John Kerry, meet Harry Potter

lightning-bolt-i12We had several wand-wielding Harry Potters at our door last night, but fistfuls of treats protected us from their magic powers. Apparently John Kerry is a fellow Potterite.

According to reports today in the Guardian, the Independent, and elsewhere, Secretary of State Kerry has answered the international firestorm about NSA’s global surveillance with two comments:

  • “Some of these actions have reached too far.”
  • “Innocent people are not being abused in this process.”

Reached too far? Gee, ya think? Whether it’s trillions of records on millions of people or creepily listening in on Angela Merkel’s personal phone calls, yeah, the NSA has gone too far.

But about those “innocent people”? This is where the wand comes in. Across the country and around the world, we deploy courts, judges, juries, prosecutors, defense counsel, and enormous amounts of time, money, and procedures to separate the innocent from the guilty. And yet Kerry has bought into the NSA story that they target only the guilty. How do they know?

Magic is the only explanation. Somewhere in that vast Utah NSA surveillance center is a room full of wands.


Put that in your pipe

This morning I read a post by Chris Blattman called “You want to know why revolutions happen? Because little by little by little things get worse and worse.” One of the comments precisely captured my reaction: “Quite easily the most powerful thing I have read in some time.”

Blattman says his post came from a “miscellaneous comment in a reddit thread on government eavesdropping”. The writer doesn’t tell us exactly where he lives, but says, “I live in a country generally assumed to be a dictatorship. One of the Arab spring countries.” The full article is long as these things go, but please do read it. This excerpt should whet your appetite:

You want to know why revolutions happen? Because little by little by little things get worse and worse. But this thing that is happening now is big. This is the key ingredient. This allows them to know everything they need to know to accomplish the above. The fact that they are doing it is proof that they are the sort of people who might use it in the way I described. In the country I live in, they also claimed it was for the safety of the people. Same in Soviet Russia. Same in East Germany. In fact, that is always the excuse that is used to surveil everyone. But it has never ONCE proven to be the reality.

Maybe Obama won’t do it. Maybe the next guy won’t, or the one after him. Maybe this story isn’t about you. Maybe it happens 10 or 20 years from now, when a big war is happening, or after another big attack. Maybe it’s about your daughter or your son. We just don’t know yet. But what we do know is that right now, in this moment we have a choice. Are we okay with this, or not? Do we want this power to exist, or not?

While we’re on the subject, let me commend two other articles to your attention, both opinion pieces from the New York Times. The first was written by Malte Spitz, a member of the German Green Party’s executive committee who’s running for the Bundestag in the upcoming national election. He calls his essay “Germans Loved Obama. Now We Don’t Trust Him.” and in it says this:

Given our history, we Germans are not willing to trade in our liberty for potentially better security. Germans have experienced firsthand what happens when the government knows too much about someone. In the past 80 years, Germans have felt the betrayal of neighbors who informed for the Gestapo and the fear that best friends might be potential informants for the Stasi. Homes were tapped. Millions were monitored.

Although these two dictatorships, Nazi and Communist, are gone and we now live in a unified and stable democracy, we have not forgotten what happens when secret police or intelligence agencies disregard privacy. It is an integral part of our history and gives young and old alike a critical perspective on state surveillance systems.

Meanwhile, we have a piece yesterday on Diane Feinstein from Jeremy W. Peters called “Feinstein’s Support for N.S.A. Defies Liberal Critics and Repute”. Feinstein is the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and, as Peters says, “To her critics, she is just another victim of Stockholm syndrome on the Congressional Intelligence Committees: an enabler of government overreach who has been intoxicated by the privilege of knowing the deepest-held state secrets.” An apt description, it seems to me, driven home by this statement:

I feel I have an obligation to do everything I can to keep this country safe. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Little by little by little.


We hold these truths

Later this week we’ll be celebrating the the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. You might recognize these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The “life…liberty…happiness” phrase is what’s most often quoted, but it’s the next part that they fought a revolution over: Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

A few days ago, CNN asked Jimmy Carter for his reactions to Ed Snowden’s revalations about the massive NSA surveillance programs. Carter said Snowden’s actions were “probably, in the long term, beneficial”. Beneficial? How? Because, Carter said, “I think the American people deserve to know what their Congress is doing.”

In going from “consent of the goverened” to “know what their Congress is doing” we’ve lost a few steps, and we need to get them back.


Police-State Mathematics

Today on Face the Nation, former CIA and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden was talking to Bob Schieffer about the most recent round of surveillance revelations. Schieffer said it sounded like Hayden thought maybe the government should go public with at least some of the information it’s been keeping secret. Hayden’s reply:

Here’s how I do the math. I’m willing to shave points off of my operational effectiveness in order to make the American people a bit more comfortable about what it is that we’re doing.

Talk about lowering expectations! As we breathlessly wait for President Obama’s “debate” and “dialog” about security versus privacy, keep in mind that the intelligence community will be grudgingly willing to allow the public to be “a bit more comfortable”.

We deserve better.


I will not fear

In the wake of the 9/11 attack, folk singer John Flynn wrote a powerful, moving song called I Will Not Fear. You can watch him sing it at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

The last verse goes:

And in this land of the free, in this home of the brave,
The voice of human courage cries, “I will not be a slave
To the ones in shadow who’d see freedom disappear.”
Won’t you send a message right now: Say, “I will not fear!”

Stirring words: “I will not be a slave to the ones in shadow who’d see freedom disappear.”

12 years ago, the ones attacking our freedom lived in the shadows of caves halfway around the world. Their weapons were jet liners. They sought to destroy buildings.

Today the ones attacking our freedom skulk in the shadows of brightly lit corridors in Maryland and Utah. Their weapons are secret orders from secret courts implementing secret interpretations of secret laws. They seek to destroy the Constitution.

The 9/11 attack arrived with massive explosions visible to all. The current attack was carefully hidden until exposed by a patriot whose freedom — and perhaps whose life — is now in jeopardy.

In 1787, upon emerging from the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What type of government have you given us?” “A republic,” said Ben, “if you can keep it.”

I will not be a slave. I will not fear.


Six impossible things before breakfast

Lawyers call it alternative pleading:

You say my dog bit you? Well…

  • I don’t own a dog.
  • And he doesn’t bite.
  • And you kicked him first.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because you’ve been hearing it non-stop from Washington for the last week:

  • There is no massive secret NSA surveillance program.
  • And everyone has known all about it for years; it’s no big deal.
  • And revealing it would be a major threat to national security.

See also cognitive dissonance.