Edward Snowden: Straining the Quality of Mercy

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  1. Avatar Pierre Corneille
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    Your position is pretty much mine, although I’m a bit less confident that I’m right, perhaps because I need to learn more about the issue. Most of what I know is from OT and a smattering of other blogs I read.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Pierre Corneille
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      I am usually chagrined when I learn of top-headline things here. Ordinary Times is a venue for opinion, analysis, thought, and dialogue.Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Burt Likko
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        @burt-likko

        I don’t really mean to push you too much on this, but by “chargined” do you mean that you’re mildly ashamed to learn about things here, or that that’s what one should expect from this blog?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko
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        The first. And that’s mainly limited to above-the-fold headline type things.

        I try and make the rounds of a wide variety of news sources as part of my daily morning routine. I learned of the Newtown attacks here, for instance, because I’d skipped the news that morning for some reason. Didn’t seem right that I learn of something like that here.

        I think of this place as somewhere to go to discuss the news, not to learn the news. We’ve an intelligent commenting community that embraces a nice diversity of viewpoints; this is the place to go to chew over something, to harrumph with those who agree and to test opinions with those who do not, with the security that disagreements, however sharp, will be civil and friendly. I’d say “gentlemanly,” but of course the gentlewomen are very much an integral part of the community.Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Burt Likko
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        Thanks, Burt.

        A couple years ago, a friend of mine, with whom I had a lot of conversations on politics, etc., asked me where I got my news from (out of curiosity and not a challenge), and I had no definitive answer.

        Now that I’ve thought about it, I confess I probably get most of my news from blogs, rather than news sources, although I occasionally watch the Newshour and a local Chicago PBS news program [“Chicago Tonight”] that’s pretty good. But I don’t watch those regularly.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        Let me add, @pierre-corneille , that I think blogs (and particularly this one) are good places to learn about interesting and potentially important stuff that doesn’t make the above-the-fold headlines. The big news organizations are good at big, sexy news. Not all the news is big or sexy, and some of the big, sexy stories are really about bullshit nothing. For instance, I wouldn’t have realized that bitcoin was becoming a thing until Jason’s piece about it recently. By the time the Washington Post gets to doing a significant story about bitcoin, the story will already be old news. But the Post is a pretty good place to find out what happened in Congress today.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        Burt,
        hype is easy to get printed in the Post.
        bitcoin is hype. so…
        (bitcoin is incompetent, or it is printed in the post)Report

  2. Avatar clawback
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    says:

    I put this in roughly the same category as publishing videos of police brutality. It’s one thing to understand abstractly that a “signals-intelligence agency conducts signals-intelligence” or that cops beat up suspects. It is quite another thing, and an important one for public policy reasons, to understand these facts in detail.Report

    • Avatar Fnord in reply to clawback
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      says:

      Especially when you have, for example, the head of the NSA playing word games about the definition of “collection” while testifying to Congress. A general claim gets a carefully worded denial; you need the details to know what “We have no direct access to their systems” actually means.Report

  3. Avatar Chris
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    says:

    If “a not insubstantial portion of Snowden’s revelations boil down to: The leading signals-intelligence organ of the US conducts signals-intelligence. Competently.”, then a not insubstantial portion of the revelations did no damage. Logically, releasing information “everyone knows” cannot be harmful.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Chris
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      says:

      The upshot of the value to the U.S. public relating to their privacy concerns can be things “everyone knows,” while some of the specifics, especially the technical specs, of little value to the U.S. public in those regards, can be harmful to overall intelligence gathering (legitimate or only debatably so), and hence can be harmful. I.e., the information is of value to those concerned with legitimate U.S. privacy concerns only inasmuch as its upshot is just “The U.S. intelligence apparatus uses very advanced technology to gather the secrets of foreign governments and individuals,” which everyone did know, while the specifics of the information, which have also been released, are of value to those looking to disrupt the operations through illegitimate processes, which is harmful.

      In short, your syllogism fails because it doesn’t account for the fact that different people have (or don’t have) different reasons, varyingly legitimate and not, for their interests in the various levels of specific information that were released. Though if you really want to insist on the truth of your syllogism, fair enough, we can say that everyone didn’t know those technical specs before, and now they do, and that’s pretty much only of value to people looking to disrupt the operations in illegitimate ways.Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        Try it this way: If all that Snowden revealed, in the broad scope, is that the NSA is conducting competent signals intelligence, why was it secret until Snowden revealed it?
        Why did the DNI Clapper give testimony before Congress that was at best deliberately deceptive if not an outright lie?Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        @fnord
        There are a number of complaints: NSA officials misled authorities as to their capabilities and methods, the US overclassifies, the US quashes privacy lawsuits by claiming national security or state secrets, the domestic US surveillance net is overbroad, and thus US surveillance violates constitutional protections.

        As I see it, revealing the specifications of the software and devices the NSA uses, as well as details as to overseas targeting, is different from making that case about domestic NSA abuses. Revealing legitimate targets does not help make a case about illegitimate targets.

        The more that Snowden reveals that is legitimate signals intelligence work the less he can claim the mantle whistleblower.Report

    • NobAkimoto NobAkimoto in reply to Chris
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      There’s a vast, vast world of difference between “NSA does signals intelligence” and “NSA does signals intelligence, here are their specific methods and capabilities”.

      If that nuance is lost on people, I’m not sure there’s a discussion to even have.Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    So: Mr. Snowden revealed both a) debatably illegal and b) unseemly but legal intelligence gathering practices of the NSA.

    The Gray Lady argues that a) outweighs b) (to the extent it acknowledges b) at all) and the OP (similar to some pundits) say that a) does not excuse b). Unfortunately, this appears to be a case in which both arguments are correct.

    Perhaps the needle is threaded thus: Mr. Snowden should not be prosecuted for revealing secrets in category a) but should have to answer for category b) revelations. Perhaps requiring him to absent himself from the US until the statute of limitations expires is a just resolution to his case.Report

  5. Avatar Damon
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    I’ll echo some comments above. You can call him what you will, but what Snowden did was “a good thing”. It’s one thing to konw that the US is spying on you, it’s another for every German to understand that we’re spying on Merkel. His releases have caught officials in blantant lies, statements intended to mislead, and general non honesty. Resulting investigations have revealed that the NSA has routinely violated FISA warrants. This is crimminal behavior people. The US classifies too much too easily and uses that to cover it’s own ass. What was suspectedis now confirmed and known.

    I want to share a story: About 10 years ago, I watched a demonstration of a COMMERCIAL product. We viewed the Law Enforcement version, but there was a public version, with lesser info available too. The demo leader typed in his phone number. Up popped his home address. We could see the following:

    All the vehicles he’d registed-boat, car, etc.
    All the census info on the house/family–you do remember answering all those questions, don’t you?
    His income, SSN, legal records, credit info, criminal information, etc.
    Pretty much anything you wanted. Behind that info was a spider web, showing connections. We could see every place this guy had ever lived, with similiar info as described above. We could see the the connections to his family, who lived out of state, and all their info described above. We could see the prior owners of the same house, and all their info described above.

    This was 10 years ago and it was data that was available to cops and the feds. They paid a fee to have access to this info. Factor in the time factor and moore’s law. Are you frickin scared yet?Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to Damon
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      yes it worries me – and has since stuff like this started getting reported a decade ago. But the Snowden revelations seem destined for added . . . weighty . . . something . . . because they occurred from within the Sacred Walls of the NSA, and they have a face to them, unlike so many other stories where cowards hide behind anonymity.Report

  6. Avatar Philip H
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    Drawing from @burt-likko ‘s succinct summary:

    The Gray Lady argues that a) outweighs b) (to the extent it acknowledges b) at all) and the OP (similar to some pundits) say that a) does not excuse b). Unfortunately, this appears to be a case in which both arguments are correct.

    I disagree vehemently that B is inexcusable. Simply knowing A is not enough – much of the general outline of A was reported by the New York Times and others beginning ca. 2004. So it’s been available to the willing seeker for a decade. And “Outing” B does not inherently disclose anything that is, FWIW, a danger to ongoing operations. NSA installations in the US are well guarded physically, so even with the specs on their technology there is little physical threat to them. And their cyber infrastructure is, AFAIK, also well guarded, since I am fairly certain it’s routinely attacked by the Chinese and others. Al Quaeda certainly lacks the technical capability to pose a real threat.

    Further, all the revelations in A and B have been filtered through media outlets, whose professionals have self-reported attempts (sometimes at great lengths) to get the US to weigh in impact of A and B disclosures BEFORE publication. When the NSA won’t speak to that beforehand, the whining afterwards is childish and unbecoming at best.

    Based on current reporting, the NSA is still going about its merry business of hoovering up everything in the known data universe – probably including this blog. Given that, any anger the Intelligence Community (as if they were somehow APART from the rest of the US population) has at Mr. Snowden is deeply misplaced. Doubly so since there is no reportable evidence that their data vacuuming has done one d@mn bit of good in the “War on Terror.”Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Philip H
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      Do you subscribe to a principle that holds that any information that would not be harmful to have publicly known ought not to be classified? if so, is it then your position that these specs that were released were never legitimately classified, or at least no longer were? If not, what is the standard that should be used to decide what information should be classified? And if there continues to be information that is classified that does not meet your criteria for being classified (big if!), do you endorse its release through unauthorized leaking by government or government-contracted personnel who have signed confidentiality agreements at any time they conclude correctly (in your view) that a piece of information is not (or no longer is) legitimately classified?Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        The NSA itself has endorsed unauthorized leaking to private companies for fiduciary gain. They have covered up the leaks (otherwise known as corporate espionage).Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        I’d be interested in reading about that, Kim.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Drew
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        Mike,
        Get enough data together, and you can do a ton of spying. If you know what to look for. And a corporation’s enemies nearly always know what to look for.

        http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2013/10/nsa-busted-conducting-industrial-espionage-in-france-mexico-brazil-and-other-countries.html

        This is the “aboveboard” stuff. Leaking to American companies also goes on, and has been systematically covered up.Report

      • Avatar Philip H in reply to Michael Drew
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        I believe the US government has WAY over-classified its information, because many in the bureaucracy mistakenly believe that vast knowledge is superior power. I also advocate public knowledge because ti tends to drive moral decisions that might otherwise be turned. In the case of the NSA, their contention is that THEY MUST KNOW IT ALL in order to KEEP US SAFE! The problem is that all the knowledge needed to PREVENT 9/11 was known at the time to various US intelligence and law enforcement agencies – they simply chose not to share so as to protect their turf. In response to that we’ve got a serious erosion of our civil liberties going on – because admitting you F@#ked up is apparently beneath our government officials.

        And as to legitimate classification – you might be interested (in a sick, ironic sort of way) to know that Mr. Snowden’s documents are still considered classified by the federal government, and that fed’ wanting to read them from the Guardian or NYT websites face disciplinary action IF they read them on a federal computer that is “cleared” for classified material. That distinction serves no legitimate societal purpose other then to control access to information, and my view is government can’t and shouldn’t dictate to citizens what they read once its published in the public domain.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        Kim, thanks for the link. I think this link at that link is what you’re referring to. It’s a good point.Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        Do you subscribe to a principle that holds that any information that would not be harmful to have publicly known ought not to be classified?

        Yes. Is this even a question? Is there a principled reason why the government should be allowed to hide information that would not cause harm if revealed?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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        Possibly because they can’t be sure? I’m not arguing that’s sufficient, but it seems like a not-ridiculous argument to make, to me. There is certainly a universe of information that in fact wouldn’t be harmful if released but that the government feels it can’t be sure wouldn’t. So do we require a hard-and-fast conclusion that there would be harm, or do we allow for some degree of precautionary classification?

        But since you’ve answered the one question, care to answer the next two?Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to Michael Drew
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        Possibly because they can’t be sure? I’m not arguing that’s sufficient, but it seems like a not-ridiculous argument to make, to me. There is certainly a universe of information that in fact wouldn’t be harmful if released but that the government feels it can’t be sure wouldn’t. So do we require a hard-and-fast conclusion that there would be harm, or do we allow for some degree of precautionary classification?

        Some precaution, and even some error, are an inevitable cost of doing business. There’s going to be some overclassification if you allow the government to keep secrets at all. And that’s preferable to trying to run an intelligence agency without keeping any secrets whatsoever.

        Hence, I don’t endorse illegal leaking for any and all information that is improperly classified. But there are certainly some cases where public revelation of classified information is sufficiently important that leaking is justified.

        And now turn the problem around. When a leak is justified, the would-be leaker is left with the same problem the government has in deciding which documents were properly classified and which documents the public needs to know about. Just as some overbroad classification can and will occur, some overbroad leaking can and will occur, for the fundamentally the same reason. And, just as I’d rather accept some overclassification than the consequences of not allowing classification at all, I’d rather accept the consequences of the occasional overbroad leak than a government that can freely keep any secret it likes without oversight or accountability.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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        I think I agree almost fully with all of that (though it depends what we mean by “accept.” I’m happy to “accept” that some leaks will be overbroad in the sense that it doesn’t turn me off of leaks completely and make me just want all leaking and whistleblowing to stop, but I still think at least in some cases leakers, even whistleblowers, who leak overbroadly or to the wrong people should be prosecuted for it.) But I also think we’ve established that there is in fact some question about whether the government should be allowed to classify some information that would not be harmful to have publicly known.Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to Michael Drew
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        I’m happy to “accept” that some leaks will be overbroad in the sense that it doesn’t turn me off of leaks completely and make me just want all leaking and whistleblowing to stop, but I still think at least in some cases leakers, even whistleblowers, who leak overbroadly or to the wrong people should be prosecuted for it.

        Well, turn it back around, then. Those who overclassify should face consequences, too. At least, as you say, in some cases. Punishing one but not the other isn’t even 2nd best to a perfect world were both face consequences. Consequences that aren’t applied uniformly can be worse than none at all.

        But I also think we’ve established that there is in fact some question about whether the government should be allowed to classify some information that would not be harmful to have publicly known.

        They’re not allowed to classify information they know won’t cause harm; they’re allowed to be unsure or mistaken about whether it will cause harm.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        Within some definition, I agree that there should be consequences for overclassifying. Even now, there are procedures and guidelines. There should be a system in place to advance the aim that they be followed (and they should reflect good judgement about what should be classified, but even if that’s not the case, system for following whatever guidelines there are should be in place), by all means. But what exactly are you calling for? Balance between the punishments for overclassifying and over-broadly leaking? Exactly the same punishments? You only call for there to be some consequences. That’s not a very high bar; it might even be cleared right now.

        On the other thing, sure we can agree to the words “They’re not allowed to classify information they know won’t cause harm; they’re allowed to be unsure or mistaken about whether it will cause harm,” and pretend that resolves questions. In fact, it only multiplies them. A “knowledge” standard raises questions of what degree of certainty constitutes knowledge. There is the general question of agreement: of reconciling different assessors’ judgement about the likelihood that release would cause harm (that of those doing or not doing, or defending or not defending, the classifying, and those auditing those judgement). There is the simple question of what constitutes harm (and then of agreement between the government and auditors on that definition, and then of each individual attempt to apply it. All of these are unavoidable (whether principled or not) questions attending a view that denies that any information that would not be harmful to have publicly known can be legitimately classified, once modified to say that the classifying agency must know that public knowledge would not be harmful (to allow for the obvious necessity that it will need to classify some information that in fact won’t be harmful if released out of uncertainty that that is true), which you initially implied there could be no question about.

        Suffice to say, yes, there are questions about whether the principle can really hold that, “any information that would not be harmful to have publicly known ought not to be classified,” and what it would mean if it did. That is, if the classification that is done is to have any chance of achieving the effect that is the reason it is carried out in the first place.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Philip H
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      says:

      @philip-h
      And “Outing” B does not inherently disclose anything that is, FWIW, a danger to ongoing operations.

      I disagree.

      I’m sure Chinese signals intelligence would be interested to know things like,

      the NSA caught the Chinese spying on the UN in 2011. The NSA managed to penetrate their adversary’s defenses and “tap into Chinese SIGINT (signals intelligence) collection,” as it says in a document that describes how spies were spying on spies. Based on this source, the NSA has allegedly gained access to three reports on “high interest, high profile current events.”*

      Another item that comes to mind, the bug (Dropmire) in the encrypted fax machine of the European Union embassy in Washington DC since at least 2007***. Aside from details like that, there’s broader information about targeting the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels and the new building of the EU Mission to the UN in New York.

      If part of intelligence is the patient gathering of little bits of information to be put together over time, then details like the NSA’s capabilities list*** and information on fairly recent NSA operations are tremendously valuable puzzle pieces.

      * www(DOT)spiegel(DOT)de/international/world/secret-nsa-documents-show-how-the-us-spies-on-europe-and-the-un-a-918625-2.html

      ** www(DOT)theguardian(DOT)com/world/2013/jun/30/nsa-leaks-us-bugging-european-allies

      *** en(DOT)wikipedia(DOT)org/wiki/NSA_ANT_catalog#Capabilities_listReport

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Creon Critic
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        Oh, totally. But i think the idea of a world without secrets is a bad world.
        a really, really bad world, where we don’t get anything accomplished.
        Where the thieves get rewarded.

        I give the Russians 5 years before we lose the ability to use credit cards online.
        Might be less.Report

      • Avatar Philip H in reply to Creon Critic
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        says:

        Except that 1) what Mr. Snowden released is now all past data – there is nothing about actual current or future operational capabilities – since such things have no doubt changed since the leaks; 2) It is . . . intellectually challenging . . . to think that the Chinese hadn’t already figured out they were targeted, by who and where; 3) And none of that speaks to the deeply abhorrent and effrontery issue that the NSA was and is collecting data on Americans without probably cause and in likely violation of all sorts of other laws.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Philip H
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      says:

      @philip-h “I believe the US government has WAY over-classified its information, because many in the bureaucracy mistakenly believe that vast knowledge is superior power.”

      Though the larger part of it is that bureaucracy is bureaucracy. It’s far easier for the minions in the bureaucracy to communicate with each other lumping everything together in the same high classification bin than to take to time to (for instance) properly portion mark. Moreover, the mingling and categorical errors in classification are far more widespread when the creation of a classified document is literally as easy as creating an email or blogpost, compared with having to type and stamp everything – and then catalog every copy. (which in turn, makes it much harder routine or directed declassification reviews)Report

  7. Avatar Kim
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    says:

    Well. I will say that punishing the blackhats while letting the thieves play merry havoc without punishment sets a poor example.
    A VERY poor example.
    Do you think, for one second, that Snowden is the ONLY leaker?
    Everyone else had the Good Business Sense to sell secrets privately. To private buyers.Report

  8. Avatar Stillwater
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    says:

    The publication of details on NSA operations cannot be said to advance the aim of Fourth Amendment compliance.

    No, perhaps not, but it also isn’t damaging either – except perhaps to contractors and bureaucrats who might have to justify some of the expenditures. And that could potentially serve a useful purpose as well. But I think it can be justified on a broader principle. So

    These revelations, technical specifications and overseas targeting, are connected to the Fourth Amendment how, exactly?

    Well, if the fourth amendment protections are justified by a general principle, wouldn’t that principle apply to people outside the US as well – to folks in Germany, Hong Kong, Mexico, etc? At a technical legal level, of course, it could be argued that the fourth amendment only acts to protect US citizens from actions taken by the US government. But why think that the US has a basic right (what would it even mean to appeal to a right at this point?) to view and store data collected from say Merkel’s private telephone communications? Simply saying that governments as a matter of fact spy on each other doesn’t really justify the practice.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Stillwater
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      says:

      because Anarchy and distrust are laws of the world, and we lack an effective governmental agency to actually fix disagreements between nations.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Kim
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        says:

        I’d think the better argument justifying spying comes from national defense. So the question is, is it a matter of national defense to (say) listen to and record Merkel’s private cell-phone communications? Another question: does the US have the right to engage in that practice in any event, or only the self-interested ability to do so?Report

      • Avatar Philip H in reply to Kim
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        says:

        The later. We’d be pounding desks at the UN and closing American military bases of the roles were reversed.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kim
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        says:

        The roles have been reversed for decades. We didn’t pound because we were doing it better than them (decreasingly).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kim
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        To be perfectly honest, I’d be surprised if Germany wasn’t trying to spy on us. Maybe not to the point of planting the equivalent of “Yuri” into the government, but certainly sniffing, listening, and doing their damnenest to collect info.

        You don’t want to be the one guy who isn’t playing the game.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Kim
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        says:

        I think Germany spies on us too. They’d be crazy not to, right?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kim
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        I expect my government to spy on furriners, for purposes of nat’l defense.

        (Sure, Merkel seems cool and all…but those wily Germans have surprised us before.)

        To whatever extent Snowden’s revelations have undermined that effort, that’s not good. Some punishment or consequences for Snowden may be in order.

        But here’s the thing (and I am far from a Snowden expert) – my understanding of the straw that broke the Snowden’s back, was largely the domestic stuff. The international stuff might be sketchy, underhanded, and based in naked national self-interest; but I assume most of the US intelligence community can sleep at night, by balancing all of that against the “national defense” column.

        When our government spies on its own citizens, in breach of the Constitutional “contract” in the 4th Amendment, it causes citizens to distrust each other and the government.

        This also undermines national defense; both on its own (‘a house divided against itself yada yada’), and also if and when some Snowden stands up and says “enough”, and the nearly-inevitable subsequent flood of oversharing damages our international capabilities and reputation.

        It’s no secret that mission creep (in this case, start to spy domestically) can cause the core, original mission (spy effectively on the rest of the world) to fail.

        It seems to me that this may be happening here.

        The blame for *that* doesn’t lie with Snowden; it is with those agencies blindly pursuing mission creep and overstepping their proper boundaries with US citizens.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Stillwater
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      says:

      @stillwater
      Would you describe the items I mentioned in reply to Philip H at 1:11pm as damaging (revealing US access to Chinese signals intelligence in 2011, specific listening devices in specific locations, and a catalogue of NSA equipment with specifications)?

      Due to the principle of the Fourth Amendment as you see it, is the US barred from engaging in espionage?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Creon Critic
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        says:

        Due to the principle of the Fourth Amendment as you see it, is the US barred from engaging in espionage?

        No, of course not. But the issue remains the limits of intelligence gathering. Eg, US citizens have an expectation of privacy which prevents the government from tapping surveilling their communications unless a court authorizes a warrant to do so. So the protection accorded to an individual can be defeated if a certain burden has been met. The domestic dispute is generated by disputes about the meaning of “public” and “private”. (My argument would be that even if a communication is public (a Facebook communication), government still ought to be restricted from surveilling it unless it has met a burden of justification for doing so – heck, even a general argument for doing so.)

        The answer to your question about what foreign intelligence gathering has to do with the fourth amendment follows from this: does the US have the right to monitor the private communications of people who we have no reason to suspect of warranting such surveillance? I’d say the answer is no, we don’t.

        That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to do it, nor does it mean that some other argument can be made which would justify doing it. I just don’t think “everybody does it” constitutes a justification.Report

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