Friday, August 23, 2013

This little light o' mine....

Will somebody answer the damned clue phone?

Like Jeffrey Toobin, I have trouble swiping some of this stuff aside:

I point out that no one (including you) has said exactly what laws the NSA has violated. You reply, "If so, the law is an ass." That may be, but that's different from saying that the NSA was some kind of outlaw agency.
Have laws been violated?  Kindly point out to me, in general or in specific (and yes, specific can be hard because the alleged violations are done in secret) which laws, and what harm.  And don't tell it's your "right to privacy" or your "4th Amendment" right without recognizing both of those are curtailed by and on behalf of the government on a regular basis (beginning with the "telephonic metadata" and a decision which might deserve to be revisited due to changing circumstances, but is the law for the time being).  The law may be an ass, but it's our ass.  (and don't read the comments over there; it's the usual mindless response of caviling on the ninth part of a nail without ever addressing any substantive point made in the argument you don't like but can't really rebut.  I've pretty much given up on the hope of democracy on the intertoobs leading to insight and understanding.  If the law is an ass, so is most of humanity as represented by way too many blog comments.)

And if you want to know why Glenn Greenwald is not just a matter of the guy you don't want to invite to dinner, Joshua Froust and The Thought Criminal will enlighten you.  As much stock as Charlie Pierce puts in journalists he trusts, I should think the latter especially important to his argument on this issue.  The Froust link is also an example of what kind of blog comments I'm talking about, although in this case it's a Tweet.  The spirit of the attack, however, is the same.  It is what Froust describes in another post as waving one's hands around without ever addressing the issue at hand directly.  Nice work if you can get it, and the intertoobs get far too much of it for my taste.

In the end, it comes down to who you trust:

I don't want quibbling about how the data sweeps work, and how they might not be as horrible as they're being made out to be because I don't trust the people making that argument.
Most of those arguments came out just after Snowden's revelations were made public (and Snowden made himself public, as did Greenwald.  If this story isn't supposed to be about, why do they insist on being so attached to it that we're supposed to know when they aren't attached to it?), and were coming from sources like WIRED magazine; "geeks," in other words, who pointed out Greenwald's evidence didn't support his interpretations of that evidence (any good lawyer and good scientist knows evidence does not speak; it must be interpreted; and much depends on who is doing that.).   And there is far more of a problem of truth still getting on its boots while a lie has traveled around the world, than a problem of mendacity, in this continuously emerging story.  (PRISM is not what Barton Gellman said it is; the NSA doesn't have access to internet servers, as Greenwald said they do; and the NSA is not listening to your phone calls.  But how many people still think all three of those stories are true and can be trusted?)   Even looking closely at the evidence of failure reveals the information itself shows more victory than loss:

The bottom line is this: the NSA runs about 30 quadrillion bytes through its systems each day. It records about 7 trillion of those bytes. It mistakenly records less than a megabyte a day — less than one MP3 worth of data per day… it looks to me more like a triumph of IT and database engineering.
 As Mr. Foust notes, if you're going to argue about the NSA's own audit numbers, you have to take them as accurate just to have a reasonable, rather than wildly conjectural, argument. But facts, as ever, require interpretation.

Away from facts, then, we are back to persons; and frankly, I am left wondering about someone who release these documents yet is so paranoid as to tell Barton Gellman this:
The U.S. intelligence community, he wrote, “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information.”
And at the same time be so naive as to say this:
“Perhaps I am naive,” he replied, “but I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents.” The steady expansion of surveillance powers, he wrote, is “such a direct threat to democratic governance that I have risked my life and family for it.”
And then seek refuge first with China, and then with Russia; from which he still insists he is the sole determiner of what information is released, and by whom.   And yes, he is naive to think that "omniscient State power" is going to be kept in check by something other than "policy documents."  Does he imagine some all-powerful superbeings who watch over the watchers?  Or a government run entirely without secrets?  Or that only "Honorable men" will be in charge (Charlie Pierce would have a field day with that one.)  When Snowden went to work for government agencies where he needed security clearance, did he imagine all those secrets were harmless, or clearly good or bad?  Is this naive fool the kind of person our government finds it has to rely on in order to operate the NSA?

If so, maybe we still need to consider Mr. Snowden's character even more closely, in order to consider just how effective the NSA can really (v. what it claims) be. And I have to ask:  does Mr. Snowden imagine Russia and China have no surveillance powers over their people?  Or is his a case of any old port in a storm?  These are questions Mr. Snowden has made sure to raise; I don't think it's illegitimate now to ask them.

As I said before, this kind of information is always going to be generated by electronic means of communication.  The question is not:  why does this information exist?, but:  who is going to be in control of it?  Google has it, AT&T has had it since at least 1979; the NSA collects at least some of it.  Do we listen to the power-mad rantings of Glenn Greenwald threatening the British government and pronouncing Ragnarok at every turn?  The paranoid and frankly incoherent fears of Edward Snowden, who probably knows a great deal less than he thinks he does?  The "law is an ass" arguments of Charlie Pierce misquoting Dickens?

Or can we actually have a national discussion about why all this data is generated, how much of it we legitimately have a reasonable expectation of privacy in, and what can be done about the rest?  So far, that seems far too much to ask, and we continue to generate heat, with very little light.


  1. I agree and thank you for the citation.

    The late Don Harlow, talking about Esperanto literature, pointed out that about 90% of any literature was probably crap. But he was talking about traditionally published literature that had passed the verification and quality control of editors, publishers, etc. Online stuff generally doesn't. I'd guess the crap to quality ratio is much less in the favor of quality and, after a decade, that's had a decidedly bad influence on peoples' thinking. It's mostly college educated folks on the things I read and almost to a person they can't see any problem with a journalist reporting on themselves if the journalist is someone they like. It's like I said the other day, one of the big problems on "the left" is that the leftish don't generally think there is any problem on the left.

    Greenwald is out of control. He could end up sounding like Red Channels in an alternative universe. I think The Guardian is discredited by hosting him. Journalism is obviously in a decadent period.

  2. What do you know? After all these years I found it.

    Fernando de Diego once sneered that fifty percent of Esperanto translations were lousy translations of useless works, twenty percent were lousy translations of good literature, twenty percent were good translations of useless literature, and only ten percent consisted of good translations of good literature. American science fiction readers will instantly recognise this as an independent rediscovery of Theodore Sturgeon's famous Law -- "Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then ninety percent of everything is crud!" -- from which Esperanto literature, like everything else, is not immune.

  3. My regard for the Guardian is less since they started covering the Snowden story. First, they had to justify Greenwald's articles, and now they're in the position of defending their entire coverage of the spy story, which I expect they will continue to do. As they see it, they must keep digging, pun intended.

    I've said here before that I have heard no talk where I live about the NSA spy story. I asked my husband, who is more tuned in to the town talk, and he said the same.

  4. I don't know that we can dismiss the issue of the legality of the NSA's actions so readily. The constitution is the ultimate law of our land, and at some point we need to ask ourselves: are these searches "reasonable" and are the warrants from FISC "particular"? If not, then the NSA's actions are illegal. Of course, part of the reason why the law is an ass is because lawyers give words like "reasonable" and "particular" assinine definitions (points out someone married to a lawyer). Of course, who's to say any non-lawyer's definitions are any less assinine?

    However, what worries me more about all these secret databases, no fly lists and other similar parts of our security state is that databases always have mistakes. And it's bad enough to try and fix a mistake on your credit report. How do you fix incorrect information in a massive TOP SECRET database when you don't know which database has what data on you?

    Also, does collecting all this data actually keep us safe or just help spies out? I.e. what would have happened if Snowden, rather than being a glibertarian, were a corporate spy or foreign agent?