Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thoughts on the NSA Leaks

Coverage of the NSA scandal stands out as frankly gawdawful. The guardian's central claim as 'direct access' was revealed as a fabrication, a direct result of dishonesty and ignorance. Instead of owning up to his error Greenwald lied and denied that he ever wrote that "direct access was true." The media went beserk over a false report arguing that Nadler 'admitted' that the NSA can wiretap without a warrant. Ideologues refused to correct the mistake after the report was revealed as a hoax which confirms their bias.

Civil liberties alarmists and similar ideologues are their own worst enemy. By distorting facts they create confusion (just like Owlman) in the public's mind making the goal of NSA reform much more difficult. People cannot change something if they do not understand what the something actually is. On an individual level they have damaged their own credibility by failing to accurately report elementary facts. Snowden's credibility has crumbled, his claim of drunk driving recruitment in Switzerland turned out to be false. Even if it was true the Swiss probably would not have strong feelings one way or the other.

 Greenwald isn't as smart as he would like to think. Snowden's leaks came at the perfect time for him: right after he was getting raked over the coals for justifying terrorist attacks. If he had reported the facts honestly or at least had an IT expert explain what 'direct access' means Glenn could have blotted out his past shame and given his career a massive boost. Instead he produced falsehoods, acted like a child in toys 'r us in response to criticism, and acted like David Gregory's stupid question was a call for persecution against him. He snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Ripostes to criticism have been just as terrible. Many like the self-parodying Cenk Uyghur (who is so progressive that he thought it would be cute to name his show after genocidists) minimized the fact that the direct access claim wasn't true to the point of lying. Conor Friedersdorf tweeted that Greenwald's " critics point to one line in his PRISM story to "prove" that he lacks credibility." That 'one line' was the direct access claim upon which most of his stories rested upon. (Conor also retweeted neo-fascist Justin Raimondo who  has expressed a wish that the Axis power had conquered the USA.) They call for government honesty and transparency all while refusing to apply those values to their own lives.

Snowden's revelations unleashed hypocritical hyperbole hurricanes. PRC officials argued that Obama was just like big brother echoing Soviet tactics of comparing the USA to the society depicted in a book banned in the USSR. The guardian compared the NSA to the Stasi, false and amusing nonsense because the guardian has published pro-GDR revisionism. In CIF a dismal character named Bruni de la Motta whined that east Germany has been "demonized" and that "the fall of the Berlin Wall and unification meant the loss of jobs, homes, security and equality." Naked support for the Iranian dictatorship is common in the guardian's papers, the IRI shuts down cafes that do not install cameras to surveil customers. They have even published multiple articles in support of North Korea!

As any honest adult knows the USA is not a totalitarian state as confirmed by how people can write anti-Obama articles without fear of reprisal. To write such thing trivializes suffering under dictatorship. Though being better than dictatorships is the lowest standard a state can meet and does not justify NSA policies. The best way to judge Obama's administration is to compare the USA to other first world democracies, many of whom are held up as superior.  Gary J. Schmitt concluded that that the USA is "no more aggressive in pursuing domestic counterterrorism than a number of other democratic allies and may arguably be considered less aggressive than France or the United Kingdom. Yet no objective observer would classify either France or the UK has anything but free and liberal."

Snowden stated that the British GCHQ is "worse" than the NSA. One of Cheltenham's advisers state that the agency has "a light oversight regime compared with the USA." The Tempora program has a data collection than dwarfs the NSA and the ability to monitor 600 million communication each day. Under the  Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act other UK agencies can easily obtain phone records with fewer checks and balances than member of the American alphabet soup. The act also allows authorities to arrest anyone suspected of terrorism without a warrant.

 Under the European Union's Data Retention Directive all EU states retain metadata for two years so that police and intelligence agencies can access the data. Metadata retained under the directive is far more extensive than the NSA program since the EU metadata includes names. In France companies must retain ISP and telecom data which police can access them without a magisterial permission. French AMF agents can obtain any documents, phone records, with impunity. . In Sweden the authorities have the power to monitor all phone and internet communications without warrants unlike the NSA.

In Europe "wiretapping is de rigueur—practiced more regularly and with less oversight than in the United States." An FBI agent described how Italian police have "much broader wiretap authority" he stated that the process of getting a wiretap is "very quick and informal" compared to the USA. In "Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands" wiretaps are just as "routine" as they are in Italy. European anti-NSA protests are shameless hypocrisy.

Other policies targeted by civil liberties alarmists are mild compared to those of other first world democracies.  Critics of the decision to kill Anwar Al-Awaki launch into near-mania at the thought "killing citizens." The UK practiced a shoot to kill policy against its fellow citizens in response to the IRA: a threat that seems pathetic compared to Al-Qaeda.  The anti-NDAA movement ignore that preventive detention of terrorist suspects is "common in the democratic world" particularly much of Europe, Israel and Canada. Canadian authorities detained hundreds of people without trial in response to Quebec terrorism, American authorities did not respond the same way to FALN attacks. Britain also practiced preventive detention on a mass scale while the USA has yet to actually detain anyone people suspected of the Boston bombings were not detained.

Outbursts erupted over a ruling about police taking DNA evidence, Scalia's dissent along with his support for rocket launcher ownership will probably make him the next darling of libertarians. The subject of Scalia's rage is almost nothing compared to Dutch law which empowers police to take DNA not only from people under arrest but from any locals near the crime scene. British police have the right to take DNA samples from anyone over ten who has ever been arrested. Italian police can take DNA without consent.

Civil liberties alarmists argue that the USA is lurching into authoritarian rule when in fact American intelligence and law enforcement operates under far more restraint and checks and balances than the agencies of the finest European democracies. The USA does not have a domestic intelligence agency unlike most democracies. Canadian RCMP agents have international jurisdiction and can carry out searches without warrants. French DCRI agents can operate domestically and have powers of arrest while the CIA do not. For all its faults the CIA was designed so it would not be a secret police unit while secret police  are a fact of life in Scandinavia.

Similarly the USA does not have restrictions on religious freedom like the Swiss minaret or French hijab bans and it does not have free speech restrictions like most of Europe or Canada which has lead to pundits arguing the USA needs to limit free speech. So to the anti-American the USA is either a land of tyranny or chaos depending on mood swings. Context is ignored by extremists because "we're less extreme than France or Sweden" doesn't sound as scary as "we're becoming like 1984."

Alarmists often invoke the founding fathers to suggest that 21st presidents have betrayed them. Its shocking...for anti-American ideologues to express a positive opinion of American history. In doing so  they reveal their own historical illiteracy the founders were not a monolith they often hated each other and held widely different views. Many founders would probably condemn Obama or Bush for not doing enough John Adams responded to trivialities with the alien and seditions act that made criticism of the government a crime.

The record of post-911 presidents is benign compared to most glorified American leaders. Lincoln decimated Habeas Corpus while FDR interned Japanese-Americans and practiced warrantless wiretapping. The reality is wiretapping and surveillance is more restrained now than it was in the 1940s through 1970s.

With all that in mind that doesn't mean we should let the NSA off scot free. As vigilant citizens we must not shrink from our duty of repairing, reforming or restraining flawed institutions like the NSA.  We must aspire to greater things than being better than real or make believe dictatorships or even the greatest European democracies.


  1. nice piece- could not help but notice the "who is so progressive that he thought it would be cute to name his show after genocidists". Are the Turks also not a people? I take it that a progressive show titled "The Young Germans" is also incompatible/inappropriate and that whoever named it as such is guilty of acting cute ?

  2. Thank you. I have no objection to the fact that his show includes the word 'Turks' but the young Turks was the name of perpetrators of the Armenian genocide.