Friday, 14 June 2013

Snowden tells us what's going on--535 members of Congress couldn't

Now that we’ve had the chance to absorb the first round of the Edward Snowden revelations about the Stasification of America, some of the contours of the new world we now live in are emerging. It’s not a pretty sight, but our spymasters are also looking at some unexpected consequences. If he’s not careful, Obama may end up looking less like a fearsome new Occidental Karla and more of a frantic Sorcerer’s Apprentice. [Above: utterly useless California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who helps the NSA spy on us but thinks Snowden committed ‘treason’]

The New York Times had a piece today about the failed attempt by Yahoo to resist government vacuuming up everything on its servers, a legal battle that played out in complete secrecy from the rest of us. But more revealing was a companion investigative piece on the scandal at Bloomberg News where reporters were found spying on businesses through the data that Bloomberg terminals provide to their Wall Street clients.

Goldman Sachs had complained about this practice in a recent case, but the Times reporters found that far from being an anomalous case, Bloomberg reporters had routinely used their access to metadata about business users to figure out what they were up to.

For example, if a reporter suspected that a Bloomberg subscriber was involved in a merger deal, it was easy to track his movements by seeing what city he accessed his account from. They could also learn what subscribers were looking at and draw conclusions.

Does this sound a tad familiar? It is exactly what the government plans to do with all of us to make sure we are not plotting terrorist acts. But unlike we defenseless citizens represented by a Congress easily kept in the dark, browbeaten into submission and/or bought off, the victims in this case include the nation’s top business executives. If they become seriously upset, someone is going to hear about it.

Meanwhile, Common Dreams has posted a very thoughtful summary of why the howls of indignation from horrible elements like the Feinstein sound so defensively lame:

Part of the answer is that the politicians don’t want to admit that Congress (and the courts) have failed to exercise adequate oversight over a giant network of secret agencies and corporations that is wasting billions of dollars on worthless surveillance and, in the process, invading the privacy of millions of Americans and endangering the capacity of reporters, leakers, and crusading members of Congress to check the secret abuses of secret government.

Senator Feinstein and her colleagues don’t want to admit it, but the secrecy system does not permit her and her colleagues to restrain secret government. Once they get a secret briefing, they are pledged not to discuss what they have learned, even with their staffs. Feinstein is such a weak overseer that she could not even persuade the secret FISA court to declassify its sweeping surveillance orders or the legal rationale behind them. But Mr. Snowden could do that with his leaks. He, not the senator, revealed that the secret court had, with its rubber stamp, rendered the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonably broad seizures meaningless.

This is a elegant dismantling of the whole Obama claim that the three branches of government are somehow co-managing this cancerous apparatus rather than being managed by it. It is only through leakers (or ‘informers’, as the reliably reactionary Time magazine cover calls them) that we know anything about what has been going on and only through leakers that Obama has been forced to have the national debate about it that he cynically pretends to welcome.

As Glenn Greenwald points out in The Guardian in his follow-up to the first week of shockers, members of Congress, including those on the relevant committees, have responded by issuing ambiguously worded warnings about what we don’t yet know because even they are powerless to clearly state what the fuck is going on.

How can anyone think that it's remotely healthy in a democracy to have the NSA building a massive spying apparatus about which even members of Congress, including Senators on the Homeland Security Committee, are totally ignorant and find ‘astounding’ when they learn of them? How can anyone claim with a straight face that there is robust oversight when even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are so constrained in their ability to act that they are reduced to issuing vague, impotent warnings to the public about what they call radical ‘secret law’ enabling domestic spying that would ‘stun’ Americans to learn about it, but are barred to disclose what it is they're so alarmed by? Put another way, how can anyone contest the value and justifiability of the stories that we were able to publish as a result of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing: stories that informed the American public—including even the US Congress—about these incredibly consequential programs?

Greenwald also points out the utility to the snooper state of having someone like Barack Obama in charge so that the liberal pundits instead of expressing outrage at these repressive tactics are the first to rush to the defense of their guy and anything he does. ‘Every defense Obama defenders are making now were the ones Bush defenders made back [in 2006]’, says Greenwald. But oh god, are they going to be sorry—and complain to high heaven—when the winds change and the Bush/Obama spy apparatus is turned against them once again.

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