Archive for the ‘Surveillance State’ Category

Edward Snowden tells his story

December 5, 2019

In 2013, at age 29, Edward Snowden became the world’s most famous whistleblower.

He told the world that U.S. Intelligence agencies were gathering information on everyone on earth who’d ever made a phone call, text message or e-mail, used Google, Amazon, Facebook or a credit card or had electronic medical, educational or financial information on record.

His new book, PERMANENT RECORD, tells how he got the information out, and why he risked death and prison and suffered exile to do it.

I don’t think anybody, no matter how much they may question his actions, can doubt the sincerity of his motives.

He grew up in a family with a heritage of military and government service.  Both his parents had security clearances.

HIs basic values (like mine) were belief in American freedom and democracy as he was taught about them in school.  Also, like many others in the 1990s, he believed in computers and the Internet as a force for human liberation.

From a young age, he had a knack for analyzing systems for weaknesses.  He analyzed the grading criteria for his high school courses, and figured out that he could get a passing grade without doing any homework.

As a teenager, he found a hole in the security system of Los Alamos National Laboratories and pestered authorities until they acknowledged it and fixed it.

His first impulse after the 9/11 attacks was to enlist in the Army and try to qualify for the Special Forces.  But he was injured in a training accident and discharged.  He then joined the Central Intelligence Agency instead.

Organizations based on hierarchy and adherence to a chain of command do not usually welcome recruits who are given to pointing out flaws in the system.  But the CIA dealt with Snowden by giving him special permissions so they could use his talents.

As a CIA officer and later as a contractor for the National Security Agency, Snowden gained unusual access to the whole range of CIA and NSA activities.  He became aware that they were spying not just on foreign governments and suspicious characters, but virtually everyone in the USA and abroad.

Knowledge is power.  If someone knows everything about me, they have power over me.  Most people (myself included) have done things they’re ashamed of, and wouldn’t want known.  Almost everyone has done or said something that can be made to look bad.

In the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would wiretap prominent figures and read their mail, then blackmail them.  There is no guarantee that the heads of the CIA and NSA would not use their knowledge to blackmail.  There is no guarantee they are not already doing so.

Government agencies that are doing this operate in secrecy.  They have power over us, but we the people can’t set limits on them because we don’t even know what is happening.

Snowden could not discuss his qualms with anyone, not even his lover, Lindsay Mills (now his wife).  To breathe a word to anyone would have been considered a violation of the Espionage Act, which carries a maximum penalty of death.

Having reached a decision in silence, he had to make a plan silence and execute it alone.  He had to figure out exactly what the CIA and NSA were doing, how to prove it and how to disseminate that proof in a way that would have an impact.  Any error in his plan or its execution would have been fatal.

The strain must have been almost unbearable.  The temptation to confide in someone must have been almost irresistable (which was the downfall of his fellow whistleblower, Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning).

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Edward Snowden on the surveillance state

December 3, 2019

The following is from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record

Algorithms analyze…[our data] for patterns of established behavior in order to extrapolate behaviors to come, a type of digital prophecy that’s only slightly more accurate than analog methods like palm reading.

Once you go digging into the actual technical mechanisms by which predictability is calculated, you come to understand the its science is, in fact, anti-scientific, and fatally misnamed: predictability is actually manipulation.

A website that tells you that because you liked this book, you might also like books by James Clapper or Michael Hayden isn’t offering an educated guess as much as a mechanism of subtle coercion.

We can’t allow ourselves to be used in this way, to be used against the future.  We can’t permit our data to be used to sell us the very things that must not be sold, such as journalism.  If we do, the journalism we get will be merely the journalism we want, or the journalism the powerful want us to have, not the honest collective conversation that’s necessary.

We can’t let the godlike surveillance we’re under to be used to “calculate” our citizenship scores, or to “predict” our criminal activity; to tell us what kind of education we can have, or what kind of education we can have, or what kind of job we can have, or whether we can have an education or job at all; to discriminate against us based on our financial, legal and medical histories, not to mention our ethnicity or race, which are constructs that data often assumes or imposes.

And as for our most intimate data, our genetic information: if we allow it to be used to identify us, it will be used to victimize us, even to modify us—to remake the very essence of our humanity in the image of the technology that seeks its control.

Of course, all of the above has already happened.

Edward Snowden looks back and forward

September 10, 2019

Airports, security culture and the new normal

November 1, 2018

Source: Philosophy Tube.  Hat tip to Alex Page.

At the dawning of the “war on terror”, the new airport security rules seemed shocking and unnatural.  Conservatives as well as liberals objected to them.  The “no-fly” lists—the idea that the government could ban people from traveling by air and not give a reason—seemed outrageous.

But I’ve ceased to think about this.   The video above—about the thoughts and experiences of a young Englishman flying from London to New York—reminds me of how abnormal our security state really is.

The other thing I get from the video is how the United States is spreading police-state thinking to other countries.  I was brought up to think of my country as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and I think that, in some ways and to some extent, it was.

But nowadays cruel and ruthless dictators can point to the U.S. example to justify torture, warrantless arrests, extrajudicial killings and military intervention.

The question asked by the video is, “When will security ever go back to normal?”  The present security culture has been in existence for 15 years.  It now seems normal to many of us, maybe most of us.   Until and unless we stop thinking of it as normal, it won’t change.

What Obama could do to curb Trump’s power

December 5, 2016

President Obama said during the campaign that he’s worried about somebody like Donald Trump with access to the nuclear codes and all the other powers of the Presidency.  A writer named Pratap Chatterjee listed nine things Obama could do to reduce Trump’s power to do harm.

  1.   Name innocent drone victims.
  2.   Make public any reviews of military errors.
  3.   Make public the administration’s criteria for its “targeted killings.”
  4.   Disclose mass surveillance programs.
  5.   Make public all surveillance agreements with private companies.
  6.   Make public all secret laws created in recent years.
  7.   Punish anyone who has abused the drone or surveillance programs.
  8.   Punish those responsible for FBI domain management abuses.
  9.   Pardon Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and the other whistleblowers.

That wouldn’t eliminate a President Trump’s power to start wars without authorization from Congress, but it would be a start on reducing Presidential powers to their Constitutional limits.

LINKS

Obama’s Last Chance by Pratap Chatterjee for TomDispatch.

FBI and NSA Poised to Gain New Surveillance Powers Under Trump by Chris Strohm for Bloomberg News.

 

Citizenfour

November 18, 2014

Full Democracy Now broadcast and transcript

Last night I saw Citizenfour, the documentary movie about Edward Snowden.  Laura Poitras, the maker of the documentary, never appears on camera, but, next to Snowden himself, she deserves the most credit for bringing his information to light.  She  understood that she had to adopt the same mentality and procedures as somebody in an earlier era operating behind the Iron Curtain.

Poitras lives in Berlin, Germany.  The journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote most of the articles about the Snowden leaks, lives in Rio de Janeiro.  Snowden had to flee to Hong Kong and then to Moscow.  It is striking that these truth-tellers live outside the United States so as to be outside the reach of the U.S. government, while people who have committed actual crimes have nothing to fear.

§§§

The Question of Edward Snowden by David Bromwich for the New York Review of Books.  [added 11/21/14]

MonsterMind: cyberwarfare on automatic pilot

August 15, 2014

Edward SnowdenWiredcover2James Bamford, a journalist who’s been writing about the National Security Agency for decades, traveled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden for Wired magazine.

He learned, among other things, of the existence of a disturbing new NSA program, MonsterMind, for automating cyberwarfare.

The massive surveillance effort was bad enough, but Snowden was even more disturbed to discover a new, Strangelovian cyberwarfare program in the works, codenamed MonsterMind.

The program, disclosed here for the first time, would automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of a foreign cyberattack.

Software would constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected attacks. When it detected an attack, MonsterMind would automatically block it from entering the country—a “kill” in cyber terminology.

Programs like this had existed for decades, but MonsterMind software would add a unique new capability:

Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry, MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement.

That’s a problem, Snowden says, because the initial attacks are often routed through computers in innocent third countries.

“These attacks can be spoofed,” he says. “You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?”

In addition to the possibility of accidentally starting a war, Snowden views MonsterMindas the ultimate threat to privacy because, in order for the system to work, the NSA first would have to secretly get access to virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the US.

“The argument is that the only way we can identify these malicious traffic flows and respond to them is if we’re analyzing all traffic flows,” he says. “And if we’re analyzing all traffic flows, that means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows. That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.”

A spokesperson for the NSA declined to comment on MonsterMind, the malware in Syria, or on the specifics of other aspects of this article.

via WIRED.

This reminds me of earlier reports that the Pentagon is researching ways to automate flying killer drones, so that the decision on whether to attack will be made by an artificial intelligence algorithm, not a human operator.

The great danger of this is not that machines will become intelligent and take over.  The danger is that human beings will come to treat machines as if they were intelligent, and abdicate responsibility for making decisions.

USA: weak democracy, powerful ‘deep state’

March 3, 2014

Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staff member with top secret clearance, says there are two levels of government in the United States — a democratic government which is increasingly unable to pay for its normal operations, and a “deep state” with virtually unlimited funds to wage undeclared wars.

Republican opposition in Congress prevents President Obama from filling numerous vacancies in the federal courts and the federal bureaucracy.  Yet there is no check on the President’s drawing up death warrants to be executed by killer drones or special ops teams or authorizing covert interventions in foreign civil wars.

The U.S. government is unable to afford to keep bridges on interstate highways in good repair, and there is continual talk of cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  Yet the same government can somehow afford to build a $1.7 billion facility in Utah covering an area of 17 footballl fields with the capacity to store the electronic communications of all Americans – the equivalent of a million sets of a billion volumes each containing a billion pages of text.

Lofgren said the reason for the disparity is that there are functions of government that the normal democratic process does not get at.   These are found in the National Security Council, the Departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency, in private contractors who serve them and in a couple of federal courts where national security cases are tried, plus a handful of Senators and Representatives who are allowed a limited look at these operations.

It also includes the Treasury Department and the biggest Wall Street banks and brokerage firms, which finance the national security state and in return receive support for their political agenda and immunity from federal prosecution.  And it includes key Silicon Valley firms who provide the technology that enables contemporary surveillance and war and in return receive support for their political agenda.

Lofgren talked about this in an interview with Bill Moyers, shown above, and in an article written for Moyers.  Click on Anatomy of the Deep State to read Lofgren’s article.  It is well worth reading.

Government spying and corporate spying

February 28, 2014

spy-vs-spy-without-bombs-775529I’ve been told that I should not complain about secret NSA, CIA and FBI surveillance of the public because corporate surveillance is so much more thorough and detailed.   Google knows more about me than the NSA ever could.

I’ve also been told that I should not complain about corporate spying because any information I yield up through a commercial transaction is the result of a voluntary decision on my part.

I think that the question of whether Big Government or Big Business is the worse problem is, increasingly, a distinction without a difference.

I think government surveillance agencies have access, or soon will get access, to all the information that Google, MasterCard, Barnes & Noble and other corporate entities have about me.  And I think that if I ever were able to create serious problems for a big corporation, they would be able to get access to any files that police and intelligence agencies have.  From the standpoint of those in charge, Big Data will be one seamless whole, and it won’t matter whether a particular datum’s origin is public or private.

ANATOMY OF THE DEEP STATE by Mike Lofgren for Moyers & Company

http://billmoyers.com/2014/02/21/anatomy-of-the-deep-state/

‘Seeing Like a State,’ the NSA and Big Data

February 10, 2014

 MGI-Big-Data-Volume-and-Value-Infographips

I’ve long admired James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which describes the history of the modern world as a history of governments collecting more and more information about the people and communities they ruled, and of how they mistake information for understanding, often with disastrous results.

Ancient and medieval kings and emperors collected tribute from the people they ruled, but they often knew little about them.  In order to more efficiently collect taxes, draft people into armies, mobilize economic resources and also carry out reforms, it was necessary for rulers to identify their subjects and collect basic information.

It is for that reason that there is a record of my name and address, my age and birthplace, the size and value of my house, the boundaries of my property, what kind of automobile I own, the amount and sources of my income and much else.  This has advantages in that this knowledge enables governments and corporations to provide me services that could not have been available in an earlier age, and provide them more efficiently.

As Scott pointed out, the problem is that the picture that governments have about their subjects (or, for that matter, corporations have about their employees and customers) represents a simplification of reality, and, when they act on that simplified information, trouble results.

The culminations of this process are the Surveillance State and corporate Big Data.  Government intelligence agencies will have information not only on what I own, where I go, what I earn and how I earn it, but details of my personal life from which inferences can be drawn about my tastes, thoughts and feelings.  Some of these inferences will be drawn by computer algorithms, like the one used select targets for flying killer drones in remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

The power of intelligence agencies to gather information about individuals is greater than ever, and yet this information has not prevented the defeat of the U.S. military nor the growing appeal of Al Qaeda.  The date gathered by U.S. corporations about customers and employees is more extensive than ever, and yet this does not (so far as I can see) result in excellent customer service or excellent employee relations.  Misunderstandings about.  People are put on “no fly” lists for no apparent reason.  Banks foreclose on people with paid-up mortgages.

Knowledge is power and power corrupts.  But the worst corruption is the exercise of absolute power based on the illusion of knowledge.  What is needed is to reverse the polarity of surveillance—to make the inner workings of government and corporations at least as legible to the citizens as the other way around.

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NSA scandals and leaks: Deja vu all over again?

February 6, 2014

Four decades ago, just like now, journalists and congressional investigators revealed that the NSA, CIA and FBI were illegally eavesdropping on Americans’ telephone calls and using the information against dissidents and war protestors.

But rather than crack down on abuse of power by intelligence agencies, the government went after leakers of secret information about the abuses, just like now.

Rep. Otis Pike in 1975 (NYTimes)

Rep. Otis Pike in 1975 (NYTimes)

The key figure in uncovering abuses was Rep. Otis Pike, a conservative Democrat from Long Island, who headed the 1975 House Select Committee on Intelligence and was responsible for the Pike Committee Report on secret intelligence agencies.   All this was brought to mind by an excellent article on Pike by Mark Ames of PandoDaily.

The American public was in a mood to reform abuses of power in the wake of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote a front-page article in the New York Times telling how the Central Intelligence Agency, in violation of its charter, conducted intelligence operations during the Nixon administration directed against American anti-war and dissident groups.

The uproar resulted in creation of three investigative bodies – the Ford administration’s in-house Rockefeller Commission, a select Senate committee headed by Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, and a select House comittee headed by Otis Pike.  The Church committee’s reports on CIA involvement in assassinations and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, but, as Ames noted, the Pike committee asked the more fundamental questions.

What was America’s intelligence budget?  What was the money being spent for?  Were taxpayers getting their money’s worth?  How did the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies think their purposes were?  Were they successful in accomplishing those purposes?

Pike’s committee soon documented that Hersh’s reporting was correct.  They determined that the actual U.S. intelligence spending was much larger than Congress knew.  And, in Pike’s opinion, the U.S. received little value for the money.  The CIA did not foresee the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus or the 1974 military coup in Portugal.

I thought at the time that the National Security Agency was relatively harmless compared to the CIA.   The latter engaged in subversion and political conspiracies; the former merely listed to foreign radio traffic and engaged in code-breaking.  But, as Pike revealed and I later came to understand, the NSA was the most dangerous and out-of-control of them all.

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Who are the NSA’s real targets?

February 4, 2014

privacy+violation

Is the National Security Agency simply over-zealous in trying to protect Americans from foreign terrorists, or do NSA officials regard Americans themselves as a potential threat to the powers-that-be?

I think the answer is indicated by the fact that the NSA has weakened cryptography and installed back-door systems that weaken the ability of Americans to protect themselves and their businesses from foreign spies, cyber-criminals and malicious hackers.  It shows that NSA officials are more interested in spying on Americans than protecting them.

Any government needs some sort of secret, intelligence-gathering operation.  And, I agree, you can’t have such an operation of any low-level employee is allowed to indiscriminately publish confidential information for all the world to know.  A certain amount of confidentiality is necessary to the administration of any structured organization.This was as true of the newspapers where I worked as anything else.

But when the organization is guilty of wrong-doing, there is a duty to report to higher authority.  And who is the higher authority when the government itself is violating its laws and Constitution?  In a democracy, the higher authority is the citizens.  In a dictatorship, the higher authority is the world.

I think in the case of the U.S. surveillance scandals, we are well past the point where governmental authority can be trusted to act in good faith and correct itself.

This is shown by the massiveness of the surveillance, the huge number of people inside and outside the government (it may be as many as a million) with secret clearances, the willingness of government officials to lie about the scope of what is being done, and the willingness of high-level administration officials to leak confidential information themselves when it makes them look good.

LINKS

The Three Leakers and What to Do About Them by David Cole for the New York Review of Books.   The three leakers are Snowden, Assange and Manning.

A Vindicated Snowden Says He’d Like to Come Home by John Cassidy for The New Yorker.

How the NSA Threatens National Security by Bruce Schneider for The Atlantic.

NSA defenders’ shameless “national security” bait and switch by David Sirota for Salon.

It’s About Blackmail, Not National Security by Alfred McCoy for TomDispatch.

Spy Agencies Probe Angry Birds and Other Apps for Personal Data by ProPublica, the New York Times and the Guardian.

Forget Metadata … the NSA Is Spying on Everything by Washington’s Blog.

It’s Vitally Important That Your Government Continue to Spy on You by Chris Bray for The Baffler.

Hat tip for the cartoon to jobsanger.

Liberals who fear the libertarian temptation

January 26, 2014

Every now and then I come across some liberal commentator who is mildly critical of abuses of power under the Obama administration, but warns against making too much of them, because you thereby create distrust of government and play into the hands of libertarians.

The reasoning is that if you make too much of an issue of preventive detention, undeclared wars, assassination lists and warrant-less surveillance, you’ll lead cause people to focus on abuses of power by government and forget about abuses of power by big corporations.  Never mind that corporate power is so closely linked to government power these days that this is a distinction without a difference.

As an example of this kind of thinking, click on Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald and Assange If You Knew What They Really Think? by Sean Wilentz for The New Republic.   He does not rebut anything that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald or Julian Assange have actually asserted.  Rather he speculates on their underlying philosophy based on thin evidence, and warns against playing into the hands of corporations and libertarians.

For a good response to Wilentz, click on The Liberal Surveillance State by Henry Farrell on the Crooked Timber web log.  For some more examples of strained reasoning,  scroll down through the comments section.

I am not a libertarian.   But I am a civil libertarian, and it is a fact that right now, many self-described libertarians are better defenders of basic civil liberties than pro-Obama liberals.

A recent study shows the pitfalls of thinking that you have to either be on Team Blue or Team Red.  Click The Depressing Psychological Theory That Explains Washington for a report on the study by Ezra Klein for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.  It tells how people were for (or against) a set of proposals when told it was a liberal program, and against (or for) the same set of proposals when told it was a conservative program.

If what somebody says is factually correct and morally right, you shouldn’t worry about whose hands it will “play into.”

Turnabout is fair play

January 25, 2014

When the Democrats were out of power, they condemned warrant-less surveillance by the Bush administration.  But the Obama administration doubled down on these abuses, so now it is the Republicans’ turn to be advocates of civil liberties and the Fourth Amendment..

Democrats will doubtless accuse the Republican National Committee of inconsistency and hypocrisy.  But it is better to change one’s mind than to stick to a wrong position for the sake of consistency.

There is nothing in the Republican resolution that is inconsistent with basic conservative principles, which include the rule of law and the limitation of governmental power.  But even if it is just a political ploy, turnabout is fair play.

 LINKS

NSA domestic surveillance condemned in Republican party resolution by Dan Roberts for The Guardian.

Democrats Have Just Handed Republicans a Huge Win; Stopping NSA Spying Now a Republican Position by Washington’s Blog.

The investment theory of the 2012 elections

October 29, 2013

Thomas Ferguson is a political scientist whose writings changed the way I think about politics.  His “investment theory of political parties” is that candidates for office are like entrepreneurs, wealthy corporate interests are like venture capitalists who provide capital, and the voters are like customers being sold the product.

Ferguson says the public gets to decide who wins, but the “investors” get to decide who runs.  That’s why elected officials normally pay more attention to the people who finance them than the people who vote for them, and why politicians so often do the opposite of what they promise and what their constituents want.

Ferguson and two other scholars, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen, recently did a study of the 2012 election campaign which bears this out.  What was noteworthy, they wrote, is that the strong support Obama got from Silicon Valley companies.  Romney got more support from big business as a whole, but Obama got as much or more from the telecommunications, software, web manufacturing, electronics, computer and defense industries.

All these industries, as they point out, are deeply involved with the National Security Agency, as suppliers of technology, as sub-contractors and as aiders and abettors of surveillance.  The overseas businesses of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Skype, YouTube and other companies have been gravely damaged by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of how they work with the NSA to spy on foreign governments, businesses and citizens.  No wonder Obama regards Snowden as Public Enemy No. 1.

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The corporate cash behind the surveillance state

October 25, 2013

bigbrotherThe high technology and Silicon Valley companies that supported President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign are also deeply involved with the National Security Agency and other surveillance programs.

Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen, after analyzing campaign finance reports from 2012, concluded that although Mitt Romney received more contributions from big business overall, Barack Obama received equal or stronger support than Romney from the telecommunications, software, web manufacturing, electronics, computer and defense industries.

They pointed out in an article for AlterNet that these industries supply the technology that makes possible the NSA’s total surveillance programs, and provide many suppliers and subcontractors that operate the system.  And, as Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden disclosed, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon and Facebook worked directly with the NSA to spy on the American and foreign public at large.

At the time President Obama took office, many of his supporters expected a radical change in course on national security policy. This did not happen.  For sure, limitations on some of the worst excesses were put in place, but there was no broad reversal.  The secret programs of surveillance expanded and … other policies … on indefinite detention, treatment of whistleblowers, and executive prerogatives relative to Congress stayed in place or broke even more radically with tradition.

Our analysis of political money in the 2012 election shines a powerful new light on the sources of this policy continuity.  We do not believe that it would be impossible to strike a reasonable balance between the demands of security and freedom that accords with traditional Fourth Amendment principles and checks abuses of government surveillance rapidly and effectively.  But a system dominated by firms that want to sell all your data working with a government that seems to want to collect nearly all of it through them is unlikely to produce that.

I thought that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs supported President Obama out of social liberalism or because they thought he was more modern in his thinking than John McCain or Mitt Romney.  Maybe they do.  But there is also this three-way relationship—the NSA funds high tech industry, high tech industry funds President Obama’s campaign, and President Obama supports the NSA.

Click on Who Buys the Spies for the complete article by Ferguson, Jorgenson and Chen on AlterNet.

Plutocrats, spooks and the U.S. “deep state”

October 10, 2013

I recently learned a new expression.  The “Deep State” is the part of the government that keeps going year in and year out, regardless of the election results, and that elected officials can’t root out.

The U.S. intelligence apparatus is part of the deep state.  Back during the George W. Bush administration, there was a public uproar over a “total information awareness” program that would cover the whole of the country.  Supposedly it was shut down, but the documents made public by Edward Snowden show that it never was.

The financial system is another part.  The financial crash of 2008 was in large part due to financial fraud, and one thing that liberals and conservatives agree on is that fraud should be prosecuted, but the Obama administration acted pro-actively to prevent it, with bi-paristan consent.

That’s not to say democracy is dead in the United States.  Public outcry prevented the Obama administration from going to war in Syria.  Public outcry prevented President Obama from nominating Larry Summers, the architect of American financial dysfunction to head the Federal Reserve Board.  But there is a difference between a government of the people, for the people and by the people and a government that has to take public opinion into account.

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A pre-emptive counter-revolution in the USA?

October 8, 2013

tumblr_luwdnp4plT1qzlfumo1_1280

Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer that people do not revolt because they are poor and miserable.  If that there the case, the world would be in a constant state of revolt.  No, Hoffer wrote, people revolt when something to which they think they have a right is taken away from them, or when hopes are raised that things will get better.  Having a lot of highly educated young people without jobs is a spark that sets off the tinder.

If that is the case, the American people are ripe for revolt right now.   Although we are wealthier and more free than much of the world’s population, our economic security and political rights are being eroded.  The younger generation knows it is worse off than the generations that came before.  And the hope of change generated by Barack Obama has proved to be an illusion.

Historically the powers that be in the United States headed off revolt by responding to the discontented and bringing them into the system.   This happened with the labor movement in the 1930s and the civil rights protests of the 1960s.  But I think this time is different.

The electoral process is being altered to increase the power of money and to shut out minority groups, poor people, young people and others who might upset the status quo.  The legislative process is being altered so as to give veto power to the opponents of progressive reform.  The administration of government is becoming interlocked with corporations and shielded from public view.

Protest and dissent are being criminalized.  The U.S. government has the legal and institutional basis to impose a police state.  And the United States is being locked into NAFTA-like trade agreements which give corporations rights that override national law.

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Charles Stross on pre-emptive counter-revolution

October 8, 2013

The British SF writer Charles Stross, disturbed by the UK equivalents of the U.S. Homeland Security Administration, thinks his government is acting as if the powers-that-be fear a public uprising.

I have a new speculative hypothesis … . It is this: the over-arching reason for the clamp-down on dissent, migration, and freedom of expression, and the concurrent emphasis on security in the developed world, constitutes the visible expression of a pre-emptive counter-revolution[snip]

Charles Stross

Charles Stross

I believe what we’re seeing is a move towards the global imposition of a police state in the developed world, leveraging the xenophobia that naturally emerges during insecure times, by a ruling elite who are themselves feeling threatened by a specter.  Controls on movement, freedom of association, and speech are all key tools in the classic police state’s arsenal.

What’s new about this cycle is that the police state machinery is imposed locally, within national boundaries, but applies everywhere: the economic system it is intended to protect is transnational and unconstrained.  Which is why even places that were largely exempt during the cold war are having a common police state agenda quietly imposed. There is to be no refuge, other than destabilized “failed states” where the conditions of life make a police state look utopian in comparison.

via Who ordered *that*? – Charlie’s Diary.

Democracy in the UK is ineffective, Stross wrote.  He sees the Conservative, Labor and Liberal Democratic parties as different wings of the same Ruling Party—much as I see the Republican and Democratic parties in the USA.  If there is no hope for progressive change within the political system, then, as a matter of logic, the only possibility for change is a revolt against the system.

My conclusion is that we are now entering a pre-revolutionary state, much as the nations of Europe did in 1849 with the suppression of the wave of revolutions that spurred, among other things, the writing of “The Communist Manifesto”. It took more than a half-century for that pre-revolutionary situation to mature to the point of explosion, but explode it did, giving rise to the messy fallout of the 20th century.

I don’t know how long this pre-revolutionary situation will last — although I would be surprised if it persisted for less than two decades — but the whirlwind we reap will be ugly indeed: if you want to see how ugly, look to the Arab Spring and imagine it fought by … killer drones that know what you wrote on Facebook eighteen years ago when you were younger, foolish, and un-cowed.  And which is armed with dossiers the completeness of which the East German Stasi could only fantasize about.

via A Bad Dream – Charlie’s Diary.

Revolutionary violence does not appeal to Stross, nor to me.  But as President John F. Kennedy said, those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

Surveillance, corporate and governmental

September 25, 2013

fact.terroristClick on Ted Rall’s Rallblog for more from this cartoonist.

General Keith Alexander’s star-flights of fancy

September 16, 2013

sbiblahGeneral Keith Alexander, who heads the U.S. Cyber-Command and the National Security Agency, commissioned an Information Dominance Center patterned on the bridge of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s Starship Enterprise.  Architect’s drawings are shown above.

Foreign Policy magazine reported:

When he was running the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center.

It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed.  Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather “captain’s chair” in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.

“Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard,” says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.

via Foreign Policy.

I wouldn’t trust anyone, myself included, with the power to monitor the electronic communications of any American, including the public officials who vote his budget, and no accountability as to how this information is used.

But I especially would not trust anyone who uses public money to act out personal fantasies.  There is something to be said for getting in touch with your inner weirdness, but not in mixing it with public policy and national security.

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Should good deeds be allowed to go unpunished?

August 22, 2013

There are many people who think that Edward Snowden did a public service in revealing lying and abuse of power by the National Security Agency, but still think he should be punished for revealing secret information.

snowden.spy.paradoxKevin Drum, who writes for Mother Jones, argued the other day that no government can afford to tolerate the workings of its secret espionage organizations being made public.  On the other hand, he wrote, Snowden has revealed a lot of things that are important for the public to know and this information never would have been made public otherwise.

I believe that 30-year-old contractors shouldn’t be the ones who decide which secrets to keep and which ones to reveal. I also believe that, overall, Snowden has been fairly careful about what he’s disclosed and has prompted a valuable public conversation.

So how do you prevent an epidemic of Snowdens while still allowing the salubrious sunlight of the occasional Snowden?  The answer to the former is that intelligence workers need to be afraid of prosecution if they reveal classified documents. I t can’t be a casual act, but a deeply considered one that’s worth going to prison for.  The answer to the latter is that prosecution needs to be judicious.

There’s no question in my mind that Snowden should be prosecuted for what he did.  That’s the price of his actions.  But he shouldn’t be facing a lifetime in a Supermax cell.  The charge against him shouldn’t be espionage, it should be misappropriation of government property or something similar.  Something that’s likely to net him a year or three in a medium-security penitentiary.

via Mother Jones.

This reasoning would make more sense to me if, in fact, the U.S. government did systematically prosecute people who leak classified information.   But in fact classified information is leaked all the time—the latest example being how the U.S. government detected the al Qaeda plot to attack U.S. embassies (assuming that the leaked information was not an attempt to mislead).   Leaking sensitive information that makes the government look good is common and accepted.  Only the leakers who make the government look bad are prosecuted.

snowden.quote_nRobert Zubrin, writing for National Review, had a much better idea:  Offer Edward Snowden immunity from prosecution in return for testimony before a congressional committee.  He reasoned that if Snowden has all this vital secret knowledge, it is better from the standpoint of national security to have him under U.S. jurisdiction than Russian jurisdiction.

There are two important kinds of information that Snowden might reveal.  The first is information of value to America’s adversaries in operations against the United States, its armed forces, and its intelligence agencies.  The second is information of value to Congress and the American public in assessing the NSA’s domestic operations and in taking action, if necessary, to uphold the Constitution and stop NSA malfeasance.

In Moscow, Snowden is well situated to provide the first type of information to our enemies and poorly situated to provide the second to us.  If he were here, on the other hand, he would be well positioned to provide Americans with the second kind of information, and his opportunities to provide our nation’s foreign adversaries with the first kind would be most limited.

So we need to get Snowden back, and the only way to get him back is to set forth terms that induce him to return voluntarily. […]

One must therefore ask the conductors of the chorus chanting “Death to Snowden” why they prefer to have the analyst talking to Russia, Iran, and North Korea rather than to Congress.  Is it because the NSA regards the holders of America’s purse strings as the greater threat?  If so, it would appear that the agency’s leadership has misplaced its priorities.

On the other hand, Snowden may be lying, or grossly exaggerating, in his accusations of deeply subversive anti-constitutional actions by the NSA.  If so, he has done real harm to American freedom by chilling the public with unnecessary fear of a nonexistent panopticon state.  Such falsehoods therefore need to be refuted.

The NSA has issued denials.  Unfortunately, however, because the agency previously lied to Congress and the public about the very existence of the domestic-spying program, those denials have no credibility.  If the NSA is now being truthful, it needs to establish that by taking Snowden on in open confrontation.

via National Review Online.

And maybe after Snowden gets finished testifying to Congress, he should testify to a special prosecutor and a grand jury.  I would think there would be a rich field for investigation just of financial corruption, given the lack of supervision of the vast sums that the secret surveillance agencies handle.

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The secret state and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

August 19, 2013

Ladar Levison, who closed down his Lavabit e-mail service rather than comply with a secret government order, is in the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma situation.

h-LAVABITHe and other business owners would be better off if they stuck together and resisted the government’s secret demands in the courts.  But because of the government’s gag orders, none of them has any way of knowing whether others are fighting the same battle or they are all alone.

Levison is forbidden to say just what the government ordered him to do and what his objection was.  His secret appeal against a secret order will be tried in secret.  This is crazy.   This is bizarre.  It is like some unpublished short story by Franz Kafka.

We have a huge national security apparatus which operates in secret.  The President of the United States issues secret orders for assassinations of people deemed national enemies, based on a secret legal ruling.  These operations are subject to review by a secret court.  We the people are supposed to be reassured by congressional committees which receive secret testimony they are not allowed to tell us about.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing about the Nazi and Soviet regimes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, said that the aim of totalitarian governments was to destroy all institutions that stood between the individual and absolute power, so that any person who dared dissent felt helpless and alone.

We’re not in that situation in the United States—not yet.   But we do have a growing totalitarian mentality.  Washington is full of politicians and commentators who labels as a “narcissist”  anyone who defies authority in the name of conscience.

If the United States exists 30 years from now with liberty under law, it will be because of brave individuals such as Ladar Levison, who was willing to sacrifice a business he spent 10 years building up rather than sacrifice the liberties of his fellow citizens.

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Six lies about NSA surveillance

August 4, 2013

Edward Snowden, a profile in courage

August 1, 2013

It took a lot of guts for Edward Snowden to go up against the United States government, when the examples of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange showed him what he might expect.

President Obama regularly signs death warrants of persons he deems threats to national security.  He has authority under U.S. law to order fugitives seized and brought them back to the United States even if this violates the laws of the country they’re in.   Obama has prosecuted more whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act than all his predecessors put together.

Recently Attorney General Eric Holder assured President Vladimir Putin that if Snowden was given over to U.S. custody, he would not be executed or tortured.  Imagine—the highest-ranking law enforcement official of the United States gives assurance to a former officer of the Soviet KGB that the United States will not torture a wanted fugitive.  What does it say about the United States that Holder has to give such an assurance?

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Now the fact that Edward Snowden is brave does not prove that he was right.  Maybe you believe that the National Security Agency is exercising its just powers when it puts all the world’s electronic communications under surveillance and keeps the fact that it is doing so a secret.  If you’re right, then Snowden is in fact a criminal and should be brought to justice.

But not everybody thinks that way.  The governments of France and other European countries that object to NSA surveillance do not think that way.  The editors of the Washington Post and other newspapers that made use of Snowden’s leaks do not think that way.  If they’re right, Snowden is not in fact a criminal.

But they nevertheless agree with treating Snowden as a criminal and bringing back to the United States.  This is a profile in cowardice.

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