Tag Archives: Civil Liberties

NSA Surveillance is an Ineffective Invasion of Privacy

General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, told the House Intelligence Committee on June 18th that American surveillance had helped prevent “more than 50 terrorist events” since 9/11 including 10 “homeland-based threats.”  However, when Deputy Director Sean Joyce of the FBI told the committee about two of the cases, the first was of a Kansas City man who contacted an extremist in Yeman who was already being watched by U.S. agencies, and the second was a man from San Diego who wanted to send money to a terrorist group in Somalia who was identified through the use of the NSA database. 

 In other words, two of the ten “homeland-based threats” were really the results of surveillance of known terrorist groups overseas, rather than plots by people in the U.S. who were not already being watched.  The article goes on:

 “In a rare note of skepticism, Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat, pressed Alexander about why the FBI could not use subpoenas to get the necessary domestic phone logs surrounding a suspicious number without the government’s obtaining logs of everyone’s calls. Alexander said he was open to discussion, but added, “The concern is speed in a crisis.”

 Note that the speed in a crisis excuse here is a re-run of the Bush administration’s justification for the use of torture – the bomb is ticking so we need to use water-boarding.  However, the police work necessary to prevent terror plots seldom involves the kind of Jack Bauer “24” style drama.  Even the cases cited by Deputy Director Joyce were initial conversations, not bomb ticking crisis.

 Big Data vs. Real Police Work

 In short, anti-terrorism work is police work, it is detective work, it is connecting evidence and figuring things out work.  NSA is unable to publically disclose even one case where big data was the principle means by which the agency deterred a real terrorist plot in the United States.  If there was such a case, it would be easy for General Alexander to release general details – for example, three men from Ohio were arrested for suspicious activities – without compromising agency methods.

 In fact, I believe the scale of the NSA data program (there are numerous stories about thousands of employees and billions of dollars spent on software and giant computer facilities) makes it less effective right now at tracking people who are possible terrorists.  That is, having billions of pieces of data and millions of people on watch lists, with more added daily, results in a process too vast to be used by people – the use of intuition and flashes of insight which are important in detective work is removed. 

We in Boston are especially sensitive to this issue.  The oldest Boston Marathon bomber, targeted for NSA and the FBI by his native Russian government, was not monitored closely enough to prevent his lethal attack.  Even more stunning are the hostile Twitter posts of his younger brother.  Why were these not flagged?  As least part of the answer is the agencies were busy siphoning up billions of pieces of data instead of carefully examining the ones that really mattered.  The fascination with technology is pushing aside more tradition and more effective methods of police work.

Now is the Time for Limits

The nature and scale of this surveillance program will only grow larger if we don’t create limits and safeguards while we are in this moment of national debate.  Already, there are more than 1,000 government security agencies and over 1,000 private companies invested in surveillance and data management.  More than one million people in these agencies and companies have top-secret security clearances.  As James Carroll pointed out:

“Such massive bureaucracy, staffed by un-named millions but commanded by no one, generates an impersonal dynamic of its own…Moral responsibility is diffuse.  Such a massive institution gathers its own momentum, and neither laws nor the Constitution nor oath-bound authorities may be able to channel it or stop it.”

Remember, this is only a point in time; the expansion of the power to watch you and track your movements is an on-going process.  If nothing is done now, I believe the next phase will be a greatly expanded use of surveillance drones, justified as fighting crime.

 We suffered grievously when we pushed aside fighting terrorism with police work in favor of using military power to invade and crush our enemies.  Let’s not make another terrible error by using computer technology to invade and crush our freedoms.


Big Data is Watching You

NSA surveillance methods can spin webs of guilt-by-association around any American who uses a telephone or the Internet. The end result will be unreasonable invasions of privacy and a big chill on political dissent.

Are you willing to give up your relationships with anyone who doesn’t toe the line?

I was watching the President’s press conference about NSA spying last week in the locker room of my local gym. The guy next to me was adamant that there is no problem. “They aren’t listening to your phone calls,” he insisted. I would not be surprised if this is a common reaction to the new revelations – I don’t talk about terrorism or subversion on the phone or the Internet, so I am free from suspicion.

As I thought about his words while finishing my shower, the flaw in his logic suddenly dawned on me. This kind of spying, using computers to track tremendous amounts of data, relies on the logic of guilt by association. There is no personal connection, no delving into the essence of who you are, no evaluation of you and your motives. This is “watching the tar baby” surveillance. The NSA collects the names and phone numbers and email addresses of tar babies and then records whoever gets touched by them.

The tar babies are anyone the NSA and its fellow spy agencies have decided are possible suspects. Here are a number of people whose names are almost certainly on their lists – Muslims who live in the U.S., people who participated in the Occupy Movement in any way, people who have friends or contacts in countries that are deemed influenced by terrorists, and people who participated in Tea Party rallies. There must be more because there are approximately one million people on Department of Homeland Security watch lists. And the lists are getting bigger. Wired.com revealed last year that NSA is building a $2 billion facility in Utah with enormous computers able to manipulate and track “yottabytes” (10 to the 24th bytes) of data from telephones and the Internet.

What is NSA looking for? First, it wants to identify people like you who might have contacts with one or more of the people on the watch list. Then, you go on the list, too, and the agency computers bring all of your digital information – phone numbers, number of times called, length of call, email destinations, Google searches, etc. – together in your file. The computers then go over your data to see if there are any suspicious patterns. If not, they keep collecting data and adding it to your file until your actions or contacts change, or future political leaders decide something should be done with or to people on the watch list.

Sadly, while all of this might be a bad idea, it is perfectly legal. In 2008, the U.S. Congress, including then Senator Obama, amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give the executive branch powers to conduct surveillance without an individual warrant. The Supreme Court, in several 5 – 4 decisions has refused to review the revised law.

Thus, my fellow exercise adherent is not immune from being swept into the NSA big data net and now faces a choice – just like the rest of us. Either carefully monitor everyone you communicate with and rapidly cut ties with anyone you suspect might be placed on the NSA watch list, or reject the creeping surveillance state that, in the name of security, is threatening our age-old civil liberties.

Atheists, Pagans, and Christians

Atheists are usually secular humanists – focused on the immediate world of human experience. Pagans are more like Christians because they both believe that there is a spiritual realm outside of human experience.

I know, at first blush, it seems logical that atheists would be the ones who are more like pagans.

Instead of juggling definitions, it is easier to understand these relationships from an historical perspective. As I explain in my book, Perils of Empire, like most pagans, the Romans did not understand why many things happened – people fell ill and died suddenly, some soldiers survived many battles while others died in their first skirmish, winter came and went – so they felt that gods or spirits must control these events and did so without seeming to care much about the fate of mere individuals. Through ceremonies, the many different pagan cults acknowledged the power of these gods, requested their assistance, and gave people a way to express uncertainty about their fate. This went on for thousands of years and was deeply embedded in all human cultures.

As the Christian religion developed and grew, many Christian holidays and traditions were borrowed from the pagan ceremonies already prevalent in the ancient world. Appropriating pagan-like traditions (for example the Christmas holiday occurs very close to the pagan solstice holiday) made it easier for pagans to convert to Christianity.

In addition, one of the attractions of the new religion was the idea that unlike pagan gods, the Christian God cared about you as an individual. Note that, in The Iliad, the gods openly meddle in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, playing out their own feuds with no thought about the consequences for humans. A God who was eager to provide human believers with life after death was a very positive difference.

In contrast to this ancient contest, modern secular atheists don’t have a lot of ceremonies or teachings or traditions. Most atheists are “humanists” in some way – simple truths about the dignity and value of human life form the basis of their ethical beliefs and behavior.

Now, some atheists are “spiritualists” who consciously take up pagan rituals to create ties with old cultures and with nature. However, modern spiritualists don’t literally believe that pagan gods or spirits exist outside of the human realm. Remember, ancient pagans felt that nature really was populated with gods who were independent of humans and did their own thing. Modern spiritualists are more descendents of Jung’s ideas about a spiritual connection between humans and other living things – some sort of collective unconscious – so in that sense they are not truly pagan.

As a result, I think Christians, who believe in a God who exists outside of the human realm, are more like pagans than either atheists or spiritualists, who have a more human-based ethical system. Keep in mind that both monotheism and polytheism are religious perspectives; their differences are over the number of Gods and their relationship with humans.


Drone Wars U.S.A.

We know a lot more about the Obama drone warfare program after a month of revelations and the whole discussion is making me a little nervous.

Unbelievably, the drone wars are coming home.

My uneasy month began in early February, when the Department of Justice released a white paper that provides the legal rationale for using drones to kill U.S. citizens overseas who are suspected of aiding terrorists. Contrary to the general impression that President Obama reviews important targets for drone strikes, the white paper says that an “informed, high level official” of the U.S. government can determine if an individual may, at some time in the future, plan and/or carry out a terrorist attack. That official can, acting alone, authorize a drone strike on that individual. The white paper claims this power does not violate the Fifth Amendment, which says U.S. citizens cannot be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

This is yet another step in the growing threat to our civil liberties.

Then, in response to a question by Republican Senator Ted Cruz at a March 6 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. tried to avoid saying whether he thought it would be unconstitutional for the U.S. military to use a drone to kill an American citizen “sitting in a café” in the United States. When Holder finally stopped talking in circles and admitted it would not be constitutional, Cruz said he was glad to finally get a clear answer and added that he would introduce a bill barring the use of drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil. Holder responded that the bill might be an unconstitutional intrusion on presidential power.

How has it come to pass that Senators and the Attorney General are publically debating the constitutionality of using drone strikes against Americans who have offended the government?

Once again, wars of empire in far-off lands are generating dangerous consequences back home. It is a theme repeated throughout history. In my book, I show how, when the Roman Republic conquered other nations, the strains of governing hostile peoples and the unintended consequences of ill-gotten new wealth eventually created turmoil and then civil war.

Now, as if following the lead of the federal government, local and state police departments are starting to use drones to keep an eye out for crime and other subversive activities.

At the core of this threat is our lazy willingness to let the U.S. government become more and more dependent on drone strikes as its primary foreign policy tool. We pretend to believe that these strikes are precise attacks on dangerous terrorists and ignore mounting evidence that large numbers of innocent civilians are being randomly killed by these not so surgical explosions. We turn our back on questions about justice and war and suddenly the debate is over whether to shoot at us.

The question of who is the enemy is a slippery slope when you are stuck in a never-ending war against “enemies of the state.” Once you begin the slide, you never know where you might end up.

Hugo Chavez’s Death is an Historic Opportunity

Hugo Chavez’s legacy is still unwritten.  History shows that reformers have long lasting impact when they leave behind successors who can protect and build on the changes they sponsored.

President Chavez was not perfect.

His fourteen years of rule were marked by administrative confusion, wasteful spending, and an erratic personal style.  However, all of these failings were overshadowed by his consistent attempts to make life better for the average person and to shift power away from a parasitic aristocracy and give it to the vast majority of Venezuelans.

Since Chavez became president in 1999, the percentage of people living in poverty in Venezuela has fallen from 50% to 27% and the CIA World Factbook admits that “social investment has led to better living standards, including increased school enrollment, a substantial reduction in infant and child mortality, and greater access to potable water and sanitation.”

With his death comes an opportunity for new people with new talents and ideas to solidify these gains, continue to build popular participation in government, and improve any reform programs that are poorly managed.  The opposition party, Table of Democratic Unity, representing the social and economic elites who used to run Venezuela for themselves, is a distinct minority party now.  Its presidential candidate lost to Chavez by a wide margin in last fall’s elections, while Chavez-endorsed candidates were elected governors in 20 of the country’s 23 states.

Julius Caesar squandered his legacy as a leader of the reforming populares group by choosing as his lieutenant and successor the brutal thug Marc Anthony – a man incapable of rallying the common people (in spite of what Shakespeare wrote) or of peacefully participating in the Roman Republic’s electoral system.  Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was enhanced when Harry Truman’s victory in 1948 solidified the New Deal Coalition.

Now, Hugo Chavez’s successors in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, a coalition of populist groups he brought together in 2007, must choose between working together to continue the reform movement or splitting apart to follow their own small ambitions.  President Chavez’s legacy hangs in the balance.