Some random scribblings & musings on NSA surveillance

Blindfolded-ManIt seems that every few days, the basic understanding of the NSA surveillance leaks changes. At first, it was just phone records, but really, how many of us use our phones to call all that much any more? Then, it included nearly all internet traffic, but we were assured there were “meaningful safeguards in place”. And then, last week (to far too little fanfare) we found out just how meaningless these “safeguards” really are.

And still, the journalists at The Guardian say they are preparing their “next round” of articles, and so who knows where we’ll be, come next week.

To a large extent, this prevents truly meaningful and lasting commentary that can sustain a discussion for more than a few days. And so, instead of trying to do that, I will just put up some random, disjointed nuggets of thought on this issue; things that, hopefully, can offer us some food for thought. Respond as you like in the comments below.


I realized I’m a racist. I realized in the course of these leaks that I have some latent racism. The US government kept assuring us that these spy capabilities were not ever turned on Americans (this is false), but were only turned on “foreign entities”. It wasn’t until a day or so went by that I realized that whenever I saw that assurance, I automatically had an image in my head of Middle-Eastern “foreign entities”. This isn’t at all true.

We spy on our allies. Most of the spying powers are used on our allies, not on the “big bad terrorists” that we use to justify this surveillance.

Germany is awesome, but the NSA is suspicious. A new friend of mine who lives in Germany told me this past weekend that, in Germany, an employer is not allowed to see or know about any email that an employee sends, even if it is sent using the company’s own software, email addresses, computers, or servers. That’s crazy. I couldn’t imagine that here.

And yet, Germany is the European country that America spies on the most, conspicuously more than everyone else. Perhaps it’s precisely because they don’t make their data so easily accessible to America that we just have to go in and take it?

And so, it’s America’s fault that no one sympathizes with their Snowden woes. Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this stuff, is globe-hopping, trying to find asylum, and no nation is willing to arrest him and extradite him to America. American authorities, meanwhile, are flabbergasted that this could happen. If you’re a bully in the rest of the world, spying on everyone without their knowledge or consent, you’re not going to have too many friends. Do you, reader, feel America has a “right” to spy on everyone else? How does telling our allies that America is spying on them fall in line with “espionage” as Snowden has been charged?

Civil liberties vs. security: It’s not a compromise. Two parts of this one. Obama said over and over again that we need to find a “balance” to our liberties and our security. That’s not how the Constitution lays out our rights. Our civil liberties are absolute. They are the boundaries within which the government must play to “keep us safe”. They are the lines on the field on which the game is played. A sport is not a “compromise” between the rules and your winning. You are given the rules and boundaries and then given free reign to work within those to win the game, not try and change the lines and rules as you go.

Secondly, there is no compromise here. The NSA begins this “compromise” with everything, sacrificing nothing. And then tells us to “deal with it, we’re compromising”.

You’re 14 times more likely to be killed by fireworks than by a terrorist attack. Look at these stats. You’re also 9 times more likely, as an American, to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist. So where’s our “War on Law Enforcement” or “War on Fireworks”? Really. All this surveillance stuff was put in place to save us from terrorism which, in 2011, killed 17 non-military Americans. Is it because it’s working so well, then? Maybe, but even before the “War on Terror” there weren’t many American fatalities from terrorism. Far more from poverty, cancer, and other things that could really use the money that is otherwise being spent on this “war”.

Imagine this in the hands of the politician you fear the most. Even if you’re inclined to be in favor of these policies, you have to imagine this apparatus in the hands of whatever politician you fear the most. Maybe you trust Obama. Do you trust Michelle Bachmann with these powers? Lindsey Graham? Hillary Clinton? Nancy Pelosi? Whatever system you put in place has to be “leader-neutral” so as to be safe no matter who’s in power. That’s why we have the Constitution.

I’m actually impressed with Obama. I’ll admit it. I’m really impressed with the safeguards he attempted to put in place here. In a sense, Congress was the one that gave him these powers and told him “use this to keep us safe”. And you know what? It really seems like he tried to put safeguards on these programs. I completely disagree with where he drew those lines, but at least he drew some.

Lindsey Graham is the most vile, morally bankrupt and twisted individual with any semblance of power in this nation. I just needed to say that.

We prefer Daddies to Mommies in our Government. It seems to me that there is a sort weird metaphor here. Republicans rail against the “nanny” or “mommy” state that lets its citizens “suckle at the federal breast”. So the government can’t do those “maternal” things like support, offer security, educate, care, feed, and clothe. But then those same Republicans (and many Democrats) feel like the government must be as big and intrusive as possible to do those “paternal” things like protect, punish, admonish, assert influence and control, and bestow authority upon. It seems like many of our leaders think America should be a “Daddy State” rather than a “Mommy State”. That explains a lot.

There really aren’t meaningful safeguards here. Read this excellent and readable summary of what we know so far about these program.

You really should care about this. All of you. This stink about all this isn’t about people “not having anything to hide”. It’s about a fundamental shift in how laws are enforced in this country. The burden of finding crimes has always fallen on the authorities. They were the ones that had to search out and prove wrongdoing, and no one could incriminate themselves. In a sense, the system has been this: everyone is going to be assumed innocent; if you do something wrong and we don’t find you, then it’s our fault–you’re still presumed innocent until we prove you otherwise.

With these NSA programs, however, that changes. It’s no longer “we consider you innocent until we prove you otherwise”, nor is it even “we think you’re guilty until we prove you innocent”. Rather, it’s a weird ambiguous, unprecedented middle space where we are all considered potentially guilty and kind of stay there until declaring us one way or the other becomes relevant.

You do have something to hide. This is sort of a lame argument, I know. But still, it could be important. Plenty of studies have shown that as more and more laws are made, there’s more of a chance that we break them without knowing. One book even estimates that the average American breaks at least three federal laws a day. The way these NSA programs are structured is that if at any point in the future that there is a reason to suspect you of anything (whether you’ve legitimately committed a crime, you are part of some marginalized group, or even if you’re running for office!), the NSA can–literally–“rewind” your entire communications and online history and find something–anything–that might actually break a law.

History, History, History. It’s well-known now that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the subject of surveillance like this, and tapes of him and his mistresses were used to try and get him to stay quiet. J. Edgar Hoover constantly did this to political enemies. Occupy Wall Street had these powers turned on them, and I’m sure the Tea Party has. You simply can’t assume that you will never find yourself in solidarity (or at least agreement) with a group that this apparatus would never be turned upon. History shows that governments can’t be trusted with powers like this.

Living Room Toilets: The best metaphor I’ve heard about all of this. I was listening to a radio show and one of the interviewers referenced this, and so I don’t know the exact source (please let me know if you do), but it was about how the whole “I have nothing to hide” reasoning is silly. I’ll end with this.

No one has a toilet in the open in their living room. Why? Not because people have anything to hide in their bathroom. But simply because some things inherently deserve to stay private.

[image credit]08

The best, most entertaining resources on the NSA leaks

When it comes to the political news this week, I’ve felt a large range of emotions. I’ve felt just a little bit of “I told you so” vindication, joy over the attention the media is giving to it, anger at the government, pride in some brave politicians, and frustration over the fact that no one else in my life seems to be paying attention to this or even care.

I’ve also felt a certain futility in grasping all off this and being able to distill it in a concise, communicable way. I’m going to do my best next week on this blog, but in the end, I don’t think I could do better than these three shows in doing so.

First, nothing helps ease the shock of learning that your government is storing your entire digital life than a little laughter. And to that end, there’s no place better for that than The Daily Show. Jon Stewart is gone for the summer, but he is being ably covered by John Oliver. This clip below is Oliver’s first night hosting:

Full episode: [Daily Show] [Hulu]

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The Atlantic gets it right on Obama’s civil liberties abuses & the value of your vote

Yesterday, Conor Friedersdorf (Twitter) wrote an amazing piece for The Atlantic in which he explains why–no matter how liberal he is–he is not voting for President Obama. He writes:

Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as “the lesser of two evils” is unacceptable. If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in.

I found this link on Facebook through J.R.D. Kirk. I absolutely agree with every word of this post. I shared it to my own Facebook wall, and….wow…I got some major pushback, mainly over my inclination to vote for a third-party candidate. People through around the same phrases I’ve heard the past few weeks about “wasting my vote” and “throwing it away” and “de-valuing it”. I found this odd for a few reasons.
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I almost voted for Obama, but then I remembered…

[Updated below]

Having neglected my favorite columnist and favorite podcast as of late, it was easy to forget. As I said in my post about almost voting for Romney, I let the Conventions sort-of sweep me up. I swore I’d never give in, but oh those sirens were such smooth-talking mistresses.

First, as I mentioned last week, the big shift for me towards Obama was Clinton’s speech at the National Convention. I thought it was amazing. But, this speech ended up being not as factually accurate as it sounded. And (speaking of how it sounded) as Dan Carlin said (as I was finally catching up with his podcast), this speech was only our generation’s introduction to the kind of politician Clinton’s always been. This was simply vintage Clinton, and I admit, I developed a little man-crush.

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Weekly Must-Reads {3.7.12} | abortion & Obama’s abuses

In light of the recent birth control controversy, there’s been a revived discussion about abortion and the “personhood” of babies, especially after a paper justifying the aborting of newborns was published in a major journal. Also, in response to rising criticisms for how the Obama administration has abused their seizure of Executive power to pretty scary levels, Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, gave a speech [transcript] at Northwestern University on Monday defending the administration’s actions. Today’s articles deal with these issues.

Grab some coffee, and let’s go.




The New Scar on My Soul | American Thinker

If you read nothing else from this post, please let it be this. I found myself crying in the middle of the coffee-shop I was in as I read this. Please, anyone, help give me a reasonable framework from which to respond to this. I need something beyond empty rhetoric, powerless outrage and sadness, and unrealistic policy aspirations. And also, please, if you find yourself on the pro-choice side of this, I would love your thoughts on this topic after reading this post. I’m really struggling here.

The Obama Administration and Targeted Killings: “Trust Us” | Council on Foreign Relations

Such a good article giving a brief–yet substantive–analysis of Holder’s speech and how it holds up to legal, moral, and common-sensical scrutiny. Please read this. Also, for a very comprehensive (yet fairly brief and easy-to-read) summary of the history and background of this all-important topic and its relevance today, CFR put together this Backgrounder.

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I’m a one issue voter: specific abuses of Executive power {pt.3}

This is an ongoing series talking about how, for this Presidential election, I am a one-issue voter. I will be making my decision for President based on what the candidate believes about Executive Power and Civil Liberties. Read Part 1 and Part 2 for more. In this post, I outline specific ways the Executive is increasingly abusing its power. The hope is that this will show others how this should be a legitimate concern of all Americans.

Did you know . . . 

The President, on New Year’s Eve, signed legislation making it absolutely legal for him, personally, to order you imprisoned indefinitely with no charges being filed against you and no lawyer being offered you. Be sure to read this Al-Jazeera article bemoaning the loss of American freedom because of this. (more here and, for a snarkier analysis, go here).

The Administration reserves the right to simply have any American citizen killed without a trial or any chance to offer evidence in their defense. Obama is the first known President to ever authorize this.
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I’m a one issue voter: some responses & clarifications {Pt.2}

“Free people, remember this maxim: We may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.” –Jean-Jacques Rousseau

[UPDATE: Part 3, “specific abuses of Executive Power” is up]

Yesterday, I wrote a post about how I’ve become so burdened by the abuse of civil liberties by the Executive branch, that I have decided that this is a big enough of a deal–and the time is crucial enough–to warrant this being the one issue I use to determine who I’m voting for this Presidential election.

I knew I was brief yesterday, but wow. That post ended up causing a lot of emails, texts, comments and Facebook posts from people really cautious about what I had said, and had a lot of clarifying questions for me. Some issues will become clearer as I continue to write about this, but I wanted to address some crucial things up front.

First, some definition

As Wikipedia puts it: “Civil liberties are simply defined as individual legal and constitutional protections from entities more powerful than an individual, for example, parts of the government, other individuals, or corporations.” To put it another way, our “civil liberties” are what is clearly laid out in the Bill of Rights.
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For now, I’m a one issue voter: a President’s Day lament {Pt.1}

“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty…is finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people” — George Washington

[UPDATEPart 2, “some responses & clarifications” is now posted.]

[UPDATE II: Part 3, “specific abuses of Executive Power” is up]

America’s Founding Fathers consistently referred to our country as a  “grand experiment”, and on this President’s Day–and good ol’ George’s birthday–I want to meditate on this for a little bit. What was (is?) so “experimental” about America?

There seems to be a repeated  “life-cycle” to nearly every great power in the entire history of the world. In the beginning of most of these nations, the “power” and authority is more or less decentralized (perhaps in a localized, tribal, or feudal system–or in our case, States).

Over the course of time, though, this “power” becomes increasingly centralized: first, into one part of society (usually to the wealthy and their businesses), then it gathers into one part of the government, and then it continues onward until it is ultimately centralized in one person.
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