America’s courtiers rush to defend the government – from us

Summary: Those paying attention to Snowden’s revelations have learned much about our government (although we’re told he told us nothing new). Those reading the government’s defenders learned much as well. Not just that Snowden’s revelations did immense damage, but also that we stand alone when resisting the government. Our best and brightest are on the other side.

Know Your Place

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An astonishingly weak defense of government surveillance: “Is Obama presiding over a national security state gone rogue?“, Michael Cohen, Guardian, 21 June 2013 — “Frankly, I don’t see evidence of huge abuse of US liberties. But I do see our foreign policy distorted by a counter-terror obsession.” Excerpts:

In that sense, we have to take the government’s word for it. And that is especially problematic when you consider the FISA court decisions authorizing this snooping are secret and the congressional intelligence committees tasked with conducting oversight tend to be toothless.

But assumptions of bad faith and violations of privacy by the US government are just that … assumptions. When President Obama says that the NSA is not violating privacy rights because it would be against the law, we can’t simply disregard such statements as self-serving.

True courtiers like Cohen insist that government officials be given the benefit of the doubt, believed no matter how many times government officials have lied to us during the past 60 years. No matter how improbable their stories. Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry would shake their heads in contempt.

Cohen also marshals logic in his defense of the government:

“Now, while one can argue that Snowden’s actions do not involve personal sacrifice, whether they are heroic is a much higher bar to cross.”

Weak logic. As if the value of the information Snowden revealed depends on such trivialities. Heroism is ultimately determined by history. Here’s a better try at logic:

Model Americans
Model Americans

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This question of leakers v whistleblowers has frequently been conflated in the public reporting about the NSA leak (and many others).

But this is a crucial error. As Tara Lee, a lawyer at the law firm DLA Piper, with expertise in defense industry and national security litigation said to me there is an important distinction between leakers and whistleblowers, “One reports a crime; and one commits a crime.”

… So, like Manning, Snowden is almost certainly not a whistleblower, but rather a leaker. And that would mean that he, like Manning, is liable to prosecution for leaking classified material.

Cohen then goes on at great length about this. While an important distinction should Snowden find himself in court, it is not relevant to the public policy debate. Snowden acknowledged that his acts subject him to prosecution, and has accepted the possibility of punishment for his deeds — as shown by a quote Cohen provides:

“I’m willing to sacrifice … because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

Cohen is a smart and knowledgable writer about geopolitical affairs, as shown by this article’s skillfully constructed smokescreen for the government. He does not mention that much of what we know about the national security state — and much of the most important information — comes from citizens revealing secret information. People like Stanley Sheinbaum, Michael Wood, Daniel Ellsberg, Mark Felt (aka Deep Throad), Philip Agee, Bradley Manning, and now Snowden. He touches on this only indirectly:

Both Manning and now Snowden have taken it upon themselves to decide what should be in the public domain; quite simply, they don’t have the right to do that. If every government employee decided actions that offended their sense of morality should be leaked, the government would never be able to keep any secrets at all and, frankly, would be unable to operate effectively.

Cohen need not fear for the government’s collapse. The day when “every government official” leaks seems likely to arrive as soon as the Rapture. The government intensely prosecutes leakers (except for senior officials). Making an example for other potential leakers, Manning was imprisoned — often under punitive conditions (called “torture” by the UN investigator) — for three years before his trial.

Cohen says that “citizens don’t have the right” to leak. But America was born through civil disobedience (e.g., the Boston Tea Party). Thoreau’s On the Duty to Civil Disobedience (1849) has inspired people around for the world for two centuries — including Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The next post will give Thoreau’s own words, advice as relevant to us as his own generation.

Although courtiers like Cohen recommend blind obedience, America’s traditions provide a range of actions to push back against the government that are beyond voting but less than revolution. Like jury nullification, peaceful protests (without government approval) — and leaking secrets to the pubic.

A reminder about a vital point

Cohen is among the best and the brightest of those of his generation writing about public policy. Like most of his peers, his loyalty clearly lies with the State — not us. Probably because he’s smart, and see the path to career success in our society as power concentrates in ever fewer hands.

This is one of the two barriers to reforming America (our disinterest and passivity is the other). Successes in the Revolution and Civil War were possible because large segments of the intelligentsia and elites were on our side. Now we are mostly alone.

For details about this grim fact see We are alone in the defense of the Republic.

About Michael Cohen

Michael A Cohen is author of Live from the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America. A regular columnist for the Guardian and Observer on US politics, he is also a fellow of the Century Foundation.

Twitter: @speechboy71

For More Information

There are sources of information better than Cohen and his ilk

  1. Glenn Greenberg at The Guardian
  2. ProPublica — Journalism in the public interest
  3. NSFW magazine

Especially read this ASAP, before it becomes gated: “NSA Whistleblowers For Dummies”, Mark Ames (aka The War Nerd), NSFW:

Posts about the mainstream media:

  1. Only our amnesia makes reading the newspapers bearable, 30 April 2008
  2. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
  3. “The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism”, 23 December 2008
  4. The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009 — About sea ice
  5. The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents, 19 February 2009
  6. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  7. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  8. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  9. We know nothing because we read newspapers, 12 October 2009 – About mythical numbers
  10. Journalists, relying on anonymous government sources, attack anonymous bloggers who correct journalists’ errors, 25 July 2010
  11. The Raymond Davis incident shows that we’re often ignorant because we rely on the US news media. There is a solution., 18 February 2011
  12. An explanation of the US and Pakistan governments’ odd behavior in the Raymond Davis affair, 27 February 2011

Truth is the new hate speech

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10 thoughts on “America’s courtiers rush to defend the government – from us

  1. Here’s an interesting youtube video I’ve found about the NSA metadata mining. Thought I’d just post it here.

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    1. This guy is focusing on the metadata, which is a red herring.

      The surveillance system is not worth having if the underlying data isn’t present as well. So, the metadata analysis may reveal that so-and-so talked to a phone number that later called Pakistan: now what? Well, that’s when you retrieve the rest of the information about the call, and the parties involved, and the call data and everything else. If you’ve just got the metadata you have a system that’s only capable of producing annoying alarms about data you can’t look at.

      We also know that it’s not just metadata being collected. The recent revelations (via Snowden) if the GCHQ collection system – which is available to NSA under the UKUSA Treaty on intelligence sharing – gives a whole different and much more accurate picture than this fellow is talking about; he’s looking at the manicure on the toenails of an elephant.

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  2. If every government employee decided actions that offended their sense of morality should be leaked, the government would never be able to keep any secrets at all and, frankly, would be unable to operate effectively.

    Wonderfully antidemocratic. If a democracy has anything to do with the will of its citizens, how can it act in secret? The premise here is that some parts of the government (the executive, judicial, and the intelligence agencies) have conspired to commit unconstitutional and criminal acts against the rest of it (we, the people) — that’s the piece of the dynamic that apologists keep forgetting: we are the “boss” and it’s OK for a whistleblower to tell the boss.

    Of course, it’s that ‘we are the boss’ statement that’s under contention, and is no longer generally true. That is the point of the entire exercise.

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  3. One thing I have wondered for a long time is why Washington is so in love with Blackberries. RIM’s servers are up in Canada (also part of the UKUSA Treaty group) and the Canadians have historically been very very cooperative with things like encryption keys.

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  4. Fabius, you jumped the gun. As I assume you know by now, David Gregory publicly wondered whether Glenn Greenwald should be prosecuted.

    ( For those who just want the jolly good fun of stringing someone up, there’s a far stronger criminal case against Gregory himself, who brought a firearm clip onto the Today Show in apparent violation of DC law. )

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    1. I don’t see “jumped the gun”; rather I reported one of the first salvos fired by courtiers in defense of the government. Gregory is another volley.

      As for people wondering about prosecutions of senior officials leaking secrets — that shows unawareness of how New America operates. We have High, Middle, and Low systems of justice. Law is, even more than in the America-that-once-was, an instrument by which elites control the Middle and Low orders.

      So Gregory is “right”, in the sense of understanding how we’re evolving. If not now, then in the next political cycle I expect that people helping leakers — like Greenwald — will be prosecuted.

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  5. You can derive an astonishing amount of detailed information just from the metadata. Giant retailers can now determine whether shoppers are pregnant by their buying patterns.

    Data-mining on gigantic data-sets reveals patterns of activity and social associations which reflect deep habits and emotional beliefs. In a way, data-mining large data-sets amounts to a kind of mind-reading. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.

    If you want to see the uses to which data-mining gained by panopticon surveillance will be put by a repressive government, take a look at the pre-emptive 2008 arrests on terrorism charges of eight non-violent protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.

    No one today seems to remember these arrests. No one today seems to recall that all eight of these non-violent protesters were tried and convicted on terrorism charges before they even had a chance to protest.

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  6. New PRISM slides came out yesterday in the Washington Post:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/prism-collection-documents/

    I posted these here because I wanted to ask a question: Does this mean that it is the FBI, not the NSA, that is directly collecting the content data from US companies (through the Data Intercept Technology Unit).

    If this is the case, does anybody else here find that a little bit disturbing?

    What I’m thinking is that the NSA has a strictly-specified “foreign” focus, and the documents we’ve seen so far (including this lengthy draft memo from 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/jun/27/nsa-inspector-general-report-document-data-collection) seem to indicate that they are at least keenly aware of this restriction, whether or not they always comply with it.

    But the FBI, from what I understand, does not face the same type of restriction. And based on what we know for sure about FBI activities in the 60’s and 70’s……….

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