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The “Nigger Wake-Up Call”

19 Jun
June 19, 2013

Paul Mooney

The great political comedian Paul Mooney made his bones by laying in the cut between American democratic ideals and American behavior.  A mentor and inspiration to his friend Richard Pryor, Mooney’s stock-in-trade is a canny ability to thread the truth between ongoing and established hypocrisies — to make us see the pathologies that are still at the core of our decision-making and societal array.

One of his best routines involves the “nigger wake-up call,” that signal moment when the rest of America finally understands something, and comes to resent and acknowledge that which black and brown America has internalized and tolerated for generations. Well, in the wake of the revelations about data-mining — and  the sudden awareness that the government has legal cause to pay attention not just to criminally-inclined people of color and the dissolute, unreliable poor, but to us and our behavior, that there might actually be thirty to forty years of legal precedent that permits such on constitutional grounds — let’s just say the country as a whole is rising to the sound of a ringing phone.

Yesterday, I read with interest a sincere effort to convince me to join the righteous anger over the NSA’s use of phone metadata — sincere in the sense that the author, a certain Maciej, makes his best case against my defense of a specific  program by which the government would use not the wiretapping of phone conversations, but the anonymous phone call data of presumably the entire U.S. population to build a haystack large enough to hunt for a needle.  In brief, the National Security Agency obtains, by court order, the history — not the content — of all the phone calls made by Americans over a period of years, and then runs suspect numbers through that data pile, looking for connections. Only once a connection was achieved would the data cease to be anonymous and  the identity of any citizen be ascertained, and then under the same legal standard as in ordinary investigations.

The gentleman’s effort to does not restrain itself to the actual metrics or legalisms of such a program, but to the possession of such a database by the National Security Agency, and further, to a series of frightening and malevolent scenarios of a surveillance state that does not yet exist.  I’m certainly willing to stipulate that such an Orwellian outcome is plausible if the U.S. government indulges its authoritarian impulses, if new technologies are utilized in such ways, and if the means of redress and reform of such excesses are not available to Americans.

But it’s an easy thing to acknowledge Mr. Maciej’s worst fears, and continue to argue for the specific use of the technology in this particular program.  And further, while Mr. Maciej may believe he has lifted his eyes from the narrow confines of one particular program and one particular legalism to see The Big Picture, I would argue that there are even wider vistas — political, moral and practical  — he is ignoring.

I’ll explain where in detail.  But first, I’ll acknowledge Mr. Maciej’s culminating statement as evidence of the distress on the part of folks who viewed the HBO drama “The Wire,” who know my opposition to the drug war, and who think this issue should be a no-brainer for the seeming ideological totem responsible for that drama.  After concluding his best case and arguing the potential — potential, mind you — for authoritarian overreach, Mr. Maciej remarks:

“These barricades are going to seem awfully lonely if we can’t even get David Simon up there with us. The man should be a natural ally, and the fact that he sounds so exasperated troubles me. The fact that he seems resigned to a future of total information retention troubles me. The fact that we are talking past each other troubles me most of all.”

We are talking past each other, indeed. And if I sound exasperated with other liberal voices on this issue it’s because their barricades are in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, defending the wrong moral and legal terrain.  Thus far, the sum of liberal argument against the NSA program amounts to a Maginot Line of legal ignorance, borrowed libertarian selfishness and positive proof  that those who fear a civil liberties apocalypse and wish to fight against such were decades late to the fields where those battles actually rage.  Shit, they’re still not in the right place.

If conservative, then you can support this program and others far more intrusive with Cheney-like contentment, regardless of how many Orwellian nightmares are conjured by others.  And if you are libertarian, well hey, there’s never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility. For them, this issue is tailor-made.  But hey, at least those folks are consistent.

On the other hand, it’s no surprise that liberals and moderates are flailing about on this issue, some to one side, some to the other.  For some of the folks over The Nation, for example, anyone shirking the call to outrage here is a half-hearted, cringing Trotskyite.  And for those who evaluate every issue in terms of simple political equations, such reluctance is quickly assessed as apologia for Barack Obama, who, frankly, has civil liberties affronts to answer for other than this particular datapile.  Yes, there are all sorts of half-assed ad hominem reasons to explain why an ally wandered. And yes, too, I’m sure that for those opposed to this national security program, it feels a little undermanned on the barricades. It should.

Because thus far the folks who are outraged at the NSA for this particular affront are having a hard time making a case against the stated purposes of an actual program with actual goals. That stuff keeps getting in the way of what they really want to discuss, and discuss passionately, which is purely theoretical: The possibility that this kind of information, gathered together, crosses some sort of technological and moral rubicon, that it is here — with this use of this particular digitization — that we lose America to authoritarian overreach. And it’s in that hyperbole — indifferent as it is to legalisms and court-honored law enforcement strategies, and to what is politically possible to protect privacy and civil liberties, and what is not — that they lose me.

Not because I am a credulous sort, or because I prize blanket assurances of security or protection.  At some time and by someone, I do indeed assume a misuse of this data as I assume a misuse of every and all law enforcement capability and asset. And before disappointing all my fellow lefties,  I believe I was, when last seen, arguing ad nauseum against every aspect of the war on drugs, urging not only decriminalization but the use of jury nullification in all non-violent drug cases as an act of mass civil disobedience.

But here , with the Chik-Fil-A of national security-civil liberty imbroglios,  the left has once again picked the wrong battle, and done so with its usual precision. For starters, the arguments of those opposed to this NSA program make not a dent against the practical application of the data, the legal precedent for such, or the stated goals of this particular program for a societal good. That’s always a problem, regardless of how many terrifying authoritarian nightmares can be conjured off-stage. Good governance is its own argument, and the use of this data, in this particular program, makes practical sense for the purpose the goverment claims. Phone metadata has been a law enforcement asset for decades now; it’s application in this particular program, as a counter-terror measure, is credible. Debates about bad governance — about what will happen if and when the data is misused in another capacity carry less weight with most Americans. We are not a country of luftmenschen, and since at bottom, this government is supposed to be ours, or at least that’s what the owner’s manual still claims in the opening pages, it’s no surprise that already, even in the wake of the revelation of the program, most Americans are tolerant of it.

“People have good intuitions about the danger of indiscriminate collection and retention of their data,” writes Mr. Maciej. “They’re not being hysterical.”

Indeed.  And polling data that shows a majority of Americans willing to accept the terms of the phone metadata model also reveals more concern and more opposition to the government acquisition of internet data through the PRISM program.  There, the mining of internet data and emails creates an uncomfortable equivalent between metadata and actual content — the government could be reading what we write, not merely that we wrote something to someone, and doing so without constitutional impediment.  The variance in opposition between the two programs tells a tale, and before claiming a populist mantle, Mr. Maciej should acknowledge that such variance might reflect the fact that fellow citizens note substantive differences in the two programs.

Instead, rather than crediting us with any attention to detail, opponents of national-security monitoring rush to insult the rest of us sheep-like naifs by declaring, with all intellectual arrogance, that it’s grevious when people fear terrorism out of all proportion to the liberties they shed in fear of that terror, that we can’t see far enough ahead to perceive the totalitarianism to come.  The Benjamin Franklin quote is quickly invoked, that fine old saw about trading essential liberty for security, deserving neither and so forth. Contempt only is due for the possibility that a good many people might have taken a second glance at what this program actually does, considered this against the risk, and made a balanced choice.  And yet maybe the right to not have your phone data — a class of information without constitutional protection for decades now — dumped anonymously on the floor with 300 million other Americans  so that our government might route suspect numbers through that haystack, maybe that isn’t such an essential liberty that’s being traded after all.  Maybe the essential liberties are being traded elsewhere, in places where few liberals and libertarians deign to fight.

*         *         *

For decades now, I’ve seen the aftermath of botched drug raids; early morning mayhem in which police, using mauls and wearing body armor, smash through the front doors of ghetto homes, guns drawn, shouting for sleeping residents to drop to the ground.  I’ve seen raids of sixteen or eighteen addresses come up empty for drugs and weapons at more than half of those locations. And of course, I’ve seen raiding officers drop a copy of the signed, documented and perfectly legal probable cause on the rowhouse floor, gather equipment, and walk out of homes from which they recovered no evidence of criminality.

“Are you gonna fix my door?” is always a stunned resident’s first question.

“You need to call the city for that,” is always the ready, ambiguous reply.

What poor and working-class communities routinely endure within the very constitutional construct of our drug war makes the wails of indignation over this NSA data-mining astonishing and embarrassing to me. And no, before you get wound up prematurely and choose the too-easy, I-didn’t-read-deep-enough argument, I am not saying that overreach in other realms of the criminal justice system justifies overreach anywhere else.

After all, no one is suggesting that we do away with court-approved search warrants for domestic crime suppression. Or dialed-numbered recorders. Or interrogation rooms. Or informants. Or just about any other law enforcement asset that can be used properly and misused egregiously.  Oh, more people are now complaining about the excesses of the drug war, to be sure.  But all of us understand that the existing legal weapons and strategies are there for all crimes — for murder, for rape, for robbery, for burglary. Hell, if a crew of detectives were pulling cell numbers off a tower to identify and arrest a rampaging serial rapist — and traipsing through the phone metadata of ten thousand other citizens to do it — we’d do more than applaud; we’d buy the film rights. We are comfortable with a certain level of intrusion involving all previous weapons of law enforcement, and even the use of phone metadata as it can be utilized.  Why, I wonder.  And why has this particular law enforcement intervention– no less legal as it was proposed to the FISA court — engaged the worst fears of many.

The grand scale of the conjured nightmare?  Sure, the fear of the massed totalitarian power of a surveillance state gets points for imagination.  Mr. Maciej refers to himself as a technologist, and it is his considered opinion that the computer capabilities of the NSA are such that the government has finally created a law enforcement asset so big and dangerous that we dare not lift it, even to a legimate task. Maybe so. And yet my problem with drawing the line at the technology itself is that it ignores the actual and essential responsibilities of self-governance. It’s head-in-the-sand pretending, as if we can simply ask law enforcement to avoid using any of the really sharp and pointy things in its tool chest, rather than ask the government — our government — what it is building and why. That is where the hard work of sustaining a democracy must happen, and isn’t happening.  And anything that further delays or excuses our delay in addressing the systemic is, I’m sorry, a waste of time and energy.

All of that high-minded pontificating wouldn’t mean much, I agree, if someone could show exactly where the NSA program, as government officials brought it to the FISA court, was actually illegal or even creating an intrusion on the privacy or civil rights of individual Americans in excess of other allowable legal tactics.  But they can’t. As proposed and designed, its intrusions are modest when compared to what we have embraced already, and for decades now. And further, I believe that by constructing a techno-scare factory of Bourne-level propotions about this particular datapile, civil liberties advocates have actually damaged the credibility of their own case.  They’ve walked past the places were authoritarianism is ongoing, actual, and where the fight should be. By the totality and tardiness of their performance, they’ve made clear to folks like me that their focus is not on where privacy boundaries exist for others, but for themselves and those like them only. Because as purposed and as argued by the government, the legitimate uses of this particular NSA program might equate to one of the most discriminate and least troublesome intrusions into civil liberties that I’ve witnessed in decades of covering and considering law enforcement.

How can I say this?  How can I dismiss a court order that gathers the phone call data of every single American into a data base controlled by a national security agency with unrivaled computer resources?  Don’t I see the obvious civil liberties risks?  Don’t I understand the implications?  Well, let’s see:

First of all, the core fact never acknowledged by the folks doing the headless-chicken act over this program:  All of this data is already available to law enforcement, to the government. Not with a warrant, not with full-blooded affidavit of legal cause. No, it’s accessible through even the most preliminary investigative step. With a court order so rote it damn near writes itself, any police officer or federal agent can obtain a historical record of your phone traffic, or attach the cellular equivalent of DNR to capture your activity in real time.

If they want you, they got you.  If they’re interested, this data is theirs for the asking. Always has been.

Ah, but they’re looking for a particular suspect, you say.  How can they go beyond that suspect?  How is that legal?

Well, in my original post, I cited, by way of example, DNRs that Baltimore investigators set up on city pay phones, acquiring phone numbers and call data for drug suspects along with thousands of innocent Baltimoreans using those phones. I could as easily have cited successful acquisitions of numbers and data from tens of thousands of callers pulled randomly and legally off a West Baltimore cell tower for weeks at a time by law enforcement, and of course in that case, the vast majority of calls were by innocent Baltimore cell phone users. This is legal because the capture of phone data is not considered a particularly invasive investigative goal, and because phone metadata, as third-party material shared with your phone carriers, lacks constitutional protection. So never mind this big datapile in Utah, the government can routinely fish for data among tens of thousands of innocent phone subscribers anywhere it thinks it needs to. But even beyond this fundamental omission, those opposed to this NSA datapile overstate their case even further:

From Mr. Maciej:  “Simon’s fundamental argument…is mistaken in a number of important ways, and…some of this reflects our failure as technologists to communicate what modern surveillance can do.  First, there is the scope of the order. The Baltimore operation, and others like it, were limited to a specific criminal investigation. They were obtained under a warrant setting limits on what would be collected, and for how long. The NSA program is universal and appears to be open-ended. Information is collected in aggregate. The program operates under the authority of secret court order, not a warrant. It is not clear whether the Administration even believes this type of surveillance requires a court order.”

He goes on to suggest that unlike straight-up law enforcement, the NSA data will be used domestically by a secret national security agency only, and eschews mention of the FBI in particular.

Well, let’s begin with this common-sense notion of scope itself invalidating the NSA program, and proceed to this fundamental: If something is a violation of civil liberties, then it is.  If it isn’t, it isn’t.  And what I am arguing, and Mr. Maciej is ignoring, is that phone metadata is obtainable by ordinary law enforcement on thousands, or tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of calls by ordinary citizens without a warrant.   If this is so — and it is — then is Mr. Maciej seriously arguing that the privacy rights of tens of thousands of Baltimoreans can be violated, but that of tens of millions of Americans, not?  Really?  I know that millions are more than tens of thousands, but does anyone think a legal standard shifts at say, the 54,750th intrusion on individual privacy, or the 103,407th?  I know it’s an emotional thing imagining us, all of us, and not just some forelorn Verizon customers stuck in West Baltimore or East St. Louis, giving up some of our privacy, but hey, good luck running that passion up to the Supreme Court.

Again, as Mr. Mooney would declare:  “America, it’s your nigger wake-up call.”

Yes, I’m going there. Because the other America, the part that has kicked up and anted its required share of privacy and government intrusion for our crime suppression efforts, they’ve been there a long time now. Those arguing about scope are saying, in a backhanded way, that thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, can have their data collected for weeks or months on end because they happened to use a string of North Avenue payphones, because they have the geographic misfortune to live where they do. And it’s the same  thing when it’s tens of thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, using a westside cell tower and having their phone data captured.  That’s cool, too.  That’s law and order, and constitutionally sound law and order, at that.  But wait:  Now, for the sake of another common societal goal — in this case, counter-terror operations — when it’s time for all Americans to ante in with the same, exact legal intrusion, the white folks, the middle-class, the affluent go righteously, batshit, Patrick-Henry quoting crazy?  Really?  Where have you fellas been the last thirty fucking years? If something is an legal affront to privacy and civil liberties, it is the same for tens of thousands as for tens of millions. In fact, there is legal logic that suggests, credibly, that by including the phone data of all Americans in the NSA datapile, the constitutional affront to any individual in this case is actually less.

Consider the DWI checkpoint.  Stop every car, and such checkpoints stand.  Stop only selective cars, no. But if every car traveling down that stretch of road is stopped and every driver examined, then the checkpoints are constitutionally sustainable. And of course, the acquisition of phone metadata doesn’t rise to the level of intrusion of a DWI checkpoint. No car stop, no breathalyzers, no questioning of the drivers or occupants.  It is the legal equivalent of cops standing at the side of the road, and noting the time, direction, license tags, and description of occupants for every car.

As to Mr. Maciej’s contention that the Baltimore case obtained the phone data from tens of thousands of Americans on a warrant, he is simply wrong.  Again, a court order is not a wiretap warrant.  It is the equivalent of a subpeona. And yes, a court order was issued in Baltimore to put DNRs on those pay phones, or capture all the cell calls off a tower, but, too, a court order was also obtained to gather this NSA datapile.  Apple meet apple.  That effort to suggest a different legal standard was false on its face.

His claim that the NSA program is open-ended is true only in the sense that the court order could be renewed — and was renewed at regular intervals repeatedly over a period of years.  But the Baltimore phone data captures off cell towers or pay phones? If they continued to yield valuable information for investigators, they, too, could be renewed continually as well.  Indeed, there have been DNRs and even wiretaps on phones for years at a time in domestic cases, when the monitored phones continued to yield information valuable to investigators. Apple, again meet apple.

His notion that metadata from cell calls now includes GPS information and therefore can geographically track individuals to a greater degree than stationary phones is true.  Times have changed, and location information on a mobile phone is indeed more valuable than on a stationary phone.  But again, Americans have been giving up cell phone metadata long before this NSA program.  For purposes of this point, simply ignore the pay phone example and focus instead on the prolonged capture of cell calls off a tower. Now, again, we are looking at a pair of apples.

As to the argument that it is the NSA alone that is responsible for this program, I don’t think this is accurate either.  NSA is engaged because of its computing capability, certainly, but at the point at which the data identifies a phone subscriber of interest, it will actually be the FBI — the agency responsible for domestic counter-intelligence and counter terror — that will be responsible for enforcement, and that will maintain jurisdiction.  Why is the FBI coordinating with the NSA, a national security entity with no domestic authority at all? Because in the wake of 9-11, when information on that conspiracy had not been passed between intelligence agencies and law enforcement, legislation was passed to allow cooperation.  And, hey, even more practically,  if you think the government is going to fund the FBI to the tune of redundantly building that agency the same computer capability as the NSA, well, no.  Money is money.  On a limited, jurisdictional level, the dynamic is the equivalent of a county police department having no trace lab and sending all its trace evidence for analysis to the FBI, or its ballistics work to the ATF labs.  I understand, of course, that this marriage is far more fraught, politically and constitutionally; one can argue endlessly  the risks  — and one should.  What you can’t argue, as Mr. Maciej does, is that it’s a brave new world in which the jurisdictional requirements of domestic investigation have passed to the spy agencies.  No, the NSA guys are not going to be running around in black suits as domestic law enforcement, investigating whatever intelligence is gleaned from the datapile.  It’s still the FBI and other domestic agencies, as it ever was.

Strangely, to my reading of his essay, Mr. Maciej doesn’t actually directly reference the major  legal difference between the methodology of the Baltimore cases and the NSA program. It’s this: Both efforts are predicated on investigators attempting to track suspect phone numbers through a communications medium and obtain information on possible co-conspirators.  But in the Baltimore cases, an original target predates and provokes the capture of the other calls — and the necessary and legal intrusion into the communications data of uninvolved citizens. Not so in the NSA program.  The agency is setting up the datapile in advance of the suspect numbers it hopes to run through the haystack.  Justification?

Well, consider that the average life of a cellphone in the echelons of a competent terror organization might be days at best before that cellphone is dumped and a new phone requisitioned.  And consider the size of the haystack.  I’ll leave it to the technologists  to answer how long it would take the government, upon acquisition of a good suspect number, to ring up the Verizon security office and have metadata from the last five years of  billions and billions and billions of U.S. phone calls downloaded, shipped to Utah, acquired, and made ready for a data run. Or for Verizon to do that work itself. Remember, the goal here is proactive counter-terror work; time matters. And I’m guessing reacquisition of the the vast haystack takes more than a day or two, at least on the Verizon end, never mind from a dozen other U.S. phone carriers.  By then, a suspect phone has gone dead.  Exigent circumstances is the legal argument, and I’m also guessing that specific phrase is in the affidavit in support of that Verizon court order and others like it.

No, all in all, the run-up of precedent necessary for the creation of this particular database, for this particular purpose, contains more legal foundation and strategic logic than Mr. Maciej or other critics apparently want to credit.  He has short-sold that.  And so have they.  Where such critics and I fully agree, is as follows:

Mr. Maciej asserts that this NSA program is administered by federal judges who are part of the FISA court for national security issues and this court, operating without public oversight, is more susceptible to tolerating or approving the misuse of the data.  He believes a secret court cannot provide sufficient public oversight of its rulings or treatment of defendants, or even address properly and aggressively any purposeful affronts to privacy and civil liberties.  I, too, believe this is exactly the case.

Finally, an apple meets an orange worthy of note.  And of course, it is here where those who worry about the systemic risks of this kind of surveillance, and the potential for authoritarian abuse,  might argue for change.   This is structural, and as a problem it is going to keep coming up continually regardless of what technology throws at our democracy over the next ten or thirty or fifty years. Reform of the systemic is the only practical hope we have of rationalizing the necessary and continual conflict that will accompany the introduction of every single new technological capability, and a system that is capable of measuring the potentials and risks and then writing, keeping and enforcing the rulebook is the fundamental here.  And yet the scare-tactics that accompany this NSA leak are enough to turn potential allies into cynics and take eyes off the legitimate and essential prize.

Being a technologist, Mr. Maciej’s greater point, beyond the secrecy and lack of accountability in the FISA oversight,  is that one can’t apply the past to the future when one considers the formidable possibilities for human monitoring that this metadata and this level of modern computing offers. Let me stipulate to this, once and for all. I understand the capabilities of the NSA and I concede that this data can be abused and that, certainly, the risks are higher now.  But again, all law enforcement capability can be abused:  A 9mm on a patrolman’s hip can take human life in an unjustifiable manner, a search warrant can be used to plant evidence, informants can be used to manufacture false probable cause, and interrogation rooms can be used to beat on people until they implicate themselves and others.  Still, we continue to allow police to arm themselves, use informants for cause, write search warrants and talk to reluctant people in small, windowless and unsupervised rooms.

At no point in the legal history of the United States have we ever issued a blanket prohibition against the use of a proven, scientifically-sound technology or law enforcement asset because of its possibilities for misuse.  There’s no precedent for such. The entire construct of our legal system is predicated on allowing that which is done legally, and trying to prohibit or even punish that which is done with the same methodologies illegally.  If, despite the moral and legal neutrality of the asset itself, the technologists are going to argue against the use of the asset by suggesting that digitization and computerization has now reached a point at which we can’t control our own science, they would do well to address the reality of a recent unrelated, but relevant Supreme Court decision:

The government is now allowed, at the point of arrest, to acquire the DNA of arrestees for purposes of maintaining a DNA data base.  Think about this: Taking samples of an unconvicted arrestee’s singular human identifying essence from his person is certainly more invasive than acquiring his phone metadata. And the potential for abuse is extraordinary.  We’ve all been witness to the repetitive scandals involving lab techs and analysts around the country who wrongly manipulated the science to affirm prosecutions. Evidence is always suspectible to being fabricated or planted, but now the collection of data by the government involves a singular marker of identity that is a near-guarantor of criminal conviction.

This Supreme Court decision arrived almost in tandem with the revelations about this datapile.  It hasn’t received a hundredth of the same angst from civil libertarians. But more to the point, the DNA decision shows exactly how much of a long-shot argument it will be to convince this Supreme Court that technological capabilities aren’t inherently neutral, and that an argument about possible misuse isn’t akin to urging society, in fear of such, to abandon the practical possibilities of science.  Yet, foolishly, I believe that is where Mr. Maciej and others are suggesting we erect the barricade.

Given the last few decades and the reality of this Supreme Court, I think they have neither a clue nor a chance in hell.

*            *           *

The question I keep asking is why this datapile?

Again, if the government wishes to target political dissidents, or critics of a given program or policy, or members of an ethnic or religious minority — they can obtain all of the phone metadata on those targets through ordinary domestic channels.  They don’t need the NSA.  In fact, there is a practical judicial and political incentive to steer clear of the NSA program, knowing that if such misuse ever surfaces — either at the FISA court, or in front of congressional critics, or even in a public leak of the kind we just experienced — then that misuse will put this unique program in political danger for no necessary reason.  Nixonian overreach begat the Church Commission, after all.  And again, all they need is a subpeona that is writeable and signable on the most generalized and non-specific cause. A run-of-the-mill federal agent can go to any run-of-the-mill U.S. District Court judge to get the court order and never think even once about the Utah program.

I understand that the fears of Mr. Maciej and others are rooted in the global aspect of the metadata pile over in Utah, and in the power of the NSA’s computing. Goodness, that’s everyone’s data in there. That’s billions upon billions of phone calls from millions upon millions of Americans. If they start running the algorhithms on that and coming up with whole classes of people to mess with, what then? How do we respond to a secret program that throws thousands onto no-fly lists or into dungeons without cause? How do we guard against a proliferation of false positives? To which the answer is again: How do we guard against it now?

Does anyone think that the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t flag everyone traveling to and from certain areas of the world, or that this department or any number of other domestic agencies can’t obtain the phone data of citizens and residents alike, legally?  Or that the pre-existing domestic authorities — using the existing databases of airlines in concert with their own — can’t toss people wrongly on to a no-fly list based on duplicative names, or inconclusive data, up to and including a handful of non-criminal calls to the wrong country code? Again, why go to Utah?  You’re an FBI agent and you wanna find out about General Petraeus and his girlfriend?  Go get the phone data.  You want to target the AP and Fox phones to find government leakers?  Go back to the same U.S. District judge and get the order signed, then walk it over to Verizon.  You want to go after the Occupy leaders and track their movements?  No worries.

Only if you believe, at the highest end of the conspiratoral sum of all fears, that this particular datapile is going to be used to run the phone activites and GPS data on 300 million Americans all at once, and then, dump hundreds of thousands or millions onto no-fly lists or atop the in-boxes of a finite list of federal agents, can you indulge the argument that this particular program transforms law enforcement’s existing capability.  But as I keep saying, the computer run is the quick, easy part.  Behind that, a human has to do the work of actually messing with the equally human target.  Even the process of harrassing and abusing another citizen requires actual manhours and actual decisions about how to prioritize those manhours.

Mr. Maciej’s best argument, that of the lugubrious false positives that festoon the  no-fly list, actually contains the undoing of his position:  “After 2001,” he writes, “this list rapidly expanded to thousands of names, with no avenues of appeal and no way to even check whether your name appeared in the document, to the point where the government finally had to improvise a ‘redress’ policy for travelers who found themselves living out a Kafka novel.”

Indeed. And this NSA datapile in Utah has its court-ordered origins five years later, in 2006. The Kafkaesque excesses of the no-fly list and similar government overreach will be with us regardless of what happens to this program.  Just as the domestic suppression of dissents, if it becomes the priority of an American administration, will have the ready use of  phone metadata through the usual channels.  Just as any hunt for a reporter’s sources will. And, given the secrecy of the FISA process, all of it still goes on in the dark, regardless.

Which brings us back to the point that Mr. Maciej makes that I continue to argue myself:  The FISA process and its court are so completely shrouded in unaccountable secrecy that it is an unworkable apparatus for democracy.  Independent review and oversight, with teeth, are the necessity here. And that oversight needs to have a healthy number of knowledgeable civilians — duly vetted for national security — who are professionals in the business of maintaining constitutional guarantees and civil liberties, and whose sole purpose in the process is to address those ideals. There needs to a congressional review process that can access the investigative documentation and arguments contained in affidavits for all FISA programming and investigative ventures, just as all decisions of the court need to be available to vetted members of the intelligence committees.  There needs to be periodic reporting — a general report-card of sorts — on the degree of civil liberties instrusions undertaken by the FISA process that is available for public review, even if such a document would be necessarily general about methodologies employed.  This is the where the barricade ought to be.  This is the fight to have.

The need to keep national security secrets is a rational one, but much more balance — and sunlight — will have to be tolerated for Americans to be comfortable that these agencies are doing what they claim, and not what they deny.  And further, given the capacity for authoritarian overreach that always exists, real oversight is required for the system to right itself after the inevitable instances of abuse.  Mr. Obama’s claims of  “transparency” with regard to this NSA program, rooted as they are in the current FISA logic, or his claims to “welcome a debate” about data-mining, its purposes, uses and possible misuses, fall flat because they are, indeed, two-dimensional.  In a void this dark and complete, no one can even know what one ought to be debating.

*       *        *

Still, I can’t help but look at the actual affront to individual Americans that this datapile in Utah demands, compare it to what America routinely requires of its own underclass and working class, and marvel at our national capacity for indifference when someone else is carrying the weight.

And this, too, is why I won’t climb the barricade where Mr. Maciej thinks I ought.  Because to do so only at those places where the cost is to one America, and not the other, is to assure that only one part of our country will continue to sacrifice, and that the rest of our nation will remain inert while real affronts to civil liberties continue. The drug war has gone on for as long as it has in complete failure of its stated goals because of who it targeted — and who it did not.  And at every point when ordinary, middle-class or affluent Americans are given a chance to disassociate from the struggle of others — whenever and wherever they are given a buyout from the real costs of maintaining a policy or upholding a societal value — they take the free pass and run.

Think otherwise?  Take a look at 50,000 dead on the other side of the Rio Grande, an abbatoir that America quietly accepts in order to simultaneously maintain its drug prohibitions and its drug appetite.  We’re so principled, we’re willing to fight our war on drugs to the last Mexican.  Or look at what it means to be a person of color in New York City and endure a 21st Century policing culture of stop-and-frisk. That’s actual Americans stopped on the street and body-searched, physically, without legitimate probable cause.  Amid such standards, the high whine of those who cannot bear to have their phone data sitting in a pile with 300 million fellow Americans — this can’t possibly engender my allegiance or support.  Especially so, given that I regard counter-terror to be a more legitimate policy and goal than any part of our drug war. One has actually brutalized the poor, reduced our actual civil rights, and created an actual and vast American gulag.  The other, I am told, might, in the future, do some of these things.  Yes, thanks for the warning.

Personally, I’m glad my Verizon data is in that pile.  I’m an American and I’ve been made to ante for a program that has a practical application against a certain and fixed evil.  Generally a New Deal liberal, I actually believe that there is, or needs to be, an abiding social compact among Americans, as well as a lattice of individual liberties. I credit both liberty and responsibility and believe it’s actually in the necessary tension between those two ideals that great societies are built.  Liberty alone guarantees personal freedom and little else of societal ambition;  responsibility alone, without liberty, is tyranny.  Well, there are Americans who have been asked to do with a lot more responsibility, and less liberty, than the rest of us.  Some of them live a dozen blocks from where I do, in fact. And if they can give at the office, so can I.

A month or so ago, I was in the U.K. arguing the drug war. And I was asked a question about what I thought about the success of legislation to normalize the use and possession of marijuana in various U.S. states. By the time my answer was reduced to 140-characters or less, I had been recorded as being opposed to such normalization; it morphed into an unequivocal, and almost inexplicable position, if you know my overall arguments about drug prohibition.

And yet, my actual argument there was precise and consistent with this one.  It is, again, rooted in realpolitik, and it is, again, about the systemic, about process. In practical terms, no, I don’t think anyone should stand in the way of the rationalized use of marijuana. But I expressed my disenchantment with the marjiuana initiatives as being indicative of, again, Mr. Mooney’s essential premise — that white, middle-class and affluent Americans never want to believe that anyone ought to ring them up in the early morning.  And in the case of marijuana normalization, I fear that the country will walk away in easy self-congratulation from the wrong barricade and never actually man the right one — the one that matters and the one that is putting the core values of our republic at great risk.  We aren’t the jailingest country on the face of the Earth because of marijuana laws, and we haven’t turned drug prohibition into an open war on our poor because of marijuana only.

“”The last thing I want to do is rationalise the easiest, the most benign end of this,” I said in the U.K. “The whole concept needs to be changed, the debate reframed. I want the thing to fall as one complete edifice. If they manage to let a few white middle-class people off the hook, that’s very dangerous. If they can find a way for white kids in middle-class suburbia to get high without them going to jail and getting them to think that what they do is a million miles away from black kids taking crack, that is what politicians would do.”

It’s not that black and brown kids don’t also smoke weed, or that there isn’t a pharmacological difference between marijuana and cocaine, or there isn’t a fundamental benefit to rationalizing the safest and most popular part of the American drug culture. It’s that in doing so, the same government that made this war, and ratcheted up this war to persecute and monetize its own poor, will have let the air from the balloon of national dissent.  Once marijuana is fully exempted from the war on drugs, I argued, “it’d be another 10 or 40 years of assigning people of color to this dystopia.”

Same thing here.  Knowing what I know about how tolerant we are in America about allowing those without political capital — our poor, our minorities, our most vulnerable citizens — to shoulder the full weight of our security and crime suppression costs, I pay attention when other folks — upon being asked to endure the most modest inclusion of their personal information in a data base to be used for a collective and legal purpose — suddenly declare that it is un-American for such a thing to be attempted, regardless of the goal.

If Mr. Maciej wants to address not merely the programs that intrude in ways that he finds unnerving or untenable, but instead focus on process and system, then I can be enlisted.  If this is about oversight and accountability and reshaping the shadow government of the FISA court, I’m in.  If it’s about establishing clear, definitive laws for how the inevitable waves of new technology are to be employed, and having a real discussion about what law enforcement goals and security concerns justify what level of intrusion, I’m committed.  And if it’s about all of us kicking in, and admitting that citizenship requires shared risk and shared sacrifice — if it promises a compact between all of us, and rules that equate for the country as a whole –then I understand and agree with the fight.

But drawing the line here, with this datapile and this program, feels hollow and dishonest and self-defeating. Fight where you wanna, but  if it’s here, over this?  You might as well light that now-legal joint and walk away.  Mr. Mooney had your number a long time ago.

*    *     *

James Agee, and the delicate pursuit of narrative non-fiction.

04 Jun
June 4, 2013

I’ve written on my admiration for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” before, and in fact an essay is somewhere on this website.  But now, more on Agee’s great treatise on American poverty from the New York Times:

If a greater humanist or more honorable soul ever practiced journalism, I can’t conjure the name.  Agee showed a lot of people not only how to report and write about other human beings, but how to behave while doing so.



A family history as microcosm and our national divide.

27 May
May 27, 2013

My father passed away three years ago. As a kind of prolonged Kaddish for him, I have been gathering the family history — tales that he knew, but I never asked enough about when he was alive. It’s been a labor of love, and of reflection, and I am not yet sure of the overall purpose. But it has connected me to the past in delicate ways. Certainly, ancestor-worship is, for me, a much more solid religious pillar than anything rooted in theology at this point.

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Why I don’t tweet. Example #47

15 May
May 15, 2013

So I am on the way to a nice dinner with wife and child and Mr. Bourdain emails me.  Seems someone named Andy Cohen, who is also involved in this sprawling and relentless medium of television in some important way, has gotten into a back-and-forth with Mr. Bourdain on Twitter.  And out of the blue, though I am minding my own business — which is something for which I rarely get any credit  — Mr. Cohen, defending himself on a matter of interest to himself and Mr. Bourdain, goes out of his way to shit on the HBO production of Treme. Read more →

“Do You Know Who I Am?”

22 Apr
April 22, 2013

I’m not much on tabloid gossip as news content, but Reese Witherspoon’s encounter with an Atlanta police officer, in which she tried to prevent her husband’s arrest during a traffic stop by playing the celebrity card, brings to mind one of my favorite Baltimore police stories. I just gotta let fly.

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