Random Thoughts on the NSA and Metadata

Dennis Sanders

Dennis is the pastor of a small Protestant congregation outside St. Paul, MN and also a part-time communications consultant. A native of Michigan, you can check out his writings over on Medium and subscribe to his Substack newsletter on religion and politics called Polite Company.  Dennis lives in Minneapolis with his husband Daniel.

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123 Responses

  1. James K says:

    Whenever I hear libertarians complain about this, I have to wonder what they think is the proper response when terrorism happens.

    Perhaps the optimal response to terrorism is no response, beyond the law enforcement capability the US government had before 9-11. The US government didn’t need this capability to deal with the Soviet Union, and they were a much greater threat to the USA than terrorism is. Sometimes bad things happen, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an adequate policy response.

    A growing surveillence state might thwart some attacks, but it can also not notice other potential threats. The most obvious example are the Tsarnaevs. All of the apparatus of the security state for some reason didn’t pick up what was going on with these two brothers.

    This is an important point. Does all this data snooping actually prevent terrorism? It seems to me the burden of proof should be on the people who want to paw through other peoples’ correspondence.Report

    • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to James K says:

      I think that the core issue with terrorism, and what makes it complicated to respond to, is that it is nothing like the Soviet Union.

      Terrorists don’t occupy a permanent place, don’t have a political system to deal with (and pfotentially subvert).

      If the USSR were preparing for war, we have had the technology to detect that since the mid-50s, and we can respond appropriately. Terrorist attacks come as a bolt from the blue.

      Countries make large capital expenditures to conduct war, which they have to balance off against consumer goods, economic growth, public welfare, etc. Terrorists generally make due with opportunistic (and cheap) weaponry: I think I recall that the entire 9/11 “operation” cost $90,000 (and provoked about $10 trillion in response–how’s that for ROI?)

      States are (presumably) rational actors, that can be deterred, incented, and persuaded. Some terrorists are generally drawn from an band of people with close to absolute commitment to an ideology or cause. Or from somebody crazy.

      Traditional war requires a certain level of commitment by the parties that engage in it: if a country starts a war, it better be prepared to finish it. With terrorism, the goal is served by simply disrupting normal political, social or economic functioning. That’s a much lower bar.

      I, like most people here, am troubled by the disintegration of the notion of “privacy” that has undergirded the US since its inception. To echo Connor Friedersdorf, I fear that we are building All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Snarky McSnarksnark says:

        I question how much of this terrorism is a bolt from the blue. Osama bin Ladin was a methodical customer. He warned of a strike, every time he carried one out. He warned the world about the Cole, the Embassy Bombings, 9/11 and he told us exactly why he was carrying out his attacks. For all the hoo-hah about OBL, I was always perplexed by how little of his message got into the press. You’d have to go to jihaadi websites to find it but it was all there. Every so often, fourteen paragraphs into some longwrite about terrorism, you might come across a bit, summoned up by a particularly thorough writer. But the bounce rate got pretty high after a while: even our own military casualties were never explained.

        Terrorism is asymmetrical warfare. It’s no more crazy than our own military is crazy. We wage our own version of asymmetrical warfare: huge, disproportionate strikes, expensive as hell and just as stupidly ineffective as anything the terrorists are doing to us.

        We’re not about to back down in the face of terrorism as a nation. Nor are the terrorists going to back down. We’re so stupid as a nation we don’t even recognise how predictable we’ve become in our responses to terror: we are only creating more enemies with every drone strike we conduct — and that’s exactly what these terrorists want. Sun Tzu laid this out many centuries ago:

        If equally matched, we can offer battle;
        if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy;
        if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.

        And that’s exactly what they’re doing. They strike at us and flee. And we’re so stupid, we give chase. And we hang around so they can repeat the pattern, over and over. We are learning nothing. Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.

        If we don’t like being struck by bolts from out of the blue, best not to be standing under a tree in a lightning storm. We’re supposedly the most powerful nation on earth: we certainly spend like it. Just not exactly the brightest.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Snarky McSnarksnark says:

        The problem with a “do nothing but ordinary law enforcement” response to terrorism in a democracy is that the politicians have to deal with the voters. The number of people who will be fine with “do nothing” are insignificant to the vote the bums out of office for not protecting us crowd. People want to be safe or at least feel safe and will vote accordingly. Politicians know this and act accordingly in order to keep their jobs.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to James K says:

      What James K. said. The assumption in the question is that terrorism is different. Not everyone agrees with that assumption.Report

      • Barry in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Not only that, but also what does the difference imply for our actions?

        For example, facing the USSR, it could have been justified to turn the USA into a totally militarized state (meaning even more than we did) – basically, extend all WWII measures.

        We did not do that, even though many urged it.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to James K says:

      Let me put the issue another way. Your odds of dying in a terrorist attack are extremely low, perhaps as low as 1 in 20 million, which compares very favorably to your odds of dying from a wide variety of other nasty causes.

      How much are we willing to sacrifice to avoid auto and firearms fatalities, and if the answer is not much, what is the logic of sacrificing more to avoid a much lower risk?Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to James K says:

      The US government didn’t need this capability to deal with the Soviet Union, and they were a much greater threat to the USA than terrorism is.

      Technology marches on. It’s relevant to point out that the US government couldn’t implement this capability at the time they were dealing with the Soviet Union. If they could have, I suspect that they would have. Human intelligence, with spies and infiltrators and the like, is difficult and dangerous. Signals intelligence is easy and safe, if you have the tech and the dollars. I’m beginning to suspect that the only way to stop it is to break up the US into parts. So long as a single government has access to >20% of the world’s GDP, they’ll build systems like this, up to the limits of what computer technology will support.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I’m beginning to suspect that the only way to stop it is to break up the US into parts.

        It would take a powerful institution to forcibly break up the US, no? And institution that powerful would either perpetuate that type of blanket surveillance or it would be powerful enough to make sure individual nations like the US don’t snoop on the entirety of humanity.Report

        • I like to think of it from the opposite direction: given sufficient regional differences, it takes an enormously powerful institution to hold the US together (eg, the Union Army in the 1860s). I admit to being out on the lunatic fringe, but I think the differences are coming. I’m patient — it’ll probably take 30 years or more. In one way it’s frustrating — I’ve been in the prediction business for much of my career, but this is one that I’m unlikely to live to see if I’m right.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Michael Cain says:

        This issue has a little bit of an omnipotence paradox feel to it: can an all-powerful nation restrain itself from abusing its power? Something like that.Report

      • Barry in reply to Michael Cain says:

        “Technology marches on. It’s relevant to point out that the US government couldn’t implement this capability at the time they were dealing with the Soviet Union. If they could have, I suspect that they would have. ”

        That’s really not the comparison here; the comparison is what we did back then to what we could have done back then, and IMHO we did far less than we could have. Imagine a USA with President McCarthy, and Hoover formally given even more powers than he actually had in our world.Report

        • Michael Cain in reply to Barry says:

          The kind of capability we’re talking about here — the ability to ask a question like, “Who did arbitrary person X send e-mail to, receive e-mail from, and speak with on the phone three months ago?” — would have required a Soviet-style secret police (and even that might not have provided the range of coverage) which would have been enormously expensive and extremely conspicuous. The point is that technology has made it possible to do on a modest budget and, absent some people violating their security agreements, almost no one the wiser. Imagine Hoover, with or without formal powers, with access to PRISM.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to James K says:

      … some data snooping does prevent terrorism.
      But… probably not the data snooping you’re thinking about.Report

  2. Chris says:

    No politico of either party wants to be the one that gets blamed for some major attack because they didn’t do anything. As much as the public might say they are upset at government snooping, I tend to think the public will also punish any politician that appeared to not do respond to a threat. This means, any politician is going to do something that could be incredibly stupid in order to save their hides.

    This is exactly right, and it’s exactly why all of this is so incredibly dangerous. Each subsequent Congress and administration is going to feel compelled to do more than the last, lest it look like they weren’t doing anything when a terrorist attack occurs — and I suppose inevitable that terrorist attacks will occur again on American soil, perhaps on the scale of the September 11 attacks, or on the scale of the Boston Marathon bombings. There is no clear mechanism for applying the brakes to this trend, so every little step taken today pushes us further and further down the road to more than a lack of privacy: a total surveillance state. With each step we take down that road, the potential for abuse becomes greater, to the point where abuse becomes inevitable. Metadata is probably harmless, but it won’t be enough 5 years from now, or 10, and the technology will be so much more advanced then that it won’t need to be enough.

    We’ve been told for almost 12 years now that the world changed after September 11, 2001, but the only thing that changed after that Tuesday morning was the way we see the world. Sure, the world has since changed, but much of that has been due to our own actions. Look at how dangerous the change in mindset has been: two wars, one still being fought, one completely unrelated but justified with the vague threat of terrorism nonetheless. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives lost or forever altered across the globe, but particularly in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Many of these are places where all that was needed to grow the seeds of anti-American radicalism was a drop of water, and we gave them a deluge.

    The war on terror has been incredibly effective in eliminating large, visible terrorist networks. In its place, we have countless men and women with hate in their hearts, easy methods of communication and indoctrination, a little money, and the entire internet-worth of know how. These people are impossible to stop in the aggregate. Metadata is not going to be enough; it’s not even going to be helpful. And with every step we take, we get further from the world we thought we lived in on September 10, 2001. I don’t mean to sound self-righteous. I don’t feel self-righteous. I feel sad, and scared, and utterly helpless.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:

      I don’t think it’s a hidden thing that the main thing that changed was hoe people look at and feel about the world – how they look at the balance of risks, etc. I mean, that always seemed to me like the main thing to expect to change, and the main thing I saw changing. It is what it is.

      The world changes, to include how people look at the world changing. My view, for the most part, is roll with it. But railing against it is a legitimate choice too. Are you sure we were that blase’ and stoic about terrorism and concerned about our rights on 9/10/01, though? It didn’t seem like it to me, and the subsequent dozen years seems to have confirmed it. Our (composite set of) views changed about these matters quickly in the following months and years, but did “we” change? Or was it just us – the same “us” – reacting as we were in fact disposed to react, even on 9/10, to an event like that? I think it was the real us, reacting as we might. And, I’ve never thought that reaction was unreasonable, even tough it was unfortunate. It’s reasonable to react with fear to an event like that; it would be extraordinary not to. We weren’t a formerly freedom-loving people that became possessed by some demon that caused us to defer to whatever Authority said was necessary for our Security. No, we were just ourselves, but we were frightened.

      We’re still ourselves, and we can get over our fear. I tend to just think this is an issue of time-scales. Some people seem to think that if we haven’t completely gotten over it in twelve years, then obviously we were just permanently changed. I don’t buy that. I’d like it to be quicker, but it’s not clear to me that still being scared after twelve years is reason to despair of recovering. I don’t despair that there will still be a swing in the pendulum. The reaction to this episode ought to be somewhat encouraging.I don’t foreclose that it could still get uglier first, but I don’t despair that the advance you describe can still be halted and reversed to some degree. For some that won’t be enough; they’ll say that if there are any permanent changes in attitude or policies relating to 9/11, then we’ve simply let the terrorists win. I can’t help those people; I think it’s reasonable that there are some permanent effects. the question is whether they’re under our control, are reasonable and limited, and don’t permanently hollow out our Liberty.

      As long as the Constitution remains the active law of the land (whatever the state of its interpretation at any one moment), I believe we still have the tool we need to get back to where we (“we”) might want to be on that score. But we actually have to want to.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        All that’s meant to be italicized there is “me.” 😉Report

      • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I assume that at some point, things will change as we move further and further away from the precipitating event(s), but I’m less worried about the mindset being permanent than I am about its present inflexibility, and the road that it will continue to lead us down as long as it remains so, which, because of that inflexibility, will be quite a while. The political realities of the way we view things now, in addition to making the world more dangerous over there (look what’s happening in Iraq today, for example), is becoming increasingly intrusive over here. We’ve been going about it the wrong way, both from the perspective of effectively dealing with the threat of international and domestic terrorism, and from the perspective of doing so without creating a system that, in the wrong hands, is overly ripe for abuse.Report

    • Barry in reply to Chris says:

      This is important, because technology and politics and secrecy are interacting quite powerfully to create a true ‘slippery slope’. The argument is not about what we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt about what the (incredibly secret) government programs are doing, but what they could reasonably accomplish, and what they could accomplish given a few more years of growth.Report

  3. Patrick Bridges says:

    All of the approaches for data mining for national security are, at their heart, classification problems. That is, you munge through the data and stick everyone into either the “Probably Not Terrorist” or “Potentially a Terrorist” categories. If someone is in the later category, you go look at names, phone call contents, email, and all the other stuff.

    False positives (saying “terrorist” incorrectly) exist in any non-trivial classification system. Specifically, there’s a fundamental balance between false negatives (saying “not terrorist” incorrectly) and false positives. The simple fact is that any system that makes a meaningful prediction is going to have false positives. That’s a simple mathematical fact.

    Let’s make this concrete: Say you have an incredibly good classification system, so good that false positives * false negatives = 0.0001 (0.01%) – this is absurdly low, well below anything you could probably ever expect. You also want to keep false positives really low because you care about civil liberties, say you ask for a false positive rate of 0.02% (0.0002). You apply it to 100,000,000 americans families.

    With a false positive rate of 0.02%, the *best* you can now do is a false negative rate of 50% (0.5) – your system misses 50% of all terrorists, and only asks agents to dig through the lives of 20,000 american families who aren’t terrorists and didn’t do anything wrong.

    Missing 50% of real terrorists is too low? Okay, push false negatives down to 5%. Now your agents are digging through the lives of 200,000 american families who aren’t really terrorists. Happier now?

    And where in this tradeoff space will the politicians and national security apparatus advocate for?Report

    • Barry in reply to Patrick Bridges says:

      BTW, a sweet add-on is to let some of this profiling ‘leak’ back through back channels (like credit reporting agencies, and other data-assembly/market research firms). After all, you might not have the publicly available evidence to bring charges, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t arrange for positive cases’ lives to take a turn for the worse, quite deniably. And police/intelligence agencies worry more about the false negatives than the false positives.Report

    • trizzlor in reply to Patrick Bridges says:

      Patrick, this is a good point and is particularly relevant to mass applications such as racial profiling or airport security where innocent people are required to go through the system. But the analysis at the NSA probably understand this stuff and I would guess that they don’t just broadly apply their classifier. Instead, imagine the problem is that you just intercepted OBL’s previous month of phone-calls and you want to quickly filter out the benign ones (wrong numbers and such). Here the prior probability that someone is a terrorist is massive, so an additional filter based on PRISM would be highly useful. Or consider a scenario where you have 1,000 new immigrants on a suspected terrorist watch-list and you want to prioritize them by threat-level; here the base-line is to just go at them alphabetically, so something like a PRISM-score could substantially improve that ranking (even with high false-positives). Importantly, in each case the score still needs to be trained on a large dataset of innocent people like the one that PRISM collects.Report

  4. BlaiseP says:

    So, how does government best respond to these threats? How do we try to protect the American people and yet uphold the ideals we cherish?

    We can respond directly. When the situation went sideways in Lebanon, the Russians dealt with the taking of hostages by capturing, beheading and dismembering the guilty parties, delivering the parts to the relevant customers.

    No more Russian hostages, ever again. Those fuckers know how to deal with rough customers.

    Bowe Berghdal is still in Taliban custody. It may be time to retrieve him.

    Really, America, for all its fine talk about human rights and all that happy horse shit –is woefully unprepared to bring the battle to the enemy and make his women and children weep. It is well that war is so terrible else we should grow too fond of it, said Robert E Lee. Our enemies seem convinced of our willingness to tolerate the intolerable, to oblige our own citizens to take off their shoes at airports rather than to oblige our enemies to part with their heads, for our own citizens to be spied upon, their every move monitored, rather than beat these bastards at their own game and give them pause.

    They don’t take Russians hostage any more.Report

    • Patrick Bridges in reply to BlaiseP says:

      But do you really want to live under Putin?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Bridges says:

        This happened twenty years before Putin came to power. They still don’t take Russian hostages, anywhere.

        Thomas Jefferson preached a fine set of sermons on steering clear of foreign wars — right up until American sailors were taken hostage in Tripoli, from which we get that line in the US Marine Corps hymn “to the shores of Tripoli”. At the time American sailors were being captured and enslaved. They’d take up collections in churches to ransom those sailors.

        Is that the world you want to live in as an American? Really. Forget Putin. He’s just a clever baboon, terribly aggressive but entirely capable of running his own country. Who is this Obama putz, that he should collect all our phone records — and lie about it all? Little shitweasel that he is, lying to us and the world, scraping his finger unctuously at the Chinese and their Great Firewall. All the while he’s spying on every goddamn one of us. Cheeky bastard.Report

        • Damon in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Well said. I’m all for, to borrow a phrase from the pro-choice side of the abortion camp, “american intervention being safe, and rare’. You come at me with a knife, I come at you with a gun, and kill you, your family, and all your friends, then burn your house down and sow the land with salt.

          That being said, we’d not have to do that much if we stayed out of everyone else’s backyard, which I’m also for.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Damon says:

            If I were running this idiotic War on Terror, I wouldn’t be in his back yard. I’d be in his bedroom, garrotting him. I would treat these guys as simple criminals and murderers. They would not get the honour of being guarded by military police and clutter up my military.

            Safe and rare would not be my solution. I would not observe any political niceties: I would play by their rules. But I would take a very different angle than some. I’d put the word out that America could surreptitiously implant a device in your body capable of controlling your thoughts: you wouldn’t even know it yourself, not until you started betraying your good buddies.

            As Calvin said about the monsters under the bed: “They lie, I lie.

            This is not rocket science, people. Every empire has either learned to cope with nomadic warriors or it’s gone bust. The solution has always been the same from age to age and has never been improved upon: co-opt them, corrupt them and finally choke them.Report

            • Damon in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Agreed, but I think we would need less of your type of “work” is we simply minded our own business and stopped meddling in the affairs of other countries (other people’s backyards). I think your suggestions work for the occasions when conflict outside our borders spill over onto us or American’s travelling in foreign lands get caught up in local events. Then I’m good with what you suggest.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Damon says:

                Another phrase I find terribly stupid is “minding our own business.” The world minds our business all day long. Every few decades a new populist springs up to tell us again — as if we had an option. Would that we did intervene in these little shitholes and install some American procurator to mercilessly beat them and install the rule of law as did their own kings and tyrants before we arrived.

                Our problem, folks, is that we don’t mind our business. We’re forever playing these games, acting as if Sweetness and Light and Democracy (whatever the hell that means) will break out if we just throw some money around and have an election or two and let them mind their business, which generally means installing a bunch of lying toadies and hangers-on, none of whom have the respect of the local people.

                We have seen where all that ends up: trillions pumped down these rat holes and nothing to show for it. They don’t love us, that’s true. But they could be made to respect us. That we won’t do, though we could.

                If America is to intervene anywhere, we should make it Short, Sharp and Effective. This precludes the usual foofararaw of Shock ‘n Awe and Drones and suchlike. It means going in, finding the enemy and killing him. And killing his paymaster. And scaring the living hell out of his little buddies.

                Our leaders have some promises to keep, promises made in the Constitution. Our way of life depends on keeping close tabs on our enemies and defending ourselves from them. Presently, we’re playing the terrorists’ game: turning on our own people, spying on them, allowing our own society to be warped by fear. Our leaders are failing us, all over the political landscape. They have lied to us far too often to now engender much trust at this point.

                The FISA courts must be made public. PRISM must be abolished. The PATRIOT Act must be abolished. The Fourth Amendment as we understand it is gone in all but name. It must be revived. Congress must get off its dead ass and act promptly.Report

        • Barry in reply to BlaiseP says:

          BlaiseP June 10, 2013 at 3:18 am

          ” This happened twenty years before Putin came to power. They still don’t take Russian hostages, anywhere.”

          True, this was before Putin – it was in an even worse time. Or do you think that Putin represents a decline in freedom in Russia from the 1970s?Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Barry says:

            What’s the SIU unit for freedom? The tomfriedman, of course. The overpressure created by one kilogram of bullshit.

            Ever did political water flow downhill to Moscow. I don’t like Putin but then, I don’t have to like him. I don’t think like you do about things, I don’t measure freedom in tomfriedmans. Russia was put on earth to show mankind what suffering really looks like so the rest of us won’t whinge about our own lives. Eventually Putin will shuffle off the stage, leaving behind a unified nation, which Russia hasn’t been for many centuries. Russia will have to work things out for itself. We might try not to exacerbate their paranoia, we repeated their mistakes in Afghanistan, now the most corrupt nation on earth, possibly of all time. A brand new Islamic Narco-State. Wonder what the freedom heat map looks like over the Hindu Kush these days? A goddamn tomfriedman tornadic zone.Report

    • Barry in reply to BlaiseP says:

      “Really, America, for all its fine talk about human rights and all that happy horse shit –is woefully unprepared to bring the battle to the enemy and make his women and children weep.”

      We racked up quite an impressive body count in Iraq (which probably worked against us, because it was dumb), and probably matched that in Afghanistan.

      The people who we should have hit first are, of course, the Saudis, and it wasn’t softness, it was corruption. Retaliating against Saudi Arabia but it would have cost the elites of the USA actual profits.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Barry says:

        “As you know, you go to war against the enemies you have. They’re not the enemies you might want or wish to have at a later time.”Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Barry says:

        KSA is a strange country. Its leadership is backed into a corner in their own country. The Saud family is surrounded by tribal enemies who must constantly be bought off or the whole thing would collapse in a heartbeat. They have two complete militaries, yes, plural — one to fight the other if there’s a revolt.

        Bombing people doesn’t work. Arresting and killing people, up close and personal, that works. A high body count means someone’s screwing up. If the people aren’t on your side, you should probably just go home: you only get one chance to get that right. We screwed up in Afghanistan: the Taliban were once hated. Now you can’t get outside Kabul without being murdered. We were greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq: really, in the South and up in Kurdistan, they thought we were great. Had we gone home after overthrowing Saddam, Bush43 would be the hero of the age.

        He didn’t, of course. He stuck around, alienated the very people we most needed, and the rest you know.Report

  5. George Turner says:

    Well, I’d note that if car crash statistics are anywhere close, the cellphones the NSA is tapping are killing more Americans than the terrorists ever could, even if we gave the terrorists free rein and a 50 percent discount on explosives.

    Here is a list of 52 attack plots since 9/11, and aside from a couple of attempts to down airliners, the majority are pretty stupid. In one case the target was an army base that didn’t even exist. The NSA monitoring is reported to have stopped a plot to bomb the NYC subway, and I suspect it has stopped some weapons purchases, too, but I’d bet most such plots would probably have gotten foiled by normal methods later on, now that everybody pays attention (except, it seems, the government). Of the plots that were carried past the planning stage, many were thankfully foiled in the act by bystanders, were botched, or just not very effective. Tamerlan Tsarnaev killed as many people with a knife over a drug deal than he did with all his elaborate bombs. The underwear bomber only managed to burn his own pants. The NYC bomber ruined a perfectly good vehicle, his own.

    We could just forbid jihadists from entering the US, but that would be impolite and inconvenient. So instead we wiretapped the entire country. Despite that, the NYC bomber wasn’t impeded, nor were the Boston bombers, or the shoe bomber, or the underwear bomber, or the Ft Dix shooter. In some of those cases we were being given the suspect’s name beforehand by foreign intelligence services and even the perpetrator’s own families, but we still didn’t do anything.

    Since 9/11, random psychos have caused far more death and destruction in the US than the terrorist networks, and even random psychos are a statistically insignificant amount of our domestic violence. So given 53 plots (including Boston) over 12-years, maybe ten of which were somewhat serious, and the sum of all their successes is: A depressed Egyptian shot two people. A failed jihadist shot one person. And the Ft Dix psychiatrist shot thirteen. The Tsarnaev brothers killed three. In many of the plots the FBI had to supply the bomb because the would-be terrorist wasn’t even bright enough to build their own. In many of the others they never even figured out how to get explosives. In some of the rest their crude bomb didn’t work.

    So we’ve had 19 killed by foreign terrorists in the US over about a 12 year span, and 13 of those were by a US Army psychiatrist. Over the same period around 600 Americans were killed by lightning strikes. The domestic eavesdropping doesn’t seem to be the primary way most of the plots get foiled (tips and stupidity seem to dominate), and most of the plots are poorly conceived, abortive, or fantasy (quite a few are by schizophrenics and one was by a retarded guy). If you removed the NSA domestic eavesdropping, the death toll probably wouldn’t go up by very much, and as long as airliners aren’t used as missiles or blown up, there’s no way the clowns are going to approach the deadliness of domestic lightning. So far, since 9/11, they haven’t even been able to match lightning deaths on golf courses.

    On the other hand, the risks of having an all-intrusive government database of everybody’s personal dirt are vast. Aside from abuses that have already been occurring (otherwise the NSA wouldn’t be talking about abuses and their attempts to reduce them), the leaker’s (Ed Snowden) warnings are valid. If at any point their is some new crisis that causes some government panic, all the old policies for handling this vast storehouse of data could get tossed out the window in a mad rush to “do something”.

    Now that the public knows such a treasure trove of data exists, in a crisis they’ll even put pressure on Congress to use it in all sorts of ways. Now that it’s known, they might even pressure Congress to use it for domestic purposes, pursuing the fashion of the day. For example, the NSA could tell the police exactly who all the drug dealers are in the US, down to the teenagers who sell to three friends. It’s all there in their text messages. All sorts of crimes could be solved with some simple search routines. And all those crimes inflict a far higher death toll than anything Al Qaeda is still likely to hit us with.

    Then we have the temptation for politicians and powerful people in government to abuse their access. Why should they have to wonder what their opponents are up to when there’s a locked-box that contains the secrets? Why not just cheat and look at the other guy’s cards?

    Then we have the temptation to use the data for blackmail, starting with the members of the FISA court, the Supreme Court, Congress, and working slowly throughout the rest of the government. As I’ve said elsewhere, this system is J Edgar Hoover’s wildest dream come true.

    And of course there’s the risk that someone inside the system will themselves be compromised, either by politicians or foreign governments. Even if we’re too saintly to resort to blackmail, foreign governments sure aren’t, and the Chinese and others are quite adept at hacking, spying, and massive security breaches. They don’t need the whole database, just selected bits focusing on individuals they can compromise, stuff that would fit on a thumb drive.

    Maybe we could reduce such a risk with even more intrusive monitoring, but trust has already been lost and at some point down the road we’ll realize that we’re all Stasi informants and that nobody can do anything to stop it. Every time a politician changes his mind on an issue we’ll all reflexively think “Someone got to him with some NSA data – those bastards.” Nobody will have faith that the people they elect are working in their interests, that their representatives haven’t been compromised.

    People will lose faith in the system. Some will agitate for change, and some hotheads will take direct action. The massive surveillance state we’ve created will be unleashed in outrage and make it trivial to round up the ringleaders and anyone inclined to support them. People will become afraid to speak out, and freedom of speech and association will become a distant memory because we’ll all know that we’re being watched. Democracy will become a sham because the government could trivially destroy the candidacy of anyone it didn’t favor, until at some point we’ll drop the pretense and just let the government select its own members, maintaining a select leadership class, and one whose members are thoroughly compromised at some level so that none of the members dare stir up trouble.

    So the risk from the database is massive corruption, the compromise of key government members by foreign intelligence services, and the eventual destruction of freedom and democracy. The benefit seems to be slightly fewer deaths, perhaps on par with rainy-day golfers switching from metal shafts to less conductive graphite.

    At least that’s my take on it.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

      I agree with all of this. (Except the first sentence of the third paragraph, but let’s table that discussion. Or, not, as it is instructive for the whole discussion. It’s a (the) key point that there’s no easy fix to perfectly address the terrorism threat, however small that threat actually threat, that doesn’t compromise liberty to some degree; that’s the crux of the problem that policymakers face, and it’s why I’ll always have a significant degree of sympathy for the challenge they face in trying to confront that problem, even when I profoundly disagree the balance they’ve arrived at. Because I actually think they believe in all that crap about our being a country that values liberty about as much as I or anyone here claims to. They just also have the additional burden of being responsible for guiding the balance that the government strikes between that value and safety. It’s not simple and it’s not easy, and they have my respect even when they’re doing it badly.

      Policymakers (to include this president), I believe, are simply out of step with where the public broadly now is in how it balances concern about security against revulsion from measures that are this broadly intrusive. That’s why there is such a focus on their secrecy. I don’t buy that this is a structural and irreversible inevitability of the basic problem of political accountability for security failures. That is part of the dynamic, to be sure, and it may have been inevitable that we would have come to this place. But I don’t think it is inevitable that we’ll stay here (on the government side that is; on the private-sector total knowledge side, welcome to your permanent future). Over time, I believe this country also has a real, felt interest in liberty as well, and I believe that over time the government will respond to that via politics. Politics in this area are still largely dominated by the post-9/11 mentality, but I believe that is beginning to change. As it does, I believe you will begin to see the politics change, and eventually the policy.

      Perhaps that is wrong and we’re headed inexorably into a Not-So-Brave, Not-So-New totalitarian future whose horrors will be well-understood and recognizable even as we experience them anew. (You might say, look around you, Mike. I don’t think we’re there yet.) I don’t think that’s who we are. I think we’re going to avoid that fate.Report

    • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

      Yes, I think we’ll rein it in through political pressure. To defend the usefulness of such a program they’d have to tell us how useful it is, which will be pretty hard because it’s classified, plus the terrorists continue to slip through all the filters.

      It also may be hard to defend on technical grounds. One of the reasons NSA operations are always so secretive is that if the enemy even slightly suspects that their communications are compromised, they’ll change systems. Well, I’m pretty sure all the jihadists know about PRISM now, which in theory should render it pretty darn useless for anything except rounding up the occasional retard who couldn’t strike a match without reading the instructions.

      BTW, my first sentence, third paragraph is partly in reference to the underwear bomber, who was strongly suspected of being a jihadist because foreign intel said he was (he was on MI5’s radar back when he was in college in the UK), his father went to our embassy to tell two CIA officers that the son was a terrorist, and the Brits told us he’d been hanging out with Al Awlaki (the American that Obama blew up with a drone strike). The CIA stuck him in their terrorist database, and we knew he was with al Qaeda, but the FBI didn’t put him on their list. They didn’t put him on the no-fly list. They didn’t even revoke his visa. They specifically did not want to revoke his visa. We let him get on a plane to the US – with a bomb in his underwear.

      As for Ed Snowden, if we don’t arrest or kill him, his endorsement will be worth a fortune to any Internet company. McAfee and Norton might protect you from random Serbian hackers, but to protect yourself from US government intelligence you need Snowden Security, soon to be installed on all Facebook and Google servers worldwide! Coming soon to Yahoo!Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

        Fair enough. As I said, I’m happy to table the discussion (though it’s clear that no-fly lists pose problems not dissimilar to those posed by surveillance, except that the burden tends to be borne by a particular segment of society that already bears the brunt of all the fear relating to terrorism in the modern world; I also think it’s not in doubt that, generally, we do try to deny entry visas to known jihadist terrorists, the specifics of the Abdulmutallab case aside), because overall your comment is extremely well-made and expresses the important concerns relating to the surveillance story admirably.Report

      • Lyle in reply to George Turner says:

        Lets go back a bit recall that between 1928 and 1967 wiretapping was perfectly legal by the feds, see Olmstead v US. This was to get the bootleggers, and at that time the supreme court felt that there was no expectation of privacy (perhaps with party lines that was the case). By 1967 the court reversed when it held that a phone conversation in a phone booth did have an expectation of privacy. Then in Smith v Maryland the court held that because you gave the digits to a third party to make the connection there was no expectation of privacy for that. EPCA modified this, to require a court order to collect the meta data, which it appears the secret court did.
        But my broader question is until you ban disposable cellphones why bother? You can apparently buy them and time cards online, or in person. No name need be associated with the phone, and if you change the phones every so often then the database will become to noisy to be useful. Since this technique is discussed on law and order when they find an untraceable cell phone, the result would be that the untraceable cell phone was involved but you could not tie it to any person, if the physical phone got destroyed.Report

    • Barry in reply to George Turner says:

      “Here is a list of 52 attack plots since 9/11, and aside from a couple of attempts to down airliners, the majority are pretty stupid. ”

      “The domestic eavesdropping doesn’t seem to be the primary way most of the plots get foiled (tips and stupidity seem to dominate), and most of the plots are poorly conceived, abortive, or fantasy (quite a few are by schizophrenics and one was by a retarded guy). ”

      After watching these ‘plots’, the idiocy of the people involved, and the heavy and early participation of the FBI in every feature, I believe that most of these were finding a loser or two and egging them on to actually make an attempt. It’s like somebody in a bar talking up a drunk until he actually swings at somebody.

      And I agree even more strongly with the rest. Recently some blogger passed along the old legend of Hoover having a meeting with incoming Congressmen, Senators (and probably judges and any senior appointed officials) to ‘brief them’. The ‘briefing’ would consist of Hoover letting them know how much dirt he had on them and their family friends and staff.Report

  6. DRS says:

    From a foreigner’s perspective, 9/11’s biggest impact was the realization that attacks could happen in America itself. The bombing of the Marine base in Beirut in the 1980’s was terrorism too, but it didn’t happen in America itself and so disappeared rather quickly down the memory hole. 9/11 took place RIGHT HERE and that meant that something that usually happened on the other side of the globe had invaded American lives in a big way.

    You can’t discuss anti-terrorism policies since that day without taking into account the descent into mindless panic that many Americans experienced. For the very first time, Americans felt vulnerable on a personal level. When you’re in the grip of that kind of emotional upheaval, the last thing you want to hear is a rational discussion of the limits of anti-terror efforts. You want ALL THE PROTECTION THAT IS POSSIBLE GODDAMMIT WHAT ARE WE PAYING TAXES FOR ANYWAY BAD PEOPLE FROM OVER THERE CAN COME HERE AND HURT US AUGHGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    And so evaluating the Patriot Act, et al on a rational basis isn’t going to happen since they weren’t designed to be rational, they were designed to provide the largest fluffiest security blanket possible. And they were sold – with varying degrees of sophisticated argument – as only targeting bad guys. And there are lots of Americans who still believe that, that somehow a piece of technology in the phone/internet network will just automatically somehow know if the person being monitored is a bad guy or not. That’s the biggest hurdle to a discussion of all these policies.Report

    • Barry in reply to DRS says:

      “The bombing of the Marine base in Beirut in the 1980?s was terrorism too, but it didn’t happen in America itself and so disappeared rather quickly down the memory hole. ”

      Actually, it wasn’t; the Marines at the point were full-fledged participants in a war (with leadership who had no clue as to what that meant). IMHO, the real reason it disappeared down the memory hole was because it was an embarrassment to the Reagan administration.Report

      • DRS in reply to Barry says:

        It disappeared down the public’s memory hole because it happened in a part of the world where things like that always happen. Therefore it wasn’t real – real to the dead and injured and their families – but not really, really real. Not worth thinking about beyond let’s get out of there.Report

        • Chris in reply to DRS says:

          You know, when I was in school in the 80s, the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut was discussed frequently by our teachers. I wonder if it’s been discussed at all in my son’s classes. I’ll have to ask him.Report

  7. Cletus says:

    I think it’s fucking hilarious watching all the republicans and tea-drinkers scream about the stuff they voted for years ago. They have to be on record talking about the rights of everyone, terrorists or not, when these were the same assholes saying that people illegally detained in gitmo shouldn’t have the right to challenge their detention in court.Report

  8. Shannon's Mouse says:

    Pick one:

    A) A republic that is committed to the civil liberties of its citizens.
    B) An empire that has “interests” in every corner of the world.

    We can’t have both.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Shannon's Mouse says:

      Sure you can. It’s just this simple: the civil liberties of our citizens ought to be our primary interest. You start interfering with American society, flying aircraft into our skyscrapers, hey, we understand. A certain amount of vulnerability is the price everyone has to pay for living in houses surrounded by white picket fences and not concrete walls with razor wire on top.

      Most of the problem with this “America has interests abroad” line resolves to the fact that the rest of the world has interests in America. While we continue to live in a world of nation-states, never quite sure who’s a friend and who’s an enemy, here’s a little nugget of truth about geopolitics I worked out quite some time ago because some people America was shooting at are now asking for American protection from the Chinese.

      There are no permanent friends. There are no permanent enemies. You mess with America and Americans, there’s a price to be paid. Nobody’s going to respect us if we don’t dole out that response in full measure.Report

      • Barry in reply to BlaiseP says:

        “Sure you can. It’s just this simple: the civil liberties of our citizens ought to be our primary interest. ”

        Read ‘War is the Health of the State’. And then have a friend explain it to you. And also please have that friend point out just how often a world-wide empire is going to engage in some sort of war.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Barry says:

          War, Barry, is mankind’s natural state. Peace is the illusion. A very pleasant illusion, one we should strive for, as surely as we might strive to wash our asses and wear clean clothes every day — but don’t give me any of that hand-wringing horseshit about world-wide empires operate. Such illusions require maintenance.

          We are an empire of sorts, even within our own boundaries: we’re certainly big enough. We’d better learn a few lessons from the ones which came before us. Some of them were excellent places to live. They kept the peace for centuries. They gave rise to all sorts of wonderful architecture, scholars, artists, musicians, technology of all sorts. Every time I hear some Benighted Do Gooder flap his gums and carry on about the Evils of Empire, well it’s just sadly amusing.

          War is the Health of the State is all fine and good. Excellent points about how patriotism works. I would only repeat myself in saying Patriotism has begun to replace Religious Sectarianism as the greatest problem in modern civilisation.

          But the reality of WW1 belied poor old Randolph Bourne. It was not Empire which dragged Europe — and eventually the USA — into France. Bourne is plainly an idiot:

          The history of America as a country is quite different from that of America as a State. In one case it is the drama of the pioneering conquest of the land, of the growth of wealth and the ways in which it was used, of the enterprise of education, and the carrying out of spiritual ideals, of the struggle of economic classes. But as a State, its history is that of playing a part in the world, making war, obstructing international trade, preventing itself from being split to pieces, punishing those citizens whom society agrees are offensive, and collecting money to pay for all.

          The history of America is one long series of petty conquests of native peoples who hadn’t even reached the Bronze Age or the Wheel, all the while making obscene excuses for itself. Spiritual Ideals, my ass. This nation broke every treaty it ever signed, while such treaties were even considered a nicety. We have waged war on our erstwhile friends and connived with our enemies so often, every time I hear about American Greatness I feel like striking the idiot who would say such a thing. The American Dream is the greatest engine of delusion in the history of the world.

          Al Qaeda just put up its flag in Syria, in the open, in Aleppo. They took down the Syrian rebel flag and put up the Black Flag of Jihaad. These are the very people who shot our troops to pieces in Iraq — America solved that problem by buying them off and relabelling them as the Sons of Iraq.

          The Byzantines bought off the Muslims for centuries. When the payments stopped, the wars started. When the payments restarted, the wars stopped. We know how it all ended. War might not be the health of the state, but I’ll tell you this for free, Barry, the meek shall inherit nothing. WW1 began because a handful of rotten old empires fell over like so many dominoes, led by idiots who seriously thought they would avoid war by brandishing their ceremonial swords. A whole generation was obliterated as a direct result.Report

  9. zic says:

    I welcome the debate. It’s one we should have had a decade ago, but we were too frightened. And so the victory from 9/11, a victory to the terrorists, was handing over of freedom.

    To me, this seems very intwined with the gun debate. Knee-jerk responses to fear. Somebody’s bad out there, they want to get me. I’m gonna be prepared to blast them. This is not the response of people who are strong; people who are brave. People who have faith in their ability to survive. It’s the response of chicken shits. It’s the response of people who are so afraid, so weak and frightened, that they need to build an every bigger fortress around their small minds, reveling in the glory of their every diminished horizons.

    Yesterday, I went to the mall with my son. On the way, we saw highway cameras, photographing people who might speed through intersections. Our licence plate was photographed at the highway toll booths. Our cell phones were on us, turned on all the time, so our entire trip could be easily plotted.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve read too much dystopian fiction, but I look around me and see a nation of fearful fools living in a land where everything is visible; our schools, our churches, our water supplies, our power grid. Threats, if they existed, would find so many soft targets out there that the problem would be choosing one amongst the plethora. But we loop the same horrors on the news, and we suck that news up like a drug, and blow our imaginations out of total proportion.

    The problem is not terrorists; crazy people will always do horrid things, this is a fact of life. The problem is terror. Ours. We gave in; and the terrorists won. Already.Report

    • zic in reply to zic says:

      I should add one thing here: Obama’s greatest mistake. Not investigating and prosecuting the Bush administration for war crimes and overreach. I realize he did this, so he said, to focus on the economy. But in so doing, he failed to dismantle the police state creep. Now, it’s his, he owns it. We own it. The only way to have torn it down would have been to shine the light of day into the dark corners.

      I am not proud.Report

  10. SunTzuSays says:

    Dennis, a libertarian analysis does not rest on the idea that the state should do nothing to interfere with terrorist actions and plots. The classical liberal or nightwatchman state arguments accept some need for common defence against violent actors, including foreign aggression or domestic terrorism, and this would require some actions by the state and its appointed agents to capture or foil such actors.

    What the critique rests upon is the idea that what the state is doing is some version or combination of the following:
    a) precisely the wrong actions necessary to deter and foil terrorism, that is, they are creating more enemies than they negate (see: Iraq invasion/occupation, Afghanistan occupation, drone strikes) either through negligence, lack of proper public oversight to correct errors, or general incompetence.
    b) actions which have symbolic but minimal or negative impact upon actual safety from terrorism (eg taking off your shoes at the airport) relative to the costs they impose upon the public (eg safety and efficacy of driving versus safety and speed of flying).

    Michael Huemer uses an analogy of people in a lifeboat to demonstrate that it might be one thing to have a leader coercively require the survivors to do XYZ, but that case rests upon XYZ being wise or otherwise sensible things to do, like rowing in a coordinated fashion or dumping buckets of sea water over the side. And not having people dumping buckets of water into the boat or rowing in a circle for hours on end. The critique here is that our policies vis a vis terrorism and to a good extent our general foreign policy (especially in the Middle East) are far closer to the latter than the former.

    It can then proceed to the idea that we publicly should more or less shrug and accept the low probability and threat of terrorism to our daily lives as a persistent element rather than accept whatever someone tells us they must have as a policy to fight terrorism. The burden of proof where someone asks us to surrender liberties is to demonstrate that that surrender would significantly increase our ability to prevent terrorist plots as a valuable trade-off that we would desire. The objections of libertarians to policies like these is that they dramatically increase the probability of abuse of civil liberties through secretive charges and detentions, general warrants, or otherwise unsubstantiated investigations into the lives of citizens and residents, and do not demonstrate a clear improvement in safety (as they generate too much information to properly analyze, or perhaps the wrong kinds of information, among other problems). Your last two notes suggest that these objections are salient enough to be raised as real concerns when the larger debate is being had even without accepting far-more civil libertarian focused critiques about the legitimacy of the state actions or the primacy of negative liberties involved. It is enough to begin to question the effectiveness and cost of the policies involved before questioning the legitimacy.

    I’d also agree that the general public, and by extension the political class, errs far more toward the demands and claims of safety than toward demands of liberties and protections thereof. Given that terrorism is actually extremely rare, and small scale, it’s easy to publicly claim that such and such a policy has made us safer without anyone actually asking to check the math. And then to claim that checking the math publicly would endanger people in order to shut up critics.Report

  11. James Vonder Haar says:

    One thing that I think has been missing in the debate is the political and economic consequences of our decision to monitor so much data. How thrilled do you think our European allies, or China is about allowing the US government to monitor all of their citizens’ online doings? (Remember, the due process protections only apply to Americans). What kind of political fallout do you think there might be? How quick are those countries going to be to drop Google and Microsoft in favor of domestic firms that aren’t being monitored by a foreign government? The fact that we would risk so much of our international position and economic interest in order to stop a cause of death that can’t come close to cracking the top 50 just boggles the mind. It’s a collective neurosis.Report

  12. Barry says:

    “How thrilled do you think our European allies, or China is about allowing the US government to monitor all of their citizens’ online doings? (Remember, the due process protections only apply to Americans). ”

    The leadership of China might be quite interested in sitting down with the leadership of the USA, and exploring/extending these areas, where it appears that both have much in common.

    The leadership of the countries of Europe are probably wagging their poodle tails, when the really important orders come down from Washington.Report

  13. DRS says:

    You mess with America and Americans, there’s a price to be paid. Nobody’s going to respect us if we don’t dole out that response in full measure.

    And the price that’s paid is by Americans. Getting bogged down in land wars for almost a decade without any clear sign of victory doesn’t exactly signal Superpower Might to most people. Nor does the knee-jerk military reaction prove effective once the initial sound-and-light show is over. Terrorism is going to require a different kind of war – fight smarter, not harder – and it can start by Americans recognizing that there are going to be trade-offs to get to victory. And the first trade-off is giving up the fond illusion that somehow only the bad guys are going to be affected.Report

    • Barry in reply to DRS says:

      “You mess with America and Americans, there’s a price to be paid. Nobody’s going to respect us if we don’t dole out that response in full measure.”

      G-D, but BlaiseP can be an unthinking drone when the right buttons are pushed.

      It’s even more ironic since the reaction after 9/11 was to find a convenient target which did *not* have anything to do with 9/11, and punish it. I’m sure that Al Qaida was terrified by that 🙂Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Barry says:

        Heh. May I infer that America should have done nothing, as we did in Beirut? Barry’s Comfy Chair approach to confession? Christ, you can be a doleful hand-wringing prig. And it doesn’t require pressing any buttons.Report

        • DRS in reply to BlaiseP says:

          America could have stayed in Afganistan – where allied countries were fighting alongside her – rather than gone after Iraq and wasted lives and resources.Report

  14. Honestly, a (relatively) non-invasive policy that meets even the government’s almost certainly exaggerated claims to need a program like this is blindingly obvious. If the government and its defenders are being honest and truthful about their claim that the data is only accessed where they have a specific overseas threat they’re investigating, then the obvious and reasonable policy would just be to require – or at least ask – that the telecoms preserve this data for a longer period of time than they currently preserve it, so that the government may access it, with an appropriate order, as needed in connection with a specific investigation.

    That the government nonetheless insists that it is necessary for it to have real time access on a continuous basis for just about every single phone call in the country, whether domestic or international, is a strong indication that they’re lying about the purposes for which this data is accessed.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      The purported value of the program comes from the analysis they do using algorithms with the entire dataset, with the larger set of data available allowing the analysis to be correspondingly more powerful. It’s not about, for the most part, accessing individual data (not that they don’t do that). If your alternative doesn’t allow them access to the whole dataset, or a substantial part of it, at one time, how can you claim it serves the purpose/function the program that is in place does (whether the need for it is exaggerated or not, which it certainly is). If you give up most of the broadness of the dataset that’s collected, you do in fact give up most (or substantially all) of the security value of this particular program. Which is okay with me, but that’s the sitch.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        …Iff’n you’re talking about the blanket phone records collection, that is. if you’re talking about PRISM, I have no idea; I don’t understand what’s going on there exactly.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        …At least, that’s my understanding. Maybe that’s mistaken, too. That we don’t really know is obviously problematic.Report

        • That we weren’t supposed to know any of this is one of the more problematic parts to me.

          I am in the midst of an internal struggle of believing that the leaker needs to be in jail, and being glad that he leaked.Report

          • greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

            Being glad that he leaked and that his actions were illegal are mutually reasonable. In fact that is where i’m at.

            The dim part about the secrecy is that the most sophisticated terrorists would have assumed something like was already going on. Lord knows it doesn’t seem like a huge surprise to me. This kind of thing would net the dumber, less paranoid ill-doer.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

            As Jason says in his post, it’s problematic because of the broadness. To me, it’s not problematic that there are measures taken to stop terrorism that can’t be advertised – in a competitive battle like that, you actually can’t just announce everything you are doing to achieve success to the people you are trying to defeat (via the world). The problem is the judgement that that logic justifies secrecy about aprogram affecting this many people. But to those directing that struggle, it’s not that troubling to me that they think that logic applies to <i.whatever efforts they undertake that they think are valuable. Even *we* run into a pile-heap problem determining where that unacceptability starts; and, as I say, *they* just think it’s obvious that you can’t advertise preventive measures as a general matter. I don’t really know how to determine where they should stop haing that attitude, nor what the best way to enforce that kind of judgement is.

            So it’s problematic to me, but ultimately also ambiguous. It’s not clear exactly where I draw the line on what should be made public versus kept secret, and I do think some things should be kept secret. Clearly not this, but based on what principles do I prescribe to them how they should have arrived at that conclusion, especially since I know and actually support their general tendency to err on the side of secrecy in these matters. (I also want a countervailing tranparency imperative to check that impulse, but I’m not really sure how I want it to be maintained; in any case, the point I completely get the imperative for secrecy in these matters in government, call me whatever you will because of that.)

            So, to me, really the most problematic part here actually is the substantive judement that a program this broadly intrusive is actually worth implementing, with the resulting liberty effect, given the overall limitedness of the terrorism threat. That basic policy assessment is what’s most bothersome to me. That it’s thought to be necessary to be done in secret is worrisome, but as I say, really only as a function of the basic disproportionateness of the policy, not by a separate principle. I would likely be supportive of the secrecy of a more proportionate and limited policy, and I think a lot of others would to.

            Not that the general secrecy imperative isn’t troubling on democracy grounds on the basic principle alone. It’s just also, in my view, necessary in some degree. Which is why I call it problematic and not just outright outrageous. It’s a vexing problem. I guess you could say I’m not exactly a radical transparency activist.Report

            • This is me thinking with my fingers. Someone is welcome to come along and tell me the what’s what. But my instincts are…

              For the government not to need a warrant for information, there shouldn’t be the expectation of privacy. If there is no expectation of privacy, then there should be no reason to keep it a secret. To argue at once that we should not expect this to remain private and that we cannot be told this information is not private… problematic.Report

  15. Shazbot5 says:

    Personally, the current violations of privacy don’t bother me a bit.

    There is a slippery slope problem, though. “If we don’t stop these violations for terrorism, then we won’t stop other violations. If we don’t stop those violations, then… Pretty soon we’ll be we’ll be living in “1984.””

    How real is the slippery slope? I’m not sure. I’d say not very, but a little bit.

    What matters to me more than privacy is the failure government transparency. If we all know what programs the government is engaged in, we can use our votes to stop it if we don’t like it. In a way, if there is government transparency, there can be a modicum of accountability, and then the slippery slope towards 1984 isn’t so slippery.

    And on the issue of transparency, I find the government’s claims that “if the terrorists know what sort of counter-terrorism policies we have, our policies will be less effective” to be laughable. There is no evidence for it at all. Sure, maybe taping phones prevents attacks. but the idea that the terrorists don’t know we are tapping their phones prevents attacks? Huh? I’m sure they assume we are tapping phones they use, whether they are aware of our phone tapping policy in general.

    And even if it were true that a lack of transparency saved lives it would be a horribly invalid reason to do anything. If we didn’t publicize the law for how much child molestors would be punished nor our law-enforcement techniques for catching them, that might make it harder to be a molestor, and prevent attacks. But it would also (among other things) take away the public’s ability to decide whether such policies are just.

    In a way, government transparency is such an intrinsically good thing, we can’t sacrifice it except in emergency situations, for brief durations, and even then, there has to be a commitment that everything will come to public attention soon, regardless of whether the emergency situation persists.Report

  16. CK MacLeod says:

    Seems odd that the same people who are telling us that terrorism is no significant threat – since, after all, we have plenty of big buildings and hundreds of millions of citizens, so can easily afford to lose some – are also telling us that data mining is the end of the Republic, because, as near as I can figure out, some tyrant someday might mine that same data and locate dissenters against the mining of data to locate dissenters against mining of data to locate dissenters, and so on, and so on.

    So the hypothetical liberty, or type of hypothetical liberty, of Glenn Greenwald and his fans, is more important than the lives (and therefore the freedom to be anything other than dead) of a relative small handful of potential direct victims of “terrorism.” For some reason an ideal calculation matters when we are discussing “our” civil liberties, but, when it comes to matters of war, simple numerical body counts are decisive. We are now to speculate about and take seriously the prospect of tyrants quashing dissent or doing something nasty in the woodshed with our precious bodily data, but we are not to speculate about or take seriously the prospect of anti-American militants with lethal intent operating in a less restrictive political-legal environment. We are supposed to be more afraid of the NSA Director and the President than of The Terrorists.

    I think the only real reason why one ideal seems to matter more than the other is purely, and rather clearly, a function of a) nearness of the object under discussion, and b), relatedly, historical conjuncture. The result is one of our usual non-discussions involving a clash of symbols relating to ideal, fundamentally non-rational conceptions of the state and its meanings, roughly between those whose utopia turns on ideal freedom of all individuals vs those whose utopia turns on ideal unity of the nation.

    At different historical conjunctures – “war-weariness and mutual suspicion” of 2013 vs. “smoke, rubble, and hubris” of 2001 (other configurations are possible) – one or the other ideal may seem more vital or attractive or important, always subject to “events.” If “ideal liberty” seems to matter most, then, for example, rushing from Tennesssee to NYC to help after 9/11 was utterly irrational and even counter-productive. If “ideal unity” matters most, then it was a wonderful thing to do and strengthened our all-important pride and togetherness as a nation: patriotism, personal identity in ideal collective unity.

    The contradiction for the conventional or mainstream right, as opposed to today’s voluble libertarians, is that patriotic unity via the state sooner or later implies real democracy, which is finally economic or social democracy, not superficial democratic processes of elections and so on. War is indeed the health of the state: of the social-democratic state. The former, or more broadly speaking the the sense of danger or scarcity, augments the latter – from ancient Athens to modern America. The act of mass spectacular terror makes the bodily presence of the nation, or the national body, the responsibility of government for the organic reality of the state, “feel” more real to citizens. A state responsible for the national body in war is a state responsible for the national body simply. The War on Terror produced Obamacare. Osama Bin Laden and George W Bush (and Mitt Romney, too) were the fathers of Obamacare and the Stimulus. The causal chain is actually more clear than the conceptual chain, but not necessarily more “real.”

    By the same token, the perceived failure or non-necessity of the War on Terror is a boon to libertarianism as skepticism of the state, but an unrecognized and misunderstood concrete impediment to the traditional left: An incompetent state not fully responsible for the national body is a state that cannot do what the left wants a state to do. It is an incapable state, a paralyzed state marked by a “gridlocked” political process, sustaining a sufficient faction of obstructionists in high office. The leftists or progressives or liberals who find themselves in odd alliances with libertarians are people with incoherent concepts of the state whose moment came in 2008-9 and has been gradually receding ever since. The current libertarian or quasi-libertarian moment will also likely recede.Report

    • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      So the hypothetical liberty, or type of hypothetical liberty, of Glenn Greenwald and his fans, is more important than the lives (and therefore the freedom to be anything other than dead) of a relative small handful of potential direct victims of “terrorism.”

      I am not a big Greenwald fan, but I can’t help but note that this is precisely the sort of tradeoff we make on a daily basis in multiple aspects of our lives. I’m not sure why you find it particularly worthy of derision in this case.

      Other than that, it’s not clear to me that you’ve addressed anything anyone has actually said, here or in the Greenwald camp.Report

      • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

        The “derision,” Chris, is something you have imputed to observations that you have not chosen to address, except to point out that the “sort of tradeoff” is normal, while also wanting to have it both ways: You want also to be able to deride Greenwald (you’re “not a big fan”) but also pretend that you’re engaging in a more serious discussion. I agree with what you say, because it’s what I just said: The “sort of tradeoff” is “normal.” It’s “normal” because it’s inescapable, whether in our daily lives or in public policy at the highest levels.

        As for addressing anything anyone has actually said, that’s difficult to do when no one seems actually to be saying anything. “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” as someone once said, though, as it turned out, he was wrong about that (wrong precisely because he was, unlike us, uniquely observing and promoting the “consecration” of a state capable of sustaining and also defending, and therefore also of sacrificing, the individuals within an ideally united citizenry). Loomis, as quoted below, says something/nothing somewhat similar, though with greater interest in sustaining the illusion of “something” being said.Report

        • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          Do you think the view that the tradeoffs we’re making now, in the name of the fighting the war on terror, or preventing terrorist attacks here (I’m not sure those are the same thing), go too far in the direction of safety to the detriment of things like privacy, is a valid one, even if you disagree with it (and I’m not sure whether you do)?


          The leftists or progressives or liberals who find themselves in odd alliances with libertarians are people with incoherent concepts of the state whose moment came in 2008-9 and has been gradually receding ever since. The current libertarian or quasi-libertarian moment will also likely recede.

          This seems to treat government as monolithic, and its competence equally so. That is, if not an empirical failure, certainly a failure to recognize the way “the left” sees these things.Report

          • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

            The state – which is broader than “the government” – is a unitary ideal, so in that sense only “is” to the extent it is “monolithic.” As for the way “‘the left’ sees these things,” my argument is expressly that those identifying with or identified with “the left” suffer from occluded vision (a complementary occlusion to the occlusions of the right), or, as I argue in the lines you quote and more generally, the nominal “left,” a stunted libertarian left that no longer knows what it thinks about the state, operates under an incoherent vision: of a state or narrowly a government that can do supposedly good things without developing (or indeed without first developing) an equal capacity to do supposedly bad things.Report

            • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

              Well, I don’t think the state is a monolithic entity, I think it’s a multiplicity, but that’s the way I think about institutions, and it’s a different discussion.

              However, even if it is a monolith, it doesn’t seem inconsistent, much less incoherent, to suggest that it can and will do some things well and some things not well. That, I suppose, is precisely the libertarian perspective. If some people on the “nominal ‘left'” have adopted that perspective, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong, but I don’t see an argument for a monolith necessarily being monolithically competent.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                What’s incoherent is to think that we can have a national ideal that isn’t a patriotic ideal, that they’re not too names for the same thing, or that the state that can give you everything isn’t the state that can take everything from you (in contemporary terms the Republican conservative warning), which also means that the state that can’t take some things from some is that the state than can’t do anything for anyone (the Democratic liberal recognition). The “libertarian” perspective for us tends to name something more extreme and also more specific than general skepticism as to the perfectibility of the state or watchfulness regarding the pretensions of government. The state still owes the citizen reason, but the state’s reason will often be different from the individual citizen’s, as for that matter the individual’s immediate interest may be quite different from the individual’s intermediate and long-term interests. As you concede, the trade-offs are “normal.”Report

              • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                With the last part, I agree. I’m just not sure how it relates to the positions taken by the “nominally ‘left.'” In what way are they suggesting that the state should give everything?Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                Chris – today’s nominal Left, a shell of the historical Left from the time of the bourgeois revolutions to the fall of the Soviet Union, still supports a state that provides basic guarantees for “everything” that leftism defines as meaningful within its horizon, which appears immediately as a political horizon – a set or agenda of issues – but is eventually an all-encompassing horizon. For the Left, the state (in whatever form it takes from old Marxist democratic centralist to anarcho-syndicalist) should guarantee food, shelter, employment, health care, equality of opportunity, environmental safety, etc., etc., until and unless abundance and security obviate the need for any political-juridical state (government and laws) at all. Surely this isn’t news to you. What would a Left be that doesn’t support such a “giving of everything”?Report

              • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Eh, I don’t consider that list to be everything. In fact, it seems to be a list of basics, with most of the rest of the things being left to some other institution (like the market, say).Report

              • zic in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                You mock leftist ideals.

                Yet take them one by one:
                1. should guarantee food. Letting people starve is such a great alternative; particularly in the richest nation ever to exist. And a nation that invests billions in agriculture. But there’s a tight limit on the amount of help a family can get; and it does not mean living high of the hog.

                2. shelter. Providing shelter is generally considered a net benefit to people who already have shelter, too; nothing brings down the property values like a large transient homeless population.

                3. employment, I wish. There is not guarantee of employment. None.

                4. health care. ER services are guaranteed, but only if you’re actually having an emergency. Otherwise, there is not guarantee to health care, though that will (hopefully) change with the mandate to have health insurance at the beginning of next year.

                5. equality of opportunity. Again, I wish. But not something that exists now. You have obviously benefitted from a lot more opportunity (to education, etc.) then many people.

                6. environmental safety. A big one. A leftist victory. I was born in the same town as Ed Muskie, author of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. With giving the women the right to vote and emancipating slaves (a horrid violation of private property rights, I know,) I consider it one of our crowning achievements.

                Much of your leftist agenda is a fantasy in your own head. The rest I suspect has actually made your life better because it’s not only leftest agenda, it’s basic human decency.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Zic, where did I “mock” any “ideals”? I simply listed them. I said the left thinks the government “should guarantee…,” and you proceed, apparently from a position of sympathy with the left or on behalf of the left, to say that guaranteeing those things would be good, that they should be guaranteed. QED

                Chris, pretty much the same thing. As for the possibility that “the market” might be the best means to deliver the “basics” – once you’ve reached the even more basic conclusion that delivering the basics is basic – that’s a lower level or technical question that has been the subject of extensive discussion. Please read more carefully. I wrote: “‘everything’ that leftism defines as meaningful within its horizon, which appears immediately as a political horizon – a set or agenda of issues – but is eventually an all-encompassing horizon.” The immediate appearance in the political dimension will be political issues. A deeper underlying notion would be of a state or political actors within the state or on behalf of a transformed or new state making the provision of the most meaningful “basics” a paramount goal. At a still deeper level, we arrive, as your and zic’s comments indicate, a moral commitment to the “basics” as definitional of “human decency.” I haven’t anywhere stated that I disagree with either of you. I do question whether the nominal left is in a position to advance that agenda effectively, in part because of its contradictory notions regarding the state, the nation, and the global system as it is.Report

              • zic in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                It’s rather amazing to me that you, as erudite as you seem, fails to hear how mocking you can seem.

                What’s troublesome is that you lump basic necessities (food, shelter) and unknowns (health care, opportunity) into one package and essentially label it as ‘giving of everything’ as if the result should be people stop striving to help themselves. As a bonafide, long-standing member of the left, the goal, I assure you, is not everyone living on welfare.

                It’s helping people who can take care of themselves through rough times. And it’s making sure that people who cannot take care of themselves are cared for, without becoming too much a burden on their families. The goal of liberals has, as far as I know, to simply give everything to everybody. But it’s always been to provide a safety net to those at risk.Report

              • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Then you really are speaking in truisms, and I don’t think that gets us very far. In particular, it allows one to pretty easily respond in kind, and exclude some aspect that you find results in incoherence or inconsistency, by definition.

                I don’t mean to defend the “nominal ‘left'” in its ideology, such as it is, or its politics, such it is, because I don’t consider myself a member of that group. My ideas of what the “left” should be are older, and fundamentally different from any vocal group I see in this country today (which is not to say that I’m unique; I know people who think like me, but like me now they tend to be either jaded and disengaged, or like I used to be, focused on particular issues). But since we’re speaking in truisms, I suppose what I want from the government is everything as well.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                “food, shelter, employment, health care, equality of opportunity, environmental safety, etc., etc., until and unless abundance and security obviate the need for any political-juridical state (government and laws) at all. Surely this isn’t news to you. What would a Left be that doesn’t support such a “giving of everything”?”

                Given that truth is a sort of declining “aletheia,” which is itself a direction along a path and not an end of a line-segment, one needs to be careful not to upstage the discourse of the thoroughgoing modernism present in the thinking of the liberal academic leftist. Thus, your referential allusion to an “everything” is a kind of totalizing claim, a sort of “tout-le-monde” fact, but such facts are always riddled with more falsity than truth. There is no truth in totalizing claims, except in saying that in total, there is no such truth. Totalizing only works against itself!

                More to the point, by identifying the liberal-left pseudo-Marxist’s goals for society with a gift of “everything” to the “all,” you are assuming that identities are verbalizable. But communication is only the transmission of ideas across symbols, present in a lived-context, in a comprehensive weltanschauung. And that weltanschauung will change as aletheia undergoes a change of its being-towards-becoming. In simple terms, a change in truth-being is a change in idea-transmission-meaning and thus everything I said is bullshit.Report

              • zic in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Shazbot5, apparently, is playing with a dictionary. Did Shazbot3 lend it to you? If you just took it, you should put it back before 3 sees it’s gone missing.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                To the extent that the contemporary liberal left takes as mockery a dispassionate listing of ideals that define it, reflexively and defensively anticipating a series of rightwing/conservative/libertarian criticisms, that would be indicative of what makes it deserving of mockery.

                Maybe you’re not familiar with the origin of the “can give you everything/can take away everything” formulation. It was a favorite on the right, echoed by Barry Goldwater, Gerald R. Ford, and Sarah Palin, among many others, traditionally misattributed to Thomas Jefferson. It is a kind of truism, in my view, which means that it is also subject to useful reversal at least by those willing to discuss these questions somewhat impartially, or possibly by a left that was not deserving of mockery, and in fact was forthright about what it supported instead of being afraid of being called “socialist.”


                When I put a phrase like “giving of everything” in quotation marks, you should take it as a signal that I am, or we are potentially, discussing the concept, not presuming a position on it and certainly not taking the same position as someone who would use the phrase without quotation marks. I am quoting such person.

                In these comments we we will seem to have strayed far from the the main topic, but I am attempting, for the sake of having an actual discussion rather than a political food fight, to understand this “giving of everything” question impartially: What the phrase means to Barry Goldwater and Sarah Palin, what it might mean to an old Leftist or a new Leftist or anyone else, without pre-judgment. Personally, I might be very happy if the government worked harder at giving everything to everyone. I could use the assistance.Report

              • DRS in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Shorter CK (on just about every comment he posts): I do have a point but I have to make sure everyone understands how superior I am to anyone who might happen to read it. Then I’ll know I haven’t lived in vain.Report

              • Trumwill Mobile in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                So wonderful that we have you to tell us who everyone is.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Actually everything is had by everyone right now, so the government doesn’t need to give it to everyone, they already have it.Report

              • zic in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                What the phrase means to Barry Goldwater and Sarah Palin, what it might mean to an old Leftist or a new Leftist or anyone else, without pre-judgment. Personally, I might be very happy if the government worked harder at giving everything to everyone. I could use the assistance.

                I believe the quote is:

                A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.

                It doesn’t mean anything. I do not know of a single rational lefty who thinks anything remotely along the lines ‘giving everything,’ and to suggest that failing to acknowledge this as some deep leftist tradition is yet again an insult; liberal tradition is not defined by how conservatives perceive it; even when they turn to quotes by Thomas Jefferson.

                The only tradition you evoked is the conservative mocking that was (and still is) common in the right-wing echo chamber. But this is not liberalism.Report

              • greginak in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Somewhat tangential but the tendency of some conservatives to speak in quips or aphorisms has always seemed odd and simplistic. They aren’t meant to explore an idea in all its complexity but more to provide fodder for talk shows or to simplify things down to close to pointlessness.

                Feel free to point out liberal types doing it also. Some people do this it’s not just a phenomenon of one party. It just seems to my clearly unbiased and all seeing eye that conservatives do it more.Report

              • DRS in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                So wonderful that we have you to tell us who everyone is.

                Yes, isn’t it?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                I like CK and really enjoy reading most of his posts, but in general I have a big problem with post modernism. Or post-post modernism. Whatever it’s called nowdays.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Kind of you to say so, Stillwater. Likewise. Is it safe to assume you have something specific in mind with the reference to post-modernism or post-post-modernism? If so, what is it? Or was it just Shazbot’s parody?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                CK, when I say I have problems with pomo/deconstructionism/etc., I mean a few things. One, I have doubts about the coherence of the theories. Two, I think post modern critiques can be very enlightening, intellectually useful and accurate. But I also think they tend to be very narrow. Eg, a thesis about the social construction of reality or a word as a text has real merit and could be descriptively accurate, but only about a very narrow and incomplete range of issues. Three, I might hold point two because I believe that most of post-modernism can analyzed in terms of western analytic philosophy, whereas I’m not entirely sure the reverse is true. This last point I hold weakly, which is a reflection of my uncertainty about what the hell post-modernists are really getting on about.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Stillwater, it’s an interesting topic to me, but I wouldn’t want to start a conversation about post-modernism all the way at the far right of a near-dead thread. I was wondering if there was something specific in this conversation that led you to bring up the subject.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Ahhh. Sure. It was mostly what you suggested upthread: Shazbot’s parody. And the general hostility to what you wrote earlier. I was more musing out loud when I wrote my earlier comment than offering any substantive to the debate. The comment should have been longer. It should have been: I actually think CK makes insightful contributions to these types of discussions, but I too feel some frustration about what the heck he’s talking about some of the time. I don’t blame you for that CK – since I think you do a very good job of articulating what are in fact very subtle issues and concepts. It’s just that often the subtlety of those concepts goes right by me. Hence the comment about pomo.Report

          • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

            As for your first question, Chris: To answer clearly, I haven’t see it demonstrated that the trade has gone too far in the anti-privacy direction. I see a lot of speculation that it might have or might be about to, or ought to be seen to have done so. I tend to agree with the underlying theme of the post, which puts the matter in purely political terms, that a failure to have gone far enough in the “compromise” may produce a higher but uncertain likelihood of a future backlash or over-correction, as already rehearsed many times. Another way of saying the same thing is that “too much freedom” tends to lead eventually to “too much constraint.”Report

            • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

              What, do you think, would constitute going to far? Where would you draw the line?Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

                You’ll have to be more specific, Chris. In other words, I don’t understand what kind of line you expect me to draw, or in regard to what specifically.

                Whatever line you or I might draw in terms of what we consider best-guess tolerable will be hostage to the next day’s headlines. I think we’re left, as in other similar issues at the limits of the rule of law state, with executive discretion that, if we end up with the wrong executives, could be catastrophic. The fact frustrates people who fantasize about passing some kind of law against violating the rule of law. It’s hard for people to process this apparent absurdity. They want to believe. To make matters even more difficult, we generally believe that it’s better if they and we believe. Yet the most we can do is put up different types of impediments that express our general opposition to immoderate action, to tyranny, that in theory make tyranny more difficult to establish, and cross our fingers that we stay lucky indefinitely, mostly dimly aware that it’s out of anyone’s control, and that it’s easy to imagine circumstance where fighting it too hard may bring it closer.

                Anyone paying attention, or, as someone said, who had ever watched a few techno-thrillers, already assumed that capacities like the ones we’ve been discussing existed. If the public really cared as much as people seem to think it should care, then there would be a demand for end-to-end encryption, which, to my understanding, is technically quite feasible, but which the government has discouraged companies from offering, and which the FBI wants to make illegal, the alternative being, in their view, to give terrorists, child pornographers, and good-honest-decent-folks-too totally secure communications. Do we really want a world in which no communications can be intercepted other than through direct eavesdropping at the point of original transmission or after decoding by the intended recipient? Have we thought through all of the consequences? Does the public, in other words the state, own the public air and fiber-ways or are they owned by whoever happens to be using them without regard to anyone else?Report

              • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                I wouldn’t mind a world in which no communications can be intercepted except with a warrant authorized because there is probable cause.Report

              • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                More substantially, we have 200+ years of avoiding any real despots here, even if we’ve come close a time or two. It seems that, if we were interested in avoiding the very real possibility of real despots in the future, part of the way to avoid it would be to avoid giving the executive more power with less oversight. Not a foolproof method, but within our system, the best we have available. Yet we seem determined to move in the other direction.

                And I readily admit that the people of this country are more interested in immediate safety than (perhaps only remotely) potential future despotism.Report

          • Barry in reply to Chris says:

            “The leftists or progressives or liberals who find themselves in odd alliances with libertarians are people with incoherent concepts of the state whose moment came in 2008-9 and has been gradually receding ever since. The current libertarian or quasi-libertarian moment will also likely recede.”

            Nice, fluffy, meaningless and far, far from proven. Which pretty much fits in with the rest of what he’s written. He’s pretty much a warblogger bot.Report

      • CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

        OK, Chris – on second thought I was being derisive there with the part about the woodshed and the precious bodily data, but I’ll call it a corrective or balancing derision against the perception or claim of a “big deal.” I’m honestly unclear about the “harm” the citizenry in general is supposed to be upset about. It seems to be a purely speculative harm. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth taking into consideration at all. It just means that it’s especially subject to vastly different estimates of importance varying with the observer. If you’re pre-occupied with visions of tyranny, by profession or inclination or both, it’s a big deal to you. If you’re not, it’s not.Report

        • Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          Well, if you read the Greenwalds of the world, you’ll note that their primary worries about what they perceive as an overreaction are twofold: first, and perhaps foremost, they worry that we have reacted too violently, so that in order to save a few people here, we’ve killed or displaced a whole hell of a lot of people, many of them having nothing to do with terrorism, over there. The second, which you must have seen, is not that our lives have been more than superficially affected by our reaction, to date, but that they have created an environment in which a transition to a system in which it would be possible to affect our lives more than superficially is a very real possibility, and becomes an even more real possibility every time we move further toward security and further away from privacy.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      If I understand you correctly, it seems your point is that fretting over data collection while dismissing the risks of terrorism seems silly. Which I agree with. At least in part.

      But I think that presumes that we are making an apples-to-apples comparison between like actions committed by the same actor. Which we are not.

      There amount of terrorism, or deaths by terrorism or property damage by terrorism, that I would consider acceptable would be zero. But the risk of terrorism committed by people outside our government (be the foreign or domestic)? Well, there is an acceptable amount of that which I think we must tolerate.

      Personally, I don’t think the data collection we’ve seen by the government here is in and of itself a huge deal. My uninformed hunch is that most people will never know that their data was collected and that it will have zero impact on their lives. However, if we have an ever-increasing security state, one that continually shifts the status quo in one and only one direction, such that what was once objectionable becomes the norm and therefore what was once highly objectionable becomes a slight shift in the norm… that is very problematic. And perhaps moreso than a non-zero body count, which itself is unacceptable.

      Those of us who might minimize our fears of terrorism (I’m sure most of us who do so do it under the guise of “putting it in the proper perspective” but it is really hard to make an objective claim to that when dealing with something so unknowable) do not mean to make it acceptable, but rather to say, “Both of these are horrid. One of them we can control via the actions of our government and one of them we cannot. We should control the horrid behavior we have the power to.”Report

      • zic in reply to Kazzy says:

        Kazzy, I have a somewhat different take on this, and one rooted in being female.

        Women are supposed to be afraid, and supposed to take steps to protect themselves, and this actually does end up curtailing freedom in a big way. It’s how you dress, how you walk, how you talk. It’s not being able to take the subway after say 9:00 p.m. alone. Sometimes, it’s walking the long way around a sketchy neighborhood. It’s not talking to men in many, many situations, without a man standing beside you as protector.

        When we give up things in the name of safety, those things also tend to become obligatory; if you didn’t do such and such, and a bad thing happened, it’s now your fault. See nearly any rape conversation for examples of this.

        The thing is, that women get harmed even if they do all these things right. The government can listen to all the phone conversations and web chats ever done, and it will find things like my conversation with my son last night, where we discussed the potential of malicious eavesdropping code being put into open-source software, the potential it’s built into hardware chips; not coding required.

        I’m pretty sure our conversation was loaded with terms that would spark a closer analysis of the conversation from a security perspective. What, then, will my son and I do to freely discuss these types of issues, now that the fear we’re being observed is rooted? This creates an action in the opposite direction, it creates efforts to obfuscate. Just consider the slang for illegal drugs for an example.

        These are, to me, the two extremes that happen; one is a growing acceptance of ever increasing limitations in the name of safety; the other is simply new code words, with the ‘safety keepers’ always a step or two behind the language.Report

    • Barry in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      “Seems odd that the same people who are telling us that terrorism is no significant threat – since, after all, we have plenty of big buildings and hundreds of millions of citizens, so can easily afford to lose some – are also telling us that data mining is the end of the Republic, because, as near as I can figure out, some tyrant someday might mine that same data and locate dissenters against the mining of data to locate dissenters against mining of data to locate dissenters, and so on, and so on.”

      Could you have a friend translate this into coherent English?Report

  17. Shazbot5 says:

    Also, I like this bit at Lawyersgunsandmoney from Erik Loomis:

    “Given people’s intensity over this issue, I’m probably going to be annoyed by the response to this. But while all the NSA stuff and destruction of privacy is in fact terrible and deeply disturbing, it has about 0.1% as much effect on people’s freedom, security, and quality of life as unemployment, economic inequality, destruction of unions, and household debt, not to mention racism, sexism, homophobia, and climate change. If we saw 1% of the outrage over these things as over the relatively abstract (although not unreal) notion of a government spying on us, we’d be getting somewhere.”Report

    • Chris in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      I agree with this. It seems like its the job of folks like Erik to come up with things to do about that, though, rather than complaining about the people who are outraged about other stuff (which Erik frequently does).Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        I’d like to think that If I told Erik that while I appreciate that he cares about Climate Change that he should put 1% of that effort into (one of my pet peeves), he’d immediately see through it.Report

        • Barry in reply to Jaybird says:

          I pointed out to Erik that it’s related. People who are economically desperate, powerless and sinking aren’t inclined to be generous or friendly; they’re easy to convince that somebody needs to be punished (and that somebody is never part of the 1%). They have less time, energy and money for politics.Report

        • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

          But on the bright side, having the new NSA program will in the future enable him to leverage the network and associations of all the people who are not sufficiently motivated by “unemployment, economic inequality, destruction of unions, and household debt, not to mention racism, sexism, homophobia, and climate change…”

          Terrorism today is just anti-dentite fear of tomorrow.Report

        • Shazbot5 in reply to Jaybird says:

          Is climate change just a pet peeve or is it objectively a much worse problem than privacy rights violations by the NSA?

          Answer “Yes” or “No” (along with whatever else you want to say) or you are guilty of crimes against honest discussion.Report

    • Fnord in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      Solving climate change will require a vast coordinated effort of many different parties, and non-trivial sacrifices from most of those parties. And that’s probably the easiest of the problems you cited. Solving the problem of the NSA’s overbroad spying on American citizens merely requires the NSA to stop doing something.Report