Tag: Glenn Greenwald

Anti-Corporate Government Bootlicking

As more and more comes out about the surveillance state that Barack Obama has erected, the victims of ODDS (Obama Defense Derangement Syndrome) continued to spin, continue to insist that this is nothing, continue to insist that this is all overblown hysterical paranoid hype. The latest is this piece of anti-libertarian boot-licking hogwash. It is one-stop shopping for absurdity. A few examples:

Schneier literally begged internet tech companies to shield him from the big bad government by refusing NSA’s requests to attain user data as part of the agency’s effort to monitor overseas communications. Yes, this is where we’ve arrived: Team Greenwald is pleading with for-profit corporations to protect them from the government.

Horseshit. What he’s asking them to do is to refuse to cooperate in mass surveillance. Anyone who uses the internet has to place a certain degree of trust in tech companies to not exploit their information. Often this trust is violated when they use our information for marketing purposes. What Schneier and others are asking is for the tech companies to not violate our trust in the most dangerous way possible — by making it easy for government to snoop on us.

NSA, and the U.S. government in general, isn’t interested in our Instagram pics of our disgusting dinners or our Wonka memes or our goats-that-scream-like-men videos.

Condescending nonsense. The Boston bombers were caught because of pictures taken by private citizens. Don’t think for a second this went unnoticed. Electronic records and media are routinely used in criminal cases. Government is interested in your instragram pictures if they show illegal activity or something that might be connected to illegal activity. And the more the technology improves, the more they will become interested.

The unspoken reality is that the government invented the internet when it established ARPANET, under the Defense Department agency now known as DARPA (home of the creepy robots). The government also regulates the internet. Government R&D funding helped to create Mosaic, the first web browser. The government will spend $1.4 billion on web infrastructure and content next year (not enough, in my opinion). The United States ranks ninth in internet speed and this pathetic ranking won’t be solved by tech companies alone. The government is the only thing that stands between net neutrality and corporate-tiered bandwidth. The reality is that in terms of “commandeering” the internet, the government was here before you were.

Government also builds roads. Does that mean they can pull us over and search our cars without suspicion? The federal government has specific authority over navigable waterways. Can they therefore pull over a cruise ship and strip search everyone on board? Can they search the computer of anyone who uses Amtrack? (Actually, they already are doing a lot of these things, with little protest from so-called liberals).

But the real thrust of the article is one we’ve heard before: eeevil corporations are collecting data on your all the time through cookies, through tracking and through software. So why on Earth would you object to government looking for terrorists when tech companies are looking for marketing info?

Well, first of all, many of us do object to that. But, second, and more important is something that is apparently too complicated for the government bootlickers to understand. What is the worst thing that Facebook is going to do to me based on the data they collect from my profile? Market something at me? Give my information to marketers? I’m not happy with that. But it pales in comparison to what government can do with my information. Government can fine me. Government can jail me. Government can take away my children. Government can execute me. Many of these things — such as taking my children or my money — government can do without trial.

We give our government extraordinary powers that corporations simply do not have. We give them these powers because they are necessary for our society to function. But we also give government these powers under certain conditions, which are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. No putting us in jail without a trail. No taking away our guns. No restraint on our speech. And no snooping through our papers without a warrant. And we are mindful of the euphemisms government uses to conceal violations of our rights.

What is going on now is that the government has pressed against and, in some cases, broken through the thin veil promises it has made to respect our lives, liberty, property and privacy. And we are pushing back. Pushing back against government over-reach is fine when it involvs war or poverty or Wall Street bailouts. But it’s suddenly hysterical Ron Paul gibberish when it comes to surveillance?

There is simply no moral equivalence between corporations putting cookies on our computers and the NSA engaging in mass surveillance with extra sugary promises that they’ll be nice. To draw such an equivalence is to demonstrate that you failed high school civics. We should be suspicious of corporations. But we should be more suspicious of government because they wield a far larger and more pervasive power.

Again, how many people has Facebook executed? How many people has Twitter jailed? Did General Motors inter thousands of innocent Japanese people? Did Proctor and Gamble pretend to cure black men of syphilis just to see what would happen? If they did do these things, would they not be held accountable?

That government will abuse its surveillance power is not some Ron Paul fever dream. It has. It does. It will. Just last week we found out that the DEA is using NSA data to pursue drug cases. We know that other government agencies are clamoring for access to NSA data. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko shows instances where regulatory inspectors have had cops “ride along” with them and conduct warrantless searches for contraband. These powers will be abused, especially if they are allowed to fester in secret, away from the public eye.

And again, it’s worth repeating this point:

There is no such thing as having nothing to hide. If someone decides that you are inconvenient, they can find something to pin on you. And NSA surveillance gives them the means — under the pretext of terrorism — to look for something to pin on you.

I’m not going to pretend that big business is all sweetness and light. I’m in favor of government regulations to protect the environment, improve worker safety and keep our food clean (although I think the current regulatory framework has become far too burdensome). I favor these things not because I think corporations are evil, but because I know they are run by human beings (just like the government is). And human beings find it very easy to rationalize irresponsible behavior (just like the government does). The lead industry spent decades denying the evidence of their own eyes about the damage they were wreaking on society.

(It’s worth noting, of course, that some of the worst corporate behavior is often enabled by crony capitalism, eminent domain abuses, regulatory capture and outright corruption. Government encourages corporations to engage in rent-seeking and punishes those that do not genuflect to it. In past centuries, vast business empires were built on government corruption. Even today, cash-strapped cities bend over backward to subsidize and support the politically powerful. Detroit may be bankrupt but they’re going to find $400 million to fund a stadium for the most successful franchise in the NHL.)

If you’re worried about corporations tracking our computer use, I share that worry. If you think government should regulate that behavior, I disagree, but at least that’s defensible. But you can not possibly look at the current situation and think that the answer is less scrutiny of the government.

When you really break it down, the focus of Cesca’s article, and indeed the focus of much of the defense of NSA, is revealed by the Ron Paul jalopy graphic that accompanies it. What matters to people like Bob Cesca and Charles Johnson and all the other ODDS suffers is a deep raging hatred of libertarianism. They haven’t really thought about the issues very clearly. What they’ve thought about is that Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Glenn Greenwald and a bunch of civil liberties whack jobs oppose it, therefore they favor it. They can not possibly find themselves on the same side of the issues as those … those … those crackpots.

The first sin in political thought is to define your beliefs entirely by whom you oppose, by which groups of — take your pick — libertarian nuts, dirty hippies, shyster lawyers, religious radicals or conservative nazis — you hate the most. Much of the support for Obama’s policies is born of a deep dislike for his critics.

That isn’t brilliant political insight. That’s tribalism.

Further Thoughts on Prism

A few notes as this story evolves:

You should read the NYT’s story about PRISM. It makes everything consistent: Greenwald’s original report, the tech companies denial and the reports we’ve been hearing off and on for the last seven years. Money quote:

Each of the nine companies said it had no knowledge of a government program providing officials with access to its servers, and drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders. Each said it did not provide the government with full, indiscriminate access to its servers.

The companies said they do, however, comply with individual court orders, including under FISA. The negotiations, and the technical systems for sharing data with the government, fit in that category because they involve access to data under individual FISA requests. And in some cases, the data is transmitted to the government electronically, using a company’s servers.

“The U.S. government does not have direct access or a ‘back door’ to the information stored in our data centers,” Google’s chief executive, Larry Page, and its chief legal officer, David Drummond, said in a statement on Friday. “We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law.”

Statements from Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, AOL and Paltalk made the same distinction.

But instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.

The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.

Tech companies might have also denied knowledge of the full scope of cooperation with national security officials because employees whose job it is to comply with FISA requests are not allowed to discuss the details even with others at the company, and in some cases have national security clearance, according to both a former senior government official and a lawyer representing a technology company.

This is less alarming than the initial reporting but still very very concerning. Keep in mind that, according to the Verizon story, the FISA court has been granting extremely broad warrants for surveillance. Keep in mind also that, according to the FISA laws, communications involving US citizens can be monitored.. Think about how many people overseas are on Twitter, on Facebook, use Google or read this very blog.

Do we have reason to be worried that these powers — which were a secret until now — will be abused? We already have reports that electronic communications of innocent Americans have been “accidentally” intercepted. The NSA is also trying to prevent the release of a Court opinion finding that they had engaged in unconstitutional spying.

And even if this weren’t the case, we know that these powers, especially when they lurk in secret, only have a tendency to expand. Powers intended for terrorism rapidly extend to drugs (which often involve foreign agents) and are then extended to ordinary crime. Think about the Constitution-shredding tactics used in the War on Drugs — asset forfeiture, for example — and how they been extended beyond the War on Drugs. Once you give our government a hammer, they will get the courts to rule that everything is a nail. I’m not particularly moved by the arguments — put forward by DNI Clapper and his apologists — that national security has been compromised. Not when some of our basic liberties are at stake. I’m pretty sure the terrorists are either completely clueless or avoid electronic communications, having assumed that something like this was going on.

The one thing I keep hearing is that we need to have a public debate about this. But keep in mind that the public debate hasn’t happened yet and is only happening to the extent that it is because of the leak. The Administration’s defenders would rather we not have had the debate at all.

Ah, the Administration’s defenders. Libertarians and some conservatives are responding to this revelation as you might expect. But the response of the Left Wing is disappointing if unsurprising. You know how we’ve used the terms “Bush Derangement Syndrome” and “Obama Derangement Syndrome”? They describe someone who has an irrational hatred of one of the two Presidents to the point where they always assume the worst motivations, the worst intentions and instantly believe any absurd story that emerges about them. Well, in the past few days, we’ve been seeing a lot of “Obama Defense Derangement Syndrome”: people who believe that any criticism of Obama falls into the ODS category (or is a sign of crypto-racism). Their increasingly mindless defense of the President is not based on any facts or any actions of his; they are based on who his critics are. So if Rand Paul disagrees with the President … well, Rand Paul is a nut so the President’s actions must be defensible.

The ODDS starting immediately with people saying the Prism slides didn’t look professional and might be faked. After they were confirmed, they jumped on the tech companies denial of the existence of the system (conveniently ignoring the Greenwald specifically mentioned those denials in his original report). Then they said that Bush started it (true enough; but Obama ran against that and has now brought it to its apotheosis). Now they’re claiming that we had a public debate (the tense is wrong; we’re having one now, thanks to the leak).

They have further parroted the President’s lie that Congress and the Courts signed off on all this without a qualm. But Senators Udall, Wyden and Paul were among many who objected to these powers, who tried to get basic civil liberties protections into the laws and warned us about the surveillance state that was being built. Senator Sensenbrenner, one of the architects of the Patriot Act, blasted the President for going beyond what was intended and not getting Congressional approval. As noted above, the Courts have pushed back on this, to the extent that they’ve been consulted. And, it bears repeating, much of the detail is in secret with many participants forced into silence under penalty of law. Citing the Sunday Morning Talkshow Dipshits as though they were an authority is simply abandoning your duty as a citizen.

The biggest tell for ODDS is ad hominem attacks on his critics. And, in this case, it’s attacks on Glenn Greenwald. I have my issues with Greenwald. I agree with him on civil liberties but the list of things I disagree with him on — Bradley Manning, Israel, the War on Terror, healthcare — is very long. But to suggest, as many are doing, that his revelation is based on some kind of personal animus against the President is ridiculous. Greenwald calls it as he sees it. He was highly critical of Bush, too. He is highly critical of almost everyone. He is always inflammatory on the subject of civil liberties. This sometimes leads him to overstate his case or assume the worst. But that’s his way and it always has been.

In this case, he has a legitimate story: the federal government has now admitted that the infrastructure exists for massive electronic surveillance; that they are already using this with FISA on foreign targets; that they have been able to get broad court orders to get meta-data from cell phone companies (which can be as intrusive as actual wiretapping). Claims that this reporting is “irresponsible” or “hysterical” misses that we should be kind of hysterical about broad surveillance powers. Reporting on this kind of government program is the press’s job. And responding to it by saying that we should just trust our government, that we should let Obama make these decisions, that “no one elected Glenn Greenwald” is subservient hogwash.

There is a need for our government to keep some things secret (and Greenwald specifically refused to publish technical details of PRISM for that reason). All Americans understand that there are things the government has to do on the quiet. But the creation of a massive surveillance state — a state that could be turned on us quite easily — is not something we should just trust our politicians to execute, no matter who they are or how much of a tingle they might give us up our leg.

Postscript: The identity of the leaker is now known. He has fled to Hong Kong, citing their commitment to civli liberties. This frankly strikes me as deranged, given Chinese law. I suspect the real reason for going there is to avoid extradition.

PPS: As for the political impact of all this, I suspect it will be small. Unfortunately, the American people are all too willing to ignore encroachments on their liberty.

Blood for Oil?

Glenn Greenwald has an interesting piece up on the latest from wikileaks:

The entire article is worth reading, as it details how Gaddafi has progressively impeded the interests of U.S. and Western oil companies by demanding a greater share of profits and other concessions, to the point where some of those corporations were deciding that it may no longer be profitable or worthwhile to drill for oil there. But now, in a pure coincidence, there is hope on the horizon for these Western oil companies, thanks to the war profoundly humanitarian action being waged by the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner and his nation’s closest Western allies:

Is there anyone — anywhere — who actually believes that these aren’t the driving considerations in why we’re waging this war in Libya? After almost three months of fighting and bombing — when we’re so far from the original justifications and commitments that they’re barely a distant memory — is there anyone who still believes that humanitarian concerns are what brought us and other Western powers to the war in Libya? Is there anything more obvious — as the world’s oil supplies rapidly diminish — than the fact that our prime objective is to remove Gaddafi and install a regime that is a far more reliable servant to Western oil interests, and that protecting civilians was the justifying pretext for this war, not the purpose? If (as is quite possible) the new regime turns out to be as oppressive as Gaddafi but far more subservient to Western corporations (like, say, our good Saudi friends), does anyone think we’re going to care in the slightest or (at most) do anything other than pay occasional lip service to protesting it? Does anyone think we’re going to care about The Libyan People if they’re being oppressed or brutalized by a reliably pro-Western successor to Gaddafi

Well, yes, I kind of think these aren’t the driving considerations and there are several reasons for this.

First, the United States was not the driving force behind this war — Europe was. And the Europeans — being older and wiser than us — have a long long history of trying to appease oil-rich potentates. Their lack of support for Israel, for example, is heavily based on oil politics. And it was the UK that specifically released mass murderer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi — against the Obama Administration’s objections — in an effort to appease Libya on trade issues.

Second, the WaPo article that is the basis for Greenwald’s undermines the conspiracy mongering quite a bit. It notes, for example, that this influence process worked both ways. Gaddafi was trying to use oil to influence US policy. He was furious that he wasn’t getting more political consideration in exchange for oil. And the oil company production took a hit, not from nationalization, but from the unrest. Had Gaddafi been allowed to massacre the resistance, oil production would be higher today.

Third, the current action is not good for anyone’s business interests. The Left tried this “blood for oil” logic out in Iraq as well. They didn’t consider that the cost of the Iraq War (so far) would have bought us a quarter of a century of Iraq’s entire oil production. Going to war for Iraq’s oil would have one of the dumbest business decisions of all time. Not that the Last Administration was immune from bad decisions, of course.

Libya has about 40 billion barrels of proven reserves — about $4 trillion at current market prices — and is pumping out about 2 million barrels a day — $200 million worth. However, not all of that production is for Western companies and the marginal difference between what Gaddafi wanted and our supposedly nefarious oil companies would want is not nearly going to be worth the cost of the war (probably around $10 billion so far).

Note also the verbiage used: the oil companies were “considering” abandoning Libyan oil field. Not that they had.

Fourth, this thing did not start with us. It’s not like we started bombing Libya for no reason. His own people started a rebellion. Nor did that rebellion happen in a vacuum — it was part of a wave of political rebellion across the entire region.

Now all this having been said, I haven’t proven that the war didn’t start for oil. All I have done is spelled out four considerations of why this may not be the case. Companies and countries make dumb decisions and there’s no reason for them to have acted rationally.

In fact, I do think it likely that oil is influencing our actions here. But not an evil conspiracy smoke-filled room level. I think it’s more likely that the oil issue brought our particular attention to this country. Oil is why we noticed what was going on; it’s not necessarily why we acted the way we did.

Of course, this is the point where I have to note the inconsistency of the rest of the Left. There is far less evidence that oil interests informed our decision to go into Iraq than Libya, but it’s an article of faith among the Democrats that the former was an evil oil-motivated war while the latter is not. And however much they might be theorizing about oil interests in Libya, they have yet to make anywhere near the ruckus about Libya that they did about Iraq.

In that sense, I actually have to praise Greenwald for, unlike so many, not being a partisan hack. He’s just as conspiracy-minded with Obama as he was with Bush. That’s something, I guess.

Update: I should note that there is a catch-22 here. Had we not acted in Libya, the same people complaining that we acted because of oil would be complaining that we didn’t act because of oil.