Don’t worry, Rand- the ACLU’s got this

Friend of the blog and my good buddy Brett Max Kaufman of the ACLU’s National Security Project has an excellent summation of what the ACLU is doing about the NSA, Prism, etc (they are also doing a lot of work on drones and extra-judicial killings).   The ACLU has a personal stake in this too, as Brett explains

The ACLU’s complaint filed today explains that the dragnet surveillance the government is carrying out under Section 215 infringes upon the ACLU’s First Amendment rights, including the twin liberties of free expression and free association. The nature of the ACLU’s work—in areas like access to reproductive services, racial discrimination, the rights of immigrants, national security, and more—means that many of the people who call the ACLU wish to keep their contact with the organization confidential. Yet if the government is collecting a vast trove of ACLU phone records—and it has reportedly been doing so for as long as seven years—many people may reasonably think twice before communicating with us.

One thing I really like is the right of free association.  Obviously- who doesn’t like that right?  But I think it is very clever of the ACLU to be using it.   We live in an age where so many meetings of any type are no longer done face-to-face.  Thinking that there could be a mole in every conversation dampens our ability to speak as political animals.  The argument that it doesn’t matter if you aren’t doing anything wrong doesn’t hold water.  For one thing, we don’t always know who decides what is right.  But on a more basic level, conversation shouldn’t be hampered by the fear of speaking correctly or the terror or being misinterpreted.

I also want to take a moment here to praise the ACLU.  For decades they’ve been a punching bag on the right, despite their firm commitment to Constitutional principles.  There are few bigger applause lines for a Republican politician than to sneer “ACLU” to a crowd.   So it must be somewhat gratifying for them to see that, suddenly, with Obama in charge, Republicans are concerned about the national security state.  The ACLU has been on this for a long time.  They filed lawsuits against George Bush, and were pilloried for it, held up (again) as traitors, commies, terrorist-lovers, un-American, etc.  Now the right has found some common cause, albeit in a cynical matter.  But I would ask them this: just remember you are late to the party.  You are welcome, but be decent enough to find a quiet corner and don’t pretend that you invited everyone, and for god’s sake, don’t insult your hosts.   They’ve been here the whole time.

Snowden Spills His Secret

Edward Snowden, the 29-yr-old responsible for one of the largest national security leaks in US history, has an auspicious name.   In Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s biting, terrifying, wildly-funny and scathing satire on the the whole nature of war, the corruptibility of man, and, most importantly, the self-defeating loops of logic man twists himself into to justify inherent barbarism in a civilized age (of which the eponymous catch is just the most famous example), the main character, Yossarian, is haunted by an unknown character named Snowden spilling his secret.

The chronology of the book jumps back and forth, but the driving action is that something snapped in Yossarian when Snowden told him his secret.  The madness of the enterprise revealed itself in full for Yossarian.   It isn’t until late in the book that we see what caused the driving action, what really was Snowden’s secret.  (and spoiler alert here, I guess, though it was published almost 50 years ago, so come on).  While on a bombing mission, Yossarian’s plane took flack, and Snowden was injured.  Yossarian went to help the moaning man, complaining of the cold, and at first saw a good-sized wound on the man’s leg, but nothing absolutely fatal.  But then Snowden’s secret was revealed.  Yossarian removed the man’s jacket, and saw that a huge piece of flack had torn through his stomach.  The jacket had been weakly holding everything in, but then it all came out: all that made Snowden, blood and organs and flesh, poured out onto the floor and onto Yossarian.   The whole inner-workings were brought to light.  Man is just flesh, and war is designed to destroy that flesh.   The whole sick nature of everything was revealed.

It isn’t really stretching the point to say that Edward Snowden did much the same thing, only a bit neater (and honestly, it makes me think the name is fake.  It is almost too perfect).   The apparatus that this amorphous war has created has been brought to light.  I think most people suspected it, but the depth is stunning.  And perhaps the most surprising part is that everything that is done is legal.  Laws were passed by elected officials that allow for the government, which has also arrogated unto itself the right to assassinate American citizens and throw people in jail for indefinite periods without a trial, can mine nearly everything you do online and on the phone.

This is raw power, and it is scary.  The thing is, there can be arguments for why the government needs this, or why it is absolutely necessary for national security.   The problem is that we never had them (and I am a little worried that now the argument is going to be more about whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero than what he helped expose).   This is poison to a country that fashions itself as a democracy and an experiment in self-governance, as Charlie Pierce would put it.

So these are the things we can now discuss, now that they have been brought kicking and screaming into the sunlight.  Should the government be able to monitor your online and telephonic presence to any extent?  If yes, how much?  Does merely drawing connections between who is calling whom without actually listening in really invade your privacy?  Who gets to decide this?  The President? (not just this one, but any.  For Dems- of whom I am one- who think it is OK because of Obama, imagine that Scotty Walker somehow becomes the next President.)

More than that, at least in my opinion, is the question of worth.  The biggest elephant in the room, that no one would touch with a ten-foot pole, and other cliches of the type that we’ve been using for 12 years to avoid the real issue, is that guaranteed safety is at best illusory and at worst an invitation to live in North Korea, only without the dumpy charisma of Dear Leader Jr.   What we have done is upended our country, and our idea of privacy, due to a major and horrifying terrorist attack.  This was completely understandable, but terrorism is also a rare thing, and something that happens, and is, at the end, not 100% avoidable.  People will always want to hurt others, and unless we want to live in a police state, one who is constantly sending troops and robots around the world to do our bidding, it won’t ever be completely solved.

The problem is we weren’t really asked.  We were taken advantage of due to our fright, and our apathy.  This was partly the product of a strange confluence: this scarring, shattering, atavistic attack was roughly coincidental with the rise of social media and the death of public reticence.   We all have given up a lot of privacy.   Hell, right now, I am imagining there are people who want to know what I am thinking about this, and hoping that my picture reveals a “mysterious charm, like Batman”.   The government in a large way is merely taking what we have given.

But now they have to ask.  Now, thanks to Snowden, every elected official will have to take a stand on what they think of this (assuming the media does their job, and that is a big assumption).   We can finally talk about what has been done in our name, for us, to us.   A country of the people and by the people can’t have it any other way.  So it is messy and horrible and a stinking bloody peak into the world right under our fragile skin, but this was a secret that needed spilling.   America’s great sin over the past decade has been to not talk about this new kind of war.   If we don’t, one day the satire of Catch-22 is going to seem like a gentle look at a softer past.