Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"This is the end, my beautiful friend, the end....*

Dial "F" for Frankenstein

Interestingly, if you wander beyond the squabble between Charlie Pierce and Booman (I'm not even gonna link it), you can stumble into a world of facts and reason about NSA and Glenn Greenwald.  And no, the two are not yet separable.

Understanding the fact that they aren't begins with this very long post, which I will summarize for you (aren't you lucky!?).  I will summarize it by going to some of the source material Paul Canning cites, such as a post from Kurt Eichenwald (coincidentally, a journalist Pierce has cited favorably on other topics).

First, let's establish Eichenwald's claim to authority, especially since Greenwald has been spectacularly wrong in his assertions and suppositions:

Some explanation up front: I spent seven years investigating the national-security systems and policies established in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks for my book 500 Days. I learned a fair amount about the data-mining programs of the N.S.A. and wrote about it. I summarized those findings in my last post.
As Eichenwald pointed out in that post:

 Think about it for a second: all of us submit much more personal information to the government every year in our tax returns. We disclose the cost of our medical bills, how much we spent on computers or copy paper, child support, and on and on. And unlike the data collected for this portion of the Stellar Wind program, that personal information can be studied minutely and directly by a government employee.
There is also this problem, which I alluded to earlier:

 The NSA would have no authority to pull up, say, some American’s email account out of curiosity. Anyone violating this ban could potentially be committing a crime, just as an unauthorized IRS employee sneaking a peek at an individual tax return could be cited for wrongdoing. But the stricture was largely theoretical; sifting through the metadata to isolate an (arbitrary) individual’s records would be an almost impossible—and pointless—undertaking.
They have to find individual information, in other words; and they aren't set up to do that.  Need I say, rather like finding a particular cell phone anywhere in the world and turning it into a listening device, somewhat a la "The Dark Knight"?  No, that's just a ludicrous suggestion.

GG: The NSA has the capability, which is widely reported, to remotely activate people’s cellphones and turn them into listening devices. Even if you turn your cellphone off, as long as the battery is in it, it will still function that way. You could take the battery out, but I actually had a cellphone of the type where the battery could not be taken out. The only real solution was to leave it somewhere outside of the room but there was no real place we could leave it. So Snowden suggested that we put it in the refrigerator; there, it would be hermetically sealed and there would be no pickup of audio.

Why wouldn't I believe a journalist who says things like that?

Back to the sheer mass of material:  if the policy doesn't stop ya, the bulk certainly will.  Sure, NSA may have all this data; but then somebody has to tell a computer to sift through it; and somebody has to look at the results; and it still seems to me that's a task that would require most of the employees of the federal government to accomplish, and I'm not yet convinced Edward Snowden is the most reliable source for how much easier those things are than I think they are.

But, of course, this story isn't about Snowden; or his credibility.  How could it be?

So what is PRISM?  A super deep secret, like the aliens in Area 51?  Not according to Eichenwald:

First, the much-ballyhooed PRISM program is not a program and not a secret, and anyone who says it is should not be trusted because they don’t know what they’re talking about. PRISM is the name for the government computer system that is used to handle the foreign-intelligence data collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
That link, by the way, is to the statute authorizing a program like PRISM.  Statutes are public documents.

As for the purported secrecy of this program—folks haven’t been listening. Section 702 was widely debated and parsed through by the Congress before its adoption in 2008 (under the Bush administration). It was widely debated and parsed through by Congress before its re-authorization in December 2012 (under the Obama administration). Any supposed expert who feigns surprise here is, once again, either uninformed or hyping.
I know it's not about Glenn Greenwald, but has he ever been accused of expertise in this area?  Have any of his supporters?

We should also consider what we know about data mining. Is it the magical ability to read all e-mails and text messages and electronic communications from everywhere at once, and know what you said and who you said it to?  Is it, like the movie "Enemy of the State," the ability to locate an active cell phone conversation in real time and pinpoint the location of the person having that conversation as they have it? Well, no, not really:

 the National Security Agency puts the information through a larger process known as “knowledge discovery in database”—or K.D.D.—which cleans, selects, integrates, and analyzes the data. It is also run against a large set of what are known as “dirty numbers”—telephones linked to terrorists either through American signals intelligence or information provided by foreign services. Even the Libyans under Qaddafi turned over huge stacks of dirty numbers to us.

So, on its simplest level, the program—part of a broader enterprise codenamed Stellar Wind, which includes the now infamous warrantless-wiretapping initiative—allows the government to detect when someone in the United States calls a dirty number. (For those who love irony, one of the first phones found to have placed a call to a dirty number was located in the West Wing of the Bush White House; investigators determined it was a fluke, although it did raise questions about the integrity of such inquiries.)

In addition, as part of K.D.D., an algorithm was applied to the broader data set in efforts to detect patterns of behavior fitting models that had been previously established as being indicative of the activities of a terrorist cell.
Are there privacy interests involved there; reasonable expectations of privacy, as the Court says?  Perhaps.  All I can tell you is that as a teacher I can't put personal information to students, like grades, in an e-mail; e-mail is not private communication, since anyone with access to the e-mail account can access the message, too.  Still, Eichenwald's description is a far cry from someone assigned to record and then listen to every phone call you ever make, or every phone call ever made in the world. To begin with, why would they be listening to your phone calls?  Out of all the people on the planet, what would make them stumble on you?  Unless there's some kind of one-to-one correspondence between you and an NSA employee, the odds against anyone's calls being monitored is actually pretty damned high.  There may still be a theoretical problem here; but let's get some perspective on even that possibility.

And speaking (again) of Greenwald, why do we care what he says?  Well, for a very good reason, it turns out:

There are other major errors of logic in how NSA programs are being covered as well. The distinction between a capability and the legal right to use it is acknowledged but completely fudged together in the piece. Hence, people left angry comments demanding to know why the NSA is reading Americans’ emails, when nothing of the sort is suggested by either the slides or even by a close reading of Greenwald’s story. Nevertheless, he’s writing in such a way that people will think the NSA is both surveilling the content of Americans’s phone calls and emails, and it is doing so in contravention of U.S. law — despite not actually providing any evidence to support either claim.

This sort of mendacious narrative-building is, sadly, now a regular feature of the Guardian’s coverage of the NSA. Which is a real shame, since there are serious qualms to raise about blanket surveillance programs (Senator Wyden has been the clearest voice in the Senate questioning not just their legality but their utility as well), about oversight, and about the law writ large. But that debate is getting crowded out by the misinformation and exaggerations that have replaced any sort of factual debate about the NSA. We’re going to lose out big time on a chance for real reform if it continues.
 I think we can say, very plainly and simply, that Glenn Greenwald is a liar, and most of the information we are getting is being read through the lens of lies he originally put in place.  That doesn't really help the conversation, does it?  It doesn't really matter now what Pro Publica or The New York Times or Der Spiegel report on, unless we understand the context we've been given for understanding this information is badly skewed and largely misrepresented.  The mad hyperbole of the government monitoring every single thing you do needs some perspective:

 When the government grabs every single fucking telephone call made from the United States over a period of months and years, it is not a prelude to monitoring anything in particular. Why not? Because that is tens of billions of phone calls and for the love of god, how many agents do you think the FBI has? How many computer-runs do you think the NSA can do — and then specifically analyze and assess each result? When the government asks for something, it is notable to wonder what they are seeking and for what purpose. When they ask for everything, it is not for specific snooping or violations of civil rights, but rather a data base that is being maintained as an investigative tool.
And a data base is not a particularized review of everything you said by e-mail, text message, or over a phone.  But Mr. Greenwald doesn't want perspective; he has an ideological axe to grind ("Both Snowden and Greenwald have made standard Libertarian attacks on US foreign policy alongside defences on Libertarian domestic policy."), and he wants to be sure everyone who disagrees with him is proven wrong:

 Greenwald is clearly an ideologue, and I’m sure he sincerely believes that the government’s use of drones and waging of covert wars and the drug war are the most pressing problems facing the planet. Or at least he believes that now. But his most consistent pattern seems to be a rapier’s edge applied to anyone who disagrees with him. And unlike, say, the late Christopher Hitchens, Greenwald applies the sword without the ballet of swordsmanship. His attacks are more like serial killings than swashbuckling. One has to be, in Greenwaldian terms, literally evil to not agree with his point of view. And he’s not afraid to say so. Anyone who fails to loathe Obama as he does is an “Obama lover” (just chew on that, if you’re African-American) or a “cultist.” It isn’t possible that Obama could do anything that isn’t vile and insipid and worthy of continual, emphatic condemnation.
So we're back to Aristotle's concept of Ethos:  Greenwald is not reporting on a story, he's making an argument.  The first legitimate question is not:  is his logic sound, but:  can he be trusted to tell the truth?

No, he can't.

And finally, the argument that Snowden (and Greenwald) have at least started a conversation is, as Mr. Pierce (who continually forwards that argument) would say, "all my balls":

 Snowden/Greenwald claim to have started a debate. This is rubbish. Just one month before Snowden appeared Obama made his big speech on terrorism which covered reining in surveillance. Plenty of others have been reporting on the NSA, in fact much of what is being sold as new 'revelations' has already been reported.

Even if the MSM has been sucked in and covered his 'revelations', hence 'debate', how can any proper 'debate' happen when it is being fed by 'reporting', not just by Greenwald (more later), best characterised as 'shoddy'? And lying behind all this of course is that it is simply untrue, as many appear to believe (even with mass jail breakouts, or whatever it was, causing those embassy closures) that no terrorism threat exists.
There is a serious and legitimate discussion to be had here about the NSA and surveillance, especially surveillance of anyone in the U.S. (the 4th Amendment is not limited to "citizens").  But it cannot be had on the terms established by Mr. Greenwald.

*and not a moment too soon!


  1. This is the kind of stuff that's being written on this, asking "Will NSA Metadata Be Used to Blackmail You?"

    The great expert that it is based on is one Edward Snowden with help from another whistle blower.

    The author's expertise is given thus, Joe Giambrone publishes Political Film Blog, and his novel of Hollywood debauchery, Hell of a Deal, is available now.

    So, reliable knowledge in the age of unmoderated blog threads and Wikipedia.

  2. The utility of the NSA spy operation worries me. Another of my mantras: The NSA missed the Boston bombers, though there was lots of evidence from phones and the internet - after the fact.

  3. Mimi, TC--you both say what I think.