Debating Government Surveillance


Recently, we learned that our  government is engaged in secret data mining, telephone metadata collection programs.  News of these programs were provided by a former private government contractor to the Guardian and also to the Washington Post, although only reporters from the Guardian had direct and personal access to their news source.  Why the Guardian, you might ask?  Because Snowden, like many other Americans, just don’t trust their country’s news outlets, even the most respected ones like the New York Times.  The commercialization of news in this country and its emphasis on the bottom line have transformed many reporters to nothing more than mouthpieces for the government and large corporations.  But don’t just take my word for it, read about it for yourself in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report on American Journalism.  Because of this, we can also expect that any debate that might be had on the morality, necessity and legality of the NSA’s data collection programs will end before it even begins.  How else can you explain the following leed to this recent New York Times article published only 2 days after the Guardian first broke news of the NSA’s telephone metadata program:

In early September 2009, an e-mail passed through an Internet address in Peshawar, Pakistan, that was being monitored by the vast computers controlled by American intelligence analysts. It set off alarms. The address, linked to senior Qaeda operatives, had been dormant for months.

Investigators worked their way backward and traced the e-mail to an address in Aurora, Colo., outside Denver. It took them to Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old former coffee cart operator, who was asking a Qaeda facilitator about how to mix ingredients for a flour-based explosive, according to law enforcement officials. A later e-mail read: “The marriage is ready” — code that a major attack was planned.

What followed in the next few days was a cross-country pursuit in which the police stopped Mr. Zazi on the George Washington Bridge, let him go, and after several false starts, arrested him in New York. He eventually pleaded guilty to plotting to carry out backpack bombings in the city’s subway system.

It is that kind of success that President Obama seemed to be referring to on Friday in California when he defended the National Security Agency’s stockpiling of telephone call logs of Americans and gaining access to foreigners’ e-mail and other data from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and other companies.

The government itself could not have put it better.

Or consider the headline to yet another post-NSA leak story by the Times: “Debate on Secret Data Unlikely, Partly Because of Secrecy”.  But what incentive would a reporter from say the Times or NPR even have in digging deeper?  Very little.  Emotionally, they may feel betrayed that Snowden went with a British-based news outlet rather than one inside the U.S. to publish his leaked documents.  So screw him, he’s nothing but a traitor and should be prosecuted as such, is perhaps the sentiment across many U.S.-based newsrooms.  Practically, these reporters have little to gain and much to lose if they were to try and corroborate or even expand on the leaked materials.  This is because the government sources who will be the focus of such efforts are also the same ones on whom the reporters increasingly rely for their own stories — through unofficial or official “leaks” — and hence livelihood.

As for the NSA-Snowden story itself, I noticed that sales of George Orwell’s “1984” have skyrocketed since the government’s Big Brother-esque ways were first revealed in the press.  The comparison is of course immediate and not altogether unjustified.  But I do not think Orwell himself would have rejected the kind of surveillance that the government has since admitted to practicing — at least not in a scenario that would  in fact require such prophylactic measures.  But  situations that would actually require such sweeping and secretive data collection efforts — that is, one where there is a real, imminent and extremely lethal threat to the security of the nation as a whole  — are few and far between.  And those on which governments often rely to justify their intrusive actions are, for the most part, contrived; used by the powerful to remain so.  As James Madison once said:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

(Thanks to Stephen Walt, who referenced this quote in a recent blog post.)

So we begin where we first started: debating the morality, legality and necessity of the NSA’s data mining/telephone metadata programs and perhaps the NSA itself.  Make no mistake.  The status quo is by no means inevitable, and it certainly should not be accepted as such.  I recently finished reading Tony Judt’s “Ill Fares the Land” in which he makes precisely this point, albeit in the context of the economy and less so in terms of national security.  But his observations and exhortations to action are no less relevant.

We have entered an age of insecurity — economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity.  The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the utter collapse of their world and the economic and political catastrophes that followed.  Insecurity breeds fear.  And fear — fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world — is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest.

All change is disruptive.  We have seen that the specter of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil.  Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences.  Men and women will be thrown back upon the resources of the state.  They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for ‘security.’  The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state.  It is thus incumbent upon us to re-conceive the role of government.  If we do not. others will.

As for the parameters in which such a debate should take place, I would quote from the following diary entry (from 4/27/1942) of George Orwell, who discussed the sorry state of commentary and analysis with respect to war-related news (then, World War II):

We are all drowning in filth.  When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.  Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any suffering except self-ptiy and hatred of Britain and utterly indifferent to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.  […]  Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests.  What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency.  But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook?  Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless.  All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.

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