Thursday, August 01, 2013


Yeah, yeah, yeah -- Snowden just got a year's asylum in Russia and is leaving the Moscow airport, and as a good blogger I'm supposed to write a post telling you that that's what just happened, even though every other reporter and blogger in the world will be doing exactly the same thing. Well, I told you. I've done my duty.

Right now, I'd rather consider this:
Senators of both parties on Wednesday sharply challenged the National Security Agency's collection of records of all domestic phone calls, even as the latest leaked N.S.A. document provided new details on the way the agency monitors Web browsing around the world.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the chairman, Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, accused Obama administration officials of overstating the success of the domestic call log program. He said he had been shown a classified list of "terrorist events" detected through surveillance, and it did not show that "dozens or even several terrorist plots" had been thwarted by the domestic program.
So -- disregarding Internet surveillance for the moment -- we have Senator Leahy saying that the phone surveillance is accomplishing little or nothing. And we have an NSA official all but admitting that:
John C. Inglis, the deputy director of the N.S.A., said there had been 13 investigations in which the domestic call tracking program made a "contribution." He cited two discoveries: that several men in San Diego were sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia, and that a suspect who was already under scrutiny in a subway bomb plot was using a different phone.
A "contribution"? That's weak tea. And Inglis's two best examples are an American giving money to a group in Africa (which in no way seems to concern an imminent threat to the U.S.) and the gathering of additional information about someone who was already a suspect, and therefore already could have been scrutinized based on actual suspicions that a non-rubber-stamp court would have considered valid and warrant-worthy. That's the best you've got, Mr. Deputy Director, to justify mass scrutiny?

If the phone surveillance is pretty much useless, I'm not surprised -- it seems to me that the theory behind the program, and behind a lot of what we now know the NSA is doing, is that the best way to find a needle in a haystack is to pile as much hay on the stack as humanly possible. The vast majority of the money, effort, human labor, and computing power is dedicated to amassing more and more hay. The priority is hay collection and management, not needle identification.

We understandably see these programs as ripe for abuse. And yes, I think I think a Nixonian administration could easily use this data-collecting power to spy on enemies. Spying on political activists who are operating completely within the law is also made easier.

Obviously we should know whether any of that has gone on under Bush or Obama. But I think what's more likely, under both presidents, is that a worship of the method led everyone involved to think it must be worthwhile because it's so damn big and expensive and all-encompassing.

I'm not basing that on anything except a gut sense of what human beings, especially men, are like in bureaucracies. I suspect they're so in awe of the methods that they never stopped to determine whether the methods led to results. It's an attraction to technology that's analogous to the Bush/Cheney attraction to the violence of torture. (Add a visceral technology-lust to a visceral violence-lust and you've got a summer movie blockbuster, I suppose, and all those blockbusters are aimed primary at males, aren't they?)

It seems like a good idea because it's awesome. Not because it works. And so the hay continued to be collected and piled and sorted, at great expense, because the hay-management technology is so damn cool.


Victor said...

Yes, Steve, that.
But it's also another famous corporate move - CYA.
"Cover Your Ass."

In collecting all of that hay, once a needle is found, it can then be arranged with other like needles, to help tell the story you want those like needles to tell - all while you ignore any needles that might tell a different story.

And no one will ever know, because both the needles you use to back up what you're saying, and the ones that might contradict that, ARE SECRET!!!
But you're showing how open you are, by displaying any needles at all - after all, THEY'RE ALL SECRET!!! And the people don't have to be shown anything at all, BECAUSE IT'S ALL SECRET!!!

Have we told you yet, that it's SECRET?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Thus, you have covered your ass by showing the needles you want people to see, while hiding the ones you don't.

"Open and transparent government," my fat ass!!!

Greg said...

It seems like a good idea because it's awesome.

Kurt Vonnegut couldn't have said it better.

BH said...

Right on target, Steve. On a much more mundane level, I've spent 30 years in mortal combat with the Social Security Administration, and I can't even recall how many shiny, high-tech "improvements" SSA has unfurled over that time - none of which was an improvement, and almost all of which were quietly abandoned, but only after several years (or decades) of wasted time & resources. Such bureaucratic "initiatives" acquire a momentum and then an inertia of their own, regardless of results. (I realize I'm sounding like an anti-government ideologue, which I'm not; but I've seen what I've seen.)

The New York Crank said...

Hey, nice analogy. Or should I say, Hay, nice analogy?

Oh, what the hay. Or hey. Or...oh nevermind.

The New YOrk Crank

Richard T said...

In today's Guardian there is a report originating from Edward Snowden that NSA has paid the UK's GCHQ £100,000,000 over the last couple of years for services rendered. It couldn't have anything to do with getting GCHQ to intercept communications between US citizens which NSA felt unable to do could it?