A right-Left peace treaty

A right-Left peace treaty
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The NSA/PRISM spying scandal that broke late last week has been so awash in sensationalism and intrigue it’s been more than a tad difficult separate fact from fiction.

So here’s what we do know:

A couple months ago, the United States National Security Agency ordered the phone company Verizon (and several of its competitors, it’s widely assumed), to hand over all records of all its customers’ phone calls, every day, until July 19. Verizon had no choice but to comply; the NSA had an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the institution of the US government with the power to authorize any act of invasive surveillance conducted in the name of national security.

The info Verizon’s been turning over is said to be basically the same as what we see on our phone bills — a complete chronology of the numbers each customer is calling, plus how often, how long, and from where. The government doesn’t get access to any actual conversations or names, which is why some call this kind of stuff “meta-data” — information that almost tells you something useful, but requires a lot of detective work to get there. This is controversy number one.

Controversy number two is the so-called PRISM program. Very few hard facts are known about it, but according to a leaked government slide show, the NSA also has some sort of scheme in place to obtain user data — photos and videos and posts and messages and whatnot — from the servers of all our favorite websites, including Facebook, Gmail, and Skype. Unlike the Verizon thing, which captures the phone records of everyone in the country, PRISM spying is supposed to only monitor the accounts of suspicious non-Americans. Or at the very least Americans conversing with a suspicious foreigner.

But all the companies in question deny they’re actually cooperating with PRISM, and as Alex Fitzpatrick noted on Mashable, what we do or don’t know about the thing is “seemingly changing by the hour.”

The details of both programs were exposed by a young CIA contract worker named Edward Snowden, who leaked a bunch of top secret NSA documents to Glen Greenwald, who is this far-left American dissident type character who lives in exile in Brazil and writes for the British newspaper The Guardian. Glenn Greenwald feels a lot of his pre-existing opinions about the sinister motives of the American government have been confirmed by Snowden’s leaks. And certainly lots of folks on social media and talk radio and cable chat shows seem to agree.

Snowden himself seems like a fairly unimpressive guy. The New Yorker‘s Jeff Toobin, for instance, calls him “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” For all his self-proclaimed virtue as a heroic whistle-blower, after all, nothing about either the phone snooping or PRISM program he revealed seems to be illegal.

Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the executive branch has pretty sweeping powers to snoop away as they please, providing they can get clearance from the Foreign Intelligence Court (which doesn’t seem hard). Congress has repeatedly voted to either authorize or reauthorize these powers with bipartisan approval, and most people who have been paying attention to such things over the last couple of years (including, one would hope, CIA employees) would be aware that for good or ill, the pro-spying arguments have consistently won the day. Even now, public support for phone snooping as anti-terrorism measure sits at around 56%.

What Snowden did, therefore, was simply attempt to sabotage two government programs from the inside because, as Toobin put it, they “failed to meet his own standards of propriety.” But whatever. Snowden will go to jail and the surveillance propriety “debate,” in the words of the President, is now back on.

During the most heated moments of the Obamacare battle I remember having a conversation with a friend who was quite incredulous — as numerous Canadians then were — that so many Americans were apparently willing to sacrifice the practical good of heavily subsidized, universally accessible health care in favor of the abstract principle of “small government.”

Canadians receive the bulk of their health insurance from massive state-run bureaucracies, and attend hospitals run by government appointees. All of my personal health information — my medical conditions, past operations, prescriptions, and whatnot — are thus in the hands of “the government,” in some form or another. I assume there are privacy regulations declaring how such data should be handled, but who knows. At some point, the people of Canada calculated that sacrificing our right to conceal some of our most intimate personal information from the scrutiny of the state was a fair trade for the sort of public good that a government-run health care monopoly supposedly provides.

All laws encroach on our personal liberty in some way, that’s why they’re laws. The question poised by the NSA regime is the same well-worn question Americans have been fretting over endlessly since 9-11 itself: is the threat of terrorism severe enough to justify the encroachments on constitutional rights demanded by the domestic security establishment? Even when said encroachments are more bothersome in theory than day-to-day practice?

If you’re a guy like Glen Greenwald (and, one assumes, Edward Snowden) who basically thinks the threat of terrorism is an elaborate fiction cooked up by the American ruling class to suppress domestic dissent and provide cover for wars of imperialism abroad, then the answer is obviously no. If you fear Islamists under every bed, then the answer’s probably yes. If you’re a normal person, you’re probably somewhat conflicted and can probably see both sides, which is probably why this issue is shaping to be one that doesn’t divide the public with any consistent ideological or partisan logic.

So where do you stand?




  1. Sven

    The last paragraph sums it up: there are two semi-valid sides to it. I find the whole phone records thing to be ethically dubious, and really just a continuation of the post-9/11 freak-out, for better and for worse.
    But as Toobin said: nothing here was illegal. Hell, it didn't even surprise me, really. I'm not going to sit here and defend the government's policy on the matter, but that doesn't give some random clown from the NSA free license to pass this information to a foreign newspaper. There is a PROCESS for dealing with government's improprieties, and selling state secrets is not a step in that process.

    I'm not going to call it "treason", but I won't call it "whistle-blowing" either (or even "patriotism", for that matter). Some of my friends think Snowden will be "suicided" the way Vladimir Putin's political enemies all seem to turn up dead. As for me: I think Snowden will live long enough to languish in obscurity, either in a third-world country, or a first-world prison.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    Well whether it is illegal is up to the courts to decide. The NSA was acting legally within the law and they were told it was. Is what the gov't overall is doing, if it is legal or not, is the question.

  3. Jake_Ackers

    Frankly, now I half feel I should refrain from making any comments what so ever. In case big brother is watching. ;)

    I see the next step is going to be situational warrants. In which when the government is going to "investigate" something or someone, anything remotely associated with it will automatically fall within the already asked for warrant.

    Btw if Snowden leaked something like this oh I know don't know. Lets say 6 years ago when we had another President, then Jeff Toobin would of been praising Snowden. This is worst than w/e Bush was doing. Obama's "let's-have-a-debate" is the typical political excuse. Like oh I will "address" the issue. Like make a "non-partisan" committee that will return with some findings and never do anything on it. Or just return what the President always wanted to hear. Seriously, if this was Bush the country would of been on fire. But because it's Obama and Obama says "I'm sorry" and "I'll look into this" or "It's for your own good" then Obama gets a past by all the left wingers.

    Sure I have privacy concerns especially if its misused like the whole IRS scandal. However, the thing that I am most annoyed by is the hypocrisy by the Left on this issue. If Bush did it, it was bad. If Obama does, it's for the good of the country. If John Kerry is a flip flop, its okay but when Mitt Romney does it, it's horrid. Bill Clinton goes to war without Congressional approval is okay but when Bush goes with some kind of Congressional approval is bad. The same thing applies to the Right and their hypocrisy. Although TBH the Right has always been split on security, Neo-Cons versus Lib't/Paleos.

    The US Gov't and more specifically this administration acts like the Constitution is there as a roadblock to the gov't from keeping us safe. The truth is it is there to stop our gov't from getting carried away as it has in the past. We can be secure while balancing our Constitution. We can have updated methods. Like more courts and even quicker courts that don't take weeks to get a warrant. All the people want is a more surgical approach than this broad strike.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    Btw last time we had a gov't surveillance scandal, everyone went nuts over something called Watergate. Many Republican seats were turned to Democrats ones for decades. But hey I suppose that was just Nixon being paranoid and not for security purposes. Nevertheless, seems quite minor now compared to this whole PRISM thing. Especially if there are other Nixon-like people with access to PRISM. Which isn't too far off considering the whole IRS scandal.

  5. Sven

    Watergate wasn't a "surveillance scandal", Watergate was Nixon operating a BURGLARY RING from the Oval Office, while suppressing the Justice Department's attempt to investigate the whole thing. The comparison is laughable.

  6. Jake_Ackers

    Burglary was the method. How is someone abusing the power of the IRS and then trying to cover it up not similar? What if someone were to abuse the PRISM and potentially try to cover it up like the IRS did?

    Watergate was a politically motivated illegal mess. Same with the IRS scandal. The difference the IRS scandal was an abuse of power, while yes the Watergate scandal was a straight up breaking the law. But the reason behind it is all the same is my point. Political.

  7. Sven

    Except the evidence is mounting that the White House had nothing to do with the IRS "scandal" whatsoever. The terrible comparisons continue!

  8. Jake_Ackers

    You completely misunderstood my point. I never said Obama was running the IRS scandal. Nixon abused his power of surveillance or just his power in general for POLITICAL reasons. What did the IRS do? Abuse their power for POLITICAL reasons. Now I'm not so much concerned with Obama pulling a Nixon while using PRISM. What I am worried is someone in the NSA pulling a Nixon while using PRISM because someone in the IRS has ALREADY pulled a Nixon while using tax forms. Unless you think the IRS agents that were investigating the Tea Party were all all conservatives.

  9. drs

    I think they were legitimately concerned that "Tea Party" groups applying for a non-political tax-exempt status were in fact political.

  10. Amiable Dorsai

    Of course it was, among other things, a "surveillance scandal." The whole point of the burglaries was to photograph documents, install listening devices and wiretap the phones at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

  11. Rachel Bush

    Well, the hypocrisy is cutting both ways. A lot of FOX News editorialists like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck have jumped ship from "whistleblowing is treason and undermining presidential authority in a time of war" to "Snowden is a patriot for his country." On the left, Sen. Diane Feinstein in the opposite direction. I feel there's a greater current overall toward pro-privacy than there would be if Bush were a Democrat that just got out of office, or maybe that's just the effect of distance from 2001 and a lot of people have genuinely changed their minds, but I think that's good regardless of whether PRISM itself is a good thing.

    Snowden didn't reveal anything consequential, but the evidence he has provided has opened the door for citizens to sue the federal government, whereas none could before because the charge was impossible to prove. I don't think the threat of terrorism is "cooked up by the ruling classes" but I think that given the minuscule odds of being victim to an incident, even without all the anti-terrorism dollars spent since 9/11, compared to the usual "everyday danger" statistics, most of the money we're spending would probably save a lot more lives invested elsewhere. (The PRISM program costs only $20 million, though, so cost is irrelevant here, though.)

  12. drs

    "However, the thing that I am most annoyed by is the hypocrisy by the Left on this issue. If Bush did it, it was bad. If Obama does, it's for the good of the country"

    There are hypocrites or partisans on both sides, but to take an obvious example Glenn Greenwald is a leftist and rather critical of Obama. In fact, there's lots of criticism of Obama from leftists, including people voting Green instead, and people openly voting for Obama as the best of two bad choices, not out of fervid enthusiasm.

  13. Jake_Ackers

    My overall point was the almost violent and at times outright violence by the Left when Bush was President. Now it is almost timid when compared. But yah like I mentioned there are hypocrites on both sides. However, if PRISM was under Bush the internet would of burned and American streets would of had massive riots. Or maybe like Rachel said people are coming around to the idea. Which frankly that scares me more.

  14. drs

    *What* "almost violent" or "outright violence"?

    I think you're totally wrong about the riots.

  15. Jake_Ackers

    Almost 300 people were arrested at the GOP Convention in 2008 for rioting and destroy property of local businesses. The effigies of Bush being burned because of the Patriot Act, Gitmo and the Iraq War by Americans in the US. The shootings into GOP/Bush offices. Now does the Right do things like that too? You bet. Especially now with Obama because that is because they think he is a socialist. Versus the Bush hate was, at least more so, because of policy. Like the Patriot Act, Gitmo and the Iraq War.

    Now Obama is doing what Bush did times 10. If Bush did what Obama is doing, wouldn't all those actions by the same people of been worst? Regardless of how you label the protests back in the 2001-2009. My two points is A) One has to admit if Bush did what Obama is doing, it would of been worst, the reaction. The hate was not just because of the person but also because of policy. And B) Obama is doing what Bush did but 10 times worst especially with PRISM. Yet, the protests pale in comparison.

    All I ask is for people to be consistent. People are protesting who is doing the policy not the policies themselves. Both sides are doing it. Where were all these Right wing people when Bush went into Iraq (not counting the Ron Pauls of the world)? Where were all the Left wing people when Obama went into Libya? At least Bush asked Congress for the Patriot Act and for Iraq. But Obama skipped Congress with Libya, used PRISM, and now is killing Americans without trial. All actions that should merit massive protests, hopefully peaceful, yet have not boiled to even a degree of what the fervor was under Bush.

  16. Rachel Bush

    Nah, I'd say the response this time around from the Left is the same as in 2006 and just as fervent. But before this event, I'd say you were right and the left was pretty silent.

    In 2006, for example, one of the revelations was that credit/debit card purchases are being monitored the same way that phone numbers are being logged now. This was after the initial revelations about international phone calls, and the Left treated it as the next wave of injustice. Then comes 2009 and Obama rehires the Treasury Department official responsible for carrying out that program, but no one bats an eye.

    I would say the most radical action ever executed by the Left with regard to this issue was Russ Feingold's failed attempt to censure Bush in 2007, when the phone bill collection aspect was first known, but it was claimed only to apply to U.S.-to-International calls. Meanwhile, the Democrats in the South voted to give telecoms voluntarily co-operating with the federal government over this total immunity from being sued (it was thought at the time they weren't being forced, but volunteering data), and Harry Reid probably supported it even back then.

    The Left couldn't get anything done in 2007, which might have been an even more convenient political year for the legislature to do something than when they had a supermajority. Democratic politicians either supported the program or felt that penalizing the Bush administration in any way would verify claims of being hyperpartisan, not at all reflecting Internet fervor which often called them "spineless".

    We couldn't get Democratic Party politicians to penalize Bush; how could we get them to penalize Obama? Though I think the fervor now is the same, the difference between 2013 and 2007 discussion among the pro-privacy Left is the loss of belief anything will actually done. Any discussion is mainly for its own sake and prompted by certain events like the Snowden leak. A few months from now, the left will again be silent, whereas before there would have always been "background radiation" discussion.

    So yeah, you're probably right. I don't even know why I've been typing this long, I should go do something useful. Which is probably what the Left has been saying to themselves in general lately.

  17. Jake_Ackers

    Good points Rachel. Thumbs up. Frankly, it seems the only individuals consistent with this are people like Rand Paul (and Ron). Even McCain (to a minor degree but on other issues as he did attack Bush as well).

  18. @AshburnerX

    I think the big problem with your analogy is that your government run healthcare program provides easily observable benefits. You get sick or hurt, you go to the hospital and aren't bankrupted by it. It's easy to see the benefit in letting the government have access to your records there because you're getting something out of it in a noticeable, positive way.

    Compare that to this intelligence program. What is the easy to see benefit? It's not stopping terrorist attacks because they are few and far apart… and more to the point, we often aren't even informed that they did anything because stopping an attack is also saying that your intelligence agency almost let one happen. Such events are highly unreported for security reasons. So why would we believe this program was doing anything but being used to target Americans when data on MILLIONS OF PEOPLE is being collected?

    It's just too much to ask, even knowing what it might give us. It certainly doesn't help that it sounds like the kind of thing China would use to arrest dissidents.

  19. Dryhad

    That is an excellent point. It can't just be taken as a given that this kind of invasion of privacy automatically guarantees increased safety. I also take exception to JJ's implication that I need to be some kind of conspiracy nut who thinks terrorism is "an elaborate fiction cooked up by the American ruling class" in order to believe that the terrorism is not a very big threat to my way of life (please note, I do not believe it is _no_ threat, just not a _pressing_ threat. It is objectively a low probability, if high impact, event. I am not the kind of person to walk around with a portable Faraday's cage in case I get struck by lightning). Everyone gets sick, very few people get killed by terrorists. And they tend to get killed whether or not the government is monitoring them.

  20. EBounding

    If you want to know where you stand on privacy, just e-mail me the phone calls you made from your phone bill. You can send them to ebounding@gmail.com.

    If you're not comfortable sending them to a weird internet guy, then you REALLY shouldn't be comfortable with the government looking at your phone records without even asking.

  21. @Kisai

    IMO this is just the slippery slope argument that Nineteen Eighty-Four (in 1949) was about. The government always wants more (taxes, regulation), promises what good comes of it (propaganda), and it just never ends.

    Also it's funny how people are reacting like this is anything new. Look up Echelon. This has being going on since the the 1970's, cold war paranoia. Now it's all about preventing domestic terrorism.

    The thing is the "terrorists", and even in the 1970's "the communists" already won, by making us try to proactively prevent such actions, instead of just letting such actions happen and going about like nothing ever happened (eg "quit feeding the trolls" as we now call it.) We now have governments and businesses willing to sacrifice the principles they were founded on in the name of safety.

    We are never going to see a government give back privacy and freedom without first collapsing under it's own weight.

    The few checks and balances we have on these privacy issues comes in the form of cheap communications which we didn't have until the 1990's. North Korea, China and various other countries who silence dissent, cut off their communications. That isn't happening in the US. No no, something much more theoretically tinfoil-hat like is happening, it's now the "threat of using communications being used against you", by leveraging loopholes in laws that don't apply outside the state.

    So for the vast majority of the English-speaking world, this is significant problem, and could easily spell result in the death of "cloud" services that people have been using. But to where is a country that has ironclad privacy laws on data hosting?

    In Canada we've being having that argument since the BC Liberals outsourced the Medical Services Plan billing to a US company, and then realized that it could be used by the US Government under the Patriot Act to spy on Canadians. http://www.lawsof.com/page/British-Columbia-Priva

    Like in all seriousness, this recent revelation of PRISM just told the rest of the world not to host data outside your borders.

  22. Jacob

    I'll stay away from the broader debate for now, but it is disappointing to see more smearing of a person simply by quoting an unjustified smear from another writer. Snowden is "unimpressive"? Ok, say why, or quote someone actually giving a reason. At the very least, he took an enormous risk on principle. Perhaps that was misguided and foolish, perhaps is was heroic. Either view should actually be argued, not simply claimed.

  23. drs

    Part of JJ's pattern of belittling people, IMO.

  24. Guest

    JJ's allowed to have an opinion, yes? He doesn't think much of Snowden. Would it be better if it were expressed in a cartoon rather than in text?

  25. J.J. McCullough

    My point was that he was unimpressive because he broke his employer's oath of secrecy by leaking details of a entirely legal government program for no reason other than he felt like bringing it down from the inside. That is not impressive behaviour in my book.

  26. Jake_Ackers

    Depends on what you mean as "legal." Legal? Yes. Constitutional? No freaken way. Oath is to the protect our Constitution, not to the agency or a paycheck.

  27. EBounding

    "We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal'" – Martin Luther King Jr.

  28. Jake_Ackers

    Perfect freaken quote.

  29. @MilesToCode

    If this program was so successful, then why didn't they manage to intercept the two idiots in Boston?

    And more curious than that, where the HELL is Anonymous when they could really be of good use?

  30. Jake_Ackers

    Same reason they know about Bengazhi and let it happen. Incompetence. Of course if Bush did it, it would be because he hates black people (Katrina) or hates our troops (Iraq War).

  31. Adam

    A few commenters have already mentioned that the anti-terrorism systems the U.S. has in place aren't effective, but the AG and and DNI have both said in no uncertain terms that many terror plots have indeed been foiled through the use of the various much-hated programs. And who are we to doubt their word? Just the uninformed masses.

    That's a big concern for me. They never talk about the effectiveness of their programs, or the size of the threat they're dealing with, until something like this happens and then all they say is, "The threat exists and our programs are dealing with it." Oh. Okay. I can sort of understand not wanting to compromise your sources (actually if somebody wants to explain that to me I would not mind) but you can't even give us numbers? "We foiled eleven plots this year, three of which involved planned use of an explosive, and one of which involved planned use of an explosive in a heavily populated area". For example. Why shy away from data so much? If you're going to give people zero information about the threat their facing, you ought to expect, and probably deserve, resistance.

    And slippery-slope arguments are valid. No new act of tyranny seems unambiguously intolerable in the context of the current state of tyranny.

  32. Jake_Ackers

    Because it doesn't serve them politically. They sure found a way to leak the Iran nuclear sabotage mission.

  33. Tom

    Unrelated to content but…. Is the guy on the right wearing a peace button AND a Super Smash Bros. button?

  34. J.J. McCullough

    I have amazing readers. Nothing gets past you guys.

  35. Amiable Dorsai

    We cannot have a debate on a subject that is kept secret from us. Whether we would choose the dubious safety offered by this program or not is irrelevant if we are not allowed to know about it. Snowden has done us a great favor

    I fear an unaccountable government far more than I do Al Qaeda.

  36. jonasbelford

    My view on the surveillance thing is that it works, but in a weird sense. The main threat of terrorism is the Black Swan event–the unexpected and unanticipated blindside that ends up becoming 9/11 all over again. The key part of this is 'unexpected'. The more that's known, the fewer chances events can combine to create another black swan event.

    Having said that, children under 7 with guns have killed more Americans this year than terrorists.

  37. Ann Apolis

    The main thrust of the Guardian's coverage, perhaps unsuprisingly for a non-American paper, is the spying on non-Americans – in particular, the fact that the British secret service appear to have been somewhat appallingly complicit in this. There are very specific laws against GCHQ spying on British citizens without explicit authorisation – there are, however, no laws against the Americans spying on British citizens and then giving GCHQ the data as a present, and there appears to have been some sort of unofficial agreement to use this loophole.

  38. Yannick

    Breach of privacy in a Canadian hospital will get you immediate termination. Your medical records are probably much safer with a big, government owned hospital whose main directive is to follow their own regulations than with a private company whose main motivation is making profits.

    The same can be said of safety, incident reporting, employee satisfaction and all those other things that eat away at "efficiency".

    All that, and the healthcare of Canada has HALF the per-capita cost of the American system, because labor and administrative costs are driven way down when half the hospital staff isn't working to wrangle with private insurances or trying to get their patients to pay them.

  39. Virgil

    Honest thought….

    We may be heading through a realignment here in America, whereby the anti-federal elements are getting together and the pro-federal elements are getting together. This is far different than a 20th century where the parties were basically management/small business vs. labor. The libertarian left is joining up with the libertarian right. My suggestion would be that this has a lot to do with the end of industrial America.

    Any thoughts on that?

  40. Joe

    As if leftists don't want the government to keep us "safe" lol

    Who do you think are the ones leading the anti-gun charges after mass shootings?

  41. Guest

    I think you're missing a key point here. A government with sufficient health data on its citizens is only dangerous insofar as it is liable to be complicit in some sort of disablist campaign. Health care records are typically subject to strict controls, and how they're used is transparent to the data subject (at least in the EU, the US and, I think, Canada has weaker overall data protection). Generally, the motivations for government to abuse this data are weak, except perhaps in the area of social security (and in practice, it can easily make data sharing a condition of social security irrespective of whether the healthcare provider is private).

    On the other hand, a government collecting political data under the guise of anti-terrorism legislation (which has fewer checks) has not only the means to terrorise people but a motive – threatening political dissidents makes it harder for them to recruit and they must spend more time dealing with whatever disruption is thrown their way (including, for instance, being arrested), and thus the government is more secure. There is a reason secret ballots are seen as necessary in a democracy (and, by some, the right not to be deprived of your vote).