Leaking Furore Par For The Course For Nation That Over-Classifies

America over-classifies information. The designations ‘secret,’ ‘top secret,’ ‘for your eyes only,’ and many others like them are thrown around too freely; too many folders and dossiers receive the dreaded stenciled stamp that indicates their contents may not be perused by the wrong people. The consequences of this bingeing on classification are predictable: all around us, ‘leaks’ and ‘unauthorized disclosures’ take place; many stand accused of dangerous ‘whistleblowing,’ of ‘criminal activity,’ of espionage. When all is secret, violating secrecy restrictions is easy–as is posturing as a protector of ‘secrecy vital to the national interest’; and the penalties for such ‘violations’ can be ratcheted up arbitrarily. (Just ask Chelsea Manning, who is due for early release tomorrow from a three-decade prison sentence–thanks to a presidential commutation.)

In this national context, the furore over the alleged disclosure by Donald Trump of supposedly top-secret information to visiting Russian dignitaries looks ever so precious. Unsurprisingly, no one is quite clear–or can be–about what was leaked, and what its significance was; what we do know, or are offered words of reassurance to that effect is Something Very Very Secret was disclosed. We cannot find out how secret or how important, or indeed, any other relevant details, because those, of course, are a Secret. I do not doubt for a second that Donald Trump is a bumbling incompetent, a buffoon who should not be allowed within a mile of the Oval Office, that his foreign policy blunders may yet be the death of us all. But I’m afraid the mere reporting that Something Very Very Secret is now no longer so fails to move me when it is quite evident from many other contexts that very often, such classification is a case of bureaucratic overkill. Especially when the reassurances that such a disclosure should be considered an actionable problem are forthcoming from the very people who simultaneously over-classify while demanding ever more cover, legal and otherwise, for their activities.

The reaction to Donald Trump’s ‘leaking’ has been predictable: impeachment! These dreams of impeachment, in response to ‘unauthorized disclosures of classified information’ are not just a political fantasy; they also perpetuate a long-running fraud on the American polity–that when the government and the administration decides to get into a tizzy about some supposed ‘violation of secrecy’ it gets the citizenry worked up in response. At that moment, all questioning of the unhealthy layers of classification and secrecy that continue to build up around our rulers’ activities is suspended, and we all chime in with syncopated chorus of outrage: How dare you disclose?

It has been a depressing feature of ‘liberal’ responses to the Trump administration that so many unsavory political alliances have now become increasingly respectable: among them, none will be more surprising than the willingness of so-called ‘liberal and ‘progressive’ factions to find, in the Deep State and its national security agencies, the ones that have done so much to abrogate the civil liberties of so many Americans, their best political allies.

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.

The Spying Will Continue Until Morale Improves

The New York Times, picking up on a Guardian story by Glenn Greenwald, reports that:

The Obama administration is secretly carrying out a domestic surveillance program under which it is collecting business communications records involving Americans under a hotly debated section of the Patriot Act, according to a highly classified court order disclosed on Wednesday night.

The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April, directs aVerizon Communications subsidiary, Verizon Business Network Services, to turn over “on an ongoing daily basis” to the National Security Agency all call logs “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

This policy is a straightforward continuance of the Bush administration’s massive surveillance effort, similarly directed by the NSA in co-operation with telecommunications companies. The scope of the order indicates the data collection is indiscriminate: it is not directed, targeted or narrowly focused. (The court order does limit the data collection by time.) Rather, it is a broad sweep, a trawl to net the NSA’s desired catch. This is not surveillance to confirm a hypothesis; this is surveillance to try to frame one. This is not surveillance as an aid to detective work; this is surveillance as an integral component of that work. As Greenwald notes:

FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.

Especially interesting, I think, is the reaction to the story. By that I do not mean the reactions of politicians, journalists, and privacy advocates. Rather, if one is allowed to believe that comments on the New York Times story are at all reflective of the ‘word on the street’, then a couple of apologetic samples are depressingly interesting.

For instance, ‘pjd’ from Westford writes:

I’m surprised that no one has noted the dates in the order. The order was signed on 4/25/2013 which is ten days after the Boston Marathon bombing.

This response is emblematic of the ‘it’s justified because of the terrorists.’ Never mind that nothing about the Boston bombers seems to indicate any kind of widespread conspiracy that would justify such a massive surveillance effort.

And ‘Kurt’ from NY writes:

Ordinarily, this kind of data collection could be interpreted as overly broad and a threat to civil liberties….But, again, given just how disturbing it seems on its face, if a judge is willing to make such an order and Congress is aware of it, it would seem to suggest that there is legitimate need in response to specific threat. Which would also say that, given the security classification it has been given, for this matter to be public knowledge as it now is is possibly injurious to national security.

Here we have the standard ‘the government must have a reason even if they aren’t telling us, and that’s fine by me.’ The trust displayed here in a judicial and executive branch that have done nothing to justify it is touching.

And this statement by the Obama Administration is equally risible:

The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber.  It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.

Why is this not even remotely comforting?

Mr. Panetta Warns of Danger And Would Like to Spy on You

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta comes a-calling, warning us of the dangers of cyberwarfare, of a new ‘Pearl Harbor’ that lies ahead. He conjures up devastating visions of the nation’s ‘cyber-infrastructure’ by a band of code warriors, sneaky rogues that could:

[D]erail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.

Terrifying stuff. Before I  stock up on tinned food, bottled water, spare batteries, toilet paper, ammunition, load up my shotguns, and head for the shelters, let me just, in passing, make a couple of minor observations.

1. The US been the most aggressive proponent of cyberwarfare in recent times, thus, as usual, serving as inspiration and inviting emulation and retaliation. As Steve Coll noted a while ago:

[David Sanger’s new book, “Confront and Conceal]describes a joint American-Israeli offensive cyber-attack operation in 2010 against Iran’s nuclear industry. The existence of the weapon used against Iran—a piece of malware called Stuxnet—was previously known, and there was rough knowledge of the authorship. Sanger, though, describes both—and President Obama’s hands-on role—more fully than any previous account. The attack was designed to disable Iranian centrifuges that enrich uranium. (The enriched uranium could ultimately be used to make nuclear bombs.) Cyber Command and the 24th Air Force presumably played at least a supporting role, along with the National Security Agency, although it remains unclear exactly who did what in the operation, which may be continuing.

The operation’s code name—“Olympic Games”—suggests some of the complacency and self-satisfaction among the President’s advisers…..“Olympic Games” seems to be, so far as is known, the first formal offensive act of pure cyber sabotage by the United States against another country, if you do not count electronic penetrations that have preceded conventional military attacks, such as that of Iraq’s military computers before the invasion of 2003.

2. The proper reaction to any pronouncement from post-911 administrations, when their officials come calling to warn us of dangers that lurk ‘out there’, should be–given their track record and sustained erosion of civil liberties–unbridled skepticism. With that in mind, note the following:

Mr. Panetta said President Obama was weighing the option of issuing an executive order that would promote information sharing on cybersecurity between government and private industry. But Mr. Panetta made clear that he saw it as a stopgap measure and that private companies, which are typically reluctant to share internal information with the government, would cooperate fully only if required to by law.

“We’re not interested in looking at e-mail, we’re not interested in looking at information in computers, I’m not interested in violating rights or liberties of people,” Mr. Panetta told editors and reporters at The New York Times earlier on Thursday. “But if there is a code, if there’s a worm that’s being inserted, we need to know when that’s happening.”

This roughly translates to: We are not interested in spying on the citizenry, but under the right circumstances, which we alone will determine, possibly on the basis of vague, unspecified, broadly stated, indeterminate intelligent reports that we will not let you, the affected citizenry, be privy to, we will be very interested in spying. At that moment, we expect our favorite poodles to roll over and beg to be tickled.

Here is a vague warning of danger, one that we might have brought upon our heads by our own reckless actions. May we have your civil liberties, please?