By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Walter Pincus of the Washington Post tells us that “data Mining is here to stay.” He points to a wide variety of commercial uses as well as the now well-publicized NSA practices that have aroused so much indignation. Those who object, he implies, are not only ignorant but naive. The arrogant Pincus does not have much to say about data mining abuses in either sphere, which is unfortunate. Abuse is the ground on which the debate is taking place, as far as it can take place, given the extreme stealth with which both business and government prefer to collect and ransack information from citizens and consumers, pious demurrals about “metadata” not withstanding. The enabling secrecy itself is part of the abuse in both cases.
At Last, Maybe, a Proper Debate
At last then, the debate is underway. It is so broad, deep and complex that I shall leave a closer look at unauthorized commercial data collection for another day. What we already know about our government’s abuse is extensive enough to make anyone worry, and who is naive enough to believe we yet know all that we should?
The issues so long obscured by secrecy protocols run across the whole of the continuum that extends from valid national security concerns to personal privacy non-negotiables by way of the ready access to information about most government activity without which democracy ceases to exist. Involved here are serious constitutional matters about which some consensus existed before the electronic age made totalistic surveillance and data mining possible. We must now reach a new consensus, a fact-based consensus, a rational consensus, a consensus not drummed up by revving normal concerns into terrorized compliance, and that consensus must rest on a vocabulary that’s not ambiguous and duplicitous. By this I mean the expunging of all arcane re-interpretations of apparently simple everyday expressions such that officials may lie and yet evade charges of perjury when exposed, as has happened recently.
The Over-Classification Game
Everyone who has worked for the U.S. government knows that mountains of nonsense and garbage are classified for ass-covering reasons having nothing to do with national security, which is why recurrent efforts to declassify tend to stall out quickly. The fact that even Pentagon-based witnesses could point to no specific actual instances of harm from Bradley Manning’s unauthorized dump of classified military and diplomatic material beautifully illustrates the massive abuse of classification aka secrecy that begs—nay, demands leakage by employees who are proxy to illegal activities and improperly concealed information. As for Snowden, the Pincus sneers notwithstanding, much of the classified NSA data he leaked came as no surprise to friend or foe in the far flung cyberworld. But the staggering confirmation that all phone calls and emails and tweets and texts and everything else is being collected, every word of it, and is being stored away for mining as needed, absent search warrants that require anything like serious justification, seems to have shocked a lot of complacent citizens out of the post 9/11 trance that allowed the quaesi-totalitarian legislation known as the Patriot-Act to be passed. Renewal barely squeaked through a few weeks ago. That bodes well for its dismantling as the argument that privacy-must-be-sacrificed-for-security dissolves into the manipulative oversimplification it always was.
Laws were broken by Snowden and Manning, but to what end? That’s the question. Should we be grateful to them as whistle blowers or condemn them as traitors? Should we judge them by degree of real damage done or, damage be damned, by the mere fact of leaking? Did they seek consciously to “aid the enemy”? Did their actions willynilly do so, to some degree or other? And do these distinctions matter? Of course, they do. None more than motive. Whether or not a war legally exists, it's clear that neither man was an enemy agent. And each claims, plausibly, his intention to serve an American public that's being kept in the dark about things that shouldn’t be secret. Many Americans agree.
Surprising Opinion Polls
As his trial drew to its conclusion, I detected no public ground swell for Manning to be judged guilty of espionage or to be locked away for a dozen lifetimes. What’s more, some 55% of those polled a week ago regarded Edward Snowden as a whistle blower who deserves our gratitude. Congressman Peter T. King, Republican of New York, recently told “Face the Nation” that Snowden “is not a patriot,” using language that, for King, was surprisingly mild. The reason for restraint, I think, is that he and other conservatives have noticed that Manning and Snowden are emerging as folk heroes for our times. Already, in Wales, Snowden is the protagonist in a play addressing the “legal and moral status of whistle-blowing.” Manning (of Welsh extraction) created the “zeitgeist without which there would be no Snowden,” according to the playwright.
Sometimes it seems as if the totalitarian horrors of George Orwell’s 1984 are coming true in the U.S. But maybe not, if brave young men continue to stand up for us and we make good use of the information we obtain thereby. The Tea Party people are rightly worried about Big Brother, but their inchoate concerns have been appropriated for the benefit of those who seek the profit-maximizing potential of unregulated business. Still, the relevant economic issues are being debated in public fora, unlike the pros and cons of the all-encompassing surveillance and data collection that Snowden’s leaks have confirmed.
The Surveillance State Today
In fact, the Snowden revelations come as icing on a proto-authoritatian cake that we should be very wary of swallowing any more of, which may be one reason why a not-so-dumb public isn’t crying for Manning's head or Snowden's either. Here’s the current state of affairs in the land of the free:
At every moment our movements are being recorded or tracked. Our passports have RFIDS that allow the government to track us wherever we go. Rental cars are equipped with tracking devices, and so increasingly are private automobiles. Hidden cameras record the speed at which we drive and not so hidden cameras show where we park. So much for the freedom of the road. There’s no way to get away from it all.
How about the old notion of home as a private refuge, as the equivalent of a well-defended castle? Forget it. Drones and satellites spy from above; heat sensors tell investigators that we’re home even as we cower behind brick walls and closed doors. Ultra-sensitive bugs hear our whispers. These days we live, naked, in glass houses.
And when we’re out and about, strolling, shopping, working? It’s all on tape. Stores have cameras. Office lobbies have cameras. Hotels have cameras. Banks have cameras. And so on. All to make us safer. But what makes us safer also makes us easily susceptible to total control.
Our Foolish Collusion
We're all guilty here. We approved versions of these "safety" measures one by one, because they seemed so useful, so practical. Aggregate them, however, and the picture is more than a little scary. Snowden and Manning have ripped off a few veils, allowing all Americans to confirm what many uneasily suspected, but who knows what's still unrevealed? I'm pretty resistant to conspiracy theories, but secrecy encourages paranoia. No wonder prosecutors haven’t been able to whip up hanging mobs as they seek to bring these imperfect, but well-intentioned young men to “justice” in a system that practically no one trusts any more.
And why is trust in such short supply? Consider the latest ludicrous statement by John DeLong, NSA's director of compliance. He’s quoted in a Washington Post article describing an internal NSA audit that cites thousands of illegal actions aka “mistakes” in a single year. We have access to the audit document thanks to Edward Snowden. DeLong says, "We want people to report if [we] have made a mistake or even if they believe that an NSA activity is not consistent with the rules. NSA, like other regulated organizations, also has a 'hotline' for people to report — and no adverse action or reprisal can be taken for the simple act of reporting. We take each report seriously, investigate the matter, address the issue, constantly look for trends and address them as well — all as a part of NSA's internal oversight and compliance efforts. What's more, we keep our overseers informed through both immediate reporting and periodic reporting."
How noble! How disingenuous! How impossible!
How is anyone who's not a fool or a super hero to report “mistakes,” if NASA’s activities are classified secret or top secret in the first place? Only the truly naive expect rectification for serious offenses through internal compliance systems, and the audit document itself shows evidence of system-wide coverups. Meanwhile, anyone publically divulging NSA's illegalities would be subject to harsh prosecution. As for accountability, who believes that even our most trusted representative and Senators (aka those on the intelligence committees) are kept properly up to date on NSA performance? A good reason for serious scepticism? Senator Diane Feinstein, definitely an "overseer," wasn’t in the original loop on the audit report. She, too, must thank Snowden for information that should have come to her routinely.