My concern with Obama’s NSA surveillance reforms

obama-flagIn case you haven’t heard, President Obama laid out new reforms on surveillance at the NSA today (more helpful coverage HERE and HERE). These were a direct response to the concerns raised by the leaks of Edward Snowden (can we please we start acknowledging that he has helped us more than hurt us now?).

The reforms are already getting mixed responses among privacy advocates, some praising it as a “major milestone” while other still think it to simply be “reconfigured unconstitutional program”. I am inclined to be mostly happy about these reforms (and this issue has been a big issue for me), but I just have a couple of concerns apart from the reforms themselves I wanted to throw out there. If I’m wrong on any of this, please let me know.
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Regarding Obama’s Surveillance Views

Listening to President Obama’s press conference today, as he outlined “reforms” to the intelligence-gathering if the N.S.A., I had this thought:

He’s missing that people aren’t simply worried that abuse might be happening in the N.S.A. programs. Rather, people think the programs themselves are the abuse. People want the programs changed and limited, not simply to be more awareness of them.

What do you all think?

Yes & Amen: NYT on Bradley Manning Sentence & Press Freedoms. [QUOTES]

obama-newspaperEverything about this New York Times editorial is absolutely right. We should praise the NYT Editorial Board for their brave and clear stance on this issue. The money quotes:

A Mixed Verdict on Manning

Lurking just behind a military court’s conviction of Pfc. Bradley Manning, on charges that included multiple violations of the Espionage Act, is a national-security apparatus that has metastasized into a vast and largely unchecked exercise of government secrecy, and the overzealous prosecution of those who breach it….

When he entered his guilty plea, Private Manning said he was trying to shed light on the “day-to-day reality” of American war efforts. He hoped the information “could spark a debate about foreign policy in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan.” These are not the words of a man intent on bringing down the government. To the contrary, Private Manning continues to express his devotion to his country, despite being held without trial for three years, nine months of which amounted to punitive and abusive solitary confinement.

Private Manning still faces the equivalent of several life sentences on the espionage counts regarding disclosure of classified information. The government should satisfy itself with a more moderate sentence and then do something about its addiction to secrecy.

Also be sure to read the NYT’s Public Editor’s piece on the decade-long government persecution of their own reporter, and how an appeals court recently decided that reporters do not have a First Amendment right to protect the sources.

A Blow for the Press, and for Democracy

The chilling ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said that even though a journalist has promised confidentiality to a source, “there is no First Amendment testimonial privilege, absolute or qualified, that protects a reporter from being compelled to testify by the prosecution or the defense in criminal proceedings about criminal conduct that the reporter personally witnessed or participated in.” National security necessitates that those who illegally leak classified information be brought to justice, the court said. It added that it saw no clear legal justification for treating a reporter differently than any other citizen, and that “other than Sterling himself, Risen is the only witness who can identify Sterling as a source (or not) of the illegal leak.”….

The case has real-world consequences not only for journalists but for all Americans. It is part of a troubling trend that includes unprecedented numbers of criminal investigationsinvolving leaked information; the obtaining of reporters’ phone records; and even one government claim that a journalist “aided and abetted” a leak.

We’re living in strange times. And until we start speaking out and letting these issues actually affect how we vote, I fear nothing will change.

What do you think? Do you think things need to change? Why or why not? What do you think is the most effective right to producing change?

How the NSA can impact our souls. [QUOTE]

Persons of faith should be deeply concerned about the current surveillance flap not because privacy is an absolute end in itself but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity. According to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, real dignity requires that human beings “should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by sense of duty.” Such responsible freedom is the basis for both the establishment of friendships and the maintenance of family [and social] life. Without the possibility of non-coercive self-disclosure, which is vitiated by unfettered intrusion, such relationships are fatuous.

— Timothy George, “American Stasi? What’s Wrong with NSA Surveillance?” via First Things’ On the Square blog

Repeal the 4th Amendment! (and a few other quick & dirty items)

american-flag-waving-sunsetLast week, I wrote up a post with several short and random items just listed out with some thoughts brought up by the NSA Surveillance leaks. I had a few ideas that I forgot to put in last time (and it would have made the post too long anyway), so here they are.

Egypt. Firstly, in the midst of continuing NSA leaks, and even the Director of National Intelligence admitting he lied under oath to Congress, is it wrong of me to be a little frustrated at Egypt right now? I mean, they’re taking up all of the news cycle coverage. Can’t we get a little time for a Constitutional crisis here? Stop stealing the spotlight.

(You too, Snowden, although I know it’s not all your fault.)

Law vs. Constitution. This is one I forgot to say last week. Everyone keeps wanting to stress that these surveillance and wiretapping programs were legal and law-abiding; that Congress and the Judiciary were fully aware of it.

Well, I already mentioned last week about the Judciary part of this, but as far as Congress goes, they’re right–it is indeed legal for the Executive branch to have been doing this stuff. But, there are two caveats to that.
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Some random scribblings & musings on NSA surveillance

Blindfolded-ManIt seems that every few days, the basic understanding of the NSA surveillance leaks changes. At first, it was just phone records, but really, how many of us use our phones to call all that much any more? Then, it included nearly all internet traffic, but we were assured there were “meaningful safeguards in place”. And then, last week (to far too little fanfare) we found out just how meaningless these “safeguards” really are.

And still, the journalists at The Guardian say they are preparing their “next round” of articles, and so who knows where we’ll be, come next week.

To a large extent, this prevents truly meaningful and lasting commentary that can sustain a discussion for more than a few days. And so, instead of trying to do that, I will just put up some random, disjointed nuggets of thought on this issue; things that, hopefully, can offer us some food for thought. Respond as you like in the comments below.


I realized I’m a racist. I realized in the course of these leaks that I have some latent racism. The US government kept assuring us that these spy capabilities were not ever turned on Americans (this is false), but were only turned on “foreign entities”. It wasn’t until a day or so went by that I realized that whenever I saw that assurance, I automatically had an image in my head of Middle-Eastern “foreign entities”. This isn’t at all true.

We spy on our allies. Most of the spying powers are used on our allies, not on the “big bad terrorists” that we use to justify this surveillance.

Germany is awesome, but the NSA is suspicious. A new friend of mine who lives in Germany told me this past weekend that, in Germany, an employer is not allowed to see or know about any email that an employee sends, even if it is sent using the company’s own software, email addresses, computers, or servers. That’s crazy. I couldn’t imagine that here.

And yet, Germany is the European country that America spies on the most, conspicuously more than everyone else. Perhaps it’s precisely because they don’t make their data so easily accessible to America that we just have to go in and take it?

And so, it’s America’s fault that no one sympathizes with their Snowden woes. Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this stuff, is globe-hopping, trying to find asylum, and no nation is willing to arrest him and extradite him to America. American authorities, meanwhile, are flabbergasted that this could happen. If you’re a bully in the rest of the world, spying on everyone without their knowledge or consent, you’re not going to have too many friends. Do you, reader, feel America has a “right” to spy on everyone else? How does telling our allies that America is spying on them fall in line with “espionage” as Snowden has been charged?

Civil liberties vs. security: It’s not a compromise. Two parts of this one. Obama said over and over again that we need to find a “balance” to our liberties and our security. That’s not how the Constitution lays out our rights. Our civil liberties are absolute. They are the boundaries within which the government must play to “keep us safe”. They are the lines on the field on which the game is played. A sport is not a “compromise” between the rules and your winning. You are given the rules and boundaries and then given free reign to work within those to win the game, not try and change the lines and rules as you go.

Secondly, there is no compromise here. The NSA begins this “compromise” with everything, sacrificing nothing. And then tells us to “deal with it, we’re compromising”.

You’re 14 times more likely to be killed by fireworks than by a terrorist attack. Look at these stats. You’re also 9 times more likely, as an American, to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist. So where’s our “War on Law Enforcement” or “War on Fireworks”? Really. All this surveillance stuff was put in place to save us from terrorism which, in 2011, killed 17 non-military Americans. Is it because it’s working so well, then? Maybe, but even before the “War on Terror” there weren’t many American fatalities from terrorism. Far more from poverty, cancer, and other things that could really use the money that is otherwise being spent on this “war”.

Imagine this in the hands of the politician you fear the most. Even if you’re inclined to be in favor of these policies, you have to imagine this apparatus in the hands of whatever politician you fear the most. Maybe you trust Obama. Do you trust Michelle Bachmann with these powers? Lindsey Graham? Hillary Clinton? Nancy Pelosi? Whatever system you put in place has to be “leader-neutral” so as to be safe no matter who’s in power. That’s why we have the Constitution.

I’m actually impressed with Obama. I’ll admit it. I’m really impressed with the safeguards he attempted to put in place here. In a sense, Congress was the one that gave him these powers and told him “use this to keep us safe”. And you know what? It really seems like he tried to put safeguards on these programs. I completely disagree with where he drew those lines, but at least he drew some.

Lindsey Graham is the most vile, morally bankrupt and twisted individual with any semblance of power in this nation. I just needed to say that.

We prefer Daddies to Mommies in our Government. It seems to me that there is a sort weird metaphor here. Republicans rail against the “nanny” or “mommy” state that lets its citizens “suckle at the federal breast”. So the government can’t do those “maternal” things like support, offer security, educate, care, feed, and clothe. But then those same Republicans (and many Democrats) feel like the government must be as big and intrusive as possible to do those “paternal” things like protect, punish, admonish, assert influence and control, and bestow authority upon. It seems like many of our leaders think America should be a “Daddy State” rather than a “Mommy State”. That explains a lot.

There really aren’t meaningful safeguards here. Read this excellent and readable summary of what we know so far about these program.

You really should care about this. All of you. This stink about all this isn’t about people “not having anything to hide”. It’s about a fundamental shift in how laws are enforced in this country. The burden of finding crimes has always fallen on the authorities. They were the ones that had to search out and prove wrongdoing, and no one could incriminate themselves. In a sense, the system has been this: everyone is going to be assumed innocent; if you do something wrong and we don’t find you, then it’s our fault–you’re still presumed innocent until we prove you otherwise.

With these NSA programs, however, that changes. It’s no longer “we consider you innocent until we prove you otherwise”, nor is it even “we think you’re guilty until we prove you innocent”. Rather, it’s a weird ambiguous, unprecedented middle space where we are all considered potentially guilty and kind of stay there until declaring us one way or the other becomes relevant.

You do have something to hide. This is sort of a lame argument, I know. But still, it could be important. Plenty of studies have shown that as more and more laws are made, there’s more of a chance that we break them without knowing. One book even estimates that the average American breaks at least three federal laws a day. The way these NSA programs are structured is that if at any point in the future that there is a reason to suspect you of anything (whether you’ve legitimately committed a crime, you are part of some marginalized group, or even if you’re running for office!), the NSA can–literally–“rewind” your entire communications and online history and find something–anything–that might actually break a law.

History, History, History. It’s well-known now that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the subject of surveillance like this, and tapes of him and his mistresses were used to try and get him to stay quiet. J. Edgar Hoover constantly did this to political enemies. Occupy Wall Street had these powers turned on them, and I’m sure the Tea Party has. You simply can’t assume that you will never find yourself in solidarity (or at least agreement) with a group that this apparatus would never be turned upon. History shows that governments can’t be trusted with powers like this.

Living Room Toilets: The best metaphor I’ve heard about all of this. I was listening to a radio show and one of the interviewers referenced this, and so I don’t know the exact source (please let me know if you do), but it was about how the whole “I have nothing to hide” reasoning is silly. I’ll end with this.

No one has a toilet in the open in their living room. Why? Not because people have anything to hide in their bathroom. But simply because some things inherently deserve to stay private.

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POLL: What do YOU think about the NSA Surveillance stuff?

i-voted-stickerI promised earlier this week to write up some of my own thoughts on the whole NSA Surveillance leaks. And of course, as usual, I started thinking through it and writing about it, and saw that I need to break it up into two or three posts. So that’s next week.

Earlier today, I posted the best things I’ve encountered on these leaks. I hope you were able to partake in any of those. But, until I can post some of my thoughts next week, I thought I’d do the first poll this blog has ever had and get your thoughts on this issue.

Yes, there are a lot of options below; you can pick more than one option. They range from most freaked out by this stuff to least worried. I’m really interested in where you all stand on this. If you feel like there are any answers I missed, or if you have any comments and what to add what and why you voted like you did, feel free to share in the comments below. Continue reading

The best, most entertaining resources on the NSA leaks

When it comes to the political news this week, I’ve felt a large range of emotions. I’ve felt just a little bit of “I told you so” vindication, joy over the attention the media is giving to it, anger at the government, pride in some brave politicians, and frustration over the fact that no one else in my life seems to be paying attention to this or even care.

I’ve also felt a certain futility in grasping all off this and being able to distill it in a concise, communicable way. I’m going to do my best next week on this blog, but in the end, I don’t think I could do better than these three shows in doing so.

First, nothing helps ease the shock of learning that your government is storing your entire digital life than a little laughter. And to that end, there’s no place better for that than The Daily Show. Jon Stewart is gone for the summer, but he is being ably covered by John Oliver. This clip below is Oliver’s first night hosting:

Full episode: [Daily Show] [Hulu]

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Fleeting: our Societal Anger; our National Substance

This week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge theme is “Fleeting“. I’ll be posting a more meaningful “photo sermon” based on this theme later in the week, but I saw something last night I wanted to share.

This blog has not shied away from its concern over the civil liberties and privacy issues that have been exposed this week. I hope to post some more in-depth thoughts on these specific revelations later today or tomorrow. For this photo post, though, I ran across a couple of images that show just how fleeting any American societal anger, attention, or protest really is.

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