Friday, June 6, 2014

The NSA's Illegality Is Not Excused by Results

The Snowden revelations told us that our leaders have been lying to us while breaking the law.  Their justification is that they are doing it to protect us.  But are they?

The Stasi comparison I hear frequently is overblown, but there are some parallels.  The Stasi relied on an elaborate network of informants; one of the main points was to put doubt into the minds of every citizen as to whom she could trust.  The NSA relies on electronic data gathering, and wants you to trust Verizon, Google, et al so as to make its job easier.  The Stasi's goal was the perpetuation of a dictatorial state.  The NSA serves an elected President.  The Stasi was brutally efficient; the NSA is comparatively feckless (more on this later).  However, both the Stasi and the NSA are large bureaucracies with their own organizational imperatives.  They both had rogue agents.  Both lied constantly and out of habit to their own people in pursuit of what they considered a higher goal than truth or freedom or rule of law.  The Stasi is, I think, more a useful example of what the NSA might become than an accurate description of what it is.  It doesn't hurt to keep it in mind when we talk about this subject.

What bothers me the most, and I'm surprised so few others mention this, is how poorly the US security apparatus performed with all these tools when it counted.  Let's talk about the Boston Marathon bombing.  It is the only real terrorist plot undertaken since the programs in question were in operation and the NSA, FBI, CIA, etc. missed it completely, despite being informed twice by Russia that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was in communication with jihadis.  We now know that the NSA had access to metadata on every web query and every phone call made by the plotters, who bought pressure cookers, remote control devices, and fireworks, and used bomb-making instructions from the al-Qaeda online publication Inspire.  Stopping events like the Boston Marathon bombing is the main (for many, the sole) justification for the heavy hand of NSA/FBI in the US, and they were seemingly oblivious to the plot.  Subsequent events have not inspired confidence either:  the family was allowed to leave and the father alleged repeated FBI interviews with Tamerlan; and an important witness (Todashev) was killed by the FBI under highly suspicious circumstances.  (The agent who did the killing has been receiving disability payments of over $50k a year after a brief, troubled stint--including pleading the Fifth during a corruption trial--on the Oakland Police Department.  Fills you with confidence in the FBI, doesn't it?)  So, fellow citizens, even if the capabilities the NSA has are reasonable, are our security agencies capable of using them properly?  Have they shown themselves to be honest and competent guardians of the public safety, or have they lied, chiseled, killed, and blundered while terrorists went about their business right under their noses?

Which brings us to Snowden.  He's given us a priceless opportunity to reexamine the pact we made with our government when it comes to security.  The lying phase is over:  we know they've been denying the truth for years, hoodwinking Congress, the public, and judges.  The judges at least get it:  ruling after ruling has slapped down the government's case.  Congress is angry, but won't act unless the public is on their side.  The public has been conditioned to fear terrorists, and been fed a steady diet of phony terror plot "stings" to keep them fat and happy.  The Boston bombing does not seem to have led us to draw the obvious conclusions about the honesty and competence* of the NSA/FBI/CIA/etc.  Obama, the Constitutional law professor who is theoretically in charge, presided over this colossal fuckup but doesn't appear in the least perturbed about what it means.  It's up to us, and we don't seem to be up to facing reality either.

*  Lest I get a lecture about not tarring the entire staff of the security agencies because of the failings of a few, remember that those few were at the top (e.g. Clapper) and at the scene when the bad shit went down (McFarlane).  Living in the DC area, I know/knew many FBI and intelligence agency personnel.  They're nice people on a personal level.  But the really nice soccer dad was a high-ranking agent at Waco, and we all know what happened there.  The point is that we can have an agency staffed with smart, dedicated people who believe they're doing the best they can to safeguard the US but who are collectively virtually useless--sometimes worse than useless--because there's bad leadership, no oversight, no honesty, no regard for the rule of law, and no consequences for failure.