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NSA Surveillance: Diversions From The Message Aren’t Working

In a post last Thursday I pointed to an effort to focus on the messenger Edward Snowden in the hope that this would distract attention from his message that the National Security Agency is engaged in massive surveillance of US citizens, and I wondered if it was working. Today it seems clear that the combination of that effort and two others is not.

The two other distractions are admission that the programs exist while downplaying their significance, and escalating US involvement in the Syrian civil war, respectively. Taking these in order, first, the government has sent the Bobbsey Generals, Clapper and Alexander, Directors of National Intelligence and of the NSA itself, respectively, to tell Congress, and anonymous sources to tell the MSM, things like: that the surveillance was not really operative for US citizens, but would only be pursued beyond the “metadata” if a potential foreign terrorist connection emerged from another source; or that dozens of terrorist plots had been disrupted; or that the metadata was like a library’s card catalog: it’s inactive until someone pores through it to look for a book.

However, while most of the MSM were deferential toward Gen. Alexander’s appearance last Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, the McClatchy Newspapers pointed out that “senators peppered him with questions about how far the spying went and how far it could go.” As has been widely noted, Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Udall (D-CO) have said they’ve seen no evidence from the secret briefings they’ve had that the NSA programs in question were needed to break up dozens of plots. And while I haven’t seen anyone else draw attention to the point, I was not aware that the very existence of library catalogs was classified as top secret.

And then there is Gen. Clapper’s “least untruthful” substitute for “bald-faced lie,” material for the late-night comics.

The second diversion beyond the time-honored device of smearing the messenger is a variation on another time-honored device: start a war. In this case, the administration has suddenly decided that Syria “has crossed the red line” of using chemical weapons, so that Washington will now give military aid to the opposition (i.e., overtly, as opposed to the arms the CIA has been supplying them on the sly since before the Benghazi debacle). But according to anonymous “US officials” the decision to do this was already made in late April, and only needed a triggering event to actually set the process in motion, which event was the final determination that chemical weapons had been used. Right.

(I should say that in today’s NYT Maureen Dowd has an alternative theory. According to Marion in Savannah’s summary, this is that “President Obama was taken to the leadership woodshed by Bill Clinton.” But I imagine Bill has told him to be more aggressive on Syria before.)

This one isn’t doing too well, either. Even Ban Ki-moon, as close to the US as any UN Secretary General has been, agrees with the Russians that the actual evidence of Syria using chemical weapons is unconvincing. Consequently, while the MSM are dutifully covering the story, you can tell that their heart is not in it, as for example with CBS News.

As for the original technique of blaming the messenger, a week after he outed himself there is still some shrill “Snowden is a traitor” rhetoric and a fair amount of claims that if he were a true whistle-blower he would have gone through channels (as if there were anyone with a top secret clearance he could have gone to who would not have just informed his superiors and gotten him fired). But more typical is today’s front-page WaPo article tracing his life from the beginning until now, which basically treats him as a weirdo, thus offering potential fodder for either side in the debate.

But the tide against all this is growing. In my post on Thursday I noted such points as the ACLU lawsuit and the formation of a broad coalition to oppose the surveillance. Today the McClatchy Newspapers report that Congress members are seeing an increase in calls from their constituents expressing concern (h/t fatster).

And then there is the Washington Post, that pillar of the establishment. Today’s edition includes, not only the Style section article masquerading as news noted above, but also, among other things: an article on the history of secret surveillance programs since 9/11; a business section article on the possibility of encrypting your e-mails to keep NSA out; and, above all, “Five myths about privacy.”

I’ve written about WaPo’s weekly “5 Myths” series before. Back in February and March it usually turned out that one or two of the so-called myths might indeed be such, but as often as not the item was a straw man that no one really believed, or was subtly distorted from what people actually believed to make it easier to refute, or was actually true while the argument against it was wrong. But then the series improved somewhat, and once in a while produced a good article.

Today’s article on privacy is one of the good ones. The author is Daniel J. Solove, a law professor who is an expert on privacy law. After an introduction noting the context of Snowden’s disclosures, he lays out the five myths, as follows:

1. The collection of phone numbers and other “metadata” isn’t much of a threat to privacy. To refute this, Solove notes such examples as that a call to a medical facility says something about your medical condition. (Others have done a much more thorough job on this one, but we can’t have everything.)

2. Surveillance must be secret to protect us. Here Solove challenges our two generals’ assertion to this effect directly, saying that they confuse the need for secrecy in a specific case with keeping the entire program secret, thereby undermining the public’s right to know such matters as how much oversight exists.

3. Only people with something to hide should be concerned about their privacy. Here Solove speaks of such things as giving the government too much power and of undermining people’s trust in it. It would have been better to say that no one has absolutely nothing to hide, even if it’s only spitting on the sidewalk.

4. National security requires major sacrifices in privacy. Here Solove notes that Obama’s recent statement to this effect contradicts a statement in his own 2009 inaugural address. Delicious.

5. Americans aren’t especially bothered by government intrusions into their privacy. Here Solove notes that the polls have been ambiguous on the question, and suggests that then public would be less tolerant of the intrusions if the questions were phrased more reasonably.

So the prestigious Washington Post’s 5 myths series on the question at hand. I think O and his generals have reason to fear that they’re losing the argument.

And Glenn Greenwald has promised that more shoes will drop.

Update 6/17/13 7:00 AM Eastern
One shoe has already dropped. as was already noted last night on wendydavis’s blog on the surveillance, the Guardian has published an expose detailing surreptitious surveillance of participants in the 2009 G-20 summit in London under the British Labour government of the time. The monitoring of both telephones and computers was carried out by “GCHQ” (the Guardian does not spell out the acronym, but it is apparently the British counterpart to NSA), including cooperation with NSA on the latter’s attempts to eavesdrop on Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev, and employed 45 analysts.

This news comes as the G-8 summit gets underway, again in the UK, and accordingly the MSM are all over the story this morning.

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E. F. Beall

E. F. Beall