Japanese-American concentration camps in comparison to the common practice of detaining immigrants.

There are the numbers: Over 110,000 Japanese-Americans kept in camps during the years of internment. In Texas, since October, nearly 160,000 arrests have been made. Daily internment totals are probably over the 30,000 daily total reported for 2010, which had increased substantially since the mid-90s. In both cases there are obvious and large harms – one during war years, and the other an ongoing problem which goes mostly unnoticed.

There is an emotional sting in both cases: For Japanese-Americans and immigrants alike, the sting of effectively being told you’re not good enough for the country you want to live in. Perhaps it was worse for Japanese-Americans because this country had already accepted them as residents.

These arguments don’t matter much when you consider the individual, whose life is being squandered in both cases by the needs of some political geniuses. I really don’t care about doing some math to calculate the length of time held in captivity by the number of persons detained, and to compare the Japanese-American experience to that of migrants. There are some differences we find, but not so great as to make these dual injustices totally dissimilar. I would go so far as to say that an attempt to mythologize the Japanese-American experience and put it on a pedestal does a disservice to their sacrifice as it ignores the common points of their experience with that of the migrant.

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J Thomas 05.31.14 at 6:49 pm

“If you want to worry about the secret actions of a secret state whose activities and existence are, by your own definition, unknowable, more power to you. But comparing this masochistic mental masturbation to worrying about the unknowable possibility of being a brain in a vat is not a cheap trick. It’s an apt comparison.”

No, it is not. If you say that your government has the right to keep whatever secrets it wants from you, and cannot be stopped from finding whatever secrets you want to have, *and that’s OK with you*, then you have given up any rights you might otherwise have had.

If you agree with me that your government does not have that right, then we can look at ways to stop it. Those might start with establishing that the voters find the situation unacceptable, laws to say what the government is not allowed to do, methods of inspection to determine when those laws are broken, and public trials to determine sentencing.

We would probably need some sort of national reconciliation first. Establish that a whole lot of the things that people are blackmailed about are not as important as the government blackmailing them.

When you say that there is nothing that can be done *and it’s OK*, you are actively working against the first step toward a solution. That would make you an enemy agent, working for the goals of a faction in the US government and opposed to the USA.

“I’m less aghast, but still dismayed, to find well educated people who can’t see that while terrible, the power to indefinately detain citizens at the boarder (and it is terrible), is not even close to what all three branches of government openly did to innocent Japanese citizens during WWII.”

It was terrible, and they did it openly, and the public mostly did not try to stop them. I don’t know what we could have done about that except (if we were citizens then) to try to stop them.

Now they could do terrible things and keep it secret, and if you accept that they have the right to do terrible things and keep them secret from you, there is nothing you can do about them. You have given them a blank check.

“Finally, I realize that my coming off as just fine with the NSA (which I’m not) and totally opposed to illegal leaks (which I’m not) would be annoying to someone who disagrees.”

If you are not, you have done a terrible job of showing your intentions.

Yes, there have been times in the past when the US government did things that were worse than the things that have been leaked so far. Is it thus you console me? Should we wait until the US government does things that are so bad they are completely unprecedented, and then when the leaks come out then we perhaps try to organize voters or something? You want to wait, and not try to restrain it this time until then?

113

Ed Herdman 05.31.14 at 7:04 pm

Again with the pedestal-placements…things in the mythical (for most of us – this is exactly accurate) past are bad, so therefore things today aren’t crying shames that should be remedied? The masses of people in detention centers already provides an issue worth campaigning against – we don’t even have to go to the rhetoric of the slippery slope to look to things that are already so bad that they are intolerable.

114

adam.smith 05.31.14 at 7:45 pm

But if you take those lessons seriously, then you have the sense to see that Snowden revealed that it could happen again. If you think it already has happened then you just don’t know your history. You’re just wrong.

Still confused. Who here has claimed that NSA spying is on par with the worst things to ever happen in US history? And why does that matter? Police brutality isn’t as bad as slavery, so we shouldn’t protest that either—after all, compared to 1850, minorities are doing well? Like most people here, I have no idea what your point is.

115

roy belmont 05.31.14 at 8:36 pm

Do what you have to do and then take your punishment like a man.

Thus Jefferson Franklin and Washington et al surrendering themselves to English courts of justice, after the hostilities subsided.
Because they were men, and that’s what men do.
Damage to property, economic liabilities, emotional distress, long list of answerable malfeasances on the part of them wild colonial boys.

Unless, wait, something bout deligitmization of existing law?
Something something?
Something about the lower threshold of iniquity.
Past which, something something.
No.

116

Cranky Observer 05.31.14 at 8:41 pm

I think it is fair to acknowledge when Mr. Belmont’s oracular style hits the mark, as it did in his comment of 05.31.14 at 8:36 pm

117

Bruce Wilder 05.31.14 at 8:45 pm

Glenn Greenwald’s approach to this problem, and the narrow range of issues he chooses to focus his attention on, reflects a commitment to reasoning deductively from abstract and idealistic principles. It’s a strength and a weakness, precisely because it is not a common approach. It is not how most people think.

Thinking about “rights” enshrined as totems of the culture has a long history going back at least to the emergence of Whiggism in the Glorious Revolution, when the accession of William and Mary was preceded by a Declaration of Right, later enacted as a Bill of Rights — a ripe irony in a way, since James II had been overthrown for attempting to impose a religious tolerance favorable to Catholics. It formed a precedent for the form of the American Declaration of Independence as well as the constitutional U.S. Bill of Rights, and the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen a century later. As a statement of ideals, “rights” have a grand historical and heroic, mythic quality, and a strong connection to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, reinforced by the use of deductive reasoning to elaborate their meaning.

It’s not how the world works, though. Most people, most of the time don’t care all that much. And, it really is hard for many to work out — especially in moments of panic, when authoritarian attitudes rule the day — exactly why we should honor abstract principles over claims of expedience or efficiency. In a cynical view, proclamations of rights are just a ritual preliminary to implementing a regime of rank hypocrisy.

In practice, “rights” become customary bargains, with judges enumerating long, long lists of cases, each with its own resolution of conflicting claims. The U.S. Bill of Rights declares grandly “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” In practice, of course, Congress makes plenty of laws affecting the freedom of speech and press, including rules about copyright and trade secrets, slander, libel, broadcast, telephony, pornography, inciting violence, etc. Judges are asked to decide conflicts as they arise. The result is less a matter of absolute principles than a list of common contract terms, posted prices and standard warranties for frequently repeated transactions.

The resolutions of conflict are often demarcated by reference to characteristics of the technology and considerations of efficient administration. It is the advent of a new technology, with a novel architecture, which throws the law open to new interpretations and the setting of boundaries in new terms.

Greenwald’s approach — his moral outrage, his rhetorical celebration of high principle and deductive reasoning — powerful as it is, is, in some important respects, misplacing the issues. The NSA is doing what it is doing, because it can — which says something about the limits of relying on the ethical standards of administrative agencies as a political or legal strategy, but also says that the foundation of the problems is in the “can”, that is, in the novel technologies . The problem is as much — really more — that the technology makes monitoring so cheap, throwing all the customary calculation of tradeoffs out of balance, or out of application. And, the technological change has such a broad swathe, enveloping so many transactions of daily life, that there’s scarcely any time or capacity for reasoning. Even the ability to reason by analogy is undermined, as the analogous technologies disappear. The courts worked out their ideas about telephone taps over, I guess, a couple of decades after phones became ubiquitous but remained a distinct form of communication; now telephony itself has disappeared into the internet’s generalized tcp/ip system, with radio, television, newspapers, cinema, postal mail, book publishing, music, personal diaries, and personal papers going the same way.

I think one could argue that the foundational problem is the technology itself, or its architecture, which was designed, as some wag had it, as the simplest thing, which would still work, but doesn’t quite. The technological architecture, practically if not logically prior to the law, is in play, because it doesn’t quite “work” in the presence of strategic exploitation of its openness (and consequent lack of enforced privacy or verification of identity), and, indeed, some of the most effective pushback now is coming from companies like Cisco, maker of internet routers, and from the encryption providers. Even if Greenwald’s moral hectoring could improve the behavior of the NSA for a few moments in time, it would leave the issues of an architecture, which is too vulnerable to viruses and fraud, and to co-option by centralized business corporations, and schizophrenic intellectual property practice and identification practice (how many passwords do you have?).

Some of the most important revelations are not the theoretical harms to personal privacy, but that the NSA was deliberately undermining the integrity of the architecture, weakening encryption, installing monitoring technology in hardware, designing viruses, etc.

To my mind, the efficiency of this system ought to be called into more direct question. Vast resources are being expended, but I suspect (without having the kind of expertise that would allow me to make the argument clearly and effectively) that they are creating a bigger haystack, rather than a better way to find needles.

Digby quoted a N.Y. Times article exposing the monitoring of the Occupy movement by regional “fusion centers”.

The Boston Regional Intelligence Center, one of the most active centers, issued scores of bulletins listing hundreds of events including a protest of “irresponsible lending practices,” a food drive and multiple “yoga, faith & spirituality” classes.

As Digby notes, they were too busy to monitor an actual terror threat.

The way the dichotomies get drawn in the food fight of political rhetoric back and forth, I don’t expect either efficiency or architecture to get much attention. The political debate that Greenwald sets off — at least the one with the greatest visibility — will remain by-play and entirely irrelevant.

118

J Thomas 05.31.14 at 9:31 pm

“Do what you have to do and then take your punishment like a man.”

Unless, wait, something bout deligitmization of existing law?
Something something?

No. If you think you have to torture a suspect (or for that matter a convicted criminal), you are committing a crime. Never mind if it’s a ticking bomb situation, you are still committing a crime.

After the bomb is disarmed you must turn yourself in. Admit the truth. Tell them about the extenuating circumstances. If the court and jury or the President decide to forgive you, then fine. But don’t get a pardon in advance. Only get the pardon after you have been convicted in a public trial.

Don’t try to get the laws changed to say you have permission to do that. If you think it needs to be done, then you take personal responsibility for doing it.

Or if you disagree, go ahead and try to get the laws changed. Tell the public that you are against the Constitution, that you don’t think random civilians should have rights, that you think government employees should have the right to torture anybody they think needs it, with no Monday morning quarterbacks second-guessing them later. If enough Americans agree, they will get the laws changed and amend the Constitution to remove the “no cruel or unusual punishments” thing and so on.

If you meet somebody who thinks that Snowden should show up for punishment but that US torturers should not, then you have met a weirdly twisted individual.

119

Matt 05.31.14 at 10:27 pm

The NSA is doing what it is doing, because it can — which says something about the limits of relying on the ethical standards of administrative agencies as a political or legal strategy, but also says that the foundation of the problems is in the “can”, that is, in the novel technologies . The problem is as much — really more — that the technology makes monitoring so cheap, throwing all the customary calculation of tradeoffs out of balance, or out of application.

Technology has not made monitoring proportionally cheaper than it has made secrecy cheaper. It is calculated and sustained political action that has kept monitoring easier than secrecy.

In the largely pre-digital world of 1970 you can mail a letter to someone. It’s impractical to steam open everyone’s letters and read the contents. It’s very unlikely that your particular letter is going to be intercepted — unless, perhaps, you are outspoken against the Vietnam War, a supporter of the American Indian Movement, or otherwise challenge the existing social order sufficiently to make you a target for COINTELPRO.

In 1977 the RSA system for public key cryptography was published. By the time personal computers and the World Wide Web became popular, it had become technologically cheap to send email that was wrapped in a layer of encryption that couldn’t be broken even with years of effort using nation-state resources. So far as we can tell that is still the state of play today — the Snowden revelations show many ways the NSA works around cryptography to intercept communications, but there’s no indication that they can just break through even the commonest forms.

The reason communications technology hasn’t maintained a rough parity between ease-of-monitoring and ease-of-secrecy is that there has been a multi-decade push against secrecy from law enforcement and “national security” interests. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, the Clipper chip debacle, the classification of encryption software as munitions, the calls every year to mandate wiretap-ready architectures in new online services — these all came from powerful people advancing anti-secrecy interests.

The NSA ostensibly has a mission to protect American communications from foreign interception as well as to intercept foreign communications. It’s clear that they have prioritized the offensive mission. It seems of a parcel with the United States Department of Defense, which hasn’t defended United States sovereign territory from foreign aggressors in my lifetime, or in my parents’ lifetimes. Both groups seem to have permanently confused Keeping Foreigners In Danger with Keeping America Safe.

120

geo 05.31.14 at 10:49 pm

Much food for thought in Bruce@117 and Matt@119. Re Matt’s concluding observation (“Both groups seem to have permanently confused Keeping Foreigners In Danger with Keeping America Safe”): the debate over surveillance and secrecy, essential though it is, sidesteps (as has virtually all mainstream commentary since 9/11) a fundamental question, i.e., What Puts America in Danger? I’d say it’s the entire history and direction of American foreign policy, with its hypocritical professions of devotion to human rights, casual defiance of international law, incessant subversion of even moderately independent regimes, employment of shocking and awesome force on brown- and yellow-skinned peoples since 1945, etc., is what most puts Americans in danger. That may not be Greenwald’s brief, but I’m sure he wouldn’t disagree.

121

Russell L. Carter 05.31.14 at 11:34 pm

“By the time personal computers and the World Wide Web became popular, it had become technologically cheap to send email that was wrapped in a layer of encryption that couldn’t be broken even with years of effort using nation-state resources. “

For the payload, but not the metadata. The latter is an unsolved problem[1]. And often, all that is required is the metadata.

[1] Most excellent and accessible explanations are provided in the slides for the talk Tom gave at last summer’s defcon:
http://ritter.vg/blog-deanonymizing_amm.html
Definitely recommended if you’re interested in this stuff, even if you’re a total novice.

122

Bruce Wilder 06.01.14 at 12:24 am

Matt @ 119

Public key cryptography, though clever in concept, has never been an all-in-one solution. As a practical matter, it can be no better than locking the front-door of a house full of windows, and then leaving the key under the mat. Claiming that AES is immune to brute-force attack is like putting your faith in the frontdoor lock’s bolt being made of case-hardened steel.

The sheer inconvenience of secrecy using the internet’s system of communication plays a large part in the way things have developed to date. No one is asking me, of course, but I suppose that routine privacy would require a trusted public system of identity authentication with aliases managed by the individual. Like any thing else, such a system would be a political compromise, with contestable procedures for breaking through the mask of privacy. And, people would have to learn how to use it, to have a situational awareness that allowed ordinary people to be prudent and even strategic in how they managed their public exposures.

We don’t move to instituting such a system, despite obvious cost-savings, because politically, humans are too devious and too stupid at the same time, to reason their way, collectively, to a reasonable design. Also, we don’t have enough experience, yet, with the downsides of the primitive system we do have. We’ll have to have that Facebook scandal or three or three hundred; we’ll have to flirt with neo-fascism or, maybe, marry it for 80 years or so; we’ll have to see hundreds or thousands imprisoned or bankrupted and at least one effective tear-jerking portrayal in fiction of the victims’ trials; we’ll endure years more of rampant fraud and identity theft persisting even in the panopticon.

123

Matt 06.01.14 at 12:48 am

Russell, thanks for that link. It was riveting reading.

I think that metadata based attacks on privacy/secrecy are an important unsolved challenge but I want to emphasize again that the current state of vulnerability is not something that “just happened” due to technological change. The UKUSA collaboration that can break/bypass Tor’s threat model required a lot of human agency to establish and maintain. I am perhaps overly sensitive to narrative constructions that launder human agency through technology. There are some tendencies that really are inseparable from a technology in its broad outlines but more tendencies that are consequences of historically contingent human choices. One of the worst ways to defend decisions regarding new technologies is to pretend that there was no decision, that a particular choice was as inevitable as deciding whether electricity should be distributed through wires or through ropes. I want to maintain awareness of the choices that were made by humans and could be changed by humans when talking about the interaction of technology and human experience.

124

Ronan(rf) 06.01.14 at 12:48 am

Jesus Christ Wilder, Henry Ford is dead and no longer here to wipe out collective asses. Get over it : )

125

Ronan(rf) 06.01.14 at 12:49 am

*our* ewwww

126

roy belmont 06.01.14 at 1:21 am

Encryption is holy water.

127

Bruce Wilder 06.01.14 at 1:42 am

geo @ 120

There’s a long narrative arc to American efforts to make the world safe for democracy or commerce or whatever. There were some intervals along that arc that were more than a little honorable and admirable. The American interest in trying to establish a world order of cooperation and self-restraint seems to have largely disappeared from memory in the course of the last generation. The Anglo-American hegemony of the last 250 years is fading away, and who knows what anarchy will replace it.

It seems remarkable, though, that the U.S. would lose the thread so late in the game, and so completely and thoroughly as we have. There have always been banksters, merchants and industrialists running their rackets behind the scenes of American foreign policy, but the overall thrust has seldom been so completely overthrown and supplanted by their obdurate pursuits. The bungling in Afganistan, especially in Iraq, with Iran, with Ukraine and Russia — it’s like we, collectively, cannot figure out even the most basic premises for getting along in the world with other countries, or defining a national interest that isn’t identical to some petty thievery.

Many ordinary Americans are as ready as ever to believe in the goodness of American purposes even now. I am astounded by how ready some people are to accept Putin as the bad guy in Ukraine to our good guy, despite the rampant ambiguities.

Many years ago, I was deeply interested in the history of the American Civil War, and one of the curious aspects to me, of the course that War took, was the sheer imbecility of the Confederate leadership in trying to persuade any one outside their own country — really, their own caste — to support their cause. Much of the top Confederate leadership at the beginning of the war was superbly qualified, well-educated, deeply experienced, and formed a marked contrast in that respect to some of the Union leadership. Yet, they could not get it together, to persuade others to cooperate with them in establishing their independence. It was a disability manifest in policy great and small. From the decision to fire on Fort Sumter on the eve of its planned surrender, they never had a military grand strategy that made any sense. Robert E. Lee seemed to think that he could win the war with a dramatic battlefield victory, a Cannae as he called it, after Hannibal’s legendary victory over the Romans (and no, it didn’t win the war for Hannibal, either). They embargoed cotton at the beginning of the war, enforcing the Union blockade for their enemies. They sent a notorious advocate of re-opening the trans-Atlantic slave trade to represent them in anti-slavery Britain. They tried to plot violent insurrections with anti-war Democratic factions in the North, as if “anti-war” had no meaning. I could go on and on.

I have felt the same way about American foreign policy since George W. Bush. Clinton didn’t seem to fully grasp the moral implications of bombing Serbia, while criticizing terrorism, but he, at least, was a careful observer of proportionate response and self-restraint, and was intervening in a situation in Bosnia that had real potential for spinning out of control and had gotten very ugly prior to American intervention. Bush broke all the rules of the Wilsonian internationalism, whose rhetoric he used so carelessly. It was all, might makes right, and ill-considered expedience, followed by corruption and incompetence. The cost, in human, reputational or dollar terms, never seems to make an impression. The rank of incompetence of the CIA or NSA, or the New York Times for that matter, makes no lasting impression.

Even though I have read Piketty, I consider the recent course of events some of the best evidence we have that an isolated, detached, deluded plutocracy has taken over command of the country’s affairs.

It is the difficulty George Packer has clearly confronting this big picture, despite his utter familiarity with many of its horrifying details, that always make me suspicious of his writing.

128

Russell L. Carter 06.01.14 at 1:55 am

“I want to maintain awareness of the choices that were made by humans and could be changed by humans when talking about the interaction of technology and human experience.”

You are right, but I suspect you don’t know how right you are. I have been immersed in networking/distributed systems technologies for 25 years. That is, I have been down deep and hard through the various abstraction layers from kernel network drivers all the way up to “cloud” technologies. The distinguishing characteristic of software that attains traction in distributed systems is that its interfaces are all designed by committee. The committee consists, by and large, of the players with the largest financial interests. And ahem, state actors such as the NSA as channeled through NIST. An occasional relevant academic. There’s a quite a bit of integrity involved, but just the normal acidic effects of committee decision making introduces what are at the time considered ambiguous corner cases. So you can basically (IMHO) chalk up the current dystopic communications technology regime to human nature. This what we do.

I really doubt it can be changed. I mean, I have am fully encrypted email capable and I correspond with exactly one person that way. Who isn’t even in my family…

129

Ronan(rf) 06.01.14 at 2:22 am

“employment of shocking and awesome force on brown- and yellow-skinned peoples since 1945, “

This narrative only really makes sense if you completely ignore everything prior to 1945; don’t consider westward expansion ” shocking and awesome force ” on brown and yellow skin, ignore the regional colonial wars and world wars (although also on white skin), write out slavery (a domestic, consistent, brutal war on black skin), overlook violence domestically against the Chinese.
On the specific question of what happened after 1945 ? How is this not obvious ? America became one of two superpowers engaged in a battle to shape the contours of a post war international order.
(Relatedly Adam Tooze has a new book out which is worth reading.)

“Bush broke all the rules of the Wilsonian internationalism, whose rhetoric he used so carelessly. It was all, might makes right, and ill-considered expedience, followed by corruption and incompetence. The cost, in human, reputational or dollar terms, never seems to make an impression”

What’s your point ? Even if you want to see Bush as some great aberration in US foreign policy, what exactly are the reputational and geopolitical costs here ? The US was financially able to cope with Iraq/Afghanistan, the military survived, geopolitically there seems to be little cost, reputation is very difficult to measure .. If anything US FP has become more conservative post Iraq. What exactly does this show ?

130

Bruce Wilder 06.01.14 at 2:29 am

Ronan(rf): what exactly are the reputational and geopolitical costs here ? The US was financially able to cope with Iraq/Afghanistan, the military survived, geopolitically there seems to be little cost, reputation is very difficult to measure ..

I wasn’t asking for further evidence of the obduracy in question, but thank you for playing (I think).

131

Ronan(rf) 06.01.14 at 12:20 pm

mea culpa bruce, for my rude and agitated comments directed at you .I hadn’t even read the comment at 127 properly, which makes my above one somewhat redundant.

BW – “There’s a long narrative arc to American efforts to make the world safe for democracy or commerce or whatever. There were some intervals along that arc that were more than a little honorable and admirable. The American interest in trying to establish a world order of cooperation and self-restraint seems to have largely disappeared from memory in the course of the last generation. “

The world order the US ‘created’ was also built in the interests of the United States. It’s institutions were designed to enable ‘co-operation and restraint’ but also justify and institutionalise US dominance. Even in these supposed glory years, the restraint and co-operation was regional specific. There was little restraint and little attempt at co-operation in the post colonial world. This system still exists. These institutions still enable restraint and co-operation (although the extent to which it works is open to debate.)

“The Anglo-American hegemony of the last 250 years is fading away, and who knows what anarchy will replace it.”

The present ‘world order’ might have trouble accomodating rising powers, sure. Why should this automatically assume the end of Anglo American hegemony (by any number of measures the US is still overwhelmingly the most dominant power in the world) or lead to anarchy ? It might, but there’s no inevitability.

BW – “It seems remarkable, though, that the U.S. would lose the thread so late in the game, and so completely and thoroughly as we have. There have always been banksters, merchants and industrialists running their rackets behind the scenes of American foreign policy, but the overall thrust has seldom been so completely overthrown and supplanted by their obdurate pursuits. The bungling in Afganistan, especially in Iraq, with Iran, with Ukraine and Russia — it’s like we, collectively, cannot figure out even the most basic premises for getting along in the world with other countries, or defining a national interest that isn’t identical to some petty thievery.”

These are weird examples. What is the bungling with Iran ? Afganistan was a response to an attack on the US. How does the Russia/Ukraine situation sit in this story ? How do any of these events show that ‘banksters, merchants and industrialists’ are ‘running their rackets behind the scenes of American foreign policy?’ Why, indeed, would banksters, merchants and industrialists be assumed to have identical interests?

132

Ronan(rf) 06.01.14 at 12:40 pm

BW – “I have felt the same way about American foreign policy since George W. Bush. Clinton didn’t seem to fully grasp the moral implications of bombing Serbia, while criticizing terrorism, but he, at least, was a careful observer of proportionate response and self-restraint, and was intervening in a situation in Bosnia that had real potential for spinning out of control and had gotten very ugly prior to American intervention. Bush broke all the rules of the Wilsonian internationalism, whose rhetoric he used so carelessly. It was all, might makes right, and ill-considered expedience, followed by corruption and incompetence. The cost, in human, reputational or dollar terms, never seems to make an impression. The rank of incompetence of the CIA or NSA, or the New York Times for that matter, makes no lasting impression.
Even though I have read Piketty, I consider the recent course of events some of the best evidence we have that an isolated, detached, deluded plutocracy has taken over command of the country’s affairs.”

I can’t make heads or tails of this comment. What does it mean to say “Bush broke all the rules of Wilsonian internationalism?” What does the incompetence of the CIA, NSA and NYT have to do with anything ? How are you measuring their incompetence? What is the ideal it’s been compared against ? There’s absolutely no argument here for why a ‘deluded plutocracy has taken over command of the country’s affairs.”

But regardless, the international system survived GWB. The institutions created to ‘enable restraint and co-operation’ survived an adminstration with little interest in restraint or co-operation. The new administration (and indeed GWB’s later term) are more willing to be retrained and co-operate. In Iraq the human cost of the war was huge, particularly for the people of Iraq. But the financial and reputational costs to the United States seem much more limited.
Your argument seems to rest on two contradictiry premises – that there’s a generation of US FP elites (captured by plutocratic interests) who no longer value restraint and co-operation and are a threat to the international order created by a more careful set of US elites. And that the GWB administration was an aberration.

133

Anarcissie 06.01.14 at 3:17 pm

Ronan(rf) 06.01.14 at 12:20 pm @ 131:
‘Why, indeed, would banksters, merchants and industrialists be assumed to have identical interests?’

Capitalism seems to require imperialism. At least, this is the historical record; in the present case one could call it merely ‘keeping the world safe for Capital’ rather than the direct rule the Roman and later empires practiced. Since not everyone wants to be imperialized even indirectly, imperialism leads to war — regular war, guerrilla war, terrorism — and thus to the need for a strong military establishment, much secret-agentry abroad, thorough-going propaganda, and perhaps a police state, policies upon which practically all banksters, merchants, and industrialists agree, along with their numerous acolytes, servants, and worshipers. As to methods, restraint and cooperation are fashions that come and go.

134

geo 06.01.14 at 5:27 pm

Ronan @129: Thanks, I do seem to remember that there was a certain amount of shocking violence employed against black- and red-skinned people before 1945. But what I was referring to @120 was specifically the international violence and lawlessness that has aroused hatred and distrust of American foreign policy and thereby “put Americans in danger.” Paying attention to this aspect of “keeping Americans safe” is largely unmentionable in mainstream commentary.

Bruce @: There were some intervals along that arc that were more than a little honorable and admirable. The American interest in trying to establish a world order of cooperation and self-restraint…

Could you elaborate a bit? What were some of the “honorable and admirable” purposes of American foreign policy? What were these efforts on behalf of “cooperation and self-restraint”? Exactly what was the content of the proposed “world order”?

135

Bruce Wilder 06.02.14 at 7:12 am

United Nations.

You people make me feel very tired.

136

Ronan(rf) 06.02.14 at 12:31 pm

Theoretically, the liberal order that developed after the second world war was the set of rules, norms and institutions that encouraged co-operation, capitalist expansion and democratic development in an open international system. Most obviously seen in Europe (and Japan) where instead of international politics being played as a zero sum game (where rival powers had to be destroyed or the world carved up into rival spehers of great power influence) the defeated powers were instead allowed to develop economically and politically (under certain criteria, ie democratic and capitalist) and were reintegrated into the global economy.
Obviously this didn’t play out equally in all parts of the world, particularly the post colonial countries where the US and Soviets vied for influence, and where the US was more willing to compromise on certain aspects of the liberal ideal (ie emphasizing capitalist expansion over political development, overlooking/encouraging mass human rights violations) But the anti colonial movements were themselves a reaction to changes in the international system, where explicit European colonialism was (rhetorically at least) replaced by a stress on self determination and political independence. (Within a specific set of guidelines)
Whether or not US behaviour (specifically interventions and support for dictators, I guess) have exacerbated security threats has to be weighed against the positives of what the post war order achieved, ie the stabilisation of Europe and the end of great power conflict. (Primarily, imo, through security gaurantees,US hegemony and the pacifying effects of economic integration) I don’t think the evidence really supports the claim that security threats have developed due to US human rights violations (where are the threats from the regions the US has been most involved in ?Such as South and Central America ? Al Qaeda perhaps is an example of a reaction to US policy, but I think that’s contested)
But whatever about the US commitment to human rights during the Cold War, there really isn’t any plausible counterargument to the claim that the humanitarian interventions of the post cold war era were primarily interventions to protect human rights. Obviously these interventions are going to be selective and reflect the balance of power in the international system (ie US interests – as will most institutions and agreements reflect the desires of the major powers) but the rational for the interventions was explicitly concerned with stopping mass human rights violations. (And encouraging democratic development)
Regardless, whatever the *actual aspirations* of leading players in US administrations,there *has* been an expansion of institutions and norms concerned with human rights violations at the international level. (Again, reflecting the political preferences of major powers and applied selectively)
I guess what Bruce is saying is we should view the Bush admin as liberal internationalism on steroids, the replacement of authoritarianism with democracy, the integration of Iraq into the global economy, and a transformation of the Middle East. There is some plausibility to that, but there’s also more plausibility to the idea that Bush wanted to use the Iraq war as an overwhelming show of force that would scare rivals and transform the alliance system in the region. It obviously exists somewhere on that spectrum, but how Bush has destroyed the international order, (or Obama represents a continuation of his first term position) I dont know.
This is obviously a simplified, overly optimistic, laymans retelling of the argument.. so Im open to correction etc

137

Barry 06.02.14 at 12:46 pm

Aside from the biggest one, Iraq, and the second biggest one, Afghanistan (which started out justified, and sunk into just a quagmire of blood and sh*t), ……

138

geo 06.02.14 at 1:54 pm

Sorry to weary you, Bruce. You did appear to have unlimited energy for responding to comments, however misguided, from your humble readers, but I suppose everyone has his limits.

I’ll just say that I don’t think the US ever had any intention of allowing the United Nations to restrict in any significant way its pursuit of an integrated, American-led global economic order. At any rate, it hasn’t allowed it to do that, nor to curb American military aggression and internal subversion. Perhaps we can leave it at that?

139

Harold 06.02.14 at 1:59 pm

The United States gave tons of monetary aid to Italy, Japan, and Germany in order to transform them into exemplary showplaces that would outshine their communist rivals and be an advertisement for capitalism. After the Berlin Wall fell there was no reason to continue this aid. Now the US government began aiding US companies such as Enron and oil and agribusiness companies in their efforts to expand overseas markets through privatization. It is still our ideology both at home and abroad as far as I can tell.

140

Anarcissie 06.02.14 at 3:13 pm

Ronan(rf) 06.02.14 at 12:31 pm @ 136:
‘… but how Bush has destroyed the international order, (or Obama represents a continuation of his first term position) I dont know….’

G.W. Bush and company broke the international liberal capitalist order by choosing to engage in at least two gratuitous wars of national conquest. One might add the curious adventure of Georgia in 2008, which seems to have been inspired by the US government or someone in it, and possibly the putsch in Ukraine.

141

Ronan(rf) 06.02.14 at 3:14 pm

The United Nations wasn’t set up to curb US expansion, it was set up (afaict) primarily to regulate great power rivalry. The extent to which ‘US economic expansion’ could be curbed is dependant on the balance of power in the international system.

142

Ronan(rf) 06.02.14 at 3:17 pm

Anarcissie – it didn’t ‘break the order’, the order survives. Which isn’t to excuse the Iraq War. (Afghanistan was a response to an attack on the US, although I would agree that there was *a lot* wrong with the response)

143

Bruce Wilder 06.02.14 at 4:28 pm

geo @ 137 Sorry to weary you, Bruce.

Ronan(rf) broke my spirit, in this thread at least. He had help from the on-going book symposium.

Rightly or wrongly, his aura made your argument seem to me uncharacteristically nihilistic at its core, and I just cannot find the energy to drag foreign policy out of the miasmic swamp of a personal ethics of “be nice”.

144

Anarcissie 06.02.14 at 4:46 pm

Ronan(rf) 06.02.14 at 3:17 pm @ 141:
‘Anarcissie – it didn’t ‘break the order’, the order survives. Which isn’t to excuse the Iraq War. (Afghanistan was a response to an attack on the US, although I would agree that there was *a lot* wrong with the response)’

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan showed that the US ruling class/government could not be trusted to perform its role properly. (The role being a sort of primus inter pares with special money and cop powers). As have the provocations against Russia and the financial disasters of 2006-2008.

I think a dominant theoretical position, somewhat utopian, held by members of the American ruling class from the beginning of the 20th century (and maybe a bit before) was that if liberal capitalism were allowed to exist in the world all reasonable persons would see that it was the better way and come over to it; that explicit empire would be unnecessary, for a rational ruling class of capitalists would eventually arise in every important state, all of whom could get along because they would prefer business and private wealth to war and military glory. Political decolonization could be supported if the decolonizers were amenable to participation in international capitalism (Algeria OK; Vietnam not OK). During and after World War 2 the US r.c. constructed permanent alliances of capitalist states to pursue this utopia and largely succeeded: Germany, Japan, and other fascist states were defeated and their successor states joined the club, the Soviet Union and East Bloc gave up ‘socialism’, and China adopted capitalism with Chinese characteristics. Since the US was the dominant state, the utopian vision of its ruling class was the ‘international order’. But this order depended on the US r.c. playing its role correctly, which excluded nationalistic 19th-century-style provocations and military adventures.

The pack leader being manifestly degraded, the other big dogs are restlessly wondering how to sort things out. So far they are playing it cool, but that won’t go on forever.

145

Thornton Hall 06.02.14 at 5:55 pm

In 1919/20, the attorney general of the United States arrested 10,000 people based on their pro-labor political beliefs/affiliation. The explicit purpose of the Palmer Raids was to persecute particular beliefs. Of the arrested, those who were not US citizens were deported (the legality of their immigration was not at issue).

In the Alien and Sedition Acts, Congress granted John Adams the power to arrest and prosecute US citizens (and aliens) for the crime of being “anti-American”. Many were jailed for the content of their speech.

The Japanese internment camps during World War II did not detain violators of immigration law. They detained citizen and alien alike based on ethnic heritage alone, with 62% of the internees being US citizens.

146

Ronan(rf) 06.04.14 at 1:39 am

Bruce, I am sorry to aggravate you. I see you as as the Braudel of internet commenters, so that was never my intent : )
Anarcissie – I will write something up somewhere else (which will be mostly nonsense and speculation, though nonetheless) then link it here in due course (maybe, but probably a few weeks away) and you can see what you think.

147

Ed Herdman 06.04.14 at 2:49 am

Going way back upthread with these comments…

Aaron Lercher @ #30:
Indeed, the Black Panthers and other black power groups were infiltrated and sometimes set against each other by the FBI, in which case willingness to die creates a real potential for the defeat of the movement (this was simply the aim of the FBI’s involvement there).

Socrates is doing his thing just because he’s Socrates. And he was uniquely placed so that the form he chose would have lasting impact. This won’t necessarily hold true for modern truth-tellers, as the comment immediately before yours (at #29) shows.

@ Thornton: Still with adam.smith here; still have no idea what the thrust of your comments is. American history having previously fit into specific arbitrary patterns doesn’t tell us very much about where we are at now, and it is clear that in many respects the consensus behind various forms of persecution and waste is ossified at the moment. This is the issue of the moment, not Quaker Palmer’s raids or the internment. While the actual “absolute” levels of badness probably don’t rise to some other occasions, they represent the live issues and are still worthy of our attention.

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J Thomas 06.04.14 at 8:40 am

#140

“@ Thornton: Still with adam.smith here; still have no idea what the thrust of your comments is.”

As near as I can tell, the thrust of it is that we are bad, we have always been bad and we will never get any better. So don’t even try.

149

Thornton Hall 06.04.14 at 5:35 pm

My point, started explicitly more than once, is straight forward.

Many folks, including several of the commenters here, describe the NSA program of collecting phone call meta-data on Americans as a direct reduction of democracy simply by virtue of its existence. It is prima facie “illegitimate” and simply one symptom of many that display the creeping fascism of the US mass surveillance state.

I believe the burden of proof should be on those who make such a claim to explain:
A. How exactly this creeping fascism (my words) or whatever actually makes our lives worse. You say it’s bad, because 1984 or whatever, and everyone nods along. I say, actually, please connect the dots.
B. As an example of the kind of harm that might be a answer to the question posed, I note that the cops arrest blacks but not whites for drug offenses is a harmful abuse of power directed at a group disfavored by the state.
C. Similarly, there are examples from history where we really have arrested people for the content of their thoughts. This is the sort of harm that the state has inflicted in further of national security goals, that, again, are the sort of thing that might answer point a.

The response? We can’t tell you the harm because it is a secret. Or people might live in fear of being persecuted by what their meta data reveals. Or it’s just bad because it’s bad, insert metaphor for decline (disease, chemical decay, etc) here.

Or…
Me: Tell me what’s so bad about it?
The Thread: you suck.

150

b9n10nt 06.04.14 at 6:21 pm

#148:

1) Shouldn’t the burden of proof for the desirability of an act logically rest on those who commit the act? How could there exist any sort of ethics without this principle. How could there be a principle of: an agent acts without any premeditation, and then ethical principles spring into existence among those who don’t act. Fundamentally, ethics would have no utility. Clearly, the burden of proof lies with the goverment who, in this case, is the agent of action.

2) Not being able to evaluate harm because it’s unknowable, as a direct result of the agent’s actions, is itself a harm (referring to the precautionary principle). Secondly, actions which create stress (fear) are a harm. In #148, you give no reason to discount these self-evident harms, and seem therefore unwilling to acknowledge even the concept of harm as a phenomelogical reality. Yes, if sentient beings were replaced by digital sets of information in a game called “state fights crime and geopolitical atrophy”, then ignorance and stress are not harms. But all I have to do is establish that human beings are sentient to establish the concept of harm, and your apparent argument is refuted.

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roy belmont 06.04.14 at 6:32 pm

A. How exactly this creeping fascism (my words) or whatever actually makes our lives worse

One of the main reasons we’re in such deep shit is the dominance of moral discourse by minds that are unable to transcend their own rational boundaries. And who don’t see that inability as a disability.
Even as real human life is lived outside as well as within those rational boundaries.

The future is an intangible semiotic abstraction within that bounded space, and intangibles have inferior standing in rational discourse.
So the future gets short shrift. Even as we and especially our children are carried directly into it by the inexorability of temporal inertia.

What is lost in blanket surveillance (by the unqualified self-elected) is unquantifiable and unqualifiable, it is the loss of things that will not be, will never be, that have no substance because they don’t exist, and no accusatory function because they will never exist.

This idea can however be introduced, it is in lawsuits and criminal justice proceedings, but only in the granular and personal – My client has lost ten years of productive employment your honor, at X-hundred thousands a year.

The immeasurable losses directly accruing from the crippling of human spontaneity, specially in the young, is a crime without habeus corpus whose exponentiating impact is so widely distributed that we’re all victims of it, and yet none of us can point to exactly where we’ve been harmed.
Not because it’s a secret, because it isn’t there.

152

Thornton Hall 06.04.14 at 6:43 pm

@150. I’m pretty sure Socrates made the same critique of writing things down:
The immeasurable losses directly accruing from the crippling of human spontaneity, specially in the young, is a crime without habeus corpus whose exponentiating impact is so widely distributed that we’re all victims of it, and yet none of us can point to exactly where we’ve been harmed.

153

Thornton Hall 06.04.14 at 6:47 pm

PS is there some continental philosopher I should familiarize myself with to make sense of this? Particularly someone who can explain the ontological system where human decision can be rational, emotional or some third kind that has a “discourse” but isn’t the first two?

154

Ed Herdman 06.04.14 at 7:02 pm

I think Roy makes some great points here about things that are left unsaid, but I believe my comments are coming from (and should be understandable from) the standard American analytic tradition. The same, I would think, for b9n10nt’s comment above.

To try and respond to your points above:

a.) You’re springing a kind of “please ground your beliefs” trap on us here, if we were going to fall into it. Look, things are just bad. They are bad regardless of their relationship with previous historical touchstones. There is no “connecting the dots” to be done here.
b.) Sure, so why don’t you extend your analysis of groups disfavored by the state to irregular / undocumented immigrants? That has been one of the chief mysteries of this debate.
c.) Again, I don’t see the relevance to whether it is right or wrong to detain undocumented immigrants.

I also am not sure whether your viewpoint is really consistent here. You are ready to say that certain things were bad, which suggests to me that there is some kind of reason we can go back to in order to determine what is bad. But when others have suggested other things are bad, you seem to suggest they aren’t bad because they don’t fit into a historical pattern. Well, what historical pattern did abuses from the start of the Constitution fit into? And if you say they were extensions of abuses from the Common Law tradition, what historical pattern did that fit into? And so it goes. I think there’s a reason a lot of us are happy to stick with the standard theories (duty-based, emotional, utilitarian, whatever) for declaring things are bad, which I have failed to see in your posts.

155

CityZen 06.04.14 at 7:08 pm

@149

Frankly, there’s not a lot of point in trying to respond further. Many other comments in the thread address the exactly issues he/she raises, and he/she persist with “But why? But why? I’m genuinely perplexed. Please explain it to me. Where’s the harm? But where? But where?” That’s either an insatiable form of curiosity (hence unsatisfiable) or a stubborn refusal to take the various explanations on offer seriously.

As to the logic of his/her own position, it can basically be reconstructed like this: (1) the spying/surveillance in and of itself, taken in isolation (just assuming it can be), cannot possibly be a harm or a wrong – despite others’ efforts to explain how it is or can be; (2) any actions taken by the state consequent to its spying/surveillance programmes, that we know of, do not rise to the level of serious or important harm/wrongdoing – because even worse things were done in the past, or because even worse things are done currently (to some groups, etc.), or whatever; (3) any actions taken by the state consequent to its spying/surveillance programmes, that we do not know of, are irrelevant – and this despite many comments’ efforts to explain the greatly increased risk of abuse that total secrecy creates.

Unless you can directly demonstrate to him/her that people are being strangled with piano wire (or some such thing), there’s no getting through here, sorry.

156

roy belmont 06.04.14 at 7:11 pm

Geez dude I was just trying to help out. You want to get all snarked up, I mean, heck I can do that. But why?
It’s all there already.
You end up asking a question you don’t inhabit, about something I didn’t say or assert.

It’s the dysfunctional that sees its own rational supremacy as appropriate and necessary, without any regard for the amount of thuggish force behind its dominance.
It’s them rationoids that exclude emotion and aesthetic as inferior. Because they themselves have missing parts.
The opposite isn’t an equal, symmetrical exclusion, it’s the inclusive, the wholistic human.
Emotion and aestheticand rational.

157

Ed Herdman 06.04.14 at 7:16 pm

@ Roy: I see what I said wasn’t clear: The very first comment of your post is in reference to you, but the rest is directed towards Thornton Hall. Sorry for failing to signpost that!

158

Thornton Hall 06.04.14 at 7:17 pm

Look. If I look around the room and I don’t know who the asshole is… I realize. It’s me. But as a partial defense, my comments in reply to the “Dude has no point” crowd were not meant to be a direct challenge to the “here’s the harm, stupid” crowd.

159

Thornton Hall 06.04.14 at 7:20 pm

PS. I guess that’s snark about Socrates, but I think it’s also literally true.

160

Ed Herdman 06.04.14 at 7:22 pm

I think there’s often a nugget of truth in most anything people say, even the apparently / obviously crazy things (who shot Liberty Bell?) But to have a conversation still seems to require some sacrifices on this – either you can show us why your viewpoint should matter, or you can show us how it’s relevant to our own discussion (I think it reasonable to suggest that the latter prong won’t spear anything in this debate). Maybe there is some other possibility, but it seems that if you don’t do either of those things, you’re making points that aren’t relevant.

161

CityZen 06.04.14 at 7:26 pm

@154 – PS, to be clear: I’m referencing the commentary by @Thornton Hall, not the author of @149 (@b9n10nt), who also attempts to respond to @Thornton, which I say is futile at this point.

@157 – If there’s some midway position/point at which you are willing to meet “the room”, please tell us what it is and then we can put this to rest.

162

CityZen 06.04.14 at 7:40 pm

@160 – Speaking for myself, I’ve already conceded, e.g., the question as to how mass surveillance, as an activity taken in isolation (i.e., apart from anything that is done by the data gathered – that is, just the snooping itself), could amount to a harm or wrong is a difficult question. Other people here gave some good answers on that front, and I found them quite helpful and informative. Likewise on the question of “tangible” harms or wrongs consequent to the snooping.

If the point is to come up with a conclusive account, that’s not going to happen; if the point is to learn something, this has been a very good thread.

163

bob mcmanus 06.04.14 at 7:49 pm

152: Sure

Start with Hutcheson and Smith and theories of sentiments. Then move to Kant and sensibility (sense perception, emotions) and understanding/reason mediated by imagination (sentiments, empathy). The Brits and French kinda dropped out at this point, but the Germans had energy enough for all. So go to Schelling Fichte, then to Hegel, then to Kierkegaard Nietzsche and everybody else after that. Excluding Marx and Marxians. And maybe the hardcore phenomenologists. Unless they took up existentialism. Anyway, read everybody.

164

Thornton Hall 06.04.14 at 8:06 pm

I’m definitely willing to meet halfway. Really I’m trying out a more general idea and saw this debate as a possible token of the type I have in mind. That type goes something like this: certain abstractions (eg, freedom, efficiency) are useful shorthand when working to improve human lives. However, when we lose sight of how they connect to the actual experience of actual humans we have the potential to go wildly astray. The notion that there is some quantity “freedom” that is like “hit points” or “utils” or whatever, that I can somehow feel and enjoy just seems ridiculous to me. I mean, if you like wide open spaces, enjoy North Dakota. But the idea that it is more “free” than Massachusetts is a reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism. I’m supposed to sing while I slave at the oil rig and just get bored. And die young. No thanks.

I think macro economics is so far gone down a similar road, that the journals all enforce a collective denial of the fact that the data are in, and they need to start over.

Is it bad to have the NSA read our meta data? Probably. But is this “bad” like “inefficient” or “unfree” or is it bad like “live a miserable life and die in prison”? I think it’s good to be able to get to the latter. Some disagree and say something about the ineffable. I can agree to disagree b/c I don’t follow. To the rest, I’m sure there is a plenty good answer. I agree. It’s bad.

165

Ed Herdman 06.04.14 at 8:34 pm

Mea culpa – realized I’m stuck in immigration mode from the symposium threads. However, I think you can do a mental Ctrl+R (Find & Replace) on “immigration” and the meaning still gets across.

But, of course, immigration is just one of the areas that we see being impacted by surveillance. The impacts (if not harms) are certainly there if you go looking for them.

166

CityZen 06.04.14 at 8:38 pm

@163 – Ok, so it’s bad but on a scale of 1 to 10 it’s not Nazi-Godzilla-Ebola bad, and those who say it is must ultimately invoke “abstractions” that inflate the value of privacy-freedom – over and above, for example, the value of bodily integrity – out of proportion to the actual “harms” involved, however we want to define them. Ok, that’s fair enough. But to be fair, I don’t think anyone here is suggesting things are Nazi-Godzilla-Ebola bad; but still, I get it, you’re asking for a sense of proportionality. Of course, having your rights violated by, say, arbitrary state-sponsored eye-stabbing is “worse” than having them violated by random warrantless collection of your meta-data. And of course, if a state was engaged in both arbitrary eye-stabbing and random private data collection, if we had to choose, we would probably want the eye-stabbing to stop first.

But if we’re talking about proportion here, then let’s ask this: what is the list of “bad activities” that the state is currently engaged in? Does warrantless surveillance on that list? I take it you agree, yes, it is. Ok, next question: are things, like eye-stabbing, on that list that we should deal with first? I take it you’re saying, yes. And at least I agree: there probably are some things that are “worse”. But given that we’re talking about the “West” here, that list is fairly short, depending on what your civil-liberty tolerance level is, of course. And the fact that this surveillance makes it on the list is already quite important.

So, yes, there probably are some things that Western states are doing that could be counted as “worse” than that – at least to their own citizens, since we certainly know they are doing some nasty things to some foreigners. Ideally, all of it should, must stop. But if we had to choose, yes, I agree, there probably are a few things that would take priority.

I think that’s a fair enough middle ground.

167

J Thomas 06.04.14 at 8:45 pm

Thornton Hall, I find your troll frustrating. You described how it looked to you, so I’ll say how it looks to me.

You: Tell me why it’s wrong. Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean much because it’s a victimless crime.

Me: If I knew details about the victims it would be illegal for me to tell you. It would be illegal for me to file a lawsuit revealing those details or to testify in public court about them. I could be held incommunicado without trial if I did that.

You: So you have no proof that there is any problem!

Me: It’s a problem to me that the government is above the law, that it is allowed to keep its crimes secret and no one is allowed to know them, while it investigates crimes that citizens’ online records indicate they might have done and illegally tips off prosecutors and police.

You: So you have no proof that anybody is harmed!

Me: We need some sort of controls on it, we can’t just take the government’s word that they aren’t doing anything bad.

You: I trust our government, they wouldn’t do anything bad. You should trust them too. There’s no proof that we need anybody to know about their secrets.

Me: I disagree.

You: Anyway, look at all the horrible things the government has done that we know about. Look at the horrible things it’s still doing that we know about. Everything we’ve heard about that’s secret is just minuscule by comparison.

Me: But those other things aren’t secrets. We can organize to stop them if we’re ready to put in the work. When it’s secret we can’t do that, it’s undemocratic and unconstitutional.

You: Well, but that’s all theoretical. Prove to me that the government’s spying has hurt anybody who isn’t a criminal. If we can’t prove they’re hurting anybody who deserves not to be hurt, then we have to let them do whatever they want.

Me: I just don’t get why you won’t see this.

You: Come on, tell me what’s so bad about it.

Me: You suck.

168

roy belmont 06.04.14 at 8:54 pm

J Thomas

Me: You suck
*punches mirror*

169

Ze Kraggash 06.04.14 at 9:21 pm

166 “Me: I just don’t get why you won’t see this.”

There was a point there, I think, a subtle suggestion in Thornton Hall’s rhetoric, that you’ve missed. Unless I’m mistaken. It’s that you care so much about the archived phone bills because they are your phone bills. As opposed to far worse things happening to people who are not like you. Similarly, CityZen 165 admits ignoring “nasty things to some foreigners”. So, there.

170

J Thomas 06.04.14 at 9:43 pm

There was a point there, I think, a subtle suggestion in Thornton Hall’s rhetoric, that you’ve missed. Unless I’m mistaken. It’s that you care so much about the archived phone bills because they are your phone bills. As opposed to far worse things happening to people who are not like you.

I see! I did miss that.

Hall: You guys are upset about this neglible issue because you’re doing things you’re ashamed of and you don’t want anybody to know. You suck.

171

roy belmont 06.04.14 at 9:43 pm

Thornton Hall -

Freedom’s like the future. What makes it important isn’t visible yet.
Insistence on tangibility means the importance is made tangential, secondary to the immediate and quantifiable.
Arguments in favor of recognition of the invisible get thrown out of the conversation because of having nothing tangible, by definition.
It’s a pathology, and a tautology. The same one that kept women out of the voting franchise.
Emotions, and alongside them, the aesthetic, are dismissed by the rational-heavy as messy and lightweight.
Love and beauty are essential, central to human experience. Not luxuries, not chocolate and vanilla consumer preferences.
That dismissive attitude toward anything that can’t be put under the lenses of analysis makes it imperative to assert these things. But it’s in a context of dominance by a mind-set that refuses to grant that centrality, or respect the validity of the assertion, or even the seriousness of the position.
The diminution of the ineffable. When we’re surrounded by the ineffable.

I don’t see this as a discussion of “warrantless surveillance” really. It’s the placing of human experience under a microscope, in the hands of judgmental shadows.

172

CityZen 06.04.14 at 9:43 pm

@168 – I’m not ignoring, not am I suggesting that we should ignore the nasty things being done to some foreigners. What I suggested was that, to get to some kind of middle ground with Thornton Hall, we would need to ignore the nasty things being done to some foreigners. These things are being done as a direct result of the surveillance; that is, the surveillance directly facilitates some nasty activity on foreign lands. You can deny or question that there’s any real “tangible” harm here, as Thornton does, only if you exclude these activities. I obviously think they should be included in the assessment, and obviously these activities and the spying that facilitates them must stop.

But yes, what I should have said in @165 was – looking just intra-nationally, and excluding extra-territorial activities, there are probably some relatively “worse” things than warrantless surveillance that (certain) Western states are engaged in.

And remember: this is just to get to some middle ground here.

173

roy belmont 06.04.14 at 10:08 pm

there are probably some relatively “worse” things than warrantless surveillance

Yes, and any attempt to stop those “activities and the spying that enables them” after they occur puts you right back in that moment when somebody or other said:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

We need to get ahead of the vision behind that statement.
Not, after judicious study, run along behind its avatars, barking righteously.

174

CityZen 06.04.14 at 10:14 pm

@170 – I agree with the gist of what you say. There is something “sinister” and “ugly” about a state that is doing what the revelations have shown, and this matters even if you discount supposedly “tangible” things or quasi-physical “harms”. It has to do, perhaps, with the way such a state “sees” its own citizens (let alone foreigners!) – with the form of “recognition” (in Hegel’s sense, if you like) it grants them – or more properly, with the absence of a proper, and properly ethical, form of recognition. This has to do with trust, mutual background understanding, a sense of mutual belonging, and so on – all of which is diminished and maybe even lost. And the way the state “sees” its citizens inevitably ends up defining how citizens, in turn, come to see the state, and also, ultimately, themselves. So, yes, this is not like being “thrown in prison for life” (or whatever), but it matters.

I suppose it should’t be taken it for granted that everyone will understand that this is the sort of thing that we mean when we say that such activity is “corrosive” – that the mutual distrust that is fostered by such activity is a problem, and so on. I thought many other posts made much of this clear went a long way to explain the point. But, it seems to be still to “ephemeral” for some – so there you have it.

175

CityZen 06.04.14 at 10:50 pm

@172 – What was it then, the 11th thesis on Feuerbach? Sorry, but it’s a moronic dichotomy, i.e., between “interpreting” and “changing” the world.

So some of us have more of an “academic”, interpretive, “judicious study” bent … oh, please DO forgive us! So not all of us want to emulate your “avatars of empire”, “men of action” and all that … so what? And you equate thinking things through with “righteous barking”, because? … whatever.

Here’s a suggestion: a bit more thinking, a bit less action – all around.

176

Thornton Hall 06.04.14 at 10:51 pm

@J Thomas. The question of proof really had nothing to do with what I was saying. I’m willing to say that if I know some anonymous person is being harmed in secret and without oversight, that is terribly wrong. Public trials are a bulwark of democracy. My point is this: I can explain, in concrete terms, why public trials are important. Without public oversight, even well intentioned prosecutors and judges will have axes to grind and innocents to punish. Innocents in prison is per se wrong. Arbitrary justice is terrible at deterrence. No one invests when imprisonment is always a possibility.

Now, those same consequences could result from surveillance, just as they could result from Bill Clinton’s efforts to put “100,000 cops on the beat”. But they haven’t yet, in either case (less true for Clinton’s acts, but close enough). So my point is: if you have a theory that these consequences will come true then I’m all ears.

And to that, it’s not a response to say “well we wouldn’t know, would we?” I think you might say here: “But we know they’ve illegally tipped off the cops. And we shouldn’t trust the government. And no one is watching.”

Except someone was watching, a lawyer who works for the government. The prosecutor who started asking questions and caused the story to be reported. Importantly, this is the exact same level of protection we have in the case of Bloomberg’s systematic harassment of black and brown people in Manhattan. Is it bad protection? Yes. I wouldn’t trust most prosecutors with a pet hamster (unless it was albino). Nonetheless, it’s what stands between tyranny and democracy wherever democracy exists.

So, should we make sure there is at least some other, competing branch or level of govt involved? Absolutely.

@CityZen And your point is well taken. Even the minimal protections of the criminal justice system are not afforded to non-citizens. The NSA has nothing on ICE (so to speak) when it comes to secret judicial proceedings.

Which is the point I was making before: when you spell out the way the NSA could turn into a danger to democracy it turns out that you simply are describing the way we already treat a good 10% of the population.

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Bruce Wilder 06.04.14 at 10:58 pm

roy belmont @ 172

Yes, way, way behind the cycle.

But, you cannot even see the cycle until you begin to more fully appreciate the implications of, “they’re doing this because they can”.

The obverse of not being able to identify the concrete harm is not being able to identify the concrete purpose. Because there isn’t one. Yet. They’re just doing it because they can, because the evolving tech makes it relatively easy and cheap, for the first time. There’s a novelty factor.

But, the possibilities are built into every cookie, every LSO, every “free” email account, every web account that uses an email as a username, every stupid password authentication, every supermarket club card, every cellphone, every Facebook page, and on and on. The possibilities are the enemy, here, and it’s more than slightly ridiculous to be pleading personal ethics as government policies.

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CityZen 06.04.14 at 11:08 pm

@176 – Just out of curiosity, who is pleading “personal” ethics as government policy here?

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b9n10nt 06.04.14 at 11:09 pm

You can’t argue that physical harm is fundamentally “tangible” in a way that nonviolent effects of surveillance are “ephemeral”. The concept of harm requires the ephemeral.

2 guys haven’t eaten for 7 days. One is fasting to become closer to god, another one is being deprived of food against her will as a political act. Even in case of death by gunshot, suicide and murder and wartime killing aren’t ethically identical: there’s nothing ephemeral about the concept of human freedom. It is fundamental (and if freedom is defined as a kind of optimum in relationship to a heirarchy, a nearly-biological) tenet of human existence.

Any act that strengthens socio-political hierarchies without any countervailing benefit is aggression. And you’ll hardly get more tangible than that as a definition of aggression.

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Bruce Wilder 06.04.14 at 11:15 pm

CityZen @ 177

I’m going to plead “rhetorical flourish” for the moment, while reserving the right to back up my nascent thesis by linking to examples in a comment thread tbd.

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CityZen 06.04.14 at 11:40 pm

@178 – Agreed. Freedom is not exactly something you can touch, smell, etc. Why do you do me wrong if you trespass on my lawn? How is my will “in” my lawn? Etc. It takes a conceptual leap: my lawn is “mine” in the sense that (subject to various restrictions) it is up to me what happens to it; so if you use it without permission, you interfere with my aims or purposes or plans. Likewise for my physical body. In one sense it’s all pretty ephemeral, but in another it’s actually pretty concrete.

On the other hand, I get what Thornton is driving at. You could say there are some violations of, or ways of interfering with, freedom that are more “direct” or “immediate” or “tangible” than others. Some manifestations of our freedom are closer to the core, as it were. So, for example, the wrong that a peeping tom does is not of the same order as that of the rapist. I get the basic idea, and think it’s not entirely irrelevant to an assessment of surveillance etc.

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Thornton Hall 06.05.14 at 12:03 am

@ 178 “Any act that strengthens socio-political hierarchies without any countervailing benefit is aggression. And you’ll hardly get more tangible than that as a definition of aggression.”

The last time I heard someone say something like that, it was my torts professor. And she thought it an affront to justice and good sense when I informed her that it was possible to be walking down Waveland Ave in Chicago and be hit on the head with a baseball that had sailed out of Wrigley Field for a home run. I have ignored such people ever since.

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john c. halasz 06.05.14 at 12:09 am

“And she thought it an affront to justice and good sense when I informed her that it was possible to be walking down Waveland Ave in Chicago and be hit on the head with a baseball that had sailed out of Wrigley Field for a home run”.

I, for one, would like to see some stats on that, before I render judgment.

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William Timberman 06.05.14 at 1:08 am

Bruce Wilder @ 176

SciFi, or if you prefer, speculative fiction, has been very good at identifying the potential harm/purpose of all of these new, technological imperatives, usually long before they’ve actually existed. Philip K. Dick, for example, was one of the earliest to look deeply into the dark mirror of technology, to see that it wasn’t all going to be silver lamé miniskirts, aircars and United Federations of Planets. If we’d been paying attention, we’d have known that not only would there be iPads, but also pre-crime, Stasi-on-the-cheap, and in the figurative, if not literal sense, Soylent Green. (Try Abdul ben Hassan — HE make this snake….)

Were writers like Dick imagining the demons, or invoking them? If we want to give them credit for being Pound’s antennae of the race, maybe we should also ask them to tune to some other channel. I doubt it would do any good in the long run, but it’d be a start.

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Ed Herdman 06.05.14 at 1:26 am

@ john:

If the word was “probable,” then there’d be something to look askance at.

Great commentary on that one, Thornton.

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J Thomas 06.05.14 at 1:48 am

The question of proof really had nothing to do with what I was saying. I’m willing to say that if I know some anonymous person is being harmed in secret and without oversight, that is terribly wrong. Public trials are a bulwark of democracy. My point is this: I can explain, in concrete terms, why public trials are important. Without public oversight, even well intentioned prosecutors and judges will have axes to grind and innocents to punish. Innocents in prison is per se wrong. Arbitrary justice is terrible at deterrence. No one invests when imprisonment is always a possibility.

Then you agree with me. The secrecy is wrong. Period.

Now, those same consequences could result from surveillance, just as they could result from Bill Clinton’s efforts to put “100,000 cops on the beat”.

So you agree with me. The secret surveillance is wrong. Period.

But they haven’t yet, in either case (less true for Clinton’s acts, but close enough).

How do you know? They’re doing the very best they can to keep it secret. It sounds like you are claiming that you know they can’t have kept any important crimes secret this long. Do you have some reason to believe that? Do you believe in a Free Market In Government Secrets that always reveals secrets at the right time?

Why would you make the argument that you know what harm they’ve done? Why would you make it repeatedly when you got called on it the first time and the second time and you have never had any rational argument behind it? Do you think if you keep repeating it as if you think you have a point, that people will forget it’s bullshit?

So my point is: if you have a theory that these consequences will come true then I’m all ears.

You already agreed with me. There’s nothing to keep them from coming true. The system is designed to make them come true. Why are you still talking like there’s an opposing argument?

The US government’s spy program against all US citizens is supposed to happen in complete secrecy. They have been caught lying about its capabilities. It is part of a system that allows secret arrests and secret trials. When you agree that the government has the right to secret arrest, secret detention without trial, secret trial, and secret imprisonment then you have pretty much give up all your rights. What justification has been presented for this? That Al Qaeda is even more dangerous and must be stopped. That’s all.

No, I do not agree that the US government has the right to this degree of secrecy.

And to that, it’s not a response to say “well we wouldn’t know, would we?” I think you might say here: “But we know they’ve illegally tipped off the cops. And we shouldn’t trust the government. And no one is watching.”

Yes, it is a perfectly valid response to say that we are not allowed to know. If they do their surveillance and we get to see what they did and judge how appropriate it was, that’s a different question.

When they keep it secret, then the burden of proof is not on me to prove there is harm, the burden of proof is on you to prove there is no harm. They are doing their absolute level best to keep us from finding out about the harm they do. That is all the reason we need to make them stop, if we can.

Except someone was watching, a lawyer who works for the government. The prosecutor who started asking questions and caused the story to be reported. Importantly, this is the exact same level of protection we have in the case of Bloomberg’s systematic harassment of black and brown people in Manhattan. Is it bad protection? Yes. I wouldn’t trust most prosecutors with a pet hamster (unless it was albino). Nonetheless, it’s what stands between tyranny and democracy wherever democracy exists.

You and I agree this is bad protection. It is not enough. So you have no argument that it is enough.

So, should we make sure there is at least some other, competing branch or level of govt involved? Absolutely.

Good. Make a proposal for how that should work.

Here is my proposal — make all NSA records public after one year. Information about a terrorist group will be totally stale by then. Information about US military secrets? If it needs to be secret a year from now, NSA shouldn’t spy on it. So after one year every NSA request from their databases, plus the data they looked at, goes public for anybody to look at, and on a continuing basis let the public decide whether they’re doing the right thing.

This means that when NSA spies on friendly foreign governments, the info they get only gives them one year advantage. That’s OK, it’s seldom worth much longer than that. When they blackmail a US congressman, everybody finds out about it within a year. Don’t do that.

Make the code open-source and use multiple independent teams of independent contractors to install it, like banks do. Don’t let NSA have physical access to their own hardware.

I think with sufficient precautions we can have surveillance with reasonable safety.

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Ed Herdman 06.05.14 at 2:30 am

I don’t believe that one year is enough to close the book on some terrorist groups, especially foreign ones. It took a long damn time to find Osama bin Laden.

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Anarcissie 06.05.14 at 2:46 am

Being an animal, I am uncomfortable, indeed, fearful, when another larger and much more powerful animal begins watching me fixedly. That is a kind of harm, and it may be a forerunner of much greater harms to come. My deal with the other animals, when I can make one, is ‘Don’t harm me, and I won’t harm you.’ But this big animal doesn’t seem to be interested in that way of getting along.

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b9n10nt 06.05.14 at 3:20 am

185 J Thomas: how about the NSA just get a warrant from an independent judge? I’ll gladly trade that for the vague possibility that terrorists have a greater chance to treat Americans like a West Virginia mining company.

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b9n10nt 06.05.14 at 3:22 am

…treats us.

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roy belmont 06.05.14 at 3:23 am

CityZen 06.04.14 at 10:50 pm

That dismissive little screed would have been a lot more wounding if you had indicated at least minimally some comprehension of what I said.
Whereas me, I see you and others eruditely examining the scat of whatever thing it is that’s lunging around in the dark out there.
Maybe it will help, maybe even a lot, eventually, but some thought needs to be given to what it’s devouring.
Combining disparate phenomena, say Ukraine, the election of Modi in India, the drumbeat of disinfo on Venezuela coupled with egregious sleazy attempts at regime change there …I balk at at an inclusive list. These are just a few dots. But pretending they don’t connect is what I’m criticizing. And that’s just current events.
All well and good to get the jots and tittles clarified, but at some point a line gets crossed, and erudition of detail becomes wankerish avoidance, and ultimately timid complicity.

The vision is control, it’s preparation for further control that is the motive behind mass surveillance. Not just control of things now, but soon, as society delaminates further and the short end of the stick catches fire. This is the pattern, and it’s intensifying, metastasizing.

I don’t agree with Wilder, sorry Bruce, except maybe as to low-level individual motives, that it’s all simply in potential now – novelty, cool, fun.
I think there’s a map, intent, and anticipation. Toward empire, toward masterhood, toward enslavement really.
And I do not believe it’s coming from people the rest of us would be proud to have represent humanity at the Intergalactic Council of Civilized Worlds.

Rather than just dwell on the fear induced, and the immediate harms resultant, I was trying to put forth what’s lost in that narrow myopic vision. What needs defending. Besides the right of already over-privileged consumers to some privacy.

Your 180 seems to reveal a telling core to your position, it’s consumerist, static, and firmly grounded in the present.
The present doesn’t last very long.
Whatever future is ahead is going to come from this volatile changing moment, and the mind behind all those disparate spooky and iniquitous things wants that future for itself. I don’t share that vision.

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CityZen 06.05.14 at 4:44 am

roy belmont @190

Sorry I misunderstood you; it’s very possible I did, I often do.

As for your larger point: this is indeed a forum where events, issues, problems, etc., often but not always “current” in scope, are brought up by an OP, who presumably deems them of some sort importance and so worth discussing. The issues are fairly narrow, or “myopic” if you will; “disparate phenomena” are dealt with, more or less on a case-by-case basis. So, yup, we go through the scat. It doesn’t have to be that way; it just happens to be so, presently.

I think the forum you might just be looking for is one where the aim is to sort out the much larger details of how modernity is characterized by the relentless unfolding of the technological disclosure of Being, and the concurrent forgetfulness of Being, whereby the crisis at the heart of modernity is covered up by the very process of modernization itself, such that not only do we not know that we are all (along with nature) rendered mere standing reserve, but we do not know that we do not know …. and yes, I’ve botched it but you get the drift.

I’d be very happy to discuss anything along those lines; there’s a perfectly plausible discussion to be had (or paper to be written, maybe even at the graduate level) about how the surveillance state is a manifestation of techno-modernity in the Heideggerian sense, or about Foucauldian “capillaries of power”, etc. etc.. For “surveillance state” you could also insert: “anthropogenic climate change”, “parenting the iPad baby”, “international relations in the [...] era”, or “the FIFA world cup”, etc. etc.

But I’m just trying to stay more or less on point.

Ok, that might sound snarky or sarcastic – NOT intended! A bad/corny sense of humour on my part is all.

But anyway: you can indeed fold any and all of the “disparate phenomena” you list, and a whole bunch of other phenomena, into a very large story about an ever metastasizing and intensifying vision of imperial control and masterhood that is ineluctably rendering everyone everywhere a slave.

But then, I wonder, why bother with the minutiae of the particular phenomenon we’ve chosen to discuss here, today? Why not just go straight for the bigger story, this very big picture that you’re obviously keeping in the background and which you think helps make sense of all these particulars?

By the way, it sounds like a very interesting story – and of course, it is also on-point in a sense, i.e., in the sense that you could bring it up at almost any thread where civilization-level matters come up (and that’s almost anywhere), but never mind. It IS a compelling sounding story. And honestly, I see how it fits in with a discussion of the surveillance state. And, again honestly, I’d love to learn more about it. It sounds familiar in some ways, but unfamiliar in others.

But you’ve chosen to let it out in a fish bowl, whereas it needs an ocean.

As for @180 – It was a minor, simplistic example, meant for heuristic type purposes, from which you’ve tried to draw a rather grand inference about the “core” of my position. Hmm, is there a pattern here?

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CityZen 06.05.14 at 5:09 am

roy belmont @190 – “And I do not believe it’s coming from people the rest of us would be proud to have represent humanity at the Intergalactic Council of Civilized Worlds.”

Here’s a question: given the kinds of rather broad, indeed global-historical-civilizational, patterns you are alluding to, is it plausible to think there architects involved; some (group? class? nation?) of people, engaged in activity coordinated at some level, where they’re drawing maps, manifesting articulable intent, anticipating specifiable futures? Are the patterns produced by authentic agency, or is it all structure? If so, who are They?

Fascinating stuff, at least for those of us prone to wankerism.

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roy belmont 06.05.14 at 6:38 am

CityZen -
Trying pretty hard to get all that into a sentence or two here.
How about, it’s too borderline conspiracy theory-izing to frame the specific topic of the post – or at least this end of the thread – which I’m working with as “mass surveillance”, as intentional.
Intentionality would imply agency of course.
It would of necessity require co-ordination, planning, “architects” as well.
Plausible?
Gee I dunno. Either that or it’s a giant clusterfuck of unintended…what?
Mindlessness? Amazingly synchronous accidental accumulation of surveillance ability?
Topsy and the Drones, my new band.
You seem to be defending the consensus view that the major political events of the last fifteen years – in which I would include the erection of a virtual global panopticon and the exponential increase of wealth and political power in the hands of a really small and not particularly altruistic minority, the devastation of Iraq, the opium-saturated nightmare of Afghanistan – that these have all been merely a bunch of isolated happenings. Each needing to be analysed discretely.

Whereas, as you can tell, I’m seeing that accretion of wealth and power and the metastasizing surveillance apparatus as part and parcel.
Is it absurd to think that that much accumulation, all that wealth and control, would be linked?
You seem to be implying that this idea is somewhat paranoiac on my part.
And yet you write like someone with an above average IQ.
How can this be? I ask myself.
Unless it’s an intentional refusal to see what’s right in front of you. And also right behind you.

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Bruce Wilder 06.05.14 at 7:24 am

CityZen: If so, who are They?

If we told you, if we even suspected you suspected, . . . .

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J Thomas 06.05.14 at 8:09 am

Ed, yes, but what we knew about them a year ago is ancient history. They find out what messages we intercept by using the scientific method. Whenever they aren’t sure what messages we can pick up, they pass messages by each method telling us places to bomb, and then check which places get bombed.

Finding out what we were thinking a year ago won’t help them much, except for intellectual curiousity.

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J Thomas 06.05.14 at 8:17 am

“J Thomas: how about the NSA just get a warrant from an independent judge?”

No, that’s a bad fit to the technology.

When the authorities had a limited number of people who could do wiretapping, and a limited amount of physical wiretap kits, we could sort of trust them not to do wiretapping until after they got a judge’s special permission. Imagine they already had a wiretap on every phone in the country and were already taping every conversation, and they promised not to actually listen to the tapes until a judge told them they could. And they had already been caught listening to whatever they wanted to.

These guys have shown we can’t trust them to follow the law. They’ve lied about what they’re doing. It simply is not enough to tell them they can secretly do whatever they want provided they secretly get an independent judge to tell them they can. There’s every reason to think that under that arrangement they will do whatever they want.

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Ze Kraggash 06.05.14 at 9:11 am

Certainly the “collateral murder” video leaked by Manning has to be more shocking than the revelation of NSA collecting phone bills. Yesterday, Ukrainian government, which is now a fully own subsidiary of the US and NATO, bombed a regional Lugansk administration building, killing 8, including the health minister. Later, I watched an Ukrainian politician (contractor of the State Department, for all intents and purposes) doing the broken kettle routine: “we didn’t do it, and in any case they are all terrorists there anyway.” They also shelled and mostly destroyed a hospital in a sleepy place called Krasnyi Liman, wounding a surgeon. I doubt any of this is in US newspapers. But hey, you’re right, surveillance is unpleasant.

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CityZen 06.05.14 at 1:33 pm

@193 – Did not mean to imply “paranoid” thinking on anyone’s part. Conspiracies clearly entail agency on the part of some discrete set of persons, whether they’re acting inside or outside an institutional setting.

No, my point is that while you’re insisting that there are larger dynamics (political/economic/social/etc.) at play in phenomena such as the surveillance state, and and in my view an account of things at that level – at a higher level of generalization – immediately raises questions about agency.

Of course (but of course!) surveillance activities are part of a much larger package. But if we want to unpack all that, sort out all the elements and how they might fit together, we first of all have to move to a much broader perspective than can be accommodated here, and secondly, when we get there, we would not (in my view) see a clear picture of identifiable people (individuals or groups) actively creating the dynamics that propel “history”, i.e., as opposed to a picture of people being locked into such dynamics, pre-set patterns of activity, etc.

If you want to be able to assign responsibility, let alone culpability, (e.g., for abuses, misdeeds, etc.), you have to stick to relatively discreet, particularized phenomena – you have to sift through the scat.

So, briefly, how do you blame anyone in particular for holding a “neo-con/neo-liberal” mindset? It’s not an easy question. This “empire of control” you seem to finger was not built overnight and is not sustained by any one institution, system, class or nation; it itself (whatever it might actually be in detail) would presumably turn out to be a product of even larger dynamics such as globalization, techno-scientific “progress”, etc. – all the stuff that goes into making “modernity”, ultimately.

If you want to try to effect some positive change, it’s important to first of all figure out at which level of generality you want to or should speak … how many dots do we want to draw together into our picture of things? etc.

Something like this, I think, explains the very gloomy outlook of someone like Chris Hedges: his account of “empire” is of course extremely interesting, but he has given it at a level of generality a notch or two too high for the purposes of a progressive response. Whenever he seems to “blame” some person, or company or class or nation for something, he’s actually expressing a lament; it’s not “actionable” imputation of responsibility, as it were. That’s not to say it’s not important to have a story like the one he weaves together in the back of our minds – of course it’s important. But case-by-case scat sifting also has its place.

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b9n10nt 06.05.14 at 2:27 pm

J Thomas @ 196

Good point…and yet…

In this case, there is no “the technology” apart from the institutions that shape it. Speaking as someone who doesn’t understand the technology, it seems it would be possible to jerry-rig a data-vacuuming event with a warrant-initiated beginning and a date of cessation, followed by a statute of limitations for the use and keeping of said data. Wouldn’t that be only as rube-Goldberg-y as what you propose at 185?

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roy belmont 06.05.14 at 3:13 pm

CityZen 06.05.14 at 1:33 pm:

Just starting a busy day, but I wanted to acknowledge your attention to tone and affect.
It’s of a piece with your defense of social and political scatology. Rigorous care.

I’m getting sort of maneuvered into being the guy who’s yelling about the invaders though.
Really what concerns me most in this isn’t the flawed character of the present users, it’s the pre-existing lack of standing of things that are being disappeared, unwittingly and mostly invisibly. The ineffable, not utilitarian but ultimately more humanly pragmatic than any concrete result trumpeted by the current wielders of Total Information Awareness hardware or whatever they’re calling it.

It’s a construct whose scale is beyond us as individuals, but it’s being built none the less.
By what seems from here like arrogant desperate fools, based on their other behaviors.
And it can as easily be parasitized by Andromedan Visigoths or sub-microscopic conquistadors operating through human hosts as it can be handed over to a new generation of enlightened young aristocrats and their servants.

As far as Hedges’ lamenting, my advice would be to keep on an eye on the prophets and the pre-cogs. When they start weeping, or, worse, when they just stare blankly off into the middle distance, replying in monosyllables, we’ve got trouble.

And, in the spirit of fraternal granularity, my inner grammar-nazi says “relatively discreet, particularized phenomena ” should be “discrete”.

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CityZen 06.05.14 at 3:30 pm

roy belmont @200 -

Without inviting questions on the extent to which I endorse Heidegger’s philosophy as such (please let’s not go there), here’s the “only a god can save us” segment of the famous Der Spiegel interview. You might find it apropos:

http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~other1/Heidegger%20Der%20Spiegel.pdf

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Thornton Hall 06.05.14 at 4:18 pm

@CityZen You are a quite charitable person. Good for you.

@J Thomas (and, to a certain extent, Wilder, et al) the book I’ll write someday is called “How To Be Wrong”. Some chapters are funny, like “Agree with Bill Kristol”, others are tragic like “Think that the choice to go to war doesn’t also involve the choice to commit atrocities”. One chapter seems apropos here: “Imagine That Your Opponents Don’t Love Their Children, Too”.

I see this a lot in conservative comment threads, where people seem to honestly believe that liberals propose restrictions on inefficent light bulbs because “They’re ultimate goal is to control every aspect of life simply because they like controlling people.” To this, I always think, what must you imagine the homelife of the average Democrat is like? How would such a person, who can’t stop trying to control people, behave in the face of a child who insists on putting ketchup on their hot dog? Shouldn’t we see liberals raging against such things at family cook-outs across the country this summer?

No matter what you think of the government and it’s motives, you need to start with this very basic idea: you went to high school with these people! No doubt, they sometimes do terrible things. But they don’t *want* to do terrible things. More importantly, they don’t *want* to do things that they imagine everyone they went to high school condemming as terrible.

Whatever you think people are at the NSA are up to, you need to limit to the things you can imagine you yourself doing under similar circumstances.

Another anecdote: when 12 year olds kill each other, every parent thinks to themselves, my child knows the difference between right and wrong. And we are probably hardwired to believe such things about our children. But it’s not true. Every 12 year old, even smart ones, has the capacitiy for enormous evil. No matter what they know, the part of their brain that connects that with what they do is far from fully developed. And the only way to understand the situation is to figure out the circumstances that would lead your own child to murder. And then to figure out how to eliminate those circumstances.

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J Thomas 06.05.14 at 4:35 pm

b9n10nt, I’m not an expert on the technology either, but I will go into detail anyway.

The justification is to catch spies and terrorists, though it actually gets used for whatever its users find useful.

Imagine you want to send occasional secret messages, with somebody you have previously spent time in person. Do you use a code or a cipher? The advantage of ciphers is that you can send a whole lot of data and you don’t have to think about it. The software does everything.

There are multiple disadvantages. The NSA is plausibly the best in the world at breaking ciphers. Anybody can look at your messages and tell they are secret. Unless you want to get attention, you need to look like you’re running a business that needs encryption, and even then the NSA might break your ciphers as part of their industrial espionage system.

In 1947 when the Israelis were illegally smuggling munitions and munitions factories out of the USA, at first they used codes. But then somebody said they had to act professional and got them to start sending messages that looked like XSDIA DBELH ICIAQ etc. The Americans got excited and hunted down the senders and actually caught a few people. The Israelis switched back right away.

Don’t use ciphers.

So what you do, is you get on the net and you look at a recipes website. You look at the recent meatloaf recipes and see if there’s one from a particular name. If there is, you look at the number of eggs and the amount of salt and so on, and that’s the code that tells you want they want to say. You show you got their message by liking the recipe right after theirs, and they see your name and the like and they know you got it. Or you reply to the next one, saying you liked how they did it but you added a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of paprika, or whatever.

This approach doesn’t transmit a whole lot of information, but you don’t need a whole lot. You need things like Go/No-Go. And there’s nothing there to tell anybody there’s a code in use.

Well, but for some things you can’t wait a day. OK, you get a spam account in estonia etc, and you send your code by email to a million people. Put it at the end of an email that markets Viagra, Rolex, penis extension, diet pills, oxytocin, etc. For everybody except your agent it’s spam. NSA can’t tell who read the spam. His computer can check for email often, not like checking a recipes site every 10 minutes.

How does NSA find this sort of thing? First somebody gets captured and reveals how his own communication worked. Then they can figure, if he went through the recipe site maybe other agents go through the same site. They can look for patterns in how people use the site.

They can look at everybody who got the spam with you, because it might be 20 agents among the million instead of just one. They can make lists of people who got other spam from the same source.

If they get 20 people who fit multiple tests — they got the same spam, they clicked on the next recipe after one from Vienna, etc — then they can suggest somebody bring those in for interrogation and find out whether any of them are agents.

To do this sort of thing efficiently it isn’t enough to start watching the recipes website after they find out it’s been used. They do better if they can look at the old data, which they didn’t know ahead of time they’d have any use for. So ideally they collect and store everything so they’ll have it if they need it. Not like the budget is tight….

Anybody could do this with the public data, the websites etc. All it takes is a whole lot of storage and a whole lot of bandwidth plus some sophisticated software. We might see that done commercially in just a few years. It isn’t that much farther than what Google does. The private stuff, only NSA can do. Anybody along the path can see your email or packets of it, if they bother to look, but they can’t put themselves on your path if they aren’t already on it. Unless they’re NSA. NSA can decrypt your encoded email, but if you’re an agent it doesn’t do them any good. You’re using a code they can’t break. Not when “gefilte fish” means “tomorrow” and “Aunt Sadie’s arthritis” means “plutonium”. But if you get spam from the wrong spamster, that makes you a first-level suspect. And if you get spam from the wrong two spamsters then you’re a second-level suspect, and so on. And given this incriminating evidence they have the right to do a deeper search provided they want to.

I hope it’s obvious by now that this has nothing to do with giving judges evidence that an individual surveillance is needed. It just plain does not work that way. If this method is necessary, it’s necessary wholesale. Either we shut it down, or we continue doing it, and whatever window-dressing we add about independent courts won’t matter much.

But if what they do isn’t secret, they have a strong incentive to actually do things citizens would approve, that catch terrorists or foreign agents.

And a year delay is plenty for agent work. The longer an agent stays on the net the better they can zero in on him. The enemy surely knows they do better to get their work done and out of the country in 6 months, because every agent who gets caught reveals that much more to us about how they do things, and makes it easier to catch the others — even when he has no direct contact with any of them. (Of course you mustn’t depend too much on this speculation since I am not an expert and do not know much about the topic.) And they must keep changing their methods. Finding out how close we were a year ago is not much use, it’s ancient history. But a year is not that long for politics, it’s the last congressional election or the leadup to the next one.

The only real problem here is that we know the NSA leadership consists of liars that we cannot trust about anything that has not been independently verified. So we can’t give them control of their own hardware or they will make it lie to us about how it has been used.

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adam.smith 06.05.14 at 4:59 pm

No matter what you think of the government and it’s motives, you need to start with this very basic idea: you went to high school with these people! No doubt, they sometimes do terrible things. But they don’t *want* to do terrible things. More importantly, they don’t *want* to do things that they imagine everyone they went to high school condemming as terrible.

you ask for Western philosophers to read above. Given this, I suggest just starting with the Bill or Rights. The key concept at the heart of the liberal state is that it’s easy for government to overstep, so we need institutions that prevent it from getting out of hand. If we needn’t be concerned about this, we wouldn’t need a bill of rights in the first place. We wouldn’t even really need a democracy. A benevolent monarch/dictator would do just fine.
The idea of constitutional protections is that they will protect us to some degree even if the government, or parts of it, are out to get us. The idea that institutions need to be able to withstand people acting immorally is one of the important insights that comes out of the writing of especially the first chunk of philosophers listed by Bob McManus above.

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J Thomas 06.05.14 at 5:14 pm

TH:

No matter what you think of the government and it’s motives, you need to start with this very basic idea: you went to high school with these people! No doubt, they sometimes do terrible things. But they don’t *want* to do terrible things. More importantly, they don’t *want* to do things that they imagine everyone they went to high school condemming as terrible.

I’m sorry, but you are wrong. Here is an example — more than 116,000 people work for the IRS. They know that most of the people they went to high school with condemn what they do as terrible. But they believe it is useful and important and they do it anyway. “The Service” considers itself an elite organization. Government employees get a special government retirement package which is treated completely different from SS, so that the people who worry that SS will disappear know they are covered. My ex-wife got an IRS job, and told me that IRS agents get a special different retirement plan separate from other federal employees. But when I looked it up just now I didn’t see that, it claims federal employees get SS, FERS, and also TSP whether they are IRS or not.

In general people think they are doing the right thing even when their neighbors disapprove. National Socialists thought that, dittoheads think it, racists think it, etc.

So your mooshie-feelie substitute for an argument carries no weight whatsoever.

Whatever you think people are at the NSA are up to, you need to limit to the things you can imagine you yourself doing under similar circumstances.

I have a little bit of public-health background, mostly from before-internet days. The NSA approach has tremendous potential for good. For example, if we could track who tends to have contact with who, it would help in epidemics. Find the potentially-infected individuals who are leaving the epicenter and stop them. And think of the benefit for STDs! By tracking social networks, we’d have a great big lead on predicting sexual contacts. Make lists of people who probably have multiple sex partners, particularly those who tend to have lots of partners, and make sure they get regularly tested and treated. That could do more to stop STD spread than any medical advance in history!

Some people think their sexual history should be private, that they should have the right to spread STDs. This idea is ridiculous; it creates vast amounts of human suffering.

But I digress….

Every 12 year old, even smart ones, has the capacitiy for enormous evil. No matter what they know, the part of their brain that connects that with what they do is far from fully developed. And the only way to understand the situation is to figure out the circumstances that would lead your own child to murder. And then to figure out how to eliminate those circumstances.

This is the sort of thing that leaves me wondering what you are trying to do. Your motives are a mystery to me. Sometimes it seems like you are making ridiculous sophistries that can best be explained by your being a total sneaky partisan of one side who wants to fool people. Then you come out with things like this, which undermine the position you have been fakily supporting.

If we don’t want our own government to do horrible acts, then we should avoid the circumstances that promote it doing horrible acts. And that particularly means we should not encourage our government to keep what it does secret, since secret horrible acts do not have nearly so many disincentives as public horrible acts.

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Barry 06.05.14 at 5:58 pm

Thornton Hall: “No matter what you think of the government and it’s motives, you need to start with this very basic idea: you went to high school with these people! No doubt, they sometimes do terrible things. But they don’t *want* to do terrible things. More importantly, they don’t *want* to do things that they imagine everyone they went to high school condemming as terrible.”

Please read some history.

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Roy Belmont 06.05.14 at 6:30 pm

T Hall
At risk of piling on, it’s not they don’t love their kids, it’s that they don’t love mine or anybody else’s.

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CityZen 06.05.14 at 6:34 pm

@203-204 –

I take it you’re saying the kind of “evil” we’re getting at occurs at the organizational/institutional/systemic level, and that cannot be reduced to personal evil (or propensity for it) – and that’s gotta be right. I think Thornton is getting at the perplexity we experience at how individuals come to do “evil” (wrong, bad things, however you want to put it), or how they come to be involved in wrongdoing, etc. – and that’s a genuine perplexity. The answer has to be something like: we’re all at various points engaged in activities that link up to or occur in the context of some larger “system” or “structure”, which in turn effects harm in the world, ultimately impacting “real people” in “tangible” ways. There is a sense in which, just in virtue of being consumer-members of affluent societies we are participants in a system – a mode of global social-economic organization – that carries great risk of harm to “others” (both intra- and extra-territorially) and that risk is in fact realized in all kinds of ways in the world. So for us here to be well off, some others there end up having to suffer. That seems undeniable and suggests we are in fact doing “evil” via myriad seemingly benign or even seemingly “good” acts, like buying the cheapest possible bit of clothing that’s actually made in some far off sweat shop. Etc.

So the question is how to reorganize, reform or altogether dismantle those systems that carry such potential for harm, recognizing that some systems (especially those cloaked in secrecy) expose the world to far more serious risk than others. And how do we start doing that? As I think you’ve suggested, for example, by taking seriously the thinking and the warning of certain “authority figures” – like your, i.e., American, founding fathers – who were deeply aware of, for example, the inherent dangers of modern modes of governance, of the inherent corruptibility of authority and power. But also by attempting to continually revise the countervailing systems they sought to put in place – constitutions, bills of rights, etc. We can’t start from scratch, in other words.

But there’s an added twist: the very “system” of countervailing checks and balances that they put in place was itself the source of “strength” for America (in terms of social structure, economic dynamism, etc. … as per Tocqueville at least) – so there is a sense in which the very things that can prevent “evil” can also facilitate a capacity for it. The US gained the capacity to construct a vast surveillance apparatus that no authoritarian state could match precisely because the US system of governance has a liberal core historically speaking. Some might vehemently deny this latter point; I don’t know, I may be too naive, but I think there’s something to the notion that US history is in part about a gradual and very imperfect unfolding of central ideals of liberty, etc. So there’s perhaps room for optimism here; but I honestly don’t know – again, that may be naive of me. I hope not entirely.

Forgive my mangling the terminology, but I hope you see what I’m getting at.

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Thornton Hall 06.05.14 at 7:03 pm

@207 I do see what you’re getting at. It seems similar to the idea that Anglo-American capitalism reformed itself just enough in the 1930s to avoid a Marxist revolution, but not enough to prevent the exploitation of labor. I don’t mean to tar you as a Marxist or anything.

But the basic idea is that it is very dangerous if the checks and balances sufficient for legitimacy are not sufficient, or are somehow maladapted, to actually protect our human dignity (in the sense that I mean where it’s not just some abstract thing but the ability to lead happy, fullfilling lives).

@204-206 Do any of you people know somebody in government? Somebody who, perhaps, you are less inclined to hate than your ex-wife?

You folks are saying that you believe that there is a class of people that, by virtue of god knows what, have terrible motives that you yourself are not subject to? Or that, maybe, working in the government is a circustance that, as a matter of course, always brings out the worst in people?

Is there a community where you can say, “this guy thinks the people in government don’t actually want to harm us” and everybody laughs, knowingly? Seriously?

Say one of these terrible people accidentally works in the private sector and has risen through the ranks at Apple or Google. Would that mean it’s just a matter of time until my phone starts to subtly guide me toward self harm?

Or are you like these government people who like harming people? Are you the kind of person who sees his life as one that would get him excommunicated from the peers he grew up with? And you like it? If so, what kind of sick fool am I to be reading what you write here?

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adam.smith 06.05.14 at 7:23 pm

So, Thornton, let’s turn this around. Do you think it’s good that we have the Bill of Rights, specifically the 4th amendment? If so, if no one in government would ever abuse their power, why is it good?

Or maybe this will clarify this:

You folks are saying that you believe that there is a class of people that, by virtue of god knows what, have terrible motives that you yourself are not subject to?

I don’t want anyone to have the ability to engage, for example, in unlimited surveillance activity. Not my sister who actually does work in government, and not myself either. Not even Batman: He destroys his limitless surveillance apparatus at the end of The Dark Knight.

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Thornton Hall 06.05.14 at 7:44 pm

@209 The Bill of Rights is a mixed bag. But the 4th Amendment, yes I think it’s fantastic. Due Process, however, is my favorite.

Of course people abuse power. And frequently they know they are abusing it. But they all think they are justified. In the same circumstances, so would you.

For example, when a police officer is frisking all the black people in the neighborhood he has a narrative in his head that says he is protecting the kid’s mother and every other black person in the neighborhood. He’s not racist, he’s going out of his way to protect black people (there’s a decent chance he’s black himself).

Now, there’s zero empirical doubt that this cop’s behavior increases the suffering in the world and disproportionatley increases the suffering of black people. You might call it evil.

So I can believe one of two things: this cop is a terrible person who wants to hurt others. Or, he’s as morally decent as I am (give or take) but is responding to circumstances around him.

There are several advantages to the latter version (in additon to be correct as a matter of reality). It means that we are not in a coal pit of dispair. We can put ourselves into the shoes of the police officer and imagine what is making him behave that way and what we can change to make him stop. It means that I don’t feel cheated when my tax money pays for the defense of the law suit against his racism. It means I don’t have to hate the world and I can see that even J Thomas is trying to do his best.

There are, however, two big disadvantages to seeing the world this way: I have to acknowledge the reality that, but for the grace of god, I could be as evil as the cop. Also, I can’t make cynical comments on the Internet that dismiss everyone else as naive and reinforce my own belief that I am oh so smart.

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adam.smith 06.05.14 at 8:00 pm

While this may be an interesting question psychologically and philosophically (you may want to add Hannah Arendt to the list of philosophers to read), it’s entirely irrelevant legally. As I think I made quite clear, I don’t need to think of people as evil to want to limit their power. As a matter of law, I don’t care why a cop violates someone’s 4th amendment rights. I care about that they do it and that we have means to hold them accountable when they do.
(As a matter of training we may want to understand the “why” to try to change the cops unconstitutional behavior).

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Thornton Hall 06.05.14 at 8:05 pm

Look. I’m well aware of the influence of Arendt in what I was saying. My request for continential philosophers was half serious, half tongue in cheek.

If you don’t care why people do things, maybe you should be a cop. You shouldn’t write laws, though, and I definately would feel less safe if you worked for the NSA.

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adam.smith 06.05.14 at 8:28 pm

Well, there you have your answer. There’s a good chance that lots of people like me work at the NSA, so you want institutions to protect you from me rather than your belief that I’m a great guy, which it took you only a brief online discussion to discard.

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Thornton Hall 06.05.14 at 10:07 pm

Irony is so hard to convey over the internet.

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Layman 06.05.14 at 10:28 pm

Thornton Hall @ 210

“So I can believe one of two things: this cop is a terrible person who wants to hurt others. Or, he’s as morally decent as I am (give or take) but is responding to circumstances around him.”

I’m reasonably confident that every ‘evildoer’ you can think of felt himself/herself to be morally decent and responding to circumstances in the best way; while in fact being a terrible person who wanted to hurt others. Who cares how they justify abuse?

You might consider another possibility, that people are by their very nature prone to abusing power, and are quite ingenious in imagining justifications for that abuse; and that a very strong system is necessary to check their urge to do so. That seems to me to be the actual state of affairs, demonstrated throughout human history.

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J Thomas 06.06.14 at 12:42 am

Of course people abuse power. And frequently they know they are abusing it. But they all think they are justified. In the same circumstances, so would you.

Yes, of course. They believe they are right and they believe that the people who want to stop them are misguided. So it makes perfect sense to lie about what they are doing and try to keep it secret so they won’t have to be bothered with those ignorant misguided people.

But I say this means we can’t trust them. They think it’s OK to lie about what they do, so we can’t take their word for it when they tell us what they do.

I really do not understand your point at all. Of course they think they are the good guys, and they think they are doingthe right thing. That has nothing to do with whether we should stop them. After all, Al Qaeda think they are the good guys and they think they are doing the right thing. They aren’t monsters, they love their children just like we do. But surely we agree that it’s OK to stop them, because we think they get bad results.

So what’s your point?

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J Thomas 06.06.14 at 12:49 am

There are, however, two big disadvantages to seeing the world this way: I have to acknowledge the reality that, but for the grace of god, I could be as evil as the cop.

There’s a DC aphorism that goes, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”. Sure, there’s good reason to think that if things were different, any of us could have stumbled into working for NSA and then have entirely different attitudes about it. So what?

Also, I can’t make cynical comments on the Internet that dismiss everyone else as naive and reinforce my own belief that I am oh so smart.

That was sarcasm, wasn’t it? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. You give me the strong impression that you make cynical comments that dismiss everyone else as naive and reinforce your own belief that you are oh so smart.

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Consumatopia 06.06.14 at 3:45 am

“Whatever you think people are at the NSA are up to, you need to limit to the things you can imagine you yourself doing under similar circumstances. “

This definitely deserves its own chapter in your book.

What can I imagine doing under similar circumstances? Resigning. When I’m guessing what the NSA is up to, I have to assume that they aren’t doing what I would do under similar circumstances, because the NSA still has employees.

More generally, if it’s so easy for people who love their own children to disagree so strongly, then when considering what a secretive government agency is up to, you should consider the possibility that it’s run by someone with judgment and values very different from your own–someone who will do what you believe to be very harmful.

“Which is the point I was making before: when you spell out the way the NSA could turn into a danger to democracy it turns out that you simply are describing the way we already treat a good 10% of the population.”

If we’re talking about danger to democracy, quantity matters. As bad as a government that spies on a minority is, one that spies on the majority, that considers the majority of people to be a threat, is vastly more dangerous to both the majority and minority alike. It’s the difference between COINTELPRO and Stasi.

But that aside, consider that the ostensible purpose of metadata collection is to enhance existing surveillance–so the NSA knows who targets are talking to and when they change telephones. If the NSA uses metadata the way they claim to, it makes surveillance deeper, not wider. So the intended purpose of metadata collection is to spy on that 10% even harder.

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Bruce Wilder 06.06.14 at 4:25 am

Thornton Hall @ 210 gives himself a easy out, when he proposes as his example, “a police officer is frisking all the black people in the neighborhood”. This is exactly the out taken in the NYC stop-and-frisk controversy, so I don’t take it as idiosyncrasy. There’s a consensus that racism and racial discrimination is bad and unfair; there’s no such consensus about the proper bounds of civil liberties, so to make the moral issues clear, convert a problem of civil liberties into a problem of civil rights.

That just sidesteps the serious problem, that there is no moral consensus or bright line.

The problem isn’t essentially a problem of racism; it’s a problem of power, and it’s not primarily a problem of personal intention or ethics, but a problem of administrative policy.

A real cop is part of a hierarchical organization, the police force, one arm of a much larger structure of institutions, and the real cop is carrying out a policy, following instructions and procedures, deliberately designed both to expose the cop himself to command-and-control and to accomplish some presumable public purpose, like control crime.

Whether one should consider the efficiency of the administrative strategy in place to control crime (or accomplish other public purposes) ought to be a primary question. Any regime is going to be imposing costs on the state and on the community. There will be various types of errors, with attendant costs and risks. Is this what is in controversy? And, if efficiency in some guise is not in controversy, what are we going to debate? What will be in controversy in its place?

I can think of some answers.

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Bruce Wilder 06.06.14 at 4:39 am

Layman @ 215: I’m reasonably confident that every ‘evildoer’ you can think of felt himself/herself to be morally decent and responding to circumstances in the best way

I’m not. At best, that’s substituting projection for empathy, and naïveté for skepticism.

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J Thomas 06.06.14 at 5:17 am

Layman @ 215: I’m reasonably confident that every ‘evildoer’ you can think of felt himself/herself to be morally decent and responding to circumstances in the best way

I’m not. At best, that’s substituting projection for empathy, and naïveté for skepticism.

Would you accept 90%?

How about 50%. That’s my lowest offer.
Half the ‘evildoers’ think they’re responding to circumstances the best way.

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J Thomas 06.06.14 at 5:27 am

#199

b9n10nt, I’m not an expert on the technology either, but I will go into detail anyway.

The justification is to catch spies and terrorists, though it actually gets used for whatever its users find useful.

Imagine you want to send occasional secret messages, with somebody you have previously spent time in person. Do you use a code or a cipher? The advantage of ciphers is that you can send a whole lot of data and you don’t have to think about it. The software does everything.

There are multiple disadvantages. The NSA is plausibly the best in the world at breaking ciphers. Anybody can look at your messages and tell they are secret. Unless you want to get attention, you need to look like you’re running a business that needs encryption, and even then the NSA might break your ciphers as part of their industrial espionage system.

In 1947 when the Israelis were illegally smuggling munitions and munitions factories out of the USA, at first they used codes. But then somebody said they had to act professional and got them to start sending messages that looked like XSDIA DBELH ICIAQ etc. The Americans got excited and hunted down the senders and actually caught a few people. The Israelis switched back right away.

Don’t use ciphers.

So what you do, is you get on the net and you look at a recipes website. You look at the recent meatloaf recipes and see if there’s one from a particular name. If there is, you look at the number of eggs and the amount of salt and so on, and that’s the code that tells you what they want to say. You show you got their message by liking the recipe right after theirs, and they see your code-name and the like, and they know you got it. Or you reply to the next one, saying you liked how they did it but you added a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of paprika, or whatever.

This approach doesn’t transmit a whole lot of information, but you don’t need a whole lot. You need things like Go/No-Go. And there’s nothing there to tell anybody there’s a code in use.

Well, but for some things you can’t wait a day. OK, you get a spam account in estonia etc, and you send your code by email to a million people. Put it at the end of an email that markets [a bunch of labels that would get my post moderated], etc. For everybody except your agent it’s spam. NSA can’t tell who read the spam. His computer can check for email often, not like checking a recipe site every 10 minutes.

How does NSA find this sort of thing? First somebody gets captured and reveals how his own communication worked. Then they can figure, if he went through the recipe site maybe other agents go through the same site. They can look for patterns in how people use the site.

They can look at everybody who got the spam with you, because it might be 20 agents among the million instead of just one. They can make lists of people who got other spam from the same source.

If they get 20 people who fit multiple tests — they got the same spam, they clicked on the next recipe after one from Vienna, etc — then they can suggest somebody bring those in for interrogation and find out whether any of them are agents.

To do this sort of thing efficiently it isn’t enough to start watching the recipes website after they find out it’s been used. They do better if they can look at the old data, which they didn’t know ahead of time they’d have any use for. So ideally they collect and store everything so they’ll have it if they need it. Not like the budget is tight….

Anybody could do this with the public data, the websites etc. All it takes is a whole lot of storage and a whole lot of bandwidth plus some sophisticated software. We might see that done commercially in just a few years. It isn’t that much farther than what Google already does. The private stuff, only NSA can do. Anybody along the path can see your email or packets of it, if they bother to look, but they can’t put themselves on your path if they aren’t already on it. Unless they’re the NSA. NSA can decrypt your encoded email, but if you’re an agent it doesn’t do them any good. You’re using a code they can’t break. Not when “gefilte fish” means “tomorrow” and “Aunt Sadie’s arthritis” means “plutonium”. But if you get spam from the wrong spamster, that makes you a first-level suspect. And if you get spam from the wrong two spamsters then you’re a second-level suspect, and so on. And given this incriminating evidence they may choose to do a deeper search.

I hope it’s obvious by now that this has nothing to do with giving judges evidence that an individual surveillance is needed. It just plain does not work that way. If this method is necessary, it’s necessary wholesale. Either we shut it down, or we continue doing it, and whatever window-dressing we add about independent courts won’t matter much.

But if what they do isn’t secret, they have a strong incentive to actually do things citizens would approve, that catch terrorists or foreign agents.

And a year delay is plenty for agent work. The longer an agent stays on the net the better they can zero in on him. The enemy surely knows they do better to get their work done and out of the country in 6 months, because every agent who gets caught reveals that much more to us about how they do things, and makes it easier to catch the others — even when he has no direct contact with any of them. (Of course you mustn’t depend too much on this speculation since I am not an expert and do not know much about the topic.) And they must keep changing their methods. Finding out how close we were a year ago is not much use, it’s ancient history. But a year is not that long for politics, it’s the last congressional election or the leadup to the next one.

The only real problem here is that we know the NSA leadership consists of liars that we cannot trust about anything that has not been independently verified. So we can’t give them control of their own hardware or they will make it lie to us about how it has been used.

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Thornton Hall 06.06.14 at 5:54 am

@219 “The problem isn’t essentially a problem of racism; it’s a problem of power, and it’s not primarily a problem of personal intention or ethics, but a problem of administrative policy.”
I think that is exactly right. I sorta thought I might have a better chance to change minds if I left that point to be recognized by my interlocutors. But I’m sure I did a terrible job of going there.
I really am trying to learn something here. It’s a failure of imagination on my part. And it’s very hard to state what I’m having trouble with without sounding like a condescending jerk. There’s a real, almost tangible distinction in other people’s minds between all this stuff that government does that they like and all this stuff that it does that they don’t like. WRT to the first kinds of things, people seem so sure that govt does them well, they don’t even notice that it’s the government that is doing them. WRT the second set of things, people seem convinced that it’s all or nothing–govt acts as tyrant or govt butts out altogether and we live in peace. I can’t make heads or tails of that line, but it clearly is a thing that exists.

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adam.smith 06.06.14 at 8:02 am

WRT to the first kinds of things, people seem so sure that govt does them well, they don’t even notice that it’s the government that is doing them. WRT the second set of things, people seem convinced that it’s all or nothing–govt acts as tyrant or govt butts out altogether and we live in peace.

Where are these “people” you evoke? I don’t see either position anywhere in this thread.

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J Thomas 06.06.14 at 10:50 am

I sorta thought I might have a better chance to change minds if I left that point to be recognized by my interlocutors.

You have given me the impression that you want people to change their minds and accept that it’s good for the government to spy on them a whole lot while they have no right at all to spy on the government.

I have not at all understood why you would want us to do that.

And it’s very hard to state what I’m having trouble with without sounding like a condescending jerk.

Maybe it would be better to go ahead and do that, because the way it is now, you sound like you are trying to hide your motivation. You come up with a variety of bogus arguments that it sounds like you don’t actually believe, like you’re trying to see what will work on us.

There’s a real, almost tangible distinction in other people’s minds between all this stuff that government does that they like and all this stuff that it does that they don’t like. WRT to the first kinds of things, people seem so sure that govt does them well, they don’t even notice that it’s the government that is doing them. WRT the second set of things, people seem convinced that it’s all or nothing–govt acts as tyrant or govt butts out altogether and we live in peace.

It sounds like your problem is that liberals think government does good things well, but as soon as it’s something they don’t like — like secret surveillance and secret torture — they suddenly think it’s bad and they don’t want it.

You feel like there’s a sort of contradiction there, and so liberals should give up on trying to get government not to do things they don’t want. You think liberals should assume that government will do just as good a job at doing the things they don’t want it to do, as they think it does at the things they do want. And so they shouldn’t oppose anything.

Is that what you think? But if there was a real contradiction there, wouldn’t it work just as well if liberals stopped believing the government can do good things too? They could oppose secret surveillance and torture, and also oppose Social Security and integration etc.

If this is what you’re trying to say, it isn’t an argument to support secret surveillance of everybody. It’s an argument that people who are wishy-washy about being authoritarian statists should make up their minds and either completely support the government in everything or else completely oppose the government in everything.

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Layman 06.06.14 at 12:51 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 220

“I’m not. At best, that’s substituting projection for empathy, and naïveté for skepticism.”

Rhetorical flourish. Perhaps not all bad actors think they’re justified by circumstances, but certainly many, and maybe most do.

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Consumatopia 06.06.14 at 4:15 pm

“Where are these “people” you evoke? I don’t see either position anywhere in this thread.”

From what I can tell, he’s not describing a position that anyone has expressed, he’s describing what he believes is the cognitive process inside our heads that brought us to beliefs that he believes are incorrect. To avoid “sounding like a condescending jerk” instead of just directly telling us why he disagrees us, he wants us to figure out those reasons ourselves.

But his attempts all run aground because

A) it’s the sort of thing a condescending jerk does.
B) he’s completely wrong about our cognitive processes so none of what he’s saying makes any sense to us
C) his objections to our beliefs are probably unfounded, and guessing somebody else’s incorrect argument is incredibly hard, because there’s an infinite number of ways to be wrong. (is he making the Sean Wilentz argument? http://crookedtimber.org/2014/01/19/the-liberal-surveillance-state/ Who knows?) I mean, it’s clear that he’s wrong about something, because so much of what he says fails to make sense even in its own terms.

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Bruce Wilder 06.06.14 at 4:34 pm

Layman @ 226

And, behind my self-indulgence in rhetorical flourish, I’m saying, no, you’re wrong — flat out wrong as a matter of sociological, psychological, political fact; wrong in a way that matters for understanding the problems of political society.

I doubt that everyone — let alone every one identified as an “evildoer” — thinks in terms of justice or even circumstance. Psychopaths are not particularly rare.

Authoritarian followers do regard themselves as “morally decent” and are not pathological as individuals, but can contribute powerfully to the pathology of groups, constitute a large proportion of most advanced societies, but they are not the only template for human behavior.

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geo 06.06.14 at 4:47 pm

@214: Irony is so hard to convey over the internet

A subject worthy of a Crooked Timber symposium.

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roy belmont 06.06.14 at 5:28 pm

to limit to the things you can imagine you yourself doing

Recruiting two thousand proven poets and artists and giving them unlimited access to the NSA meta-archives of human information gathered and gathering, providing them with sophisticated algorithms and search protocols. And unlimited bandwidth of course.
Bring the art!
Bring me a picture of the human face in all its distributed fractal beauty.
That’s if, IF, I was going into that place/no-place and working there, and not running back out screaming and clawing at my streaming eyes.

Notes toward next comment:
The paradox of inevitable choice.
Heidegger’s weg, “coming into the nearness of distance” by-with Dylan’s “They say everything can be replaced/they say every distance is not near”.
Thornton Hall: I’m sort of going to switch sides now. Hang in there.

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godoggo 06.06.14 at 5:47 pm

I dunno. Seems to me that just leads to stuff like mashups. Bleh.

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Layman 06.06.14 at 5:59 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 228

“And, behind my self-indulgence in rhetorical flourish, I’m saying, no, you’re wrong — flat out wrong as a matter of sociological, psychological, political fact; wrong in a way that matters for understanding the problems of political society.”

Wow, I’m really, really wrong!

But then you write:

“Authoritarian followers do regard themselves as “morally decent” and are not pathological as individuals, but can contribute powerfully to the pathology of groups, constitute a large proportion of most advanced societies, but they are not the only template for human behavior.”

Sorry, but I think – unless you don’t forgive my overstatement, and are holding me to it – you’re agreeing with me, that most bad actors think they’re decent and responding appropriately to the circumstances.

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Thornton Hall 06.06.14 at 7:02 pm

@roy Belmont. And I thought my Dylan references were falling on deaf ears! I’m a spectator from here on out, but switch away!

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roy belmont 06.06.14 at 8:05 pm

godoggo-

Belle! Waring!

Have to run there’s a bird rapped in the house.

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Bruce Wilder 06.06.14 at 8:13 pm

It’s not the overstatement that bugs me, so much as what the fatuousness of the overstatement is covering and ignoring, with a suggestion of symmetry and more predictable form than exists. Yes, you’re really, really wrong, about the challenge institutions have to meet, and the means we have available to meet it.

Most bad actors may think they’re decent and responding appropriately, because most bad actors, in common with most people most of the time, are followers, who are not tasked with comprehensive evaluation of ways, means, objectives or circumstances. That Lynddie England didn’t think torture and humiliation of prisoners was doing anything wrong does not answer much.

Matt Stoller’s recent review of Geithner’s book might be instructive. Stoller sought to understand how Geithner saw his own role in the policy response to the GFC of 2007-9. Geithner presents himself as someone, who was responding appropriately (and expertly — don’t ever forget the expertise!) to circumstances. But, he’s lying.

Stoller’s analysis is really worth reading, and not only for this priceless insight:

Geithner is at heart a grifter, a petty con artist with the right manners and breeding to lie at the top echelons of American finance at a moment when the government and financial services industry needed someone to be the face of their multi-trillion dollar three card monte. He’s going to make his money, now that he’s done living his life of fantastic power after his upbringing of remarkable mysterious privilege. After reading this book and documenting lie after lie after lie, I’m convinced that there’s more here than just a self-serving corrupt official. There’s an entire culture, of figures at Treasury, the Federal Reserve, in the entire Democratic Party elite structure, and in the world of journalism, a culture in which Geithner is seen as some sort of role model.

The lie, in a culture of lies, becomes the defining characteristic shaping policy. (Cf: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”)

It’s a kind of fun-house mirror turned on Harvey Mansfield’s version of political manliness, where an actor who knows what he’s doing, confidently takes risks and seeks to control the course of events and creatively shape consequences. Instead, the confidence takes on a life of its own, and the evils seep slowly through the cracks in the foundation, hidden by the painted stucco facade, the inevitable consequence of not knowing what one is doing.

Narratives of individual action, turning on the intentions and rationales of the individual, heroic actor are problematic when we live in very large scale societies organized by and around hierarchies of vast scope. But, we haven’t gone away as individuals. Good intentions are hardly a uniform characteristic of individuals in bureaucracy, nor are intentions irrelevant. It’s no more helpful than a charge of conspiracy theory against the critical suggestion that policy might result from deliberate choice.

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Bruce Wilder 06.06.14 at 8:16 pm

. . . the inevitable consequence of not knowing what one is doing, and not caring.

[oops]

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Layman 06.06.14 at 10:13 pm

“Most bad actors may think they’re decent and responding appropriately, because most bad actors, in common with most people most of the time, are followers, who are not tasked with comprehensive evaluation of ways, means, objectives or circumstances. “

I think you’re trying hard to find a complaint here. To be clear, the point of my comment was, first, that one cannot excuse bad actors by saying they’re sincerely trying to do what they think is right in the circumstances; and second, we should expect that anyone will abuse power and restrict the exercise of power appropriately.

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J Thomas 06.07.14 at 2:08 am

To be clear, the point of my comment was, first, that one cannot excuse bad actors by saying they’re sincerely trying to do what they think is right in the circumstances; and second, we should expect that anyone will abuse power and restrict the exercise of power appropriately.

I agree, and I’ll take it farther.

I don’t too much mind if we excuse bad actors when they have good intentions. But that’s a completely different matter from giving them the power to do very bad things.

People say you don’t let children play with matches. (For myself, I taught my children how to light matches and pointed out that fire can be dangerous. Their mother still dines out on that story.)

And you know we’d be better off without nuclear weapons. A nuclear accident can ruin your whole day, not to mention a nuclear war. We’ve done an excellent (and expensive) job of not setting them off, and so has everybody else who has them, but it’s a whole lot easier to not set off a nuclear bomb if you don’t have the bomb in the first place….

If tomorrow one single ICBM got launched toward Moscow, I don’t think it would matter a whole lot whether I thought somebody had bad intentions. We’ve gone 70 years without an accident like that, we’re probably due. But still if there’s anything we can do to make it less likely, we really ought to do it.

Similarly with NSA. We’ve spent a whole lot on nifty hi-tech toys and the people who’re supposed to oversee how they get used, don’t understand the technology or its implications. Maybe nobody understands the implications yet. Maybe nobody has bad intentions. That doesn’t make it OK!

we should expect that anyone will abuse power and restrict the exercise of power appropriately.

There’s the side issue that if we can stop them, maybe that means they don’t really have the power. If they can proceed no matter what we think, then it doesn’t matter a whole lot what we think. But we might as we choose whether to try to stop them, and if we choose to do it then do our best. If we wrongly decided they were unstoppable and because of that we didn’t try, that would be tragic.

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roy belmont 06.07.14 at 2:20 am

Thornton Hall’s efforts to humanize the grunts of the Panoptic shouldn’t go unrecognized. Compassion is what differentiates, and it’s a bridge-building open-mindedness. Bridges to a common humanity are one of the few things available that will work.

Hey, we see you back spooky watchers! You’re human, right? So c’mon, get up with it!

Only integrity can be used against you, compassionate understanding can be used to soften and colorize the imagery of fascism, against the will and wishes of the compassionate.
And there’s a danger of moral befuddlement in the face of some thing that’s actively seeking to take control of the inevitable changes humanity’s headed into.

Sort of changing sides, sort of not.

Within the family the intentionality of children is everything, but talk to high steel workers, intentions don’t mean much up there, it’s about competence, it’s about what gets done.
Society exists with a combination of that dichotomous paradox, intention matters but what happens matters too. Lots of befuddlement there as well.

Whether people are lying, or lying to themselves and believing it, so technically not actually lying, matters up close, but practically, in the long run, not so much. Not outside the boundaries of fundamentalist religion’s afterlife scenarios anyway.

Until we have a concrete picture of the vision of people like Samantha Power or Pierre Omidyar we’re just yelling at the screen, judiciously maybe, but…

Establishing good intentions makes redirection of momentum more possible, and that’s important as heck. But just assuming shared humanity without evidence for it is pretty dangerous.
That’s the shock of confrontation with the sneering hand that holds the heartless weapon. Nice people expect a kind of common shared decency, from above and to the sides anyway, and it’s hard for them to confront the complete lack of it in someone whose position commands respect..
They’ve been schooled to expect the inhuman from below, the feral disenfranchised, the rogue unfeeling outlaw.

Ans there’s a muddle above, oligarchs with bruised feelings and reaction formations, Bill Gates after that pie-in-the-face. There’s a trope up there that the criticism from below is mostly just envy and destructive idiocy. Radicals that hate their step-dads, and want to be rich but don’t see how, so they want to wreck everything.
You don’t know what’s really going on.

Less charitably, it looks like contempt to me, racist, elitist contempt. Loser-scorn.
Not hypocrisy, not even really lying, when the untruths we’re getting come from people who don’t think we qualify as honesty-deserving, as fully human.

And then there’s that patriarchal mind-set.
Father knows best, because Father has silenced everybody who knew better than him.

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Thornton Hall 06.07.14 at 2:38 am

@239 I am surprised to say that I understand what you are talking about. That being the case, I am rather less surprised that I agree with you.

I think it’s a crucial point: you can’t persuade the alien. You might admire it, you might hate it, but you can’t walk a mile in its shoes.

And perhaps I assume too much decency in those in authority. And re-reading the lyrics to I Shall Be Released in light of this discussion brings out a whole new layer:
They say ev’ry man needs protection… Yet I swear I see my reflection/Some place so high above this wall.

In any case, I’ll take the theory that offers hope for a redirection of momentum. Kinda like paschal’s wager. And it’s not without some evidence, counsel for alien children in the news today.

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Ed Herdman 06.07.14 at 3:53 am

Interesting comment about humanizing the grunts behind Panopticon, roy.

J Thomas @ #22:
Well, the point about wholesale espionage and ciphers is still relevant. So to clear things up we should state that in routine spywork (not counting examples where you want to send false flags etc.) there are at least two objectives -

High throughput or highly camouflaged transmissions

…and that suggests disparate methods.

Expense and convenience always being at issue, for telling the secret stay-behind troops “go / don’t go” you could easily arrange something which appears innocuous and doesn’t signify anything bad, as you suggest. Tying things down as much as possible is important for these low-communications cases where you can’t hold briefings or change channels. Maybe a recipe site might work, though making one reliable enough for the purpose might be interesting. What happens if it gets defaced? I suppose most people adopt the “this library hasn’t been subject to a subpoena” sign type of signing, in this case, if latency isn’t at issue.

High-stakes, high-throughput espionage seems as radically different a scenario as can be imagined, because you need flexibility of movement and you have to make tradeoffs against camouflage (since you’re upping the frequency of communications, and also probably involving the potential for upgrading technology of transmission, or changing target orders), probably with the understanding that the lifetime of the operation (if hopefully not the agents) is reduced.

However, the multitude of open image-sharing sites, and the large throughput available today, coupled with open internal borders and easy mobility seem to make it pretty easy for somebody to masquerade at having a social life or Tumblr or whatever while actually sending along a lot of information via steganography (data hidden in an image). You’d still have to be clever when doing it (leaving the source images on your computer would give anti-spies the chance to recover the transmission) but it starts to become more needle-in-a-haystack like.

The technology and other circumstances (societal, cultural) start to collapse the difference between these two types of mission, but there is still a great gulf between the two types.

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J Thomas 06.07.14 at 8:38 am

#242
“J Thomas @ #223:”

Expense and convenience always being at issue, for telling the secret stay-behind troops “go / don’t go” you could easily arrange something which appears innocuous and doesn’t signify anything bad, as you suggest.

Of course, if you can, say, monitor everything that comes out of Iranian intelligence offices, then that gives a lot of important clues. They might not have enough cutouts in place.

High-stakes, high-throughput espionage seems as radically different a scenario as can be imagined, because you need flexibility of movement and you have to make tradeoffs against camouflage (since you’re upping the frequency of communications, and also probably involving the potential for upgrading technology of transmission, or changing target orders)

If you don’t need speed, part of the route could involve physically sending thumb drives etc. When it’s a whole lot of data then likely a couple of days delay doesn’t matter so much.

However, the multitude of open image-sharing sites, and the large throughput available today, coupled with open internal borders and easy mobility seem to make it pretty easy for somebody to masquerade at having a social life or Tumblr or whatever while actually sending along a lot of information via steganography (data hidden in an image). You’d still have to be clever when doing it (leaving the source images on your computer would give anti-spies the chance to recover the transmission) but it starts to become more needle-in-a-haystack like.

For steganography part of the question is how much innocuous steganography is going on.

If you have NSA-scale resources, you can take every porn image on the internet and do a checksum on only the most significant bits. When you get a file that matches the msb checksum but not the transmission checksum, you have a steganography candidate. So a spy who hides messages in images he got off the internet, will have another point of interest. But if there’s a lot of innocuous steganography going on, it’s only another smaller haystack.

Of course, a well-funded operation could get around that by operating their own porn studio and doing their steganography with all-new images.

If you notice which images arrive at a foreign intelligence office, that tells you a lot. Some fraction of the porn they get will not be foreign government employees looking at porn on government equipment during office hours. Of course it makes sense to also track what they watch on their own time. When the watching is automated it doesn’t take many billable hours on our side, but it can be evaded by people who have guessed how it works.

That’s an argument against my thought to reveal everything after a year. Private terrorist organizations in foreign countries learn very fast how we work, because we bomb the places we suspect they are. There’s reason to suspect that when they use communications that tell us where to bomb, it’s because those are locations they want us to bomb. But foreign governments might have no clue how we operate and the same methods might keep working for decades if we don’t tell them.

Of course I am not an expert and there is no reason to think I know what I’m talking about.

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Ed Herdman 06.07.14 at 8:50 pm

@ J Thomas:

I don’t know if anybody uses my personal classification system, though it seems kind of useful. I’d consider the thumb drives example as more high-throughput and high-stakes, because even though you’re reducing the frequency of transfers, the potential for severely compromising the operation increases on interception – if somebody knows what they’re looking at. So that goes back to cloaking, and technology again makes things easier. But this is still in the same realm as camouflaging tchotchke in the Cold War, with the one difference that back then having a camera or data device could be incriminating; today, it’s expected.

For steganography, reencoding an image which exists elsewhere in unmodified form seems a colossal blunder, because it allows direct comparison for differences. Likewise, whipping something up with Photoshop filters might not be a good idea if it gives observers the opportunity to use obvious steps to try and reconstruct something, and again look for differences. A lot of the “how to” descriptions of steganography leave these operational details to the imagination, or people think they can just fiddle some bits here and there and get away with it. Not necessarily! And of course the multitude of tools that automate steganography have been fingerprinted by law enforcement and spies – though this might just mean that they’re more likely to catch you running on full defaults, rather than if you’re tweaking settings considerably.

So in short, yes, you want to get rid of the opportunity for direct comparisons. If direct comparisons are possible, you want to mask tweaks as aberrations (I have some ideas about what might qualify, though I’ll keep those to myself for now, not that I’m likely to use them for anything).

Since you were looking for the one-year cutoff, a couple thoughts there:

We do already have the means to, and a history of, protecting citizens from surveillance, enshrined not only legally, but institutionally (the FBI/CIA split territories, though that being something of a historical aberration having as much to do with J. Edgar Hoover’s institutional ambition as with anything else) and even in the name of laws (though the FISA court-approved trial of Chicagoan Adel Daoud grinds on, with appeals court judges – including Richard Posner – appearing set to believe that the FISA law applies to US citizens). I think that if we did make a bright line here, then some kind of disclosure makes sense.

However, how do you present data? Just some kind of metadata, or full text? If you are looking to incriminate Mafiosi, turning over even the most general metadata could alert them to surveillance efforts. These legitimate targets of surveillance may well be citizens.

The same holds true for foreign targets.

While I would say that perhaps some kid of revelations about what kind of spying happens could prevent innuendo going too far, it also reveals to the targets of espionage what is being looked at, and potentially suggests ways to prevent current methods being used. This is of course going to be rigorously opposed by any state actors that produce or consume intelligence…which is to say, everybody in government. There would be some good aspects to this, but there would be severe downsides as well, and unless the situation was understood to be a necessary multilateral disarmament, I don’t see the U.S. or any other nation doing it.

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J Thomas 06.08.14 at 2:40 am

So in short, yes, you want to get rid of the opportunity for direct comparisons.

The obvious alternative is to be the sole source for the images etc the data is hidden in. But that means if they do catch on, finding the original source means they find you. If you put up stuff from your cross-country vacation, there will be a lot there to show who you are. So it’s a different kind of risk, and there are ways around that but no need to discuss them.

Since you were looking for the one-year cutoff, a couple thoughts there:

We do already have the means to, and a history of, protecting citizens from surveillance, enshrined not only legally, but institutionally (the FBI/CIA split territories, though that being something of a historical aberration

And increasingly irrelevant. NSA is military, and they pass secrets to whoever they choose.

I think that if we did make a bright line here, then some kind of disclosure makes sense.

Sure. With no disclosure, or disclosure on a need-to-know basis to individual judges who can’t connect the dots, you get essentially no oversight.

However, how do you present data? Just some kind of metadata, or full text? If you are looking to incriminate Mafiosi, turning over even the most general metadata could alert them to surveillance efforts. These legitimate targets of surveillance may well be citizens.

Imagine for a moment that in a science fiction world the government had a way to track every citizen all the time, knowing where they are within .1 meter and what they are saying. So for example the government would have a record of every time you got within .1 meter of a woman, and which woman it was.

This would be a tremendously useful tool for the government to catch criminals. If citizens somehow strenuously objected and wanted that capability gone, the government would not willingly give it up. How could they give up a tool that was so very useful?

But given a citizenry that was easily blackmailed — and most of our hypocritical citizens are easily blackmailed, many of the ones who are outspoken about family values are completely unwilling for the public or their families to know which women they have been within .1 meters of, etc — this capability would be enough to pretty much give all power to whoever controlled it.

Regardless how unwilling the government would be to release such power, it must still be taken from them. Even though it would be very very useful to catch criminals, we must do without it, or else do without any limits on government.

And that’s what we’re facing now, to a slightly smaller extent.

We have given up civil liberties before during wartime, until the war was won. But now we’re fighting several wars that can never be won. There’s no enemy capital city, there’s no enemy government that can surrender, there is no way to tell that we’ve won. The war on drugs and the war on terror have no victory conditions. It’s banal and trite to say it but it’s as true as it was the first time. If we can’t have rights while those wars are still being fought, then we can’t have rights until they have been lost or else we can’t have rights at all, ever.

If you are looking to incriminate Mafiosi, turning over even the most general metadata could alert them to surveillance efforts.

And if you are looking to incriminate US senators of one party or another, turning over information could alert them too, and we can’t have that now can we?

I don’t care how useful the information is, we can’t afford it. Our law enforcement and defense establishment got along somehow before we created this stuff, and they have to get along with limits on it now.

There would be some good aspects to this, but there would be severe downsides as well, and unless the situation was understood to be a necessary multilateral disarmament, I don’t see the U.S. or any other nation doing it.

This is not something to be negotiated with other nations. We believe we are far ahead of other nations, so we will not negotiate with them to give up our advantages, it’s only when they have caught up and both governments lose by revealing each other’s secrets that we can get an agreement. Like, we got nuclear above-ground test ban treaties after the nuclear fallout was causing measurable harm, and we got limitations on missiles long after it was obvious nobody could win a big nuclear war. This sort of thing is useless.

This is something that must be negotiated between the US government versus US voters. The leadership on the side of the citizens must have no dirty secrets — neither the PAC leaders who organize it nor the candidates who get their support. Leaders who can be blackmailed are worse than useless. The citizens must be ready to run an entirely public campaign — anything they do or say will reach their opponents.

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