Drop The Whistle; Shoot A Black Kid Instead (or Torture Prisoners)

Chelsea Manning has been sentenced to jail for thirty-five years for committing the heinous crime of whistleblowing. Manning knows that she didn’t just commit a crime, she committed the wrong sort of crime:

Manning spoke to reporters after the hearing, to admit his disappointment at the sentence, telling those gathered, “I look back to that fateful day and wish I’d just left those files on my computer and gone out and shot a black kid instead….my life would be a lot less complicated if I’d only taken the life of a young person from a different ethnic background, instead of sending some documents to a website.”

Legal experts have expressed support for the 35 year sentence given to Manning, by explaining that members of the public don’t actually understand how the law works. Former lawyer Simon Williams explained, “Illegally taking information you don’t have the right to access, and using it for your own purposes is only ‘properly’ illegal if you’re not a government agency. Governments can do what they like with information they’re not allowed to have – if nothing else, Prism has taught us that.  Whereas absolutely anyone can shoot a black teenager to death, obviously.”

Manning has learnt these simple facts the hard way but that doesn’t mean that those young folks who have been following her trial have to as well.  They will, in particular, have hopefully internalized the following facts about the system of justice prevalent in this great nation of ours.

First, a career in high finance can ensure the penalty-free satisfaction of desires, even if their fulfillment runs afoul of ethical and legal consideration. If unbridled earning with no regard for the immiseration of others is your thing, then young folks will do well to pay attention to the so-called financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath.  Giddy, reckless speculation, irresponsible and unregulated banking will never, ever get you sent to jail. This career option is best for those seeking to maximize income, while not being unduly worried about penalties. Indeed, this might earn you the admiring sobriquet of ‘indispensable’ by government officials.

Second, if finance seems dull, and big bucks seem passé, and your taste in pleasures are influenced by Sade, then consider a career in law-enforcement or counter-intelligence instead. Brutal interrogations, torture, and unchecked surveillance can induce sufficient frisson to satisfy even the most jaded. As before, there will be little fear of moral disapproval or legal penalty. This career choice, while not as lucrative as banking, does provide admiration from those who will regard you as a defender of their liberties and a fighter for freedom everywhere.

Lastly, if your career options are settled and you are looking for easy entertainment, then as Manning indicates, consider shooting black teenagers instead, especially those that wear clothes which, despite being worn by countless white teenagers, will always be regarded as symbols of black criminality. This course of action might even net you a book deal, or a moonlighting gig as spokesperson for the National Rifle Association.

Parents would do well to inculcate these principles early in their children.

Note: I have edited this post to use Manning’s name and pronouns of choice. Good luck to her.

The Asymmetric Panopticon

As I’ve noted before on this blog–in unison with many other commentators–the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t mind the government spying on you’ argument is among the dumbest to be made in defense of the NSA‘s surveillance program. A related argument is the ‘we don’t have privacy anyway, so quit tilting at windmills.’

A composite assumption of sorts that emerges from these is that the citizenry has no privacy, has no reasonable expectation of any in today’s most notable sphere of personal, political and economic interaction – the Internet, and thus, should be prepared and accepting of essentially unlimited scrutiny of its activities by the government and even private corporations.

These assumptions, along with the wholesale swallowing of governmental and corporate rationales for secrecy in the face of shadowy external threats and proprietary imperatives respectively have led to a rather dangerous panopticon: we are visible at all times, under a steady and constant gaze, to these ever-powerful entities, but they, and their internal machinations are not. (As I noted in my post on Bill Keller last year, it has also led to incompetent journalists asserting that those who demand transparency about the government should disclose details about their personal lives.)

There is nothing remotely symmetric about this arrangement.

On the governmental end, more material than ever before is rated ‘Classified’ or ‘Top Secret’ thus ensuring that those who strive to make it available to the public eye face–as may be seen in the case of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden–prosecution and public ridicule. It is worth remembering that the government’s classification of material as ‘Top Secret’, which is the basis for legal prosecution of whistleblowers, is never up for contestation. Thus, one strategy to make transparency harder and whistleblowing more dangerous is to simply classify huge amounts of material thus. It helps too, to mount a furious barrage of accusations of treason and worse against the whistleblower. (A related strategy makes it harder to observe and record the work of law enforcement officers: New York’s S.2402 bill, will, if nothing else, make it much more dangerous to videotape police officers in action.)

On the corporate end, opacity is ensured by a bewildering combination of trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, proprietary recipes, business methods, and the like; these ensure that those who collect data about us are almost always working in the shadows, away from the public eye, their machinations and strategies and imperatives poorly understood.

So, we find ourselves at this pass: we are told that we have no privacy and should not expect any, but those who want our data and use it to control the contours of our lives, have all the privacy they need and want and then some; we are told that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear, but those who collect our data surreptitiously are allowed to hide what they do.  (Frank Pasquale‘s forthcoming book The Black Box Society: Technologies of Search, Reputation, and Finance will analyze and highlight this alarming state of affairs. As Pasquale points out, transparency should be a two-way street; data disclosure agreements should require the collectors to make themselves and their methods known and visible.)

The tables have been turned and we are pinned beneath them.  We cower, while our data collectors strut and preen.

The NSA Needs Better Apologists than Charles Shanor

Professor Charles Shanor of Emory university thinks that ‘liberals and civil libertarians’ are making a mountain out of a digital molehill. Apparently, we should be reassured by the fact that the NSA‘s data collection was legal under the terms of the Patriot Act (you know, that civil liberties disaster), that FISA judges approved it, that select members of Congress–not all of whom were comfortable with it–were briefed about it. And as all three branches of government appear to be involved, Professor Shanor is at peace. Checks and balances are working.

But all is not well.

First,

We cannot rule out the possibility that the voluminous records obtained by the government might, some day, be illegally misused. But there is no evidence so far that that has occurred.

Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the next Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden to tell us if that happens, eh, Professor Shanor?

Second, Shanor seems mysteriously comforted by the fact that the government did not monitor call contents, that ‘only’ metadata was collected. Perhaps he should educate himself about the value of metadata, which ‘is frequently more valuable to security officials than the content of the messages.’ In particular:

For some communications, metadata matters more than content. “A call to a suicide hot line, Alcoholics Anonymous, or a gay sex chat room at 2 a.m. are all more sensitive” than the actual message, said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. “You can text political donations. The metadata shows your political leanings, the content just shows the amount you gave. Calling a cell tower away from my house in the middle of the night indicates I’m not sleeping at home.”

 But nothing quite shows Shanor’s cluelessness–technical, legal and political–like the following:

But shouldn’t I be concerned that F.B.I. agents are trampling my rights, just like the I.R.S. might have trampled the rights of certain organizations seeking tax-exempt status? As it turns out, the answer is no. The raw “metadata” requested will not be directly seen by any F.B.I. agent.

Rather, a computer will sort through the millions of calls and isolate a very small number for further scrutiny. Perhaps one of the numbers was called by one of the Tsarnaev brothers before the Boston Marathon bombings. Or perhaps a call was placed by a Verizon customer to a known operative of Al Qaeda. The Supreme Court long ago authorized law enforcement agencies to obtain call logs — albeit on paper rather than from a computer database — without full probable cause to believe a crime had been committed.

There we have it, folks: the Google-GMail defense. Don’t worry about a thing, because human eyes don’t read your emails, computers do. You know, those stupid machines that just happen to handle all our civilization’s data and which possess tremendous executive capacity. Shanor also notes a Supreme Court ruling authorizing the collection of call logs and cursorily notes that it applied to paper logs as opposed to those in a computer database. The latter, as is apparent to anyone who knows anything about digital communication, can be stored indefinitely and can be processed in much more sophisticated fashion.

Nice try, Professor Shanor. Next time, try renting a clue first.

Glenn Greenwald is Not the Story; The Surveillance Is

The New York Times has an article on Glenn Greenwald, who has broken two stories on the NSA surveillance programs that now occupy most thinking people’s attention, which is titled thus: ‘Activist Blogger Is At The Center Of A Debate‘ on its front page. (The article’s title reads ‘ Blogger, With Focus on Surveillance, Is at Center of a Debate’). That headline, and the content of the story, tells us a great deal about what is wrong with modern journalism  and why civil liberties outrages aren’t so outrageous any more.

Greenwald is most emphatically not at the ‘center’ of any debate. He is not the story; the surveillance program is. But surely, some background on the reporter who broke the story would let readers evaluate his credibility? I’m afraid this claim does not withstand closer scrutiny even though it smacks of a pleasing epistemic rectitude: ‘all we are doing is investigating the source of this story’. To focus on him  is a a straightforward misdirection of journalistic effort. The New York Times should be concentrating on uncovering more details about the surveillance programs in the Greenwald articles, but not about Greenwald himself.

(Incidentally, just for good measure, the New York Times article includes a couple of ad-hominem slams against Greenwald:

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a national security expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who is often on the opposite ends of issues from Mr. Greenwald, called him, “a highly professional apologist for any kind of anti-Americanism no matter how extreme.”

Mr. Sullivan wrote in an e-mail: “I think he has little grip on what it actually means to govern a country or run a war. He’s a purist in a way that, in my view, constrains the sophistication of his work.”

There is praise for Greenwald too, but all of this is really besides the point.)

The correct thing for New York Times journalists to do at this point is to get to work on verifying the authenticity of the documents that Greenwald’s source has made public and to explain to their readers:  what their legal and political implications are; how these programs fit into the context of the surveillance that the previous administration kicked off; what the relevant sections of the Patriot Act are; whether the defenses made by administration officials stand up to scrutiny or not; and so on. The New York Times has done some of these things, but my point is that at this moment, those  ought to be its exclusive focus. There is a chance here for a serious journalist to expose the workings of a provably out-of-control government; anything else is a distraction at this stage.

This kind of missing-the-point is not restricted to the focus on Greenwald. Consider for instance, the stories on the Bradley Manning trial. As Matt Taibbi points out, most media outlets are obsessed by his personal background and are rather spectacularly missing the forest for the trees:

The CNN headline read as follows: “Hero or Traitor? Bradley Manning’s Trial to Start Monday.” NBC went with “Contrasting Portraits of Bradley Manning as Court-Martial Opens.”

Unsurprisingly, the citizenry marches on, its attention diverted.

Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism

Over at the New York Times, Bill Keller, who has been doing his best to make sure it will be hard to take him for a serious  journalist, writes a piece–bursting to the seams with snark–on Wikileaks. Keller thinks he is providing a serious evaluation of the fallout of Wikileaks (most particularly, its leaking of a gigantic corpus of military and diplomatic secrets last year). But Keller–whose trafficking in superficiality has been embarassingly on display for all too long on the NYT’s Op-Ed’s pages–simply cannot be bothered with seriously engaging with the issues that Wikileaks raised. Like: the need for transparency for those in power (as opposed to the privacy rights of individuals); the relationship of journalists with politicians; and most importantly, the all-too-evident eagerness of modern journalists to roll over and play faithful stenographer or megaphone for Wall Street, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

Instead, all Keller can do, in a pathetic display of lame attempts at sophomoric snark, is dish out one jibe after the other at Julian Assange. (His evident dislike for Assange tells me that Assange really hit home.) There are, count-em, sixteen paragraphs in Keller’s peice. It’s not till we get to the seventh or eighth paragraph that Keller stops being juvenile and starts to say something substantive.

And it’s not much. Roughly: Wikileaks exposed too much. In response, the always-secretive have become more secretive. And now life is harder for all us Serious Journalists[tm]. So let me get this straight:  in response to exposure,  those ensconced in power have dug their heels in, become more opaque, stepped up their chilling attacks on journalists and potential whistle-blowers, and this is Wikileaks fault? Could Keller be more offensive, more of a fawning lapdog of the powerful and the opaque, if he tried? I don’t think so.

Keller also forgets, in his Why-Did-This-Nonconformist-Crash-This-Comfortable-Politician-And-Media-Garden-Party litany, the role that the rest of his supine media crew played in ensuring that Wikileaks’ impact was minimized. Who took up cudgels on Wikileaks behalf? Did the media give ample column inches and airtime to the case for Wikileaks? Were the corporate-government smear jobs on Wikileaks adequately highlighted? Has the media establishment stepped back from its passionate embrace of those in power and looked a little more closely, a little more aggressively, at their pronouncements? They are the ones in power, remember?

If the secretive and powerful have become more secretive in response to exposure, the response of a serious journalist should be to make sure the secrecy is investigated even more closely.  It most emphatically should not be to shower scorn and ridicule on those who took risks in trying to expose the powerful. The idiotic quoting of the off-base SNL skit, which confuses the privacy of private citizens with the opacity of governmental entities, is perhaps the best indication that Keller has lost the plot. But far more offensive is the simpleminded acceptance of the government’s position: if you dare expose us, we’ll become even more secretive.

Keller is pushing back at the wrong forces in this debate. In doing that, he is merely the latest depressing example of the incestuous embrace of the political and media establishments in this nation.