Jun 132013
 

Welcome back to the Green Dragon! Sorry we’ve been closed; as it turns out, Alexander the Great was buried in our parking lot. But the dig’s over, and we’re back in business. Here, try some of the new lager—it’s nice for warm weather.

I’ve been wrestling with friends on Facebook over the claims by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of wholesale warrantless collection of private data by the NSA directly from the servers of the major internet companies. As far as I can tell, those who have swallowed this whole seem mostly to be projecting their fearful/angry beliefs onto “knowledge” that isn’t, and opting for outrage first, facts (maybe) later.

Some of these friends go so far as to suggest that there should be no government secrecy at all, which I find wildly naive. But for those who acknowledge that a nation cannot possibly operate diplomatically, militarily or to protect domestic security without keeping some information from those who don’t need to know it, there is still a steady howl over their “certainty” that their rights are being abridged.

Let’s start with facts. It is now becoming clear that Snowden’s claims are either quotes out of context or exaggerations. The initial Guardian report and the screeds of professional concern troll Glenn Greenwald stated that the NSA had direct access to the servers of the major ISPs, and was routinely sucking up your email, phone metadata, etc. without a warrant–a claim these companies vehemently and credibly deny.

As it turns out, that isn’t right, and the Guardian has now backed off the claim: in fact, the ISPs upload data requested from them by NSA or the FBI pursuant to a FISA court order to a secure FTP server that acts as a dropbox. Which is consistent with the steady denial of Snowden’s published claims by those who actually know the facts about the program.

Greenwald, characteristically, got it wrong and just keeps doubling down[UPDATE: that story has now been updated to show that the Guardian has now admitted that it got the story wrong]

The reality now coming out is an entirely different thing from Greenwald’s and the Guardian’s initial claim, and it isn’t in the least bit scary. The data collection is 1) limited to pertinent data about people under investigation; 2) meets a threshold justifying the judicial order in the eyes of a FISA judge; and 3) doesn’t under any circumstances enable intelligence agencies to filter or monitor the entire data throughput of these companies’ servers.

But those friends of mine who are prone to assume that government is just itching to go through their spam folders went with the first story, and most are sticking with it. It reinforces their prejudices, and no more information is welcome or required. My friends in this camp typically discount or completely dismiss the idea of threats to American lives; a couple have gone so far as to suggest that since car accidents kill more of us, we should pretty much just let terror attacks happen once in awhile in the name of preserving absolute data privacy.

Yesterday, General Keith Alexander, the current Director of the NSA, testified not only that dozens of actual terror attacks had been prevented by this program, and he would provide details in a closed session of Congress, but also that he wants a general overview of the program declassified, so Americans know specifically what it does.

Now, why would an evil Stalinist ubersnoop say such a thing in full light of the cameras? He could have declared that the information is classified and stopped there. By calling for greater transparency, he puts his own administration on the spot to follow through on his suggestion, and makes things far worse for them if they don’t. Why?

I’ll tell you why: because he knows that the program actually does balance privacy and security concerns, and operates within the rule of law. There is no other possible explanation…unless you believe that the declassified description of the program would be a deceptive smokescreen, rather than the truth. Which means you will never believe anything these institutions say, ever, and we’re now in the realm of ideology rather than reason.

My friends who have a reflexive suspicion of any agency with authority and power automatically assume the worst of such entities, and to me, that reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of governmental bureaucracies and the public employees who work for them. I’ve worked with a lot of employees of various public agencies in my career, and pretty much universally, what I’ve seen are people who believe they are serving the public and want to do what is in the public’s best interest.

They also want to keep their jobs. And going out on a limb with an overreach in application of authority is a great way not to do that.

I’d say it’s pretty much guaranteed that the civil service and line staff of entities like the CIA and NSA generally feel they are serving their country and helping to protect the people of the United States. They know that what they do has limits, and they have departments full of lawyers advising them to parse what those limits are.

Where things can go rotten is with the political appointees who head those agencies. There, you can have real problems. Put Cheney lapdog George Tenet in charge of the CIA, and agency staff will start being told to do things they really shouldn’t be doing, and that puts them in a bind.

A lot of intelligence people quit under the Bush misadministration, including National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke, who proved to be a candid and truthful critic of the Iraq adventure, of the Bush gang’s malfeasance in ignoring evidence of the growing threat before 9/11, and of its dishonesty in selling the Iraq War later on. His integrity was so high that he ended his career rather than go with the gang’s agenda.

If you poke around, you’ll find a lot of reports that many who stayed at CIA hated the things they were being asked to do. The whole “enhanced interrogation” episode is a terrible black eye for the CIA, and they know it. I am certain that no one was more relieved than they were when the executive order came down from President Obama to end it. I believe that a part, at least, of the administration’s unwillingness to prosecute those associated with the program is because those who are truly guilty–Ashcroft, Gonzales, Tenet, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush–will never be touched. They have sovereign immunity. Only the little people would be taken down, and it wasn’t their idea. As it is, association with that program has become career poison: because of her involvement with it, the first woman to head the CIA’s Clandestine Service (as interim Director) was passed over for the permanent job.

There is no reason to believe that intelligence gatherers and analysts are scary people who are hell-bent to sniff out your Facebook friends and what kind of porn you’ve been surfing. Nor is there a reason to believe that wholesale trolling without warrants is taking place. Have we seen a wave of prosecutions of people based on information discovered through warrantless internet information seizures? No, we haven’t.

There is a difference between the men and women who have made their careers in doing what the vast majority must understand as serving the American people, and those who are appointed by Presidents to direct them. The former are trying to get the pertinent data in a legal way and to analyze it correctly: that is the best way to serve and the best course for their careers. While we would hope the latter had the same goal, we saw in the years of the Bush fiasco that when you appoint people who dismiss the Constitution as “just a piece of paper” to run intelligence agencies and the Departments of Justice and Defense, things can get pretty Orwellian.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act update of 2008 was intended to put a legal framework around the rogue and unaccountable behavior the Bush goons had committed. Yes, it’s a secret process—but it’s also a process which, again, requires approval by a judge before data collection and analysis occurs. A case has to be made that there is sufficient reason to target specific individuals with surveillance–the act does not allow a wholesale snoop into America’s internet traffic.

I would not be satisfied with a process that allowed the CIA or NSA to determine on their own whose data they could access. The potential for abuse here is very serious, and there need to be some checks and balances. But I’m satisfied with the process as described. I don’t believe that the people who are appointed to the FISA court are ill-intentioned and don’t care about the Constitution. They’re judges—high-ranking judges—and they became judges by having some respect for the law. Barring any evidence to the contrary, I will go with what I have seen to be true: that people who choose public service by and large do, indeed, serve the public to the best of their ability.

The weak link in all this is in who is appointed to head these agencies, and in that, fortunately, we have a say. We get to decide who is President, and who is in the Senate to confirm nominees. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it isn’t anything like the Chinese government, either.

At the end of the day, this debate hinges on trust. My friends who fear and distrust institutions do not and will not give those institutions performing functions for which they have distaste (generally, security and intelligence gathering) the benefit of the doubt*. Their default position is to assume the worst of both leadership and functionaries of these agencies, whether or not evidence—or even a rational motive—for wrongdoing is present.

I don’t think that makes any sense. Checks and balances are necessary, but wholesale dismissal of everyone who works for the agencies that perform the grittier functions of government is neither rational nor a workable way of engaging the politics of the country.

It is not a benign and gentle world. There are people who mean Americans harm, and who have articulated as their express mission the killing of our fellow citizens through secretly planned surprise attacks. No government can or should just ignore such conspiracies, and the only way to disrupt them is to identify those who plan to carry them out and stop them before they do so.

That has to happen in a manner that balances the civil liberties of citizens with the requirement to provide them with security, and I believe that is what is happening now. The 8-year nightmare of the Bush/Cheney years was an outlier, I believe–and one which would be far harder to return to in the wake of the update to FISA.

So I hope that NSA Director Alexander gets his wish, and the outline of how PRISM works is declassified for public examination. The head of NSA under Bush said yesterday that the Obama Administration is much more transparent about these programs than was its predecessor–he’s hardly a Democratic partisan, and I think that is a good indicator, once again, that our President is basically a decent man who is trying to do his job with integrity.

 

At publication, the Dragon was WEARY

*Yet nearly all of them want the government to take over their health care (as do I). Hmm.

  2 Responses to “Seeing through the PRISM: Talkin’ Meta about Snowden and the NSA”

  1. Capturing a long comment from Facebook:

    Okay, after days of this Snowden hooha, here’s what I think (beyond my blog post, which I’ll link below for completeness). Snowden bandwagon conspiraciteers, please move on–you’re not going to like this.

    I think this entire episode is something like a Rorschach inkblot, and what it is testing is the degree to which people’s politics have evolved towards adulthood.

    The teenaged response is sullen, resentful, hostile to authority figures and convinced that said authorities want nothing more than to control their lives and prevent them from doing what they want to do. Many of the veterans of the 60s counterculture are stuck there: they oriented to the political world seeing institutions as inherently malevolent, and haven’t developed any nuance to that understanding since. “The Man” (Mom, Dad) is simply “bad”.

    The problem with all that is that you can’t make institutions work by hating them and cheering every time they are undermined. You make them work and serve the public by engaging in an adult, reasoned conversation about their purpose, beginning from the standpoint that the participants are adult actors who mean what they say and have some personal integrity. If they prove you wrong…well, you deal with that. You hold them accountable. But you can’t START by assuming that people are evil and hope to build a better society.

    If you really don’t believe we need a security apparatus, you really are so privileged you can’t see straight, folks. Fortress America has blinded you. That’s not what the world is like. Go out and see it, and you will find out.

    We’ve had several examples recently of people who have not acted with integrity, yet who have been cheered by those whose orientation to institutions is reflexive suspicion and condemnation. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are the two most prominent.

    Those people swore OATHS, folks. The former stole a huge amount of classified material he didn’t even read or understand in context, and handed it all to an avowed enemy of the United States. I can support and excuse his leak of the helicopter video, because that really *was* whistle-blowing…but not the rests of the 700,000 diplomatic and military documents he downloaded and handed to Assange.

    That’s not heroic. It’s dangerous, juvenile behavior. It’s putting a tack on the teacher’s chair, except that there are a lot of lives at stake.

    There are channels for accountability within the institutions being attacked by these men. But those channels would not have provided the surge of juvenile joy that the attention and outrage they stirred provided them, so they went the splashy route. Acting out to piss off Mom and Dad. Except that the stakes are so much higher, and these juvenile, integrity-optional men really, really don’t get it.

  2. The other thing to consider is the root illogic of those who are most bent out of shape about all this. If you really believe that the President, Congress and the judiciary are all complicit in an Orwellian conspiracy to invade your privacy and create a surveillance state…why, exactly, are you complaining? Who do you expect to do anything about it–and if you really believe it, why are you declaring yourself an “enemy of the state”?

    It’s silly, really. If those making the most noise REALLY believed their claims, they’d go dark and silent. They wouldn’t take to FACEBOOK, for god’s sake, to proclaim how upset they are.

    If you believe the President isn’t complicit, you believe there is voter leverage over these programs. If you believe Congress isn’t complicit, you believe Congressional oversight works, and again, there is voter leverage. If you believe the judiciary isn’t complicit, you believe the FISA courts–made up of senior federal judges–are able to appropriately balance privacy and security concerns.

    If you don’t believe any of those three things, you have no recourse and might as well give up. So the fact that people are screeching means they don’t even believe their own claims about “the fix being in” for their allegedly run-amok security state. If they did, they wouldn’t say a word about it.

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