Borrowed Outrage

Henry David Thoreau did say that most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. He really was a smug bastard, and a mean one – because that stings. None of us are going to chuck it all and go live at Walden Pond, or get to be righteous, fighting the good fight. Maybe we’re all cowards. Thoreau got thrown in jail for refusing to pay the usual poll tax, which he found undemocratic, and when Emerson visited him in jail and asked him why he was in there, Thoreau shot back – Why aren’t YOU in here? Thoreau must have been a real pain, reminding everyone in sight that a life of quiet desperation is more like death. Keep aware and keep outraged. It’s the only way to keep alive.

Yeah, yeah – but that’s not an option for most folks. Quiet desperation is the order of the day, every damned day – everyday life must be paid for. The rest of us, if we want to feel alive, have to borrow outrage, but what Thoreau didn’t anticipate is that a massive industry would develop to sell us prepackaged outrage. It’s quite convenient. The yellow journalism of the nineteenth century morphed into the supermarket tabloids of today, and there’s talk radio and Fox News too. In the sixties the left had their own providers of outrage of course – this or that underground magazine that revealed all, usually about the Vietnam War, and then disappeared. Mainstream news got in the act too, when news operations became profit centers, not loss-leader public-service operations. Now local news stations are forever running stories on the shocking news of how your dog’s bad breath could kill you, or whatever. And Hollywood is no better – each new film should be more outrageous and shocking than the last. It’s been like that since the twenties, because that’s where the money is – and the news and entertainment industry knew that Thoreau was right all along. Most men do lead lives of quiet desperation – awareness and outrage are beyond them. They need to borrow some to feel alive. They’ll even pay for some. To feel outrage is to feel alive, even if you’re not quite sure of the details.

That’s defined American political life too, since Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare in the fifties through Ronald Reagan telling us that Medicare, if passed, would destroy America as we know it. The South, and South Boston too, were outraged when public schools were integrated – but we lived, and prospered. Now it’s gay marriage, or the deficit, or that Plan B pill – or Iran or Syria or, off and on, North Korea. It’s always something.

Now it’s the government spying on us all. Yes, the government is building a massive database of everyone’s phone records and also figuring out a way to track absolutely all online activity in real time – scary stuff – but that’s pretty much what Google and Apple and AT&T and Verizon do every single day, not to mention Facebook. They want to know everything, to sell us stuff. The government wants to keep us safe. Perhaps something is outrageous here, or folks should pay more attention to details.

Slate’s William Saletan, oddly enough, makes The Case for Mass Surveillance:

It sounds as though NSA goblins have been studying everyone’s phone calls. But that isn’t how the program works. It’s a two-stage process. The first stage – collection – is massive and indiscriminate. The second stage – examination of particular records – is restricted. We can argue over whether this two-tiered policy is too intrusive. But either way, our debate about it has focused on the wrong stage. The problem isn’t the data collection. It’s how the data are used.

No one looked into the details:

The first document published by the Guardian, an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, instructs Verizon to “produce” to the NSA electronic copies of “all call detail records” related to phone calls within, to, or from the United States. Although the order pertains only to the date, length, and phone numbers involved in each call – not to what was said – it’s still a colossal demand. But what happens to the data once the NSA gets it? James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, gives this account:

“The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism-related communications. Acquiring this information allows us to make connections related to terrorist activities over time. … By order of the FISC, the Government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. … The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization. … Only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed because the vast majority of the data is not responsive to any terrorism-related query.”

In other words, the rules that most of us would apply at the collection stage – reasonable suspicion, specific facts, court approval – are applied instead at the query stage.

That makes all the difference:

That’s why the database is colossal: Its aspiration is to capture and preserve records of every call so that no potential lead is missed. Big Brother isn’t watching you. But he does want your records in the database so that if any number you called later surfaces in a plot, he can look back through history, spot the connection, and check you out.

The magnitude of this project – a permanent, comprehensive library of which phones called which other phones, when, and for how long – means that no record is deleted.

Everyone wants the government to “connect the dots” for a change – but many don’t want the government to assemble any vast array of dots, or at least a vast array of these particular dots – but you can’t have it both ways. Yes abuse is possible, and that should be addressed, but the information is out there. Private corporations collect and store it and use it all the time to make money. It’s hard to argue that’s more important than stopping the bad guys.

Maybe so, but Kevin Drum is still worried:

I find it quite likely that NSA isn’t currently abusing the phone surveillance program… but someday there will be a different president in the White House, there will be a different head of NSA, and there will be different professionals running the program. What will they do with all that data the next time something happens that makes America crazy for a few years? I don’t know, but I do know that if they don’t have the data in the first place they can’t abuse it.

Yes, but if they don’t have the data, they also can’t use it, so Paul Waldman adds this:

They aren’t just looking through people’s records willy-nilly; mostly all this information is just there waiting – and they look at an individual’s records only once they have reason to suspect they might be connected to something fishy. But it isn’t because they can’t, it’s because, they say, they’ve chosen not to.

That is an issue. There might be real outrage later, for good reason – but then there might be real outrage later if there’s another massive terrorist attack and they didn’t connect the billions of dots they put in their giant new computer in Utah or wherever. This cuts both ways. Perhaps this NSA effort is outrageous, but it seems to be outrageous in the hypothetical. That’s why this may not really be driving America crazy – or driving half of America crazy, while the other half shrugs.

It’s hard to latch onto. What we have here is a massive but passive database of the history of all electronic communications everywhere – not the content of the communications, but the phone number (or IP-address) of the sender, the receiver, the date, and the duration of whatever it was. That’s something that was impossible before, but now gargantuan mass data storage has become so cheap, and the methods of accessing and collating that data so slick, that this must have seemed like a good idea. Since the telecoms and web services were already doing this, and had been for years, why not piggyback on their systems? That seems to be what the NSA data requests to them were about. None of this seems all that outrageous.

Perhaps so, but it seemed outrageous to the folks who were old hands at this:

Google’s top lawyer is asking Washington to let the company expand its transparency report to include secret court orders like the kind involved in the NSA surveillance scandal.

In a letter posted to Google’s blog, David Drummond addresses Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, arguing that when the government allowed Google to disclose the number of National Security Letters the company gets (another form of data request), nothing bad happened. So why not extend the disclosure permissions to requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, too?

AT&T and Verizon and Facebook then made the same request – let us show our customers we’re not government spies too. Late in the afternoon Google went further and revealed they never allowed the government access to their servers, ever – they simply sent FTP files when requested. Nerds will understand that, but basically, they wanted to tell their customers they weren’t involved in government spying, to keep us all safe, except when they were forced to forward some specific data. They do the same spying thing, probably better, but they do it to make big bucks. It’s an interesting distinction. Choose your outrage.

There was a third choice:

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Obama administration on Tuesday over its “dragnet” collection of logs of domestic phone calls, contending that the once-secret program – whose existence was exposed last week by a former National Security Agency contractor – is illegal and asking a judge to stop it and order the records purged.

The message is clear. You guys may want to connect the dots, but you cannot have these dots – these logs of domestic phone calls are private. That contention may not stand in court. What you communicate in private may be legally private, but THAT you communicated could be a different matter. The whole concept of illegal search and seizure turns on what is private – here the idea being that you were even on the phone is just as private as anything you said, or listened to.

Is that so? Police check phone records all the time – phone companies hand those over on request – but the police need a warrant to tap a phone, to listen to what’s actually said. Are phone records – the logs of calls – then not really private? Or are those logs the private property of the phone companies, not your private property? Are they actually your private property? This will be interesting.

This is also too ambiguous for true outrage. Perhaps it’s best to concentrate on the young fellow who started all this, but Slate’s Emily Bazelon offers some ambiguities there too:

The condemnations are raining down upon Edward Snowden, master leaker of National Security Agency surveillance programs. They come from the expected sources: House Speaker John Boehner calls him a “traitor.” But they also come from people you might expect to be more sympathetic toward him. Legal experts Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago and Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker both believe he betrayed his country and should go to prison. So does New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Toobin writes that Snowden “wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety.” Stone says, “There is no reason on earth why an individual government employee should have the authority, on his own say so, to override the judgment of the elected representatives of the American people and to decide for the nation that classified information should be disclosed to friends and enemies alike.”

Brooks: “He betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed.”

Bazelon thinks they should calm down:

A foundation of their argument is that Snowden is not a genuine whistle-blower. And it’s true that if you divulge classified information to expose the government and you don’t reveal a clear legal violation, you’re not, under current law, a whistle-blower. The federal Whistleblower Protection Act, passed in 1989, was written to shield government employees who reveal fraud and other wrongdoing. But it is riddled with exceptions. If you work for the NSA or the CIA, you’re out of luck – no protection for you. Snowden misses on both counts: He seems to have exposed no actual crimes, and he worked for the NSA. They may make movies about private-sector whistle-blowers such Erin Brockovich (fought toxic dumping) and Jeffrey Wigand (exposed tobacco company lies). But they prosecute government whistle-blowers such as Thomas Drake, who exposed waste and bureaucratic mess at the NSA, and of course Bradley Manning, on trial for the enormous WikiLeaks data dump.

Snowden may not be a traitor, or a hero. Outrage one way or the other may not be appropriate:

I understand that some government secrets must stay secret. And I recognize that the decision of one employee to reveal what many of his superiors have ruled classified is inherently troublesome for people in power. And I also know that whistle-blowers are rarely pure and innocent and lovable. They are often paranoid and obsessive. They fill up your inbox with confusing and demanding messages. They ask you to hack through thickets of confusing material. In other words, they are time-consuming zealots who are often trying to confront you with knowledge you wish wasn’t true.

Her example is Daniel Ellsberg:

It’s only in retrospect that the leaker of the Pentagon Papers has acquired the status of a national icon. At the time he leaked the documents in 1969, Ellsberg was a man with top security clearance who was accused of betraying his government by exposing its greatest secrets – about an actual, troops-on-the-ground war. The Pentagon Papers showed that the Nixon administration knew that casualty figures in Vietnam would be much higher than the numbers the government publicly projected. Also, that the Johnson administration had lied about the war to Congress.

Looking back 40 years, we treat harsh criticism of the Vietnam War as patriotic and foresighted. But Ellsberg must have sounded like any draft-dodger when he decided, as he wrote in his memoir, that the war was “mass murder.” And he took it upon himself not to protest through any proper channels, but to go through the press. …

No wonder, then, that Ellsberg too was prosecuted for breaking the law under the Espionage Act. “I expected to go to prison for life,” he told NPR in 2011. The charges against him were dropped only because the Nixon administration egregiously violated his rights by breaking into his psychiatrist’s office to look for information that would embarrass him. “The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case,” the judge wrote.

If Nixon’s men hadn’t gone so completely off the reservation, how would we think about Ellsberg today?

One should be careful about outrage:

How does his whistle-blowing stand up to the test posed by Toobin, Stone, and Brooks? Ellsberg and Snowden both acted unilaterally. They both ignored the collective judgment of the country’s duly elected representatives. I suppose you could argue that Ellsberg was exposing illegalities, if the Pentagon Papers showed Johnson administration officials lying to Congress. But if that’s the main test for being a whistle-blower, Snowden’s revelations seem to catch Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in misleading testimony, too.

Bazelon suggests deferred outrage, until things settle down a bit.

Maybe we should be outraged at something else, and David Brooks does provide that something else:

From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.

According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the CIA, but he has separated himself from them, too.

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their twenties who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age….

Ah, we should be outraged at the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their twenties who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments, or something:

Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.

This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.

For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret NSA documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

Well, if the actual nature of the NSA program is too ambiguous for immediate outrage, and whistleblowers can be assholes, or heroes, at the same time, and you really do need to borrow some outrage to counter your life of quiet desperation, turn to outrage that young folks are so flakey and cynical these days. That will do – unless you find outrage tiresome. It is. Henry David Thoreau was a bit of a jerk.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Borrowed Outrage

  1. Rick says:

    “Toobin writes that Snowden ‘wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety.’”

    And maybe mine. In fact, maybe all of ours. But we’d never know if nobody ever told us.

    And boy, for blowing the whistle on something that was actually legal, it sure got us all talking, didn’t it? But in fact, Edward Snowden may have pointed out actual illegalities, not just in Clapper’s questionable testimony but that there may be illegal abuse of the data being accessed, without warrant.

    But once again, why is this all kept secret?

    Not because we’re tipping off to the bad guys that they’re being watched. Hell, if they didn’t know that already, they’re probably too stupid to be a threat to us. In fact, like Ellsberg’s disclosures, this secret stuff being made public endangers no real national security, much less does it put lives at stake; it’s just a case of being politically embarrassing.

    Yes, Toobin is a legal expert, and one I respect, but as such, he’s qualified to tell us whether somebody broke a law — and I gather Snowden did so when he disclosed classified material — but once you get past that, his opinions are no more and no less significant than our own.

    I think the whole concept of “consent of the governed” relies on the governed being fully aware of what they are consenting to. Our country isn’t just great because peer pressure demands that we all pretend to believe in “American Exceptionalism”, it’s great because, as the base of it all, we manage our own affairs, and maybe — despite losing our way since 9/12/2001 — we actually believe we are capable of managing our own affairs without becoming jerks about it. We supposedly believe in transparency, and even elected a president who says he does too (and even says he “welcomes this debate”) — but then we threaten to jail someone who tries to make us live up to that ideal.

    This country may not technically be a “Democracy” (most political scientists claim it’s a “constitutional republic” or some such thing), but the country does have “democratic traditions” at the core of its being. That means that We, The People, have the right to determine what kind of a country we want to be, and a right to demand that our government not try to make us into something we’re not behind our backs.

    Yes, we don’t want to encourage would-be whistle blowers to expose all the nation’s secrets willy-nilly, but maybe we could decide after the fact if these people should be punished based on the severity of their alleged crimes — meaning folks like Snowden would just have to take their chances on their guilt or innocence. If their disclosures are deemed by the American people to have done significant damage to the nation or put someone in real danger, then we punish them.

    And if it turns out to have let us all know something we had a right to know? Then we let them off, with our thanks.

    Rick

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