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“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

“A Bleeding-Heart Liberal”: Why Conservatives Should Hate Santa Claus

The war over the War on Christmas has flared up again. Slate’s Aisha Harris fired the latest salvo with her piece last week, “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore,” prompting a famously confused response from Fox News host Megyn Kelly that “Santa Claus just is white” and “Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure, I mean, that’s verifiable fact—as is Santa.” Every single living being on the Internet weighed in. Kelly later defended herself in the usual manner of someone who regrets having said something: “Humor is a part of what we try to bring to this show, but sometimes that is lost on the humorless.”

She was not joking, of course. To conservatives—of which she is one—the War on Christmas is a very real and serious thing, and the holiday’s two most revered figures, Jesus and Santa, must be defended at all costs from liberals who would dare make the holiday more inclusive. What’s even weirder than the insistence that Santa is white, though, is that conservatives dare to defend him in the first place. He’s a conservative’s worst nightmare, actually.

Consider the lyrics to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”:

He’s making a list / Checking it twice / Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice / Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake / He knows if you’ve been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake

That he’s “making a list” sounds more than vaguely McCarthyistic, I’ll admit, but this is 2013, not 1954. You know who makes lists these days? The National Security Agency—for the express purpose of finding out who has been, or may one day be, naughty. By monitoring your emails and cell phone metadata, the NSA also has a pretty good idea of when you’re sleeping or awake. (Another agency that likes lists: the Internal Revenue Service.)

Santa invades our privacy in more literal ways, too. He breaks into everyone’s homes in the middle of the night—a crime that no one of any political persuasion, except perhaps anarchists, should endorse—and once inside, what does he do? He leaves presents totaling hundreds or thousands of dollars under your tree. You know who else gives Americans free stuff simply for being alive, rather than making recipients work for it? The bloated federal government and its social safety net. Every day, millions of Americans open unearned gifts in the form of Medicaid, unemployment insurance, TANF, and food stamps.

Santa’s home address further complicates matters. Eventually the North Pole will become the equivalent of a Caribbean beach, converting Santa into the world’s most famous and influential climate-change activist—at which point the only coal being mined in America will end up in presents beneath conservatives’ Christmas trees.

And as longtime Santa actor Jonathan Meath points out, “Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, doesn’t carry a gun, and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people.” Sure sounds like a bleeding-heart liberal to me.

Note: Humor is a part of what we try to bring to this website, but sometimes that is lost on the humorless.


By: Ryan Kearney, The New Republic, December 16, 2013

December 17, 2013 Posted by | Conservatives | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“No Hero’s Welcome”: Edward Snowden Can’t Expect To Be Welcomed Back From Russia

Edward Snowden wants the U.S. government to stop treating him like a defector. Then why did he defect?

Snowden, of course, is the former government contractor who released an enormous trove of classified information to news organizations detailing the data- and intelligence-gathering activities of U.S. security agencies. The disclosures were disturbing, and revealed the extent of spying on both U.S. citizens and allies.

Some of it should not be a surprise, considering the expansion of authority a spooked Congress gave to the intelligence community after 9/11. The upside of the disclosures is that it has caused a national discussion on what authority our government should have in monitoring its own citizens.

But Snowden still broke the law, and very deliberately so. He also did not carefully expose just one troubling element of the data-mining activities he knew of, nor did he first try to go to a member of Congress with his concerns. He dumped the classified information wholesale, and then got on a plane for Hong Kong – as sure a sign as any that he knew he had violated the law and would face serious consequences for it.

Snowden is now residing in exile in Russia, and apparently is already getting antsy. Through a German lawyer, Snowden released a letter appealing to the U.S. government to stop treating him like a traitor for what he called his “moral duty to act.” Said the letter:

My government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges that provide no defense. Speaking the truth is not a crime. I am confident that with the support of the international community, the government of the United States will abandon this harmful behavior.

The problem for Snowden is that speaking the truth indeed can be a crime, especially when you sign a document pledging to keep national security secrets and then very deliberately violate that pledge. And Snowden obviously knew what he had done was wrong or at least, if he didn’t think it was morally wrong, illegal. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have high-tailed it to Hong Kong and then to Moscow to escape punishment.

People have gone to prison, sometimes for many years, in defiance of a law or policy they thought was unjust. Snowden has already managed to avoid that fate. It’s asking too much to expect the government whose secrets he illegally revealed to welcome him back as a hero.


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, November 4, 2013

November 5, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“And Then There Were Three”: Was A Documentary Filmmaker The ‘Mastermind’ Behind The Snowden Leaks?

Peter Maass of The New York Times has published a long article detailing how documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras helped Edward Snowden leak thousands of classified documents detailing the National Security Agency’s global surveillance apparatus.

What it makes clear is that Poitras’ experience protecting her information enabled Snowden to begin providing documents, and her skills as a filmmaker facilitated him identifying himself.

Basically, Poitras had a much larger role in Snowden’s leaks than previously known. Here’s what we learned:

“I keep calling [Poitras] the Keyser Soze of the story, because she’s at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” Greenwald, referring to the character in “The Usual Suspects” played by Kevin Spacey, a mastermind masquerading as a nobody, told Maass.

When Greenwald began conversing with Snowden in April after he had met with Poitras in New York and installed encryption software on his computer. (Poitras began speaking with Snowden in January, and he got a job as a NSA contractor for Booz Allen in March.)

At that point, Maass writes, their work “was organized like an intelligence operation, with Poitras as the mastermind.”

Greenwald said of Poitras: “None of this would have happened with anything near the efficacy and impact it did, had she not been working with me in every sense and really taking the lead in coordinating most of it.”

Poitras wouldn’t say when Snowden began sending her documents, but she initially received many more than Greenwald (who received about 20).

In May “Snowden sent encrypted messages telling the two of them to go to Hong Kong” and told them that he wanted to go public with his identity.

Glenn Greenwald discovered the top secret order compelling Verizon to hand over all of its call data to the government during the flight to Hong Kong.

Poitras and Greenwald didn’t speak with Snowden between parting ways after he outed himself on June 9 in Hong Kong and early July. He had traveled to Moscow on June 23.

So it’s now clear that the Snowden saga wouldn’t have played out as it has without Poitras.

The article also indirectly touches on a primary mystery: What happened to Snowden between the time he outed himself and when he got on a plane to Moscow two weeks later?

On June 23, with the help of an Ecuadorian travel document obtained through WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Snowden landed in the jurisdiction of Russia’s intelligence services (i.e. FSB). He has since been granted temporary asylum and began establishing his life in Russia.

During this time he has been speaking with Poitras and Greenwald — he answered questions from Maass over encrypted chat — but otherwise he has been lying low while his FSB-linked Russian lawyer has been speaking for him.

Consequently, the significance of Snowden’s arrival in Russia is still unknown.


By: Michael Kelley, Business Insider, August 13, 2013

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

“Pleading Ignorance”: Congress Can’t Pretend It Didn’t Know About NSA Surveillance

Having been, at one place or another in my career, on each side of the perennial debate in Washington about “who knew what and when,” I knew it was a matter of time before we started hearing it about the leaked NSA operations.

Since leaving government, I have written before about the weird dynamics of “briefing” Congress on sensitive operations, e.g., Nancy Pelosi’s claim that she didn’t know about CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogations” during the Bush Administration. Now, and perhaps ironically, we have a spate of Republicans saying they knew little or nothing of the NSA operations

So, what’s the real story behind this typical Washington play to the media?

The media, of course, has a field day because on any day, they can get someone in Congress who wants to get their face on TV to say most anything – this whips up the hysteria that gives the story legs.To them, it’s media Nirvana – it’s the Trayvon Martin case of national security, and the best thing since the “torture” scandal.

Here is what’s behind all this political smoke:

There are some traditional Republican vs. Democrat tensions at work, in that it’s an opportunity for Republicans to criticize a Democratic President.

The NSA operations are very awkward for many Democrats to support (and many don’t) because of their liberal views on personal liberties and conciliatory approaches to national security.

Likewise, Republicans – who traditionally are more aggressive in national security matters – are also reluctant to support a Democratic administration, even though they may agree with the NSA operations.

The “tea party” faction of the Republican Party opposes the NSA operations – and as such is aligned with the most liberal Democrats on the issue. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Members of the two intelligence committees, Republican and Democrat, seem generally to support the NSA operations – and they also seem to know the most about them. They should.

However, complaints that “we didn’t know about this” are now being heard from both congressional Republicans and Democrats who are not on the intelligence committees.

Coming, perhaps, are internal divisions within the intelligence committees, some Republican-Democrat spats and some between the committee leaderships and rank and file committee members. This is awkward for the intelligence committee leaderships.

The lawyers at the Department of Justice, are – uncomfortably perhaps – in bed with each other on the NSA ops, because the programs were started in the Bush administration and continued into the Obama administration. And the president himself has supported the programs in every opportunity he has had to talk about them. He clearly believes that privacy and security are in proper balance with the NSA operations – or at least not out of balance.

So, who (probably) knew what and when about the compromised NSA program?

Some relevant background: Ever since Watergate, the Church and Pike Committees, the creation of the intelligence committees and the enactment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (by the Democrats, FYI) in the 70’s, there have been various legal requirements for the intelligence community to keep the Congress informed about what they are doing. And the Congressional Seniors, often called the “Gang of Eight” (majority and minority leaders of each house and majority and minority members of the intelligence committees), get briefed in more detail on the most sensitive intelligence activities and operations.

Now, put yourself in the place of the directors of the various intelligence agencies. If you have any political sense at all (and you wouldn’t be a director if you didn’t), you are going to tell all about your agency’s various activities and operations, including all the risks – at least to the gang of eight. This way no one can later accuse you of withholding information when one of these sensitive programs goes south or is compromised. And, because the most sensitive activities and operations are often the most risky, the odds of failure or compromise are correspondingly high.

So, we can assume that – at the very least – the gang of eight was fully briefed on the NSA operations. And we can also assume that any other member of the intelligence committees who expressed interest in the programs would have likewise had a complete briefing, including on-site briefings by agency technicians, if such were requested.

How about an  ordinary member of Congress who was interested in these programs? They can also get briefings if they request them, and should approach their own party leaderships if they want additional information, or go to the leaderships of their house’s intelligence committee. Are these briefings often complex, technical and time consuming? Yes, for sure.

However, the suggestion that information is somehow being withheld from them is, frankly, silly, just as it was for Pelosi, a 10-plus year member of the gang of eight and a former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, to say that she didn’t know about the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program.

They know. They may wish they didn’t when the story hits the news, but they know. In fact, it’s to the administration’s advantage – whether Republican or Democrat – that they know all the details. In short, they are all in this boat together, whether they like it or not.


By: Daniel Gallington, U. S. News and World Report, August 12, 2013

August 13, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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