August 13, 2013
As more details of the NSA’s Fourth Amendment-abusing surveillance programs continue to be unveiled, it’s been remarkable to watch the verbal and written contortions deployed by supporters to justify each new bit of exposed information.
Some of the most impressive work comes from the pros, ones whose paychecks (either directly or through campaign contributions) rely on the NSA’s continued survival. Every incident of terrorism (especially 9/11) is held up as an example of why we need the NSA. Dozens of theoretically thwarted attacks are pointed to as “evidence” of the NSA’s crucial work. Countless references are made to the legality of the data harvesting. Things are mumbled about “welcoming the debate” or “maintaining a balance between privacy and security.”
When all of that doesn’t seem to be enough, the defenders resort to portraying domestic surveillance opponents as youthful internet dwellers who have gathered more Facebook Likes than public displays of affection.
Those who aren’t actively beholden to these intelligence agencies flail even more wildly, but still use the same rhetorical touchstones: 9/11, security, metadata, personal attacks.
This horrible GO TEAM DOMESTIC SURVEILLANCE! opinion piece at the Seattle Times begins like many others. Columnist Froma Harrop takes us on a ride in the wayback machine, all the way back to 2001.
During the 2001 assault on the World Trade Center, I was trapped in a train under Manhattan for hours. As news of the collapsing towers, the attack on the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania filtered down to the passengers, the conductor kept telling us this tunnel was the safest place we could be. Meanwhile, the tunnels were being searched for explosives.
I recall thinking, here we are in the commercial capital of the most powerful country on earth, with a zillion-dollar defense budget, and we couldn’t see this coming. That’s what the National Security Agency’s massive data-combing program is supposed to do. See the next thing coming, and stop it.
Now, if readers had somehow missed the headline (“Unjustified hysteria over the NSA surveillance programs“), they might be inclined to believe this piece was headed in an anti-NSA direction. After all, the most powerful nation in the world had the NSA’s data-combing operations at its disposal and still couldn’t prevent the attacks. (And it did have the NSA’s data-combing operations at its disposal — even if it was fairly miniscule as compared to today’s globe-spanning monstrosity.)
But Harrop believes this lack of prevention and failure of a “zillion-dollar defense budget” means we should have more of the stuff that didn’t work before.
So hard as I try, I can’t fathom the manic outrage over the idea of a government computer raking through the metadata on Americans’ phone calls and emails. Metadata is about email addresses, numbers called and length of conversation.
And there’s the personal attack. People alarmed or outraged by the extent of the NSA’s programs are “manic.”
The computers don’t look at content — what I say or what is said to me. Where’s the big loss in privacy?
First, you have to accept the premise that metadata is harmless. And if you do that, as Harrop has done, the NSA has a whole raft of acronyms to sell you. Second, you have to believe the NSA doesn’t look at content. It swears it doesn’t. I’d be more inclined to believe the NSA if it would swear on the stack of 20,000 documents currently in the Guardian’s possession.
Harrop, already pretty much completely sold on the NSA’s talking points, then goes on to seek confirmation of her bias.
John Schindler is an expert on intelligence and terrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. He spent a decade with the NSA. Do I understand the basics? I ask him. Pretty much.
And so on. Schindler (a Schindler whose list you’d rather avoid) breaks down the surveillance programs as nothing more than harmless metadata, lawfully collected, queried by analysts in order to save the lives of millions. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
But I bet Harrop is now wishing she hadn’t included this paragraph.
Agencies investigating drug trafficking, cyberattacks and other criminal activity have long complained about being denied access to NSA intelligence data. That’s because their searches are not directly connected to terrorism or foreign spying.
Do you mean agencies other than the DEA and the IRS? There may have been some complaining, but that noise is starting to sound more like cover to me than the legitimate noise of spurned agencies. And those who are still being cut out of the loop (at least as far as we know) are seeking access, in order to hunt down other dangerous individuals — like copyright infringers. The NSA says it doesn’t share this data, but it does. And yet, supporters like Harrop still buy the agency’s statements that it doesn’t view content, just metadata.
Schindler, being the company man that he is, also brings a little internet-denizen-slamming of his own into the conversation.
“[T]he idea of 10,000 NSA agents looking at our pictures of cats and pornography is pure fantasy,” he remarked.
Stupid internet users. Concerned about their cats and porn. Who would even care about their internet usage, metadata, etc.? Not the NSA. It’s more interested in passing around tapes of phone calls from Americans stuck in the Mideast, looking for an intimate moment or two with their significant others. Why bother with porn when you can record someone else’s “sex tapes?”
And there’s so much more. Harrop refers to Glenn Greenwald as “the left-wing journalist flogging heated conspiracy theories” who “routinely hyperventilates against Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats supporting the program” when not devolving into “bursts of self-promotion.”
And it’s not just lefties Harrop thinks are prone to “manic” bouts of anti-NSA “hysteria.” It’s also “extremists” from the other side of political divide. (Take note of this portrayal as it is almost as common as everything listed above.)
Unsurprisingly, the paranoia has attracted allies on the far right.
Yep, it’s only those on the far-left or far-right that are concerned about the NSA. Anyone more centrally-located is perfectly fine with the data harvesting. Odd, though, that Amash’s NSA-defunding amendment would gather so much support from both sides of the aisle. Congress must be full of extremists.
And then… Harrop pushes herself right off the same sort of deep end she spent the preceding paragraphs disparaging.
What holds the hard right-left alliance together is this: They hate Obama.
We’ll just leave that one lying there (much as Harrop does) because if anything doesn’t deserve a response, that insipid, isolated, brain spasm of an assertion certainly doesn’t. Someone could fill an entire comment thread solely attacking the inherent wrongness of that “conclusion,” but you’re not going to find it up here.
Finally, Harrop ties this travesty together with the cheapest, shittiest brand of rhetorical twine.
[T]here’s no way to find the terrorist needle in the haystack of communications without combing through the haystack. After the next terrorist outrage, we won’t be having this discussion. You can be sure of that.
Really, Harrop? Really? We “won’t be having this discussion?” By “outrage,” I assume you mean “attack” and if we’re attacked, then these programs you’re defending haven’t really done anything to make the nation safer. The discussion will be EVERYWHERE. Critics will point out the failure of the programs. People like you will argue that we need more of the same surveillance that failed us any number of times in the past. But I guarantee the last effect a “terrorist outrage” will have is a shutdown of the discussion.
If this is what passes for a “defense” of these programs, then we’re safe to assume the programs are indefensible.