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.


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.


Oh, say, can you see?

A conversation this morning on Twitter. From the mouths of babes:


Next: NSA cameras in all rooms of all homes streaming to government database that’s only accessed by warrant. Only gets the bad guys, right?


Can I tell you, after the Newtown shootings this is exactly what my 10-yo nephew suggested?! The plan of a scared child.


Indeed, the home of the brave has become the home of the scared children.


On our wonderfully undemocratic Constitution

ben-franklin-on-liberty-and-security-05182009Since the Boston Marathon bombings, we’ve seen a succession of polls quantifying the public’s willingness to trade freedom for security. Depending on what reports you read, our neighbors would accept everything from ubiquitous government surveillance to torture if it meant avoiding the next attack.

Thanks to the foresight of the Founders, though, our civil rights don’t depend on simple majority votes. They’re embedded in the Constitution, codified with phrases like “Congress shall make no law” and “no person shall be held” and “the accused shall enjoy the right”. Escape clauses along the lines of “as long as Congress thinks it’s a good idea” or “unless a poll says the public feels otherwise” are conspicuously absent.

To the authors of our liberties, “witch hunt” was not a metaphor. They knew what fear could do to an otherwise rational community and designed what they hoped would be a terror-resistant superstructure for a free nation. Like Ulysses bound to the mast, they constrained themselves and their posterity from easily succumbing to the siren call of a risk-free life watched over by an all-powerful State.

And the sirens are out in full force. Michael Bloomberg says, “Our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution have to change.” Circuit Judge Richard Posner predicted, “The Court can and doubtless will adjust the balance between privacy and security to reflect the increase in long-run threats to the lives of Americans.” These voices provide the rationalization for the FBI as it rewrites the Fifth Amendment and soften us up for the revelation of routine government monitoring of all phone calls. We’ve lost sight of what MIT’s Jeff Schiller told Wired a full two years before the attacks of 9/11:

Police work is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Where it’s easy we call it a police state.

Rather than Bloomberg and Posner, let us listen instead to people like security expert Bruce Schneier:

Terrorism isn’t primarily a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the deaths of innocents and destruction of property as accomplices. When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.