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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

 
More reports from the NSA field trip. (Maybe we should send Dennis Rodman next time)

by digby

Here's another report from the field trip a few journalists and academics took to the NSA the other day.  The takeaway from this one seems to be quite similar to Dan Drezner's. They are both stunned by the obtuse ignorance of the principles underlying our constitution as well as the naive authoritarianism exhibited by the NSA people they encountered:
[T]he best example of this cognitive dissonance is one specific exchange late in our day on campus. One official described the difficulties he had while speaking to school groups about the NSA, and his inability to convince students that Snowden was a “bad guy” who had done serious harm to U.S. national security. He asked us how he could more compellingly and convincingly make that case to young people. Bewildered, we asked why the merits of the surveillance programs turn in any way on whether Snowden’s a patriot or a traitor. Even President Obama has conceded that the public debate we’re now having is “welcome,” regardless of where we end up as a result.

But the NSA official’s reply seemed to suggest that these two perspectives are mutually exclusive—that we must choose between Snowden and the NSA. If we believe Snowden is a bad guy, then the NSA must be right. And if we believe he acted in what he thought were the best interests of the country, the NSA must be wrong.

The premise of the question suggested that we would all be better off if the American public were still as ignorant about the surveillance programs disclosed as a result of Snowden’s action. For the NSA, the problem appears to be about the need to respond to transparency and not the substance of the programs themselves (or the fact that they were authorized in secret).

In the end, this is the most entrenched problem I encountered during my visit: the NSA remains committed to the idea that, because a surveillance program will be much more effective if no one knows about it, it necessarily follows that the public should remain ignorant of it. Therefore, the NSA’s programs must be approved and implemented in secret unless and until the next Snowden reveals them.
I think I understand now why Judge Leon was so impassioned in his legal opinion --- he saw documentation underlying these programs and like those who were invited on this NSA field trip it was probably a frightening window into the thinking of the people we are being asked to trust with the kind of power that demands a much more sophisticated worldview than these people obviously have. (I've suspected this from reading interviews with Alexander and Hayden, but I thought they might just be playing politics. I now believe we're talking about the NSA culture at large and it's more dangerous than I thought.)

The author explains the reasons for alarm quite well, but it's worth reiterating that even aside from the mind-bogglingly odious request that these visitors help the NSA figure out how to discredit Edward Snowden with schoolchildren (where are we, North Korea?) this  idea that their effectiveness is all that matters is simply chilling. If that were true, we would allow police to storm down citizens' doors at will, arrest without probable cause, imprison without due process and otherwise behave as if the entire country is ... a battleground. Or Guantanamo.

If you're looking for a good overview of the Leon decision you can't go wrong with the New Yorker's Amy Davidson's typically incisive take:
[W]hat his ruling does is deprive the N.S.A. of the argument of obviousness: the idea that what it is doing is plainly legal, plainly necessary, and nothing for decent people to worry about. (He says that the government has given him no evidence that bulk collection and analysis are essential to the fight against terrorism.) This judge is worried.
Also Emily Bazelon in Slate:
Thank you, Judge Leon, for the wake-up call. And also for giving me reason to question, once again, the Obama administration’s insistence on treating Edward Snowden, as a criminal. Yes, he leaked everything on the farm. But without him, we’d never have this lawsuit or the alarm bells it joined in sounding. “If someone discloses a secret govt program that a Federal Court rules violates the Constitution, that person’s a whistleblower, right?” Greenwald tweeted Monday. Yes—that should be about right.
Yes, that should be about right.  But since the NSA and plenty of other people rest their fatuous arguments on the notion that Snowden is a "bad guy" I'm not going to hold my breath.



Meanwhile, it's holiday fundraising time ...






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