Friday, December 06, 2013

"Collect It All"... They Really Mean It

A few months ago, I argued that

The National Surveillance State doesn't want anyone to be able to communicate without the authorities being able to monitor that communication.  Think that's too strong a statement?  If so, you're not paying attention.  There's a reason the government names its programs Total Information Awareness and Boundless Informant and acknowledges it wants to "collect it all" and build its own "haystack" and has redefined the word "relevant" to mean "everything."  The desire to spy on everything totally and boundlessly isn't even new; what's changed is just that it's become more feasible of late.  You can argue that the NSA's nomenclature isn't (at least not yet) properly descriptive; you can't argue that it isn't at least aspirational.

What’s interesting, too, is that the National Surveillance State doesn’t even recognize there could be anything fundamentally wrong or objectionable about any of this.  Here’s their latest logo:

If we ever do come to live in a world where the government will be able to monitor every meaningful thing we do, we won't be able to say we weren't warned.

If we value freedom and democracy, we citizens need to engage in a national — an international — conversation about whether we want any government to be able to monitor all the communications, Internet behavior, and physical movement of everyone in the world.  If you're glad that conversation has begun, thank Edward Snowden.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Patriots and Authoritarians

As predictable as it is, it's still shocking to see Britain's parliament haul in for questioning Alan Rusbridger, the head of The Guardian, rather than looking into the extremely serious revelations of metastasized, unaccountable UK spying Rusbridger's newspaper has reported on.  In essence, in response to Edward Snowden's unprecedented revelations, the UK government has decided to investigate journalism rather than the unchecked growth of the surveillance state.  If I put this kind of thing in a novel, people might not believe it, and yet here it is, actually happening.

At one point during the inquisition inquiry, a Labour MP named Keith Vaz actually asked Rusbridger, "Do you love this country?"  Unsurprisingly, Rusbridger assured Vaz that he does.  But I wish Rusbridger had gone further.  He might usefully have taken a page from the CIA's "Admit nothing, deny everything, make counteraccusations" playbook (yes, they really do teach this, and yes, it really is effective), and assured Vaz that he obviously loved this country more than Vaz does.  In doing so, Rusbridger would have usefully accomplished at least two things.  He would have:  (i) shifted the focus from his supposed lack of patriotism to Vaz's actual lack; and (ii) provided a teachable moment about the difference between patriotism and authoritarianism.

Authoritarians don't love their country.  They worship the state.  These are not the same thing.  I would have loved Alan Rusbridger to point out the difference to the goose-stepping parliamentarian, and by extension to anyone else ignorant of the difference.

Sadly, I'm sure Rusbridger and others will have plenty of other opportunities.  I hope they'll fully avail themselves.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chiron Self-Defense Training

A few pics from a useful and fun evening with Rory Miller of Chiron Training at Soja Martial Arts in Oakland.  If you're interested in reality-based self defense and you have a chance to train with Rory, I highly recommend the experience.  His books are also excellent.

I know he's going to hit me... but how?

Showing how to fight through encirclement

Teaching "Dracula's Cape" -- a defensive elbow

That's a Tony Blauer High Gear suit at left -- awesome equipment


Trying out a Tony Blauer spear

Staircase brawl

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Maybe Ben Treven Was On To Something...

I highly recommend this article, "The End of Hypocrisy: American Foreign Policy in the Age of Leaks," by Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs (if that link is paywalled, here's a related piece by the always-exellent Mike Masnick of TechDirt that'll get you the gist).  The heart of Farrell and Finnemore's argument is this:

The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government’s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington’s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own.

Few U.S. officials think of their ability to act hypocritically as a key strategic resource. Indeed, one of the reasons American hypocrisy is so effective is that it stems from sincerity: most U.S. politicians do not recognize just how two-faced their country is. Yet as the United States finds itself less able to deny the gaps between its actions and its words, it will face increasingly difficult choices -- and may ultimately be compelled to start practicing what it preaches.

I was struck by one small oddity in the article:

Of course, the United States has gotten away with hypocrisy for some time now. It has long preached the virtues of nuclear nonproliferation, for example, and has coerced some states into abandoning their atomic ambitions. At the same time, it tacitly accepted Israel’s nuclearization and, in 2004, signed a formal deal affirming India’s right to civilian nuclear energy despite its having flouted the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by acquiring nuclear weapons…

No disagreement there, but it seems to me the authors left out an even more glaring example of US nuclear hypocrisy:  our own possession of thousands of nuclear weapons and simultaneous insistence that most other nations must forego such weapons.

I was also struck by the similarity of the authors' views and those of my black ops soldier, Ben Treven.  In Fault Line, Treven puts it like this:

The Iranian enemies Hort was referring to were the Israelis.  In fact, while he was in Istanbul, Ben had been eating food brought directly from Israel.  If the op went sideways and he was killed, or if he was captured and used the cyanide pill he was carrying, there would be an autopsy, his stomach contents analyzed.  Best for things to point in the direction of Israel.  JSOC had laid down a few other false clues, as well, nothing too heavy-handed.  Not a very nice trick to play on a friend, but the Israelis were realists and would understand.  Anyway, what could Russia really do to Israel that it wasn’t doing already?  Sell arms to Damascus?  Deliver nuclear fuel to Tehran?  And what could Iran do?  Back Hezbollah?  Blow up another Argentine synagogue?  Yeah, one thing the Israelis had going for them was clarity.  Their enemies couldn’t hate them more than they already did.  Ben wished the U.S. could be equally clear-eyed.  What did Caesar say?  Oderint dum metuant.  Let them hate us, so long as they fear us... 

He thought about hate.  America was hated overseas, true, but was pretty well understood, too.  In fact, he thought foreigners understood Americans better than Americans understood themselves.  Americans thought of themselves as a benevolent, peace-loving people.  But benevolent, peace-loving peoples don’t cross oceans to new continents, exterminate the natives, expel the other foreign powers, conquer sovereign territory, win world wars, and less than two centuries after their birth stand astride the planet.  The benevolent peace-lovers were the ones all that shit happened to.

It was the combination of the gentle self-image and the brutal truth that made Americans so dangerous.  Because if you aggressed against such a people, who could see themselves only as innocent, the embodiment of all that was good in the world, they would react not just with anger, but with Old Testament-style moral wrath.  Anyone depraved enough to attack such angels forfeited claims to adjudication, proportionality, even elemental mercy itself.
Yeah, foreigners hated that American hypocrisy.  That was okay, as long as they also feared it.  Oderint dum metuant.

Hardly the first time life is caught imitating art... :)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dick Cheney and John Rain


In an odd instance of life imitating art, it turns out then-Vice President Dick Cheney had his doctors turn off the wireless feature in his defibrillator, lest someone use the wireless feature to turn off the device itself.  Of course, John Rain fans have known about this vulnerability since at least 2002, when Rain first deployed it in A Clean Kill in Tokyo.

Interestingly, Cheney describes his fears as relating to the actions of potential "terrorists."  This is because, as we all know, if you kill a US official, it's terrorism, while when a US official does the killing, it's merely an "operation pursuant to a lethal authority" or a "kinetic action" or a "targeted killing."  Or sometimes, when we make an oopsy, it's "collateral damage."  Even bombing Syria wouldn't be a war -- as long as we're the ones doing the bombing.

As Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be the king."


In other exciting news, the incomparably oligarchical Senator Dianne Feinstein wants you to know that the NSA's call records program is "not surveillance."   So no need to be concerned.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Art, Craft, Revolution... and Scott Turow Taunting

In a new Huff Post interview, my thoughts on the craft, the business, and the revolution in publishing.  Also I taunt Scott Turow.

"Generally, there are four levels of knowledge. There's research at a library or on the Internet along with books and articles. Then there are interviews to conduct with people who've actually been there. Then, there's your own direct experience, if you have it. The fourth element is..."

"What really threatens America are not stateless acts of terror themselves, but rather, America's over-reaction to those acts. To me, it's axiomatic: who is more powerful -- Al Qaeda or the nuclear-armed, 350 million population America? Al Qaeda is a flea compared to American might and power. If we turn that power on ourselves, that is a national security threat. The only way any stateless actor can really threaten our national security is by tricking or persuading America to turn its own might against itself. And that's what's been happening since 9-11. As much as a cold virus is not lethal, if the body's defenses to that little pathogen causes it to run a fever of 107 trying to destroy it, the body might kill itself. America's response has been exactly like that -- a spectacular over-reaction. The only entity able to really hurt America today is America itself. And if you want to write a great thriller -- one with the highest and most realistic stakes -- that's the thriller to write..."

Read the whole thing here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

My Favorite TechDirt Posts

The excellent blog TechDirt, which covers intellectual property issues, flattered me by asking for my favorite TechDirt posts of the week.  My thoughts include:

"If we can lose hundreds of thousands of people a year to guns and cars and cigarettes with no impact at all on national security, how can it be that something like the Boston Marathon bombing, as tragic as it was, was a national security event?"

Read the whole thing here.  I think you'll enjoy TechDirt.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

David Miranda and the Preclusion of Privacy, Part 2

Last week I argued that the UK government's lawless detention of David Miranda, spouse of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was intended to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure (and see this great follow-up by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen of Press Think).

Today, I'd like to discuss a common leftist reaction to the National Surveillance State's war on journalism:  the idea that journalists should preempt government attacks like Miranda's detention and the destruction of Guardian computers by immediately dumping onto the Internet any secret files that come into their possession.

The notion is superficially appealing:  if you're a journalist, patiently examining a large trove of secret documents so as to minimize the private harm and maximize the public benefit of publication, and there's a chance the government could impede or intercept your efforts, shouldn't you insure against such a dire possibility by immediately publishing everything you have?

To answer this question, we should ask two of our own.  First, what are your proper objectives as a journalist?  And second, what does the National Surveillance State hope you'll do?

I think many people would answer the first question with some version of, "The proper objective of a journalist is to make information public."  This is fine as far as it goes, but I don't think it's complete.  To me, the proper objective of a journalist is to bring about meaningful change.  Publication by itself could conceivably serve a variety of functions:  it could embarrass, or titillate, or entertain… it could provide some level of emotional satisfaction for the journalist and her audience.  Any one or combination of these could be an objective of journalism, but is any of them a worthy objective?  I would argue no, not particularly, at least not in comparison to what I think is the most important objective of journalism, which is, again, to bring about meaningful change.

(For more on the exceptionally interesting and important topic of what journalism is for and how it can best be done, have a look at The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled, and especially at the links at the bottom of the post.)

If you agree that the proper objective of journalists like Barton Gellman and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras is to use their reporting to bring about meaningful change, I think you have to agree that timing and tactics matter.  That is, what course of action would have a better chance of achieving meaningful change:  immediate, indiscriminate dumping, on the one hand, or deliberate, time-released reporting, on the other?  I would argue the latter, and I think the events of the last two months tend to suggest that the kind of drawn-out, deliberate reporting for which Greenwald has been criticized by some on the left support that argument.  James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has been caught lying to Congress; public opinion has shifted dramatically; voters are engaged in an overdue debate about programs of which previously they had no knowledge; Congress only narrowly defeated an effort to defund the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records.  Of course I can't prove causality, but I can't see how any of this would have been achieved, or in any way better served, by an immediate indiscriminate data dump.

Pushing back the National Surveillance State is a long game that requires sound tactics.  Those tactics can only be properly understood by reverse-engineering from the correct objectives.  Yes, it might be emotionally satisfying to embarrass powerful officials, and it might be temporarily empowering to feel like you're flipping the bird to a bunch of self-important oligarchs, and yes, an immediate dump might be the proper tactic in the service of such objectives.  But they are the wrong objectives.  If meaningful change is your primary goal, you have to work backward from that objective, and not let other, less worthy ones distract you.

But look, even if you disagree about which tactic would be most likely to bring about meaningful change, might the fact that we share a goal and differ only about tactics be cause for some perspective?  The fury I've seen in some portions of the Twitterverse at Greenwald's insistence on a patient, deliberate approach seems out of all proportion.  I know patience, perspective, and civility aren't necessarily the hallmarks of Twitter  discourse, but still.  This is -- I think -- a discreet disagreement about the utility of certain tactics, not a culture war about philosophical aims.

Okay, now let's ask that second question.  What does the National Surveillance State want?

Well, let's use that handy tool of trying to put ourselves in the shoes of those determined to spy on everything boundlessly and totally.  You're determined to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure by interdicting backup means of communication -- detaining couriers, invading newsrooms, that sort of thing.  But you're smart, too, and you know that for every action, there is a reaction.  Spies and soldiers are trained never to attack without first asking, How will the enemy react to my attack?  Because that reaction could be dangerous, meaning you might have to reconsider your original plan, or it might be useful, creating a new vulnerability that you can then exploit.

Let me put it this way:  do you think it's even conceivable that the National Surveillance State is engaging in tactics like detaining the spouses of journalists and invading newsrooms, without having first imagined how journalists might respond?  Is it even conceivable that the spooks are unaware they're are creating an incentive for journalists to just dump everything on the Internet as a way of preempting governmental attempts at interdiction?  No, it isn't conceivable.  The government is engaging in these tactics knowing full well that the tactics will incentivize less careful, patient, discriminate reporting.  What follows, then, is one of two things:  a journalistic "data dump" reaction is either a risk the National Surveillance State is willing to take… or it is an objective it is attempting to achieve.

Which is it?  I would argue the latter.  Again, put yourself in the shoes of our secret overlords:  if you can goad someone like Greenwald into rashly dumping improperly vetted secret information onto the Internet, is that a loss for you… or is it in fact a significant win?

Answer that question by asking, what would the data dump cost you, and what would it gain?  Operationally, it would cost you little.  Spying operations have been continually outed since the dawn of the Cold War, and the size and power of the National Surveillance State has only grown.  A few new revelations will have no more impact on the leviathan-like expansion of your reach than have any of the previous ones.  Conversely, a blown listening station, or better yet, a dead human asset, would be enormously useful:  it might enable you to shift the narrative from lawlessness and overreach to something more like "These traitor journalists have blood on their hands!," which you know is your propaganda trump card.

All this being the case, you might not merely hope someone like Greenwald would abandon his patient, methodical reporting in favor of something more knee-jerk and less careful.  You might go further than just hoping.  You might even try to provoke Greenwald -- say, by harassing his family.  You might even try to manufacture opportunities to change the narrative -- say, by leaking a few ostensibly damaging secrets yourself and blaming them on Edward Snowden.  More than anything, if you're the National Surveillance State right now, you crave a bloody shirt you might wave to try to blow back the tide of thoughtfulness and rationality precipitated by Edward Snowden's whistleblowing, and by the extremely careful reporting accompanying it thus far.

(Or, short of that, wag the dog by going to war with Syria, I guess.  That kind of thing is always a good distraction.  But I digress.)

On balance, therefore, I'd have to say that if journalists start dumping secrets in response to government interdiction efforts rather than judiciously reporting them, it will be a win for the National Surveillance State.  The National Surveillance State understands this, and is choosing its tactics accordingly.

Of course, if you're one of the people who's been agitating for an immediate, indiscriminate, knee-jerk document dump instead of the patient, deliberate approach that has kept Snowden's revelations as front page news for over two months now, the fact that you and the National Surveillance State both want the same thing isn't necessarily dispositive.  But it ought to give you pause.  When you find yourself and your antagonist both trying to bring about the same thing, one of you is being smart, and the other, naive.  Best to give a little more thought about which is which, and choose your tactics accordingly.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

David Miranda and the Preclusion of Privacy

Updated Below

I think it's obvious to any reasonable observer that the UK authorities detained David Miranda, spouse of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, to intimidate journalists and whistleblowers -- to "send a message," as Greenwald put it.  But I also think there's something more going on.

Put yourself in the shoes of the National Surveillance State (given the kind of US/UK cooperation involved in Miranda's detention, we could as easily call it the International Surveillance State).  In collusion with US telcos, you've succeeded in commandeering the Internet, and are able to monitor at least 75% of American Internet activity.  Further such monitoring represents opportunities for improved coverage only at the margins, and because people are now changing their Internet behavior to evade government eavesdropping, you realize you have to turn your attention to emerging attempts at privacy.  You will have to focus especially on journalists, the fourth estate:  as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has observed, "The Guardian's work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings.  Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate.  Soon we will be back to pen and paper."

Under these circumstances, if you were the NSA, and you learned -- say, by examining passenger manifests and customs data -- that Glenn Greenwald's spouse was traveling from the couple's home in Rio to Berlin, currently the home of Laura Poitras, Greenwald's collaborator on the blockbuster Snowden revelations, what would you do?

You might reasonably suspect that the spouse, trusted by both parties, was helping Greenwald and Poitras in some fashion with their reporting.  If you dug into credit card transactions and learned the Guardian was paying for the spouse's travel, your suspicions would harden.  You might decide to place a call to your contacts at Britain's GCHQ, mentioning to them that a certain Brazilian national would soon be transiting Heathrow en route from Berlin to his home in Rio, and recommending ever so artfully that this Brazilian national be detained, all his electronic gear confiscated, his personal passwords revealed to you under the threat of imprisonment (yes, the UK airport authorities really can legally imprison you if you don't tell them your Facebook password.  They have to, to keep you safe).

Of course you wouldn't formally direct the UK authorities to do anything; you'd want to maintain the ability to obscure your involvement without outright lying about it if possible.  And of course you might not even be sure the spouse would be carrying anything secret at all, but intercepting secret information wasn't really the purpose of the exercise anyway.  The purpose was to demonstrate to journalists that what they thought was a secure secondary means of communication -- a courier, possibly to ferry encrypted thumb drives from one air-gapped computer to another -- can be compromised, and thereby to make the journalists' efforts harder and slower.

Does this sort of "deny and disrupt" campaign sound familiar?  It should:  you've seen it before, deployed against terror networks.  That's because part of the value in targeting the electronic communications of actual terrorists is that the terrorists are forced to use far slower means of plotting.  The NSA has learned this lesson well, and is now applying it to journalists.  I suppose it's fitting that Miranda was held pursuant to a law that is ostensibly limited to anti-terror efforts.  The National Surveillance State understands that what works for one can be usefully directed against the other.  In fact, it's not clear the National Surveillance State even recognizes a meaningful difference.

The National Surveillance State doesn't want anyone to be able to communicate without the authorities being able to monitor that communication.  Think that's too strong a statement?  If so, you're not paying attention.  There's a reason the government names its programs Total Information Awareness and Boundless Informant and acknowledges it wants to "collect it all" and build its own "haystack" and has redefined the word "relevant" to mean "everything."  The desire to spy on everything totally and boundlessly isn't even new; what's changed is just that it's become more feasible of late.  You can argue that the NSA's nomenclature isn't (at least not yet) properly descriptive; you can't argue that it isn't at least aspirational.

To achieve the ability to monitor all human communication, broadly speaking the National Surveillance State must do two things:  first, button up the primary means of human communication -- today meaning the Internet, telephone, and snail mail; second, clamp down on backup systems, meaning face-to-face communication, which is, after all, all that's left to the population when everything else has been bugged.  Miranda's detention was part of the second prong of attack.  So, incidentally, was the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of Snowden's leaks.  The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn't the point of the exercise.  The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options -- that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.

A heart beset by coronary disease will begin to recruit secondary arteries to carry oxygenated blood.  If you're the NSA, you recognize you have to block those developing secondary routes, too, or you'll lose control of the flow you feed on.  To the National Surveillance State, therefore, coverage of Miranda's treatment at Heathrow isn't a bug.  It's a feature.  And why not?  The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too.  Whether they've miscalculated depends on how well they've gauged the passivity of the public.

Updated:  Part 2 is here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Heathrow Isn't an Incident. It's a Principle

In case you missed it, yesterday for nine hours at Heathrow Airport the UK authorities detained David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, under an anti-terrorism law, and have confiscated all Miranda's electronic gear, including games and a watch.  No explanation was given; no news about when or even whether Miranda's property will be returned to him.  This is the kind of thing the US likes to criticize when it's China or Iran doing it.

Maybe you don't like Greenwald -- his personality, his reporting, what he stands for, whatever. Maybe on a gut level you find Miranda's detainment pleasing, and so you'll support it.  If so, remember that you're not supporting an incident, you're supporting a principle -- the principle that governments can harass the family members of journalists they don't like, or anyone else.  The principle that governments can detain you and confiscate your property without any due process or even a word of explanation.  That's the principle at issue here.  The government fully understands this.  Do we?

Some related reading:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tom Friedman: No Sixth Amendment For You

Updated Below

Every time I come across a Tom Friedman column, I ask myself, "Could this guy get any stupider?"  And every time, he manages to find a way.

Yesterday's drivel was about whistleblower Edward Snowden.  Let's try to unpack the Friedmanesque quantities of bullshit he crams into one short paragraph.

"Considering the breadth of reforms that President Obama is now proposing to prevent privacy abuses in intelligence gathering…"

Obama's proposed "reforms" are a joke, a whitewash, and an insult to anyone with a functioning brain.

" the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, Snowden deserves a chance to make a second impression — that he truly is a whistle-blower, not a traitor.  The fact is, he dumped his data and fled to countries that are hostile to us and to the very principles he espoused. To make a second impression, Snowden would need to come home, make his case and face his accusers. It would mean risking a lengthy jail term…"

Wow.  Snowden now "deserves a chance" to be afforded a trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, but in the absence of Obama's proposed whitewash, he would have had to forfeit his Sixth Amendment rights?  This is very generous of Friedman, suggesting that under proper conditions an American might deserve Constitutional protections.  What does Friedman think Snowden "deserved" before Friedman decided he had earned his "chance" at being afforded his Sixth Amendment rights -- an imperial drone execution?

And "the fact is" that Snowden "dumped his data?"  Snowden personally reviewed everything he handed over to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and The Washington Post's Bart Gellman, held back a great deal more, and instructed Greenwald and Gellman to use their journalistic discretion in determining how and how much they should publish of even the limited amounts he gave them.  To call this "dumping" is to eviscerate the word of meaning.

And Snowden was bad for fleeing to "hostile" countries?  Initially, he went to Hong Kong; he then got stuck in Russia when the US government revoked his passport.  Which means:  he's in Russia now because the US government stranded him there. Where would Friedman prefer Snowden fled -- France? Italy? Portugal? Spain?  All of which are so in thrall to the United States that, acting on a tip that Snowden was on board, they denied access to their airspace to the plane of Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, forcing him to land in Austria, where he was then detained for twelve hours.

And does it ever occur to Friedman that there's a reason an American whistleblower might feel compelled to flee?  That the the US government might bear some responsibility for why an American whistleblower might feel compelled to seek asylum abroad?  More on this below.

I couldn't help noticing that Friedman referred to a possible lengthy "jail" term.  This might be because Friedman doesn't know that jail is where people are held before sentencing, and that prison is where they're sent after.  Or he might have been using the term accurately after all, given that Bradley Manning spent three years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, before his sentencing; given that journalist Barrett Brown has been in jail for over a year awaiting trial; and given the US government's demonstrated proclivity for imprisoning people indefinitely without any sentencing at all -- indeed, without even bothering to accuse them of a crime (we call these unfortunates "detainees" because, having been convicted of nothing, they can't be convicts, and because "prisoners" sounds so harsh.  "Detainees" just sounds so much more pleasant; really, it's almost as nice as "guests").

"...but also trusting the fair-mindedness of the American people, who, I believe, will not allow an authentic whistle-blower to be unfairly punished."

The ignorance here -- or the mendacity -- is breathtaking.  Does Friedman really not know that the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture formally accused the US government of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for locking Bradley Manning in solitary confinement for almost a year?  Has he really never heard of William Binney?  Thomas Drake?  Jesselyn Radack?  The eight whistleblowers the Obama administration has accused of espionage and worse?

Or maybe Friedman thinks none of the punishments these people received was "unfair."  Or that, although the US government has clearly and repeatedly abused its powers, the American people "will not allow" such things to happen this time!

In fact, I doubt even Friedman could be that ignorant or that naive.  More likely, he's hanging his hat on that weasel-word, "authentic."  Because if Tom Friedman thinks you're not authentic, you just don't qualify.  This is a version of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.  It's also a variant of Obama's own Humpty Dumpty policy, by which America minimizes civilian drone-strike deaths by defining anyone killed in a drone strike as a terrorist.

Maybe the saddest thing of all about Friedman -- sadder than his ignorance, sadder than his bullshit -- is that he actually seems to believe someone with the conscience, conviction, and courage of Edward Snowden could possibly give a shit about making a proper second impression, or any impression at all, on an establishment tool like Friedman.  Can you imagine the level of narcissism required in urging someone to risk torture and life in prison for the chance to make a proper impression on you?

If I were as much of a solipsistic, self-important, l'etat-c'est-moi naval-gazer as Friedman, at this point I might advise him that he must find a way to make a better second impression on me!  Perhaps by repenting for all the bullshit he's ever dumped on any reader foolish enough to trust him, and particularly for his cheerleading for American "Suck on this" barbarity in Iraq.

But I'm not so neurotic as to expect other people to make decisions about their lives based on what kind of impression their decisions might make on me, and not so ignorant as to suggest their constitutional rights might be forfeit should they fail to please me.  That's Friedman's schtick.  I wish someone he trusts would do an intervention.  He really needs help.

Update:  The Freedom of the Press Foundation has its own typically excellent take on Friedman's latest excrescence:

"No, he can’t. Snowden will not be able to make the case he’d like to make in court because, contrary to common sense, there is no public interest or whistleblower exception under the Espionage Act. In recent cases, prosecutors have convinced courts that the intent of the leaker, the value of leaks to the public, and the lack of harm caused by the leaks are irrelevant, and are therefore inadmissible in court..."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Obama: The Sodomy Will Continue Until You Get Used To It

If I put this in a novel, people would say no way, it's too brazen, too bullshit, it could never happen.  But:  the "review" Obama says he wants of NSA activities?  He's going to have it run by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (to whom the NSA reports), the guy who lied to Congress about what the NSA is doing.  So... the NSA will be functionally reviewing itself, with the head of the review someone with a proven history of lying to Congress about the NSA.

Even if the review were being run by a trustworthy outsider instead of proven-liar-insider, its purview would be grounds for pause:

"The Review Group will assess whether, in light of advancements in communications technologies, the United States employs its technical collection capabilities in a manner that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while appropriately accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust."

Translation:  "We're going to ask, Can we collect even more than the 'all' we're already vacuuming up?  And can we do it in such a way that we'll have fewer leaks and the American people will squeal a little less?"  This is what Obama thinks America will accept as a "review."

As I said elsewhere:  "Shorter Obama: the NSA will go on fucking America's ass.  But we will consider using some lubricant."

I know it's not a surprise.  But it's still an outrage.  When the government's bullshit levels exceed what even fiction writers might consider plausible, it's probably not a good sign.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What's the NSA Story? It's Up to You

There's been a lot said already about MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry's weird "Edward Snowden, Come On Home" letter -- much of it in the comments on her website.  On Twitter, I noted how bizarre it was to hear someone non-satirically begging Snowden to help her stop talking about him ("So come on home, Ed. So we could talk about, you know, something else").  Her recognition that in America we have more than 80,000 people held in solitary confinement, and that the government's treatment of whistleblower Bradley Manning has been cruel and inhuman, coupled with her assurances that Snowden has nothing to worry about with regard to his own potential treatment by US authorities, was also strange.  And of course, most fundamentally, did Harris-Perry really believe Snowden might read this thing and think, "You know, she makes some really good points in there, maybe I should just surrender?"  Overall, the whole letter comes across as embarrassingly thoughtless and self-indulgent.

Reading Harris-Perry's piece, I wondered what would cause someone who's likely otherwise intelligent and thoughtful to write something so stupid.  And then I noticed what I think is the answer, right in the letter itself.

It's contempt.

Read the letter.  Note how Harris-Perry calls someone she doesn't know, whose first name to my knowledge has never been described in news reports as other than Edward (she identifies him as such herself), "Ed."  Not just once, but six times throughout the short letter -- "Ed."  And not merely adopting a first-name basis with someone she doesn't know, but unilaterally shortening his name to a nickname, too.  Note too the exclamation points, the ellipses, the "you know," the overall tone.  The letter is just dripping with contempt.

I think it was this contempt that blinded Harris-Perry to the ridiculousness of her letter.  And it occurs to me that this is a good reason to treat contempt with great care.  It's not just impolite to the other person.  It's dangerous to you.  It gives you permission to dismiss facts and logic and context, all in the service of indulging the pleasure of feeling superior.

Contempt is a like a drug.  It feels good, but it impairs you.  It you want to ingest it, it's best to do so only with great caution, and not while you're operating heavy machinery like a public letter or a television appearance.  And it follows that courtesy isn't something you offer only out of respect for the other person.  It's also something you offer to help keep yourself honest -- and smart.

Harris-Perry does one other thing in the letter that always strikes me as odd:  she refers repeatedly to "we."  In fact, I counted 13 instances of the word "we" in her short letter.  As I said in a recent post on another exercise in emotionally-driven embarrassment:

I have to add, I loved that "we," too.  Back in the day in Japan, the Emperor, after a particularly fulfilling meal, would lean back and proclaim, "Yo wa manzoku ja" -- literally, "The world is satisfied."  Because, if the Emperor is contented, that means all must be well throughout the entire world.  I'm always reminded of this species of royal neurosis when I encounter the Jonathan Chaits of the world, losing sight of where their preferences and feelings end and those of the rest of the world begin.

Who is this "we"?  Is it the royal we?  Has someone appointed Harris-Perry the representative of like-minded people?  Of the media?  Of all of America?  Who is she talking about, and how did she come to believe she represents that group?

This form of narcissism is fairly widespread in the news.  I was hoping it would get a specific entry in the DSM-5, but alas.  Even though it hasn't yet been formally recognized as a neurosis, though, I'd still like to point it out, along with contempt, as a danger sign.  Understanding that your opinions are your own helps keep you aware that you should have a proper basis for them.  Deluding yourself that your opinions are shared by everyone else -- that you, in effect, somehow stand for everyone else -- makes you lazy and sloppy.  Why would you need evidence when everyone else feels the same way?

I don't know Harris-Perry and she probably does a lot of good work.  If she could have been more aware of her contempt for Snowden and of the fact that her opinions belong only to her, I think she would have realized she was about to say some very stupid things -- before she actually said them.  Her mistake was a good lesson for me, and I hope it will be for others, too -- Harris-Perry included.

I want to add one more thing -- about Harris-Perry's underlying notion that the media's focus on revelations of illegal NSA domestic spying, on the one hand, and on Snowden himself, on the other, is somehow a zero-sum game, with a focus on one achievable only at the expense of the other.  I think this is simplistic.  I'm sure there are instances where a focus on one thing can only be achieved at the expense of a focus on another (the notion in implicit in the concept of "focus" itself), but is this really one of them?  I wonder if it's possible that some of the fascination with Snowden himself isn't part of what has increased attention to and awareness of the substance of his revelations.  My sense, in fact, is that Snowden's involvement in the story has made the story itself much bigger, thereby increasing the overall size of the story's substantive aspects.  I can't really prove this notion, but it's at least a possibility, and I don't know why so many people seem blind to it and instead reflexively assume that a certain amount of discussion of Snowden himself must be smothering attention to substance.

If I'm right in believing that Snowden/NSA is more synergistic than it is zero-sum, it means the way the government and its servants in the establishment media are fighting the substance of Snowden's leaks is a high-risk strategy.  The game is to convert the substantive story into a tabloid fascination with the weird, marginalized, untrustworthy loser who leaked it.  When the strategy works, people discount or otherwise stop caring about substance.  But to get to that point, the establishment first has to draw a lot of attention to the whistleblower him- or herself.  Paradoxically, the establishment's efforts to distract from the substance of the story by talking about the whistleblower means that for a while, at least, the establishment is growing the story overall.  If their overall efforts fail, they're left with a much bigger overall story than would have been the case had they not tried so hard to derail it.

For the moment, the establishment's strategy seems not to be working -- amazingly, in the face of a coordinated government/establishment media demonization campaign, 55% of Americans believe Snowden is a whistleblower while only 34% believe he's a traitor.  Recognizing this, I expect the powers-that-be will double down on their strategy.  Ironically, if it continues to go poorly, they will succeed only in generating more attention to the substance of Snowden's revelations.  It's up to each of us to help make the demonization strategy fail, and a great way to do it is by recognizing that we can focus on whatever aspects of the overall story we think are most important.  Ms. Harris-Perry, that includes you.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Simple Way to Get the NSA to Tell the Truth

Today, the New York Times reported that Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the guy Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to when asked if the NSA collects "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans," said he believed the NSA might soon abandon the bulk collection of the telephone calling data of millions of Americans.  According to the Times:
"I have a feeling that the administration is getting concerned about the bulk phone records collection, and that they are thinking about whether to move administratively to stop it," [Wyden] said.  He added he believed that the continuing controversy prompted by Mr. Snowden had changed the political calculus in Congress over the balance between security and civil liberties, which has been heavily weighted toward security since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

If Wyden's remarks are accurate, it would be a powerful example of what NYU media professor Jay Rosen calls the Snowden Effect -- the indirect effects of Snowden's whistleblowing.  But upon reflection, I'm not optimistic. Here's why.

First, three axioms:

1.  The NSA is comprised of people, and people respond to incentives.
2.  If you demonstrate to people that there are no consequences to misbehavior, most people will misbehave.
3.  As Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist No. 15, "It is essential to the idea of a law that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience."

Now, Wyden says he thinks the NSA might rein in some of its illegal, unconstitutional behavior.  But what do we have to rely on in this regard?  Ultimately, only the word of the NSA's representatives.  And yet DNI Clapper has already proven himself willing to lie to Congress about what the NSA is up to.  And Senator Wyden has proven himself willing to overlook those lies -- that is, to accept them without "a penalty or punishment for disobedience."  Under these circumstances, if you were a simple Martian rather than a sophisticated earthling, how sure would you be that what the NSA tells you going forward is the truth?

If we want to have any meaningful level of confidence in the truthfulness of government officials testifying to Congress, it is essential -- it is a requirement -- that officials who are caught lying be punished for it in accordance with the law.  Remove punishment -- remove the disincentive for lying -- and you guarantee lying.  It's not much more complicated than that.  To believe whatever the NSA says about its activities if Clapper goes unpunished is to believe in a fairy tale.  If Congress is serious about its oversight function, if it wants the testimony it reveals to be truthful, it will punish Clapper in accordance with the law.  If Congress does not punish Clapper, Congress is agreeing to continue to be lied to, and the NSA will continue to be democratically unaccountable.

A child would recognize all this, and certainly Wyden understands it as well.  What prevents him from acting on it, I suspect, is the same sense of solidarity with other members of the ruling class that causes the New York Times to refer to Clapper's lying and perjury merely as "murky" and "misleading," that causes Walter Mondale to characterize it as "fibbing," that causes most of the establishment media to bay for the blood of whistleblowers while yawning at the notion that civilian oversight is meaningless if officials lie in their testimony to Congress.  It's a kind of professional courtesy the powerful extend to the powerful, and it's extremely caustic to democracy and the rule of law.

This is a critical moment for democracy in America.  Failing to prosecute Clapper is tantamount to Congress ceding civilian oversight over an already metastasized intelligence conglomerate.  All the pretty talk in the world about reform won't change a thing if the law is proven to have no sanction.  Wyden can't whistle past this graveyard.  There really is something lurking in there, and Wyden has to confront it.  If he doesn't, it won't get better.  It'll get worse.

P.S  Two terrific related articles:

America Against Democracy

That would have been some real democracy-promotion, right here in the homeland. What happened? Is it naive to think Mr Obama really believed this stuff? I'll admit, with some embarrassment, that I'd thought he did believe it. But this "commitment" has been so thoroughly forsaken one is forced to consider whether it was ever sincere. It has been so thoroughly forsaken one wonders whether to laugh or cry. What kind of message are we sending about the viability these democratic ideals—about openness, transparency, public participation, public collaboration? How hollow must American exhortations to democracy sound to foreign ears? Mr Snowden may be responsible for having exposed this hypocrisy, for having betrayed the thug omertà at the heart of America's domestic democracy-suppression programme, but the hypocrisy is America's. I'd very much like to know what led Mr Obama to change his mind, to conclude that America is not after all safe for democracy, though I know he's not about to tell us. The matter is settled. It has been decided, and not by us. We can't handle the truth.

What, Me Worry?

The Secret police—the NSA, the CIA, et al—are by their very nature antithetical to those ideals, because openness and transparency about rules are essential to democratic public justification, and therefore to the legitimacy of state power. What must be secret cannot be fully democratic. One may well worry whether we can afford such a demanding standard of legitimate government in such a dangerous world. Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps it is foolish to be too good. But in that case we need to be clear-headed about it, and understand that secret police are a straightforwardly anti-democratic concession we make to a dangerous world. And we ought to accept that any strengthening of the powers of the secret police—especially the secret strengthening of the powers of the secret police—is a further blow to democracy and the legitimacy of our laws. The NSA's digital dragnet is a silent coup. The filibuster is rain on election day.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled

A few months ago, I wrote a post called, "That Power of Accurate Observation Is Called Political By Those Who Have Not Got It."  The post was about critiques of my novels as being "political" because of some of their themes -- such as depicting gays as human beings deserving of equal protection under the law; depicting the blow-back costs of US drone warfare; depicting the personal doubts of western spies about the efficacy of their means and the morality of their mission.  My conclusion:  of course my novels are political (they're political thrillers, after all).  But what's important to understand is that all novels are in various ways political. Choosing "not to be political" is like choosing "not to make a choice" -- it's a logical and practical impossibility.  Choosing not to make a choice is a choice.  And choosing not to be political is a profoundly political act.

Consider these quotes:

Sooner or has to take sides -- if one is to remain human.  -- Graham Greene, The Quiet American

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  -- Desmond Tutu

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.  -- Edmund Burke

The concept behind the quotes above seems axiomatic to me:  we cannot help but choose, and our choices are inherently political.  It's important to understand this about novels, and at least as important to understand it about journalism.

Why journalism, you ask?  Aren't reporters just objective reporters of the facts, reporting impartially without fear or favor, all the news that's fit to print, fair and balanced and all that?

No, they are not.  It is impossible not to be political (or call it biased, or activist, or polemical, or whatever else dishonest and ignorant people would have you believe) in journalism.  Because even the journalistic decision that seems least obtrusive is in fact the most consequential:  that is, what topic to cover.  If you provide coverage to what whistleblower Edward Snowden's girlfriend does for exercise and not to how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper perjured himself to Congress, then whether you're aware of it or not you are making a political decision, because you are implying gossipy bullshit is more important than governmental lying (and yes, of course, prioritizing governmental lying over gossipy bullshit is also political -- the point is, they both are).  If you obsess over the personality of another journalist instead of dedicating yourself to uncovering the truth about the NSA's massive, illegal domestic spying operation, you are implicitly claiming (and explicitly trying to achieve) that people should focus on the former rather than on the latter -- that what is best for society is that we focus on individual personalities rather than on governmental misdeeds.  I think such priorities are terrible, but that's not really the point.  The point is, these are political priorities, and inherently, inescapably so.  Not even a computer could provide apolitical coverage.  Certainly no human can.

And it's not just topics that are impossible to choose without making political decisions -- it's diction, too.  If you use phrases like "aid and abet" when you ask about a journalist's activities, that is a political choice (and so again, obviously, is the decision to focus on the reporter rather than on what's been reported).  When you choose whether to call someone a journalist, a reporter, an investigative reporter, a blogger, an activist, a polemicist… these are all inherently (albeit insidiously) political choices.  When news organizations use phrases like "harsh interrogation" to describe what they had previously described as "torture," they are making political choices.  "Targeted killing" vs assassination… "detainee" vs prisoner… "detainment facility" vs gulag… "security fence" vs wall… even phrases we might not otherwise pause to consider, such as "oil spill" rather than geyser or eruption… all of these inescapably involve profoundly political choices.

Why is it so important to understand all this?

Because so many journalists are invested in fooling you (and perhaps in fooling themselves) into believing that those bad reporters are political, while we good reporters are not.  The message is, "Trust and empower me, the good objective journalist, not that bad political one over there!"

This is bullshit intended to fool you into giving greater credence to the journalists who pretend not to be political while marginalizing the ones who don't engage in such dishonesty and denial.  Remember that great line from The Usual Suspects about Keyser Soze?  "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist" (careful about clicking on the link... there's so much amazing dialogue in that movie you might spend a half hour there, the way I just did).  That's precisely the insidious tactic of ignorant and dishonest journalists everywhere.  In fact, what should cause us to doubt a journalist's worth isn't the presence of politics, which are inescapable, but the ability and willingness of a journalist to acknowledge that he is no less inherently political than anyone else.  Trust should begin with honesty, and any journalist who tries to make you think she's not political is not being honest.

What matters in journalism isn't politics, which are as universal and inescapable as breathing.  What matters -- along with a fundamentally adversarial attitude toward government, without which "journalism" is simply public relations -- is integrity, transparency, evidence, coherence, and principle.  These are the principles on which we should evaluate the quality of journalism, and their absence is why some journalists are so desperate to get you to focus on something else.

P.S.  There's been a lot of excellent commentary on this topic of late.  For anyone as obsessed about it as I am, here are some articles.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

Margaret Sullivan, New York Times

Jay Rosen, NYU

Frank Rich, New York Magazine

Jay Rosen, NYU

Kevin Gosztola, Firedoglake

David Carr, New York Times

Barton Gellman, Washington Post