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Why the Obama Administration is not the Stasi

big barryThe Obama Administration is not the Stasi. After all, the Stasi notoriously created a nation-state of informants.

Instead of pesky informants, the Obama Administration prefers the “hoovering” of all electronic data, foreign and domestic, as well as the use of drones to spy on the citizenry. (And what does a drone do in such cases? It’s one of a million surveillance cameras, only it’s in the sky instead of on the ground.)

But rest assured, Barack “The Surveiller” Obama has made the determination with regards to your privacy and these programs are well worth the intrusion into every corner of the American life. It’s a small price to pay.

(The problem isn’t that these things are illegal; the problem is that they are legal.)

Send lawyers, drones, and money. It’s for your own good.

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Reeducating Nadler

Has Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) been assimilated?

Here is Nadler as of Thursday:

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed on Thursday that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding that.”

If the NSA wants “to listen to the phone,” an analyst’s decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. “I was rather startled,” said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee.

Here is Nadler—maybe—via his mouthpiece, today:

James Owens, a spokesman for Nadler, provided a statement on Sunday morning, a day after this article was published, saying: “I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant.” Owens said he couldn’t comment on what assurances from the Obama administration Nadler was referring to, and said Nadler was unavailable for an interview.

So who are we to believe: Nadler, who says an analyst can serve as the decision authority on a listen-in, or the Nadler rep who toes the Administration line but contradicts his boss’s statement?

For the touchy-feely and gullible crowd, the President’s chief offers that Obama does not “feel” American’s privacy has been violated. (In related news from the annals of communism, Chairman Mao, Uncle Joe, and Pol Pot all “felt” they were exemplary leaders.)

Given the massive amount of information that can be held on a thumb drive (and that multiple thumb drives may be in play; you can get a 32 gig thumb drive for less than twenty bucks), is Glenn Greenwald just waiting for the right time to make a liar of (almost) everyone?

The surveillance state’s massive credibility problem

The surveillance state is simply not credible as the basic assertion of the watchers/gatherers appears to be this: “good” Americans are wholly surveilled while their privacy remains intact. Or, in some sort of paradox that makes sense only to the watchers and gatherers, we are monitored but free.

From the Washington Post comes the story of a leaker trying to do some damage repair:

The White House, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the record for this article. A senior intelligence official agreed to answer questions if not identified.

So based on the above, we likely have authorized leaks from an unidentified source. What’s comes next? The unnamed source’s plea for trust, naturally. Here’s what the leaker says:

“We have rich oversight across three branches of government. I’ve got an [inspector general] here, a fairly robust legal staff here . . . and there’s the Justice Department’s national security division,” the official said. “For those things done under court jurisdiction, the courts are intrusive in my business, appropriately so, and there are two congressional committees. It’s a belts-and-suspenders-and-Velcro approach, and inside there’s rich auditing.”

This might be the sort of “rich oversight” the IRS is subject to on non-profits, along with the associated “rich auditing.” (“Rich auditing” may in fact be code for “political targeting.” And as it turns out, the IRS is the one who does the auditing, not the public. We really don’t know much regarding the true genesis of the IRS scandal except that it’s a massive oversight failure. And ironically, those at the top often hide behind claims of “privacy.”)

Next, industry wants the top cover that only government can provide (and government is happy to do so. It makes the story sound so much better.)

When the New York Times revealed the warrantless surveillance of voice calls, in December 2005, the telephone companies got nervous. One of them, unnamed in the report, approached the NSA with a request. Rather than volunteer the data, at a price, the “provider preferred to be compelled to do so by a court order,” the report said. Other companies followed suit. The surveillance court order that recast the meaning of business records “essentially gave NSA the same authority to collect bulk telephony metadata from business records that it had” under Bush’s asserted authority alone.

So there you have it: meet the new boss, same as the old boss (except the new boss has a government approved program which is the same as the old, decider-approved program).

And what about the internet?

The NSA calls Internet metadata “digital network information.” Sophisticated analysis of those records can reveal unknown associates of known terrorism suspects. Depending on the methods applied, it can also expose medical conditions, political or religious affiliations, confidential business negotiations and extramarital affairs.

What permits the former and prevents the latter is a complex set of policies that the public is not permitted to see. “You could do analyses that give you more information, but the law and procedures don’t allow that,” a senior U.S. intelligence lawyer said.

We saw how that worked in preventing the Boston Marathon terror attacks, didn’t we? So where are we? We’re all the way back to where we started, with the Administration saying “trust me, trust the law, trust my procedures.”

The agency and its advocates maintain that its protection of that data is subject to rigorous controls and oversight by Congress and courts. For the public, it comes down to a question of unverifiable trust.

“The constraints that I operate under are much more remarkable than the powers that I enjoy,” said the senior intelligence official who declined to be named.

When asked why the NSA could not release an unclassified copy of its “minimization procedures,” which are supposed to strip accidentally collected records of their identifying details, the official suggested a reporter submit a freedom-of-information request.

So the final non sequiter is that the Administration’s leaker tells the reporter he/she’s leaking to that ‘A FOIA request should be submitted.’

After all this, if you’re going to give the leak, can’t you also include information which actually enhances your position? Why fall back on asking the leak-taker to file a FOIA request (which is far from timely and would be redacted to the point of incomprehensibility)? Good grief, man, you’re already leaking!

The failure to leak on “minimization procedures” is telling. This entire story, a gigantic “trust me” tale, is just like everything else coming out of the vast surveillance state: it comes across as disinformation and narrowly ranges between dissembling and wholly non-credible.

Warrants? Warrants?! We don’t need no stinkin’ warrant!!

Remember when the President said no one was listening to your calls? Well, it seems he was pulling a Clapper.

Instead, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) is helping to unravel Obama’s disinformation campaign: (emphasis added)

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed this week that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding that.”

If the NSA wants “to listen to the phone,” an analyst’s decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. “I was rather startled,” said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee.

Not only does this disclosure shed more light on how the NSA’s formidable eavesdropping apparatus works domestically it also suggests the Justice Department has secretly interpreted federal surveillance law to permit thousands of low-ranking analysts to eavesdrop on phone calls.

Because the same legal standards that apply to phone calls also apply to e-mail messages, text messages, and instant messages, Nadler’s disclosure indicates the NSA analysts could also access the contents of Internet communications without going before a court and seeking approval.

The disclosure appears to confirm some of the allegations made by Edward Snowden, a former NSA infrastructure analyst who leaked classified documents to the Guardian. Snowden said in a video interview that, while not all NSA analysts had this ability, he could from Hawaii “wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president.”

On the Truth-O-Meter, it’s Snowden 42, Administration 0… at halftime.

The corruption of language… and the truth

The disconnect between what people say and the truth has arguably never been larger.

Leading the way, at the moment, is James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. He’s the guy who said the national surveillance state was “not wittingly” collecting data on Americans. Clapper could easily have offered to answer the question truthfully in a closed hearing or to take a question for the record, both of which are done all the time with Congress, but he didn’t. Instead, he lied and it’s far more reasonable to assume that all your electronic transactions are being catalogued, correlated, and characterized by both industry and government.

Then there’s the President who falsely said Congress had been “fully briefed on these [surveillance] programs” when they hadn’t. Why would the President say such a thing? Easy: it’s a habit. He wants to 1) blame others and 2) avoid uncomfortable problems. Yes, misery loves company. The President, lacking credibility, also mechanically reoffered the standard “I welcome this debate” throwaway line as it regards the depth and breadth of the surveillance state. He welcomes no such thing.

Meanwhile, the NSA’s “industry partners” craft careful statements which imply no knowledge of government data calls while avoiding the unpleasant reality that they’re gathering all sorts of your information and are doing their very best to exploit their haul while also handing it off to the feds.

The Administration’s actions have shown they do not welcome transparency of any sort, except as it concerns crowing about victories and success stories, even when this crowing compromises national security. Mr. Obama says the global war on terror is over, even as the government’s GWOT actions continue unabated and intrusions into the lives of the citizenry expand.

And of course, White House spokesman Jay Carney is an entire case study unto himself.

Discrimination from the IRS is said to be caused by a pair of rogue agents in Cincinnati while in reality it was a big (88 people, so far; expect more), Washington DC-driven (that is, it was a top-down effort) initiative, in every way.

The Senate is working on “comprehensive immigration reform” which most Americans would rightly call amnesty. The usual suspects, both liberal and pseudo-conservative, demand Republican participation (that is, voting for amnesty) or else they say conservatives will face extinction.

Finally, the Benghazi security debacle was spontaneously caused by a YouTube video until that lie could not be sustained.

Regardless of the President’s protestations of innocence, most people know and accept that this fish rots from the head (and not from the tail). Similarly, the people of Russia, Venezuela, Syria, Cuba, Egypt, China, Turkey, et al., know of these—and even more rotten—things. Maybe that’s why sales of one particular edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have gone up almost 10000 percent since the confirmation of the great American surveillance state.

The real lesson is simple… and sad. Americans are being deceived and mislead with malice and forethought and on a level once thought impossible, or even absurd. Why? To further an agenda of power and control. So instead of watching what they say—the “they” being the politicos and their courtiers—let’s resolve ourselves to watch what they do. And as required, to fight it.

Legal versus Constitutional (and does it matter?)

When the time is right—whenever that may be—expect another major media drop on America’s surveillance state, which has been much described as a legal endeavor which is well worth its modest privacy encroachment. In the meantime, the Administration appears to be working hard in order to get out in front of the likely media release:

… Michael Hayden told TPM yesterday that the NSA probably knows by now exactly what data Snowden has in his possession and therefore what leaks are still to come. Maybe that forced the agency to reveal more than they initially wanted to in their briefings this week with Congress: If they withheld something and then the world found out thanks to Snowden,, a lot of angry senators and representatives would want to know why they were kept in the dark.

(Nine tech companies have already been tagged as Prism players, so will the outrage go off scale when we find out about the rumored 50 participants?)

So even if this is all legal, does anyone think just because a law is in place, it’s congenitally Constitutional, desirable, justified, supported, and/or necessary?

(And what are we to think when someone, say a chief justice in a 5-4 ruling, turns himself into a political pretzel in ruling on Barack Obamacare in order to avoid being tarred as “political”?)

An obvious truth is no one believes the executive branch, the legislature, and the judiciary always get things right. After all, not even the President, the very face of the government leviathan, believes this, witness his outrage—staged or real—with regard to Citizens United.

So the lesson, assuming there is one, can be reduced to this: our government is composed of flawed people who make flawed decisions based on… what? The time of day, self-interest, glycemic level, mood, eternal truths, expediency, and naked politics all come to mind. But the more resources the government controls and the less transparent their activities, the greater the opportunity for misbehavior, whether great or small.

And since many view the Constitution as a mere guide, which is “living and breathing,” does it really matter a source of truth?

The oath of office requires the individual to practice fidelity to the Constitution. So if the Constitution is in a constant state of redefinement, what is the individual really honoring?

And in the end, who should be trusted to run our lives, the ruling class (that is, the vast government bureaucracy like the IRS, the Justice Department, the surveillance state, etc.) or its citizens?

IMHO, Bill Buckley has never looked more prescient.

The new McDonalds

By 1976, McDonalds had served 20 billion hamburgers. Today? More. Many more.

But McDonalds has a volume-based rival, the government’s electronic surveillance programs. As it is, the government (that is, the Obama Administration) has pulled way ahead with a billion electronic transactions per day (emphasis added).

“Right now, we have a situation where the executive branch is getting a billion records a day, and we’re told they would not query that data except pursuant to very clear standards,” he [Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.)] said. “But we don’t have courts making sure those standards are always followed.”

As the President might have said, “This surveillance state? You didn’t build that. We built it… actually, we paid to have it built. For your own good. Trust us, we’re pre-law…”

Is the NSA cure worse than the disease?

So beyond the practice of having the federal government track and characterize your calls,  watch your credit card transactions, and scrutinize everything you do on line, can we talk about the real issue at hand? That is, is the government’s cure to terrorism (and a great many other things) worse than the disease?

While our current President has decided for our benefit that a near-total loss of privacy for the ruled is a small price to pay, others—those losing their privacy—might feel quite differently.

Sadly, the decider and his handlers (since the whole thing is classified), point out they’d welcome a “conversation” about government eavesdropping except that it’s classified to begin with and therefore can’t be discussed. Ironically, expect the news on the surveillance state to now dribble out from within the Administration in a way that’s leaked to benefit their agenda. (Unless some in the media already have a large data dump on the surveillance state queued up and  ready to hit the fan.)

There’s speculation about the motives of NSA super-leaker Edward Snowden just as there’s angst, gnashing of teeth, and pretzel logic from the über partisans who are now defending the agenda and practices of the current president which are those of the previous president, writ extra large.

In the meantime, the welfare/security/surveillance-state warning light is illuminated steadily. Will the President take any meaningful action to enhance the privacy of the citizenry or will he keep things on auto-pilot as we continue down our slippery glide-slope?

All signs point towards auto-pilot; auto-pilot helps sustain the power and control agenda of the ruling class.

What a difference a day makes

Before the Verizon and Prism reveals, Barack Obama was thought to have planned to pummel visiting China President Xi Jinping on the issues of Chinese hacking and cyber security.

However, given the behind-the-curtain look at the depth and breadth of the American surveillance state, it’s more likely that Xi asked Mr. Obama for some pointers. (Similarly, Xi might also consider an off-the-record visit with AG Eric Holder regarding unfreedom of the press and with the IRS on the punitive use of the federal bureaucracy.)

Perhaps, as he’s doing with America’s nuclear deterrent force, Mr. Obama will choose to unilaterally cyber disarm, so as to demonstrate our good faith towards China.

Let us all seek Booz

The myth surrounding JFK was called Camelot. The reality of the Obama kingdom may be called Scamalot and it’s enough to drive one to drink.(Scanalot would also be acceptable description of the President’s kingdom, but in total, it’s less comprehensive and therefore, less accurate.)

Yes, as it regards life in America as a government worker (or a government-industrial complex worker), it’s enough to make one seek Booz. That is Booz, as in employment at Booz Allen Hamilton. From Slate:

According to the Guardian, [leakmeister/whistleblower Edward] Snowden is a 29-year-old high school dropout who trained for the Army Special Forces before an injury forced him to leave the military. His IT credentials are apparently limited to a few “computer” classes he took at a community college in order to get his high school equivalency degree—courses that he did not complete. His first job at the NSA was as a security guard. Then, amazingly, he moved up the ranks of the United States’ national security infrastructure: The CIA gave him a job in IT security. He was given diplomatic cover in Geneva. He was hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contractor, which paid him $200,000 a year to work on the NSA’s computer systems.

Let’s note what Snowden is not: He isn’t a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He isn’t a State Department analyst. He’s not an attorney with a specialty in national security or privacy law.

Instead, he’s the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that.

Chances are the government was paying Booz around $500K per year to have Snowden support them.

And the block quote from Slate calls to mind another not very accomplished, experienced person, our very own Dear Reader, ruler of Scamalot. (Dear Reader may be credentialed, but that’s not the same as accomplished or experienced.)

Hey, the truth may hurt, but it’s still the truth.

In the meantime, get used to life under the all-knowing eye—although not yet the thumb—of  our Emperor. (And also get used to guys like Snowden—or worse guys—having the keys to the kingdom.)

A post-Prism world

What sorts of things might happen given the super surveillance state revelations (FISA orders, Prism, Boundless Informant, et al)? Here’s a partial list:

  • Lawsuits.
  • More cash transactions.
  • Increased use of private encryption (which may already be futile).
  • A massive fall-off in on-line porn.
  • Unfocused pushback (with tightly focused disgust) against a government Americans clearly aren’t in control of.
  • Tech companies become the new big oil/big tobacco/big retailer/big pharma, only less trustworthy.
  • Legislative calls for on-line privacy.
  • Realization that “on-line privacy” is an oxymoron.
  • More politically targeted IRS audits.
  • Government mandates cloud-only computing. “After considering all things, I’ve decided it’s worth it for you,” Mr. Obama says.
  • The United States becomes a nation people seek refuge from.

The last item on the list (but not necessarily chronologically) is your forehead gets bar coded and you get an RFID implant. (Or in lieu of that, you have your cell phone on and with you at all times. There’s little basic difference.)

Seeking solutions instead of blame

Let’s acknowledge the very uncomfortable truth: most of us are unwilling participants in a massive government-industrial surveillance experiment that would cause stalker-envy in the Stasi.

On the government side, the President falls back on legalisms (“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls”) while ignoring the fact that hardware, software, and/or people are tracking and recording information from your calls, your travels, your credit card purchases, your e-mails and files, your photographs, your bills, your voice over internet calls, and more. While Mr. Obama may not technically be lying, he’s intending to deceive. Similarly, he doesn’t want any discussion on how the government’s surveillance laws are interpreted and he prefers, once again, to throw down his well-used “trust me” card.

But the “trust me” card isn’t a viable play when the reservoir of trust has run dry.

On the industry side, the internet-based companies participating in Prism (there’s also the Boundless Informant program) offer a similar treatment: tightly worded denials that are intended to mislead. And they do so with the top cover of plausible deniability and secrecy provided by (and required by) the government. (The recurring use of the phrase no “direct access to our servers” suggests the government may have participated in drafting press releases.) And chances are, we’re just starting to find out about the depth and breadth of the government-industrial surveillance complex.

But in time, the government-industrial surveillance complex is likely to become less an issue of public outrage and more of a political ‘Who can we blame?’ issue. Even before this disgrace, the President knew his “Catastrophic Presidency Fail Light” had been illuminated steadily, so his position is simple: say Congress was all briefed (Congress disagrees), the judges all signed off, and therefor assert the program is all neatly legal.

Indeed, it may be so, but legal does not mean the surveillance state is just, proper, moral, ethical, beneficial, justified, or warranted. Those who were in the know in Congress are taking their cues from Mr. Obama and are falling back on the claim to legality, rubberstamped as it appears to be be.

So is there a solution to what appears to be a national intent-to-deceive on an unprecedented scale? A first step is to move from depression to acceptance. There are things that can be done and doing nothing would be a poor choice.

Like Soylent Green, our government (the IRS, the State Department, the Justice Department, the NSA, etc.) is made up of people. And all people are flawed, fallen creatures even as our federal government has long blown past the marginal benefits (arguable as they are) that we are said to receive. The conclusion now seems obvious: an ever bigger government creates ever bigger problems and ever bigger unintended consequences. This seems to be true whether government is promising to keep you safe (often, from yourself), employed, well-regulated, healthy, fed, educated, funded in retirement, or whatever else unkeepable promises may have been made, explicit or implicit.

If these things are true, it would seem the real solution to the government-industrial surveillance complex is to make the government smaller. (Industrial surveillance is another issue altogether.)

But how—exactly—do we make government smaller? It isn’t that hard; in fact, it’s simple.

When the government is overfunded (from both taxpayer contributions and debt), it is in a position to do too much, which as we’ve seen throughout history, isn’t a good thing. This happens even as government itself says, “Whatever we’re getting, it isn’t enough. Nor will it ever be so.”

Ergo, consider the words of the wise man who said, “If it ain’t funded, it ain’t.”