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Hertzberg’s Naivete on the NSA

Rick Herzberg has an essay in the New Yorker discussing the most recent revelations on the NSA’s data mining programs. To say he shows an astonishing naivete for a guy who has been covering Washington politics, and writing intelligently about it, for as long as he has.

But I truly don’t think we’re living under an encroaching police state. I still don’t know of a single instance where the N.S.A. data program has encroached on or repressed any particular person’s or group’s freedom of expression or association in a tangible way. Nor have I come across a clear explanation of exactly how the program could be put to such a purpose.

Really? You can’t conjur up some plausible scenarios by which the government having access to every single bit of metadata on everything every person in this country does on their mobile phones could be used for a nefarious purpose? You can’t imagine how the government could abuse having access to the substance of nearly every private communication we make with virtually no oversight? Perhaps you should look up COINTELPRO sometime. I bet it’s on the Google.

But even if the program could be misused in that way, for it to happen you would have to have a malevolent government—or, at least, a government with a malevolent, out-of-control component or powerful official or officials. You would have to have a Nixon or a J. Edgar Hoover. But when you have a government or a powerful government official bent on repression and willing to flout the law, there are always plenty of tools at hand. Nixon and Hoover didn’t need data mining to do their mischief—and, again, I haven’t seen an explanation of how data mining would have helped them do worse than they did.

This is so naive that it almost makes me feel sorry for him. Could he actually believe that? Does he think that Nixon and Hoover were one-off moral monsters that couldn’t get into power today? Has he never heard the maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? It’s a cliche, but it’s nearly always accurate.

For me, the big unanswered questions are along these lines: Has the N.S.A. program actually worked to uncover and thwart terrorist plots? If so, are there or could there have been alternate means that could have worked about as well or better at less cost—less cost in money and resources, less cost to civic trust and confidence? In what concrete ways does the program invade people’s privacy? Exactly how, if at all, does the program increase the government’s power to do bad things to good people? And how much does it add to the powers the government already has via information-gathering and police-like agencies such as the I.R.S., the F.B.I., and the Homeland Security apparatus? Is the marginal increase in government power that the N.S.A. program represents justified by the marginal increase in safety that it provides, if it does provide such an increase?

Yes, those are all important questions. But how are we to answer them? Who even gets to attempt to answer them? Congressional oversight is pretty much useless, especially with the Senate Intelligence Committee in the hands of Dianne Feinstein. Standing objections and the State Secrets Privilege have rendered the courts almost as useless (and, like Congress, the courts have only themselves to blame; both branches of government have a crucial role to play in our system of checks and balances and both have been AWOL for decades). How do you get those questions answered when the Director of National Intelligence lies to Congress quite brazenly and gets away with it? How are we as citizens to answer those questions when the truth is deliberately concealed?

Sorry, Mr. Hertzberg, but I have a very hard time believing that you really believe what you wrote here. If you do, more’s the pity.

Comments

  1. jameshanley says

    In an era where we’re told that having plastic baggies is drug paraphernalia and evidence of intent to distribute, even if no drugs are found, is it really that hard to imagine that merely having the data is evidence of ill intent?

  2. Chiroptera says

    The sad thing is, these clowns will be making the exact same arguments when they come to install the tv cameras in all of our homes.

  3. says

    @hameshanley #1 – If you have ever complained about the lack of government oversight for essential services like clean drinking water, you are probably a terrorist.

    The fact is that if someone with power decides they do not like you, all of this information makes it incredibly easy to trump up charges against you. At best, it will result in years of litigation as you fight the charges, and probably jail time because you are a “flight risk” or simply cannot afford bail. At worst, you end up disappeared, maybe rotting in a cell at the heart of MiniLuv while the government “investigates” the charges or maybe rendered to a country where waterboarding and other forms of “interrogation” are done by US agents without having to worry about that pesky Constitution. It is getting to a point in this country where our rights are merely theoretical: using our right to speak out, or assemble, or petition a redress of grievances, or demanding that search warrants on probable cause be obtained or the right to a speedy, public trial means giving up those rights.

  4. says

    @Chiroptera #3 – Of course you meant telescreens, right?

    The sad thing is, cloud-based remote sensing interactive televisions have been selling well for years. Americans are not waiting on the government: we are enthusiastically doing it ourselves.

  5. Chiroptera says

    Gregory in Seattle, #4: The fact is that if someone with power decides they do not like you, all of this information makes it incredibly easy to trump up charges against you.

    They don’t even have to come up with criminal charges. What would also work is finding something extremely embarrassing to discredit you. Comments you left somewhere, photos other people took, websites that you visited.

    I’ve said this before, even if you think you have nothing to hide, you are being incredibly naive. Even if you really haven’t forgotten something embarrassing you did in your youth, you don’t realise how other people will view the things you think are very innocent…especially when taken out of context.

  6. says

    Did you mean the title to be “naïveté”?

    Anyhow – it’s not naïveté, it’s dishonesty. There’s no way that anyone who has been awake more than a few hours of the last 2 decades would misunderstand what the surveillance state is doing.

  7. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    But even if the program could be misused in that way, for it to happen you would have to have a malevolent government—or, at least, a government with a malevolent, out-of-control component or powerful official or officials. You would have to have a Nixon or a J. Edgar Hoover. But when you have a government or a powerful government official bent on repression and willing to flout the law, there are always plenty of tools at hand.

    The fact that we have had people like Nixon and Hoover in high governmental positions means that we could again. And if you want to look at “government with a malevolent, out-of-control component or powerful official or officials”, you don’t have to go back as far as Nixon, all you have to do is go back to 2001-2008.

    Honestly (and perhaps naively [and Ed, please fix the title]), I’m not really concerned with Obama becoming a dictator, partly because I agree with some of his goals, partly because I really don’t think he has it in him. Apparently, all the right-wingers who are now concerned with the NSA’s actions weren’t concerned during the Bush years, presumably for the same reasons.

    But I’m not so naive to think that as our country’s politics ebb and flow, that with this precedent set, the NSA’s data collection can’t or won’t be abused (worse than now, I mean), and for that reason, even if someone I like was doing it, it has to be stopped.

  8. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    Forgot to add:

    “But when you have a government or a powerful government official bent on repression and willing to flout the law, there are always plenty of tools at hand.”

    But why make it easier?

  9. slc1 says

    Look, Hertzberg is just another inside the Beltway sycophant sucking up to the powers that be.

  10. Trebuchet says

    The sad thing is, these clowns will be making the exact same arguments when they come to install the tv cameras in all of our homes.

    They may not need to install them. There’s one right in front of me right now over the laptop screen. Three Six more on our phones and tablet. And of course, if you buy the new X-box Microsoft will be watching you. And you already know how well they protect your data from the NSA.

    Meanwhile Conservapedia owner Andy Schlafley (Phyllis’s son) LOVES him some Edward Snowden, who he refers to as “Obama’s Nemesis”. Enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that. Schlafley was actually on the Harvard Law Review with Obama.

  11. sunsangnim says

    Even if you completely trust the government for some reason, don’t forget that most of the data mining is done by private contractors. They may have agendas of their own. Individuals working in those contractors may have agendas of their own. What if someone like Snowden wanted to get back at an ex, and they were able to find their phone records? What if Booz Allen wanted to spy on other defense contractors? Couldn’t a contractor find the phone records of a business and engage in insider trading, or spy on a political group they don’t like? The possibilities are endless.

  12. says

    Trebuchet “Schlafley was actually on the Harvard Law Review with Obama.”
    It’s weirder than that. They were in preschool together.*
     
    *
    Li’l Schlafly: “Some day, I’m gonna rewrite the Bible on a internet!”
    Li’l Obaba: “Pbbt! Some day, I’m gonna be Pwesident of a United State of Amewica!”

  13. Don Williams says

    Actually, Mr Brayton shows astonishing naivete in failing to realize that you damm well better show astonishing naivete if you write about the NSA these days. heh heh

  14. Don Williams says

    I wonder if I wrote a ..er.. petition to Obama would Ed Brayton agree to take it to the White House?

  15. jaybee says

    What political hay could someone in power make of the collected data?

    Imagine for a minute, Mr. Hertzberg, that you decide to run for some political office in five years. And that whatever party you affiliate with is not the one residing in the White House. So just as your start building momentum, somehow it comes out that back in 2013 you googled “group fucking” and “hung men” a number of times. Gosh, how did that information ever turn up?

    Even if there is currently no provable wrongdoing with the information, the potential for wrongdoing is so great it must be checked.

  16. francesc says

    “What political hay could someone in power make of the collected data?”
    @22
    Of course, no government would like to know that an specific judge or political opponent has a mister/mistress as it couldn’t be of any use. Maybe someone called an abortion clinic? Nope, uninteresting. What about a lawyer specialized on fiscal fraud? Uhm… actually we don’t want to know that, just call them asking for a donation

  17. sailor1031 says

    Well the massive databases and analysis didn’t prevent the bombing in Boston, even with a heads-up from the Russians. All we have are bland statements, with no evidence provided, to the effect that this data-gathering has prevented “dozens” of terrorist actions. Sorry – citations are needed for that claim.

    One thing is that it is only a question of time (if it hasn’t already happened) before these DBs are hacked by the security services of the Chinese, Russians, Iranians and any other computer-savvy nations for the purpose of identifying and monitoring their own dissidents as well as identifying US-based malcontents who can be turned to advantage.

    Now we learn that not only are ALL our electronic activities and communications being monitored; the bastards are even monitoring our mail. Today it wouldn’t even be possible for there to be an american revolution – so why do we need all those guns out there?

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