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“When Expedience Feels Like Wisdom”: What, Exactly, Is It We’re Fighting To Defend?

“Let’s stop worrying about people’s rights.”

Sadly there are dozens of junctures in American history from which that shameful quote might spring.

It could date as far back as 1798 when President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it illegal to criticize the U.S. government.

It could come from the 1870s when Southern Democrats used violence to bar black voters from the polls and Northern Republicans looked the other way.

It could have been said in the 1940s when Americans put Americans in concentration camps, or in the 1950s when Joe McCarthy saw red everywhere he looked, or in the 1960s when J. Edgar Hoover sat listening to Martin Luther King’s phone calls, or, also in the ’60s, when the Supreme Court gave police the power to stop and frisk (and harass and intimidate) without warrants or probable cause.

It could have been said on any number of occasions, but it was actually said just last week on Fox “News,” where Sean Hannity convened a panel to discuss the terrorist attacks in Paris. Fox is the First Church of the Perpetual Indignation, so you can guess how that went.

A Dr. Gina Loudon, identified as a “psychology expert,” claimed “80 percent” of the mosques in America advocate violence. Coincidentally, about the same percentage of facts spewed by Fox “experts” turn out to be pure equine excreta.

Hannity, meantime, worried that a Syrian refugee might go into a crowded theater and start shooting people at random. Right. Like we need Syrian refugees for that.

But it was left to Bo Dietl, a former New York City cop, to cross the line from the simply stupid to the downright chilling, as he called for mass surveillance of mosques. Unconstitutional, you say? “Let’s stop worrying about people’s rights,” he said.

It is a seductive invitation. When you are scared — and Americans seem to live in a state of permanent terror — you run toward anything that promises a quick resolution of whatever has you frightened. In such an atmosphere, “rights” can seem a frivolous abstraction and expedience can feel like wisdom.

The irony is, that’s precisely when expedience is most dangerous — and rights most important. In light of all the overreactions that stain American history, all the lives ruined and lost because we disregarded guarantees that supposedly define us, Dietl’s words should make thinking people cringe. Especially given how often acts of expedience and the abridgment of rights have proven needless and wrong.

We supposedly hold sacred the values inscribed in this nation’s founding documents. Yet every time the world says “Boo!” some of us are pathetically eager to toss those values aside as if they were suddenly a burden too heavy to bear. But if the things that make America America are so easily sloughed off — if they are that unimportant — then what, exactly, is it we’re fighting to defend?

Why does “America” even matter?

Sept. 11 damaged and destroyed iconic buildings and took thousands of lives. But it also shredded the Constitution and made America unrecognizable to itself. The government tortured. It disappeared people. It snooped through innocent lives. It created a secret “no-fly list” of supposed terrorists that included many people with zero connection to terrorism, at least one of them a U. S. senator; you could never find out how you got on the list and there was no effective procedure for getting off. It also gave the president unilateral power to execute American citizens suspected of terrorism without trial or even judicial oversight.

And after all that, here comes Bo Dietl. “Let’s stop worrying about people’s rights,” he says.

Here’s a better idea. Let’s start.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald,; Featured Post, The National Memo, November 22, 2015

November 24, 2015 Posted by | American History, Muslim Americans, U. S. Constitution | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“On Johnson’s Watch, And He Did Nothing To Stop It”: ‘Selma’ Got It Right About Johnson, The FBI And King

The debate is sharp over whether the movie Selma got it right about Lyndon Johnson and his relationship with and to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A counter argument challenges the film’s depiction of Johnson as at best wary of King and his mass street action campaigns in Selma in 1965 and the South for the passage of a voting rights bill, and at worst outright hostile to King’s actions. This debate will likely rage for years to come. But even more worrisome, Selma strongly hints that Johnson aided and abetted if not an active plotter in the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s dirty, illegal and covert war against King.

Whether Johnson knew every gruesome detail of Hoover’s assault on King is not known. However, there are tell-tell clues that Johnson’s involvement with Hoover’s covert campaign went deep. The first tip was his executive order on New Year’s Day, 1964 which in effect assured Hoover his tenure as FBI Director for life.

He reaffirmed that in November 1964 in a meeting with his then Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Katzenbach had pressed Johnson to rein Hoover’s wiretapping excesses in. Johnson made it clear that he would he not take action against Hoover. He considered him a much valued source for information. That information was the steady stream of illegal wiretaps on the sexual antics and personal activities of any and every one from entertainers to Johnson’s political foes. The biggest haul of tapes though was those that Hoover had stockpiled on King. At the same meeting, Katzenbach explicitly told Johnson that Hoover was trying to peddle the tapes on King’s private doings to cooperative journalists.

At a follow-up news conference, Johnson feigned indignation at both Hoover and King and pledged to damp down the friction between the two. Hoover took that as a tacit endorsement and green light to step up his by then virtually open assault on King. That campaign went beyond simply collecting salacious tapes on King. As Selma graphically showed, Hoover sent one of the tapes purporting to show King in an adulterous sexual liaison to his wife Coretta Scott King. The tape was recorded and sent to Southern Christian leadership Conference headquarters in late 1964 just about the time that Johnson again declared his support of Hoover.

Hoover’s brutal and systematic covert campaign against King had a two-fold aim. One was to discredit King as the nation’s paramount civil rights leader and to discredit the entire civil rights movement in the process.

Hoover, and other top FBI officials routinely spit out these choice expletives about King “Dangerous,” “evil,” and a “colossal fraud.” They didn’t stop at name calling. They talked ominously of “neutralizing” him as an effective leader. And even more ominously they sent him a poison pen letter flatly saying “King you are done” and suggesting he kill himself.

Hoover assigned Assistant FBI director William Sullivan the dirty job of getting the goods on King. Sullivan branded King as the “most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.” In his book My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI, Sullivan described the inner circle of men assigned to get King. The group was made up of special agents mainly drawn from the Washington and Atlanta FBI offices. Their job was to monitor all of King’s activities. Much of their dirty tactics are well-known. They deluged him with wiretaps, physical surveillance, poison-pen letters, threats, harassment, intimidation, and smear sexual leaks to the media, and even at the time of his murder, Hoover had more plans to intensify the spy campaign against King. Decades later, Sullivan still publicly defended the FBI’s war against him, and made no apology for it. The FBI patterned its spy and harassment campaign against King on the methods used by its counterintelligence division and internal security sections during the 1940s and ’50s. The arsenal of dirty tactics they used included unauthorized wiretaps, agent provocateurs, poison-pen letters, “black-bag jobs” (breaking and entering to obtain intelligence) and the compiling of secret dossiers.

In the 1960s, the FBI recruited thousands of “ghetto informants,” for their relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation against African American groups. The bureau even organized its targets into Orwellian categories agents gave such labels as “Rabble Rouser Index,” “Agitator Index” and “Security Index.”

By the time Johnson assumed the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Hoover’s obsession with and campaign against King was in high gear. And the few times, Hoover’s campaign of slander and vilification of King was hinted at publicly, Johnson would shrug it off and reaffirm either publicly and privately Hoover’s absolute invaluable importance to him. What Johnson knew or worse authorized Hoover to do to thwart King will never be fully known. But as Selma pointed out, Hoover’s gutter campaign against King happened on Johnson’s watch, and he did nothing to stop it.

 

By: Earl Ofari Hutchinson, The Blog, The Huffington Post, January 5, 2015

January 6, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights Movement, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What Matters In Selma”: Critics Are Completely Missing The Point

Ava DuVernay’s Selma is likely a top contender for the Academy Award for Best Picture. With its focus on the power of activism to force political and moral change, the highly praised film has the right message for our present moment of racial unrest. But not everyone is happy with the way it approaches history, and in particular, how it portrays President Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson “is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be ‘open season’ on the protesters,” writes Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum director Mark K. Updegrove in a column for Politico magazine. “This characterization,” he continues, “flies in the face of history.”

Even harsher is former Johnson staffer Joseph A. Califano Jr., who accuses DuVernay of taking “trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama.” “In fact,” writes Califano, “Selma was LBJ’s idea.”

That’s a huge exaggeration. Activists had been organizing in Selma, Alabama, for at least two years before Martin Luther King Jr. met with Johnson, and weeks prior to his meeting with the president, King and his allies had decided on Selma as the site for new action and protests. By the time Johnson suggested something similar to King, the plan was already in motion.

But more than that, that entire line of criticism is misplaced. Selma isn’t a documentary or even a dramatized history. It is a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history. In Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, the investigation to solve the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, is transformed into a story of FBI heroes, one that ignores the role of local activists in bringing the killers to justice and doesn’t touch the bureau’s famous antagonism—under J. Edgar Hoover—toward the civil rights movement.

Just as egregious is the narrative of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which shows a relentless Central Intelligence Agency—personified in Jessica Chastain as Maya—whose methods, including torture, lead to Osama Bin Laden and the military raid that killed him. The factual problem, as detailed in December’s Senate Intelligence Committee report, is that torture didn’t lead to unique intelligence. As such, it’s not clear that it helped find Bin Laden. But Bigelow made a choice to say otherwise, and in the context of the film, it’s defensible. Zero Dark Thirty—to my eyes at least—is less about the particulars of finding Bin Laden and more about the costs of obsession. What happens when you’re willing to give up everything for a single goal? What will you sacrifice? In this reading, torture is the moment when we—through Maya—commit to darkness in pursuit of our ends.

This is all to say that it’s wrong to treat nonfiction films—even biopics—as documentaries. Instead, it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts as creative choices—license in pursuit of art. As viewers, we should be less concerned with fact-checking and more interested in understanding the choices. Why did the director opt for this view and not a different one? If she omits and distorts, why? What is she trying to communicate?

It’s with these questions in mind that we should approach Selma. But first, we should look at how DuVernay actually presents Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) and his relationship with King (played by David Oyelowo).

At worst, DuVernay depicts Johnson and King as wary allies. In the film, Johnson agrees with King on the need for a Voting Rights Act, but he wants him to wait—Johnson has a Great Society to build—and warns that he doesn’t have the votes to push another civil rights bill on the heels of the 1964 Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations. It’s not that King and Johnson are enemies—they both want to dismantle Jim Crow—as much as they have different responsibilities and priorities. In order to act, Johnson needs a push. And King gives it to him.

Now, there’s a case that even this is unfair to Johnson. While it’s true he didn’t want to introduce a voting rights bill so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964—he needed votes for his economic program, and he didn’t want to alienate Southern Democrats—it’s also true that, in late 1964, Johnson told Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to write the “the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act you can devise.” This draft was written with help from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, and was the basis for the bill the leaders introduced in March 1965. The Johnson of Selma, in other words, is much more reluctant than the Johnson of reality.

This is most clear in the scenes with Hoover (played by Dylan Baker), where Johnson allows the FBI director to harass King’s family with evidence of his infidelity. This is a far cry from real life. Yes, Johnson knew the contents of the FBI’s file on King, but there’s no evidence he conspired to smear him. That was a Hoover project, with no connection to Selma or the Voting Rights Act. Johnson may have been frustrated, but he wasn’t stupid, and attacking King would have only radicalized the movement, pushing it closer to its more militant activists. As much as King needed Johnson, Johnson needed King.

Which brings us back to our original question, arguably the only one you should ask of a movie that fictionalizes historical events: Why did the director make these choices? What is DuVernay trying to tell us when she makes Johnson more reluctant than he was, or when she shifts the timeline to give him a role in the FBI’s smear tapes? It’s possible these choices reflect ignorance, but I don’t think that’s right—Selma gets so much right about the period that it’s hard to believe DuVernay just didn’t know. It’s also possible they reflect malice, but again, Johnson isn’t the villain of the film—that distinction goes to Tim Roth’s (delightful) George Wallace, who doesn’t care that he’s on the “wrong side of history.”

If you need a clue, look at the people portrayed in the movie. If you don’t count Martin Sheen, who plays federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson Jr., Johnson and Wallace are the only politicians. Almost everyone else is an activist or an ordinary citizen: Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King, Lorraine Toussaint’s Amelia Boynton, Wendell Pierce’s Hosea Williams, Keith Stanfield’s Jimmie Lee Jackson, Stephan James’ John Lewis, Jeremy Strong’s James Reeb, André Holland’s Andrew Young, and many, many others.

Selma, simply put, is about the men and women who fought to put voting rights on the national agenda, and it engages history from their perspective. By hardening Johnson—and making him a larger roadblock than he was—DuVernay emphasizes the grass roots of the movement and the particular struggles of King and his allies. In the long argument of who matters most—activists or politicians—DuVernay falls on the side of the former, showing how citizens can expand the realm of the possible and give politicians the push—and the room—they need to act.

By those terms, Selma mostly succeeds. But there are flaws. “Except for a few scenes, we see little of the bravery Selma’s citizens displayed,” writes historian Gary May for the Daily Beast. “Annie Lee Cooper, well played by [Oprah] Winfrey, is shown trying but failing to register to vote. We are not told that Cooper had been able to vote without hindrance when she lived in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. But when she returned to Selma in 1962 to care for her aged mother, she lost that right.”

If Selma could have been better, it wasn’t because DuVernay didn’t do justice to Lyndon Johnson, but because there was so much to show about the ordinary people of Selma, and we—as viewers—don’t see it.

 

By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, January 2, 2014

January 5, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr, Selma | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s All About Who’s In The White House”: Republicans Only Oppose NSA When ‘Big Brother’ Isn’t Them

Let’s cut to the chase: If Big Brother wants you, he’s got you, Act 215 telephone “metadata” notwithstanding. This disconcerting fact of modern life has been true more or less since the invention of the camera, the microphone and the tape recorder.

See the excellent German film The Lives of Others for details. The Stasi managed to collect vast libraries of gossip and slander against East German citizens entirely without computerized databases. It wasn’t people’s smartphones that betrayed them to the secret police, because they didn’t have any. Mostly it was colleagues, neighbors, friends and family.

Similarly, when J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wanted to dig the dirt on Martin Luther King, they bugged his hotel rooms and infiltrated his inner circle with hired betrayers. Once the target was chosen, technological wizardry was secondary.

I am moved to these observations by the fact that the Republican National Committee has now joined the Snowdenista left in pretending to be outraged by something they manifestly do not fear.

The same GOP that rationalized torture and cheered the Bush administration’s use of warrantless wiretaps as recently as 2006 now denounces the National Security Agency’s “Section 215” bulk collection of telephone data as “an invasion into the personal lives of American citizens that violates the right of free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Oh, and the Fourth Amendment too. See, keeping a no-names database of phone numbers called, date, time and duration threatens fundamental privacy rights, although actual wiretapping evidently did not. Never mind that Republicans in Congress approved it.

It’s easy to suspect that for the RNC, it’s all about who’s in the White House. The End.

However, there’s an equivalent amount of exaggeration at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Partly for dramatic effect, people talk about data collection as if it were equivalent to surveillance.

Here’s the estimable blogger Digby Parton on the “chilling effect” of NSA data hoarding:

“It’s the self-censorship, the hesitation, the fear that what you say or write or otherwise express today could be lurking somewhere on what Snowden referred to as your ‘permanent record’ and come back to haunt you in the future. The collection of all this mass data amounts to a government dossier on every individual who has a cell phone or a computer. It’s forcing journalists, teachers and political dissidents to be afraid of doing their jobs and exercising their democratic rights. It’s making average citizens think twice about even doing silly things like search Amazon for pressure cookers or take a look at a controversial web-site.”

I don’t think Digby herself is afraid for one minute. I know I’m not. Are you?

She adds that “no matter how much you may trust Barack Obama not to abuse that information, it was only a few years ago that a man named Dick Cheney had access to it.”

Point taken.

Oddly enough, that’s pretty much what President Obama had to say in his speech proposing NSA reforms: “Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us. We won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached.”

Accordingly, Obama proposed several reforms calculated to make misuse of NSA data more unlikely. He accepted the suggestion of his own commission to take telephone records out of NSA’s control. Instead, the data would be stored either by the phone companies where it originates or by some third party as yet undefined.

To access that database, NSA would need an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. No intelligence bureaucrat would be able to spy on his ex-wife or your mother-in-law strictly on his own say-so.

The president also proposed adding citizen advocates to the FISA court specifically to defend civil liberties—making that body function less like a grand jury and more like a court of law. He added a presidential directive explicitly forbidding NSA from spying upon domestic political critics.

Obama would also sharply limit the number of people whose records can be searched even with a valid FISA warrant.

Taken together, these are fairly substantial reforms. As a pro-cop liberal, I worry that forcing NSA to gather data from hither and yon might prove too cumbersome in an emergency. Sometimes, though, perfect efficiency ill accords with democratic values.

Meanwhile, however, the 18th century ain’t coming back. Anybody who imagines that NSA data gathering and cyber-espionage are going away may as well yearn for a world where there are no hostile, anti-democratic powers or mad religious extremists eager to bring down the Great Satan through whatever combination of sabotage and mayhem they can inflict. Indeed, we must pray that our adversaries are as fearful and intimidated by U.S. intelligence agencies as are some of our more imaginative countrymen.

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, January 29, 2014

January 30, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Edward Snowden’s Grandiosity”: A Classic Rorschach Test, How You See It Depends On What You Bring To The Seeing.

Edward Snowden was appalled.

“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the then-anonymous Snowden told reporters as his leaks first emerged.

Well, so can Google. And Facebook. And most companies’ internal networks. Creepy? You bet. Calamitous? Not so clear.

Snowden hoped to go to Iraq at 19 when he joined the Army because he “felt like he had an obligation as a human being to help free other people from oppression.”

Commendable, if a bit grandiose. But Snowden’s superiors couldn’t measure up to his ideals. “Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone,” he said in his coming-out interviews.

That doesn’t describe officers I know who spent years risking their lives trying to help Iraqis forge a better destiny.

Then even a president failed him. It was no single thing President Obama did, you understand. “It was more of a slow realization that presidents could openly lie to secure the office and then break public promises without consequence,” Snowden said.

It’s staggering to contemplate. In the old days, when the scales fell away from the eyes of one callow Rand Paul donor, the result might have been a few beers at the dorm as everyone lamented how compromised adult life really is. Today, a disappointed young libertarian contractor with a security clearance can blow the lid on lawful intelligence methods thousands of Americans spent billions of dollars developing.

The Snowden case is a classic Rorschach test. How you see it depends on what you bring to the seeing. Do you empathize more with those who govern — and who, in this case, are charged with protecting us? Or has the history of abuse of power, and the special danger from such abuses in an age in which privacy seems to be vanishing, leave you hailing any exposure of secret government methods as grounds for sainthood?

There are people I respect who say Snowden is a hero. I think they’re dead wrong.

Thinking about “big data” is a little like imagining how things look to God (assuming God exists). God may love you personally, but she’s a little too busy to worry about whether you get that raise you deserve. The National Security Agency (NSA) may have access to every bit and byte in the land, but the unfathomable river of information their algorithms must mine means no one’s focusing on the text you sent to that guy in accounting.

(To test Big Brother’s reach, my daughter and I e-mailed on how to work with a Chechnyan rebel group to develop weapons for an attack on U.S. soil, as part of a “play” we’re writing based on recent events. No knock at the door. Yet.)

Is there potential for abuse? Of course. An Internet-era J. Edgar Hoover is frightening to conjure. But what Snowden exposed was not some rogue government-inside-the-government conspiracy. It’s a program that’s legal, reviewed by Congress and subject to court oversight.

The conversation would be entirely different today if we’d had a series of attacks since Sept. 11, 2001. As the Wall Street Journal editorial page (with which I don’t usually nod in agreement) wrote, if the nation suffered another 9/11 or an attack with weapons of mass destruction, “the political responses could include biometric national ID cards, curfews, surveillance drones over the homeland, and even mass roundups of ethnic or religious groups.” Practices like data mining, the Journal added, “protect us against far greater intrusions on individual freedom.”

But because vigilance and luck have left us safe thus far from more massive attacks, Snowden felt entitled to indulge the call of his precious conscience. Has any leaker ever been armed with more perfectly crafted sound bites as “the architecture of oppression” and “turnkey tyranny”?

I’ve been spied on continuously by private-sector firms as I’ve written this column. As I typed “Snowden” on Gmail, I got ads for new mortgage rates. My search for “secrets” drew ads for Secret deodorant. My behavior has been fed into algorithms and sold to advertisers. At least the NSA isn’t getting rich tracking my every move.

Daniel Ellsberg says Snowden is a “hero.” Let me suggest a different prism through which to view that term. Somewhere in the intelligence community is another 29-year-old computer whiz whose name we’ll never know. That person joined the government after 9/11 because she felt inspired to serve the nation in its hour of need. For years she’s sweated to perfect programs that can sort through epic reams of data to identify potential threats. Some Americans are alive today because of her work.

As one security analyst put it this week, to find a needle in a haystack, you need the haystack. If we’re going to romanticize a young nerd in the intelligence world, my Unknown Coder trumps the celebrity waiting in Hong Kong for Diane Sawyer’s call any day.

 

By: Matt Miller, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 11, 2013

June 14, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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