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Jul 14 2013

It feels good to have the right opponents

Sometimes people write in the comments that in support of some position or another, I have quoted people who may have dubious views on other issues. This does not necessarily bother me. I don’t expect people to agree with me on everything and when I read something that is persuasive, I do not check on the other views of the person writing it, unless he or she is basing the argument on something factual that requires checking. If the facts underlying it are not in dispute, the persuasiveness of an argument should stand or fall on the quality of the argument itself.

Since I tend to read writers whom I respect, most of the time I will be quoting people whom I broadly agree with, unless I am doing general searches on a topic or following some links that take me into unfamiliar territory, as sometimes happens.

But having said that, it is also comforting when, on some controversial issue, you find the usual suspects who are always wrong lined up against you. In the case of the Edward Snowden whistleblowing case, it is pleasing to note that I disagree with the vacuous pundit class of the mainstream media like David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, Richard Cohen, Thomas Friedman, and the like, all of whom seem to worship state power in a way that is disturbing. But the real boost came when war criminal Dick Cheney condemned Snowden as a traitor. That gave me a warm glow of satisfaction.

As Snowden himself said in his Q/A with the public:

Further, it’s important to bear in mind I’m being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.

Why anyone takes Cheney seriously beats me. He belongs in jail for his role in initiating wars and torturing people, not being treated like some kind of statesman whose views matter. I am just in the process of reading Jeremy Scahill’s gripping book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (more on this book later) and it is already clear within the first 100 pages that he and Donald Rumsfeld are paranoid lying psychopaths whose goal was to create a secret parallel government with an unchecked executive branch that could bypass all the checks and oversight that the Constitution and laws require and use force to achieve its geopolitical goals.

As for the liberals and Democrats who are ambivalent about whether to support Snowden or not, I am not surprised. As long as you view things through the prism of what it might mean for the Democratic party’s chances in the next election, you are always going to equivocate whenever something that makes the Democratic party look bad comes along, just like the Republicans did when Bush was in power. What Snowden is revealing is that president Obama has embraced and expanded and consolidated what Cheney and Rumsfeld started and this makes his supporters squirm.

As a corollary, it is nice to see that those whose views you deeply respect for their consistently principled stands (Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Scahill, Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald) are defending what Snowden did.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    If only Snowden had gunned down an unarmed black teenager, he’d be a free national hero today.

  2. 2
    Chiroptera

    Wait, wasn’t Cheney implicated in the leaks that outed Valerie Plame?

  3. 3
    Jeffrey Johnson

    One can support what Snowden did, release government secrets, without agreeing that the data gathering program is an unqualified bad thing. I see the benefits of the data gathering, and believe that ending secrecy and putting the right checks and balances in place can enable citizens to feel safe and for law enforcement to use a valuable tool. We seem not to worry about the fact that the government has the worlds largest arsenal of deadly weapons. The reason is that we don’t believe they can get away with using them against Americans without suffering backlash and consequences. The same can be true of the data if the program is designed and scrutinized properly without the secrecy.

    So I support Snowden, in that I think he should be treated as a whistleblower, helping the public learn what it should know, and not as a spy or criminal. But that doesn’t mean I agree with him on everything.

    Sometimes it’s also nice when people you normally disagree with, agree with you. For example occasionally a Republican will tell the truth about how awful the Tea Party is, or they will break ranks on the hostage taking nature of the debt ceiling manipulations, or that Obamacare is basically a moderate Republican designed compromise, or so-called “entitlement” cuts, or torture, or immigration, or gay marriage, or any of the other points on which they normally form a monolith of uniformity.

  4. 4
    eigenperson

    We seem not to worry about the fact that the government has the worlds largest arsenal of deadly weapons. The reason is that we don’t believe they can get away with using them against Americans without suffering backlash and consequences. The same can be true of the data if the program is designed and scrutinized properly without the secrecy.

    Collecting data is equivalent to using weapons, not purchasing them.

    I’m fine with the NSA developing tools that could be used for spying on Americans and others. I’m not okay with them actually doing so, unless there is a good reason and real scrutiny.

  5. 5
    Corvus illustris

    It;s probably pure naïveté, but I still think “national hero” for Mr Z requires proof. He’ll never erase the mark of Cain..

  6. 6
    slc1

    If only Martin hadn’t attacked Zimmerman and beat his head against thesidewalk, he might be alive today.

  7. 7
    Jeffrey Johnson

    I think that gathering the data isn’t spying until someone actually uses the data. A person has to look at it and assemble profiles of movement and lifestyle. Otherwise it’s just bytes lost in an anonymous pile of petabytes upon petabytes of data that means nothing to anybody. It’s not like some guy with headphones is listening to individual calls.

    To not gather the data provisionally is to drastically cut the effectiveness of the tool. The point is that not knowing who may become a suspect in the next year or two, the data could be gathered provisionally and effectively remain in escrow. When someone comes under suspicion because of legitimate probable cause, and warrants are obtained, normally that is when the surveillance begins. The data gathering could enable investigators at the time the warrant is obtained to retrieve data relevant to that individual and actually go back in time to establish patterns and contacts. This is potentially a very powerful tool that could greatly accelerate legitimate investigations and possibly avert the next 9/11.

    It would be a shame to lose that ability because people think it’s better to have their data sitting on computers at Google and Verizon rather than in some NSA server farm. Having the data and not using it is exactly like having the weapons ready but not using them except in limited circumstances as needed.

  8. 8
    lanir

    The problem with “just” gathering data and not using it is that you leave it around for unprincipled people to use in your stead.

    It is still wrong because there is no justification for it. It needs that BEFORE it has any possible legitimacy. Removing the need to legitimize before acquiring data is functionally equivalent to removing any need to ever justify having the data and in most cases it’s the same as removing any need to justify using the data as well. These are secret organizations that you won’t ever see working against you unless they get sloppy or you get really lucky.

    And you’re rather pointedly forced to help pay for them to do so.

  9. 9
    sailor1031

    You are sooooooooooo predictable.

  10. 10
    Jeffrey Johnson

    There is no evidence that happened. Only Zimmerman’s word. There was no blood on Martin’s hands, no DNA evidence from Zimmerman at all. I don’t know how you pound somebody’s head into the ground without getting their DNA on your hands.

    Zimmerman’s story is full of lies. How likely is it that he just got out of his car and Martin greeted him with “you’re going to die today”? Sounds like a calculated (but stupid) lie to create a self-defense case.

    Here are the only things that seem certain to me: the jury probably followed the law, and the prosecution possibly muffed the case, but they didn’t have a lot to work with either. The real problem here is the ALEC/NRA cookie cutter law. What also seems certain is that if Zimmerman had done what a Neighborhood Watch volunteer is supposed to do, which is watch, and report to the police, then Martin would be alive. Just like a drunk driver who gets manslaughter for taking certain decisions and actions that lead to another’s wrongful death, Zimmerman made a sequence of decisions, assumptions, and took a series of actions to create a confrontation that never should have happened. What Martin did then is completely unknown, unless you want to believe Zimmerman, who has proven an inconsistent and unbelievable witness, one with obvious conflict of interest. By Florida law, Zimmerman didn’t even have to take the stand to convince the jury that he acted in self-defense. Instead he was allowed to remain silent in court while the state vainly tried to prove he did not defend himself. The tradition of American law is that the burden of proof is on the killer to prove self-defense.

    In a just world, Zimmerman would be guilty of manslaughter for taking the life of an innocent boy who did nothing but react to a scary confrontation that should never have occurred.

    On the bright side, by Florida’s present law, presuming that law could actually give a black man a fair trial, any armed black man in Florida is justified in shooting Zimmerman on sight if he approaches or comes near them, because they obviously have probable cause to fear for their lives in such an event, plausibly based on what happened to Trayvon Martin.

    The great irony here is that conservatives and white supremacists put a lot of energy into condemning Martin for beating Zimmerman. But Martin had no reason to do that except out of fear for his life when confronted with an older armed man. By the arguments of these people who defend and justify Zimmerman, if Martin had had a gun and shot Zimmerman in the heart to defend himself, then he’d be alive and by Florida law not guilty of a crime. The lesson of this law is, when you want to shoot someone, make sure there are no witnesses, make sure the victim dies and can’t defend himself, and you can entirely control the court case to your advantage and with great probability go free. Sounds like Florida has created a situation for lots of people to be gunned down in self-defense.

    The law is obviously wrong, and the society and culture that has created such laws and that approves of them is sick and perverted.

  11. 11
    Jeffrey Johnson

    That problem is obvious. The point I’ve been making is that if we end the secrecy and make the data gathering conditional on putting the proper controls in place, then the dangers you rightly point out can be mitigated.

    The software technology used to search this data does not have to simply allow every Booz Allen Hamilton dweeb the chance of browsing around for jollies. It can be implemented, according to well crafted laws, so that access is blocked except for temporary authorizations obtained under strict scrutiny with audit logs detailing every data record accessed. If a citizen has a complaint against the government, it should be possible for them to subpoena a report detailing every government access of every data record pertaining to that individual, who performed it, and when. The law could force the government to justify each access.

    I just think that most people aren’t really thinking beyond the emotional reaction that they are being spied on. It’s nothing like having a person or government agent spying on you. From the standpoint of each citizen, the gathering of the data is no different that what every ISP, bank, and social networking site already does, which is to keep online records of activities. Rights are only infringed when that data is misused.

    So I’m only saying, I don’t see the solution as being blocking the data gathering, which can create all kinds of other problems, and doesn’t solve the real problem of government abuse of secrecy and government invulnerability to consequences for their misdeeds. Further, there are justifications for gathering the data, namely that once a warrant is obtained, the government can check a history backward in time on people like the Boston bomber suspects or some as yet unknown 9/11/15 bombers. This data really could preempt deadly attacks if used properly.

    So I say we focus not on the data gathering, but on how it is handled, and on the secrecy, and on the government’s tendency to abuse secrecy to shield itself from scrutiny and criticism, and to make itself invulnerable to remedies in court.

  12. 12
    jamessweet

    As long as you view things through the prism of what it might mean for the Democratic party’s chances in the next election

    FWIW, I am halfway to being the kind of Democratic partisan you despise, but I don’t really feel like Snowden is really hurting the Democratic party all that much. I think there is relatively small overlap between a) the set of voters who actually believe that a Republican president would be any better in this regard, b) the set of voters who are passionate enough about civil liberties to change their vote over this, and c) the set of voters who had any chance of voting Democrat to begin with. That’s a pretty small group…

  13. 13
    jamessweet

    I’m somewhat in the same boat… I don’t necessarily think that such data gathering programs are impossible to wield responsibly — but I do think that when they are wielded in secret, there is far too much of a danger of them being used irresponsibly. So I support the leaks (well, most of them anyway) but don’t necessarily categorically oppose the programs in question.

  14. 14
    richardrobinson

    Yeah, but that was different because “Terrism!”

  15. 15
    richardrobinson

    Can a police officer not present a phone number and a warrant to AT&T and get exactly the kind of information being collected? I’m sure phone companies are required to retain these sorts of records for several months at least, if not several years. Why should the government need to collect this information for itself, and at great expense, if not to use it?

  16. 16
    Jeffrey Johnson

    Can a police officer not present a phone number and a warrant to AT&T and get exactly the kind of information being collected?

    No, it’s not even close to the same thing. The data gathering tracks mobile phone movements, credit card purchases, email contacts, phone contacts, bank transactions, other on-line activities.

    Their is an overwhelming amount of data then that represents a history of all communications of all people. Nobody’s information is even looked at by any human until they become in some way a suspect or connected to a suspect. Set aside for a minute as an anamoly the claim by Snowden that he could arbitrarily choose to go look at anyone’s email he liked. If it’s true, that is a problem that must be fxed, of course. Software designed with proper security controls could easily prevent this claimed abuse.

    But the huge amount of data basically means that nobody is being spied on unless there is a good reason. There is no way they could profitably look at it all. Let’s say this data then accumulates for a few years. At that point, intelligence from an overseas asset alerts us to the fact that a sleeper cell is in the country, and they know the name of one person in the cell, and his country of origin. Perhaps now he has changed his name though.

    They did not know in advance that this person might be a threat. At that point, because they have gathered all data, they can trace backwards in time and construct a profile of the movements, contacts, and activities of that person. Hopefully they can detect a pattern or link that would clue them into the new alias this person is using because of the comprehensive amount of data available and the ability to cross reference. From this they are likely to construct a network of that person’s contacts, movements, where they were on any given date, and a likely profile of who the other cell members are because of proximity, patterns of contact, purchases made in the same vicinity, etc.

    Being able to efficiently search all of that data for the relevent information requires it is stored in certain formats and with efficient data structures with very fast access times. Trying to piece it together after the fact by going to many different companies and agencies etc. would be very inefficient and thus far less effective.

    This is really just an extension of the idea behind the usage of CCTV surveillance systems. The massive volume of video collected is a kind of anonymous blur until a specific incident involving specific people at a specific location at a specific time needs to be examined because of probable cause other good evidence. At this point it can mean the difference between solving a crime and preventing unnecessary deaths, and having no clue how to solve the crime.

    Why should the government need to collect this information for itself, and at great expense, if not to use it?

    Hopefully the preceeding helped to explain this. Of course there will be some data in all that is gathered that may need to be used. Who the criminals are can’t be anticipated in advance. Whose data will be needed can’t be anticipated in advance. And retrospectively constructing it all from disparate and incompatible formats would be less effective.

    Now there is a possible point to what you are saying: If all the sources of data were required to respond to certain query formats with data formats that are compatible with a prescribed standard, and the storage specifications were met for what must be stored, how long it is kept avialable, and what it’s availability metrics should be, etc. then perhaps a distributed system could work. But it’s hard to see the advantage to that. Without the proper legal controls in place such a system could also be abused in the same way. You have all the same legal and privacy issues, plus more technnological headaches in the architecture.

  17. 17
    chrisdevries

    If the government cannot prove probable cause exists to gather data on a subject until June 1st, having access to call data from January would undoubtedly be useful to law enforcement but it would violate the subject’s rights. The subject has an expectation of privacy that is only legally negated if probable cause is proven and a warrant granted for covert surveillance; probable cause was NOT proven in January, but on June 1. So in effect, granting access to data collected before the warrant was issued would be the same as granting access to the same data in real time, when the subject still had a legal expectation of privacy.

    I am willing to grant that in extraordinary circumstances allowing access to data collected before a warrant was approved would be acceptable, but if retroactive access is disallowed in 99.999% of the cases, there would be no reason to collect so much data indiscriminately. Perhaps the system can be modified so that data is only stored for a month and then deleted permanently. If such a system was only used in a literal “ticking bomb” scenario with the onus on the law enforcement agency to prove that lives are at stake and that they have either exhausted all other avenues of investigation or that normal avenues of investigation have been initiated but will probably not yield actionable results before the bomb explodes, I think I could live with that. But the system would need to be protected against unauthorized access. It would have to be operated by an agency or organization that is not in the chain of command of any law enforcement or spook entity. The petitioning law enforcement agency would be given a daily-changing code by the court to get access, the system would need to keep a complete log of everything the law enforcement officers do while accessing the database, and the log would have to be verified by a panel of jurists (which does not include the judge who granted the access to prevent nudge-nudge-wink-wink transactions). Finally, there would have to be hefty criminal charges brought against anyone who views or downloads information to which they are not legally entitled.

    To streamline the process and protect the public, the organization that operates the data collection system should also be in charge of real-time data collection for law enforcement entities that have shown probable cause for a wire-tapping warrant. In fact, it would be ideal if all digital surveillance could only be conducted by an organization not under law enforcement’s chain of command. “Fruit of the poisonous tree” laws are only effective if illegal searches and/or surveillance come to the attention of a defense lawyer…the police have good reason to fabricate false accounts of their investigative process if the evidence they have gathered is otherwise inadmissible.

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