'Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.' -H.L. Mencken (PsiCop original graphic)I’d assumed I wouldn’t be addressing the NSA domestic-spying scandal (which, as the (UK) Guardian has reported, includes telephonic data-collection as well as direct Internet surveillance). As a critical thinker I know that anti-terror efforts are much more security theater than anything else; that hyperreactions are all too common; and that successes can be, and have been, vastly overstated.

It’s all an insane joke, from the idiotic dance of having to remove one’s shoes and belt in order to get on a plane, to courthouses being closed for a week at a time because someone spilled Coffeemate on the floor and didn’t clean it up. It would be funny, except for the fact that sometimes, these ridiculous exercises in purposeful futility don’t help at all.

At any rate, so much has been said about this, that I hardly thought my remarks could add to it. However, today I read something that I’d been thinking, right from the start, but hadn’t heard anyone mention until now. Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie penned a piece today that hit the nail on the head (WebCite cached article). About the NSA’s data-mining operation, he said:

More than 800,000 people, including [whistleblower Edward] Snowden, have some type of top secret clearance. Many more are allowed to view other types of classified documents.

This is a large and expensive army of public and private employees dedicated to watching all of us in the pursuit of detecting, identifying and thwarting people who would set off bombs. We are learning that it routinely reaches into the details of all our lives. It looks for potential terrorists by scrutinizing patterns and obscure clues. We have to wonder how these huge organizations dedicated to thwarting attacks somehow missed Boston’s Tsarnaev brothers before they struck twice in April.

In 2011, Russian officials, according to U.S. Rep. William R. Keating, D-Mass., notified the FBI of a drift into radical Islam by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a political refugee from the Chechen region of Russia. This seems to have prompted at least one visit to Tsarnaev in his Cambridge apartment.

Rival law enforcement organizations dispute who else knew about Tsarnaev, but they cannot deny that in the world of potential terrorists, he stood out among millions of, say, Verizon cellphone customers. We know he visited al-Qaida-related websites, which was probably no surprise to the Muslim worshippers at a local mosque who threw him out after he ranted about his radical vision of Islam.

Law enforcement, however, seems to have lost track of him and his murderous brother.

Rennie is absolutely right. The U.S. government happily collected and sifted through vast amounts of data on hundreds of millions of people who had absolutely no connection whatever with terrorism. Their hope — presumably — was to use all this data to develop leads that might, somehow, magically, someday, some way, point them in the direction of terrorism. But at the same time, they’d been handed a specific lead on a potential terrorist — i.e. Tamerlan Tsarnaev — by the Russian government, but they never really pursued it (not beyond going to speak to him once).

Americans seriously need to ask what the fuck the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security, et al are doing, straining petabytes of non-terror-related data for mere-potential leads, while outright rejecting meaningful and investigatable leads that had been handed to them on a silver platter by another government which had already done some work on the matter. Clearly they’re all so enamored of their power to collect all that data, that they can no longer be bothered doing any serious investigation work. They had a chance to have derailed the Boston Marathon bombings before they happened … but chose not to do so.

Lastly, President Obama rather famously stated, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls” (cached). Well, as CNet reports, this turns out to have been a lie, too (cached). The NSA was, in fact, listening in on phone calls — routinely, without warrants, using a system that had been set up to grant them live access to phone calls at all times, and even to archive those calls.

Lest anyone think I’m singling out Obama, his administration, Democrats, or the Left for criticism over this, I’m not. I’ve been on the record as opposing these measures ever since they became part of American life, with the Patriot Act, passed by a split Congress and signed by President G.W. Bush. The bipartisan and bi-ideological nature of this scandal is only one of hundreds of reasons why I’m a Cynicalist and an anti-ideologue.

Photo credit: PsiCop original graphic based on H.L. Mencken.

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  • I was just reading "Letters to the Editor" in my local paper this morning. It was sickening to see how the absolutely ignorant sheeple of this country feel about the government peaking up their assholes, so to speak.

    Some quotes:

    "If your not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about."

    "I, for one, welcome this scrutiny, as it will further enhance our country's security and our way of life."

    "Our own government is not the enemy here."

    WHAT THE FUCK!?!?

    I can only hope (since I'm not one to be praying) that these type opinions are not representative of the majority of Americans. I'm not a violent man, but reading these comments from these people just makes me want to smack them around a bit. For crissakes, people! Quit sucking on the corner of your Linus security blanket and wake the fuck up already.

    It is a government's responsibility to guard against enemies, internal or external. However, governments also have the tendency to overstep the authority granted to them by the governed. When the government stops trusting the governed and vice versa, the end game is near.

    Sit vis vobiscum! 😉

    • Eric, you're right. These people are idiots.

      Re: the old "if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about" thing … computer security guru Moxie Marlinspike nailed this one on several counts. But his chief point is, the federal penal code is so vast, you have no idea if something you're doing does or doesn't violate it. Chances are you've broken several federal laws, but just don't know it (and probably the feds don't realize it either … yet). But the fact that they're archiving your activity means they can come after you for it later, if they choose to.

      As for enhanced scrutiny making people safer, that's a bald assertion for which there is zero evidence. Making me take my shoes and belt off in order to get on a plane, or making me throw away my coffee, doesn't make me or anyone I fly with any safer. It just forces me to go through a ridiculous ritual at every TSA checkpoint.

      Moreover, that the feds chose not to pursue a specific, investigable lead (i.e. concerning Tamerlan Tsarnaev) demonstrates conclusively that they are not interested in investigating potential terrorists … they're only interested in accumulating information about ordinary, non-terrorist Americans. So it's quite fair for me to question their so-called "commitment" to keeping the US safe.

      As for government not being the enemy … well, it is the enemy, and it isn't. More to the point, it has the power both to harm and to help. What keeps it from helping more than harming, is knowing what it's up to, and holding it accountable for what it does. Theoretically, this being a representative republic, we have the opportunity to vote out of office people who are abusing their authority. The problem is that no one outside of government … and even a lot of folks inside government … don't really know what the NSA and other intelligence agencies are up to. They can't be held accountable if no one knows what they're doing.

      Like you, I expect the US government to check on our enemies and fight them as needed, including gathering information on them. The assumption that, by virtue of being a Verizon customer, I may be a terrorist, is not rational. The US does not house tens of millions of terrorists. At best it houses a few dozen. Examining the telephonic lives of many millions of Americans is never going to tell the NSA anything about what those few dozen are up to, because it literally swamps them in data.

      I object to being treated as a terrorist by virtue of being a Verizon customer. It's insulting, and moreover, undeserved. If the government has evidence I'm a terrorist, then they can swear out an affidavit to that effect and ask a court for a warrant to get my phone records. But until they can do so, they have no right to that information — none at all — and they should not be allowed to have it.

      Period.

  • Of course, if you dig deep enough for the root of all this evil, you'll find that it is religion. Or more accurately, differences of opinion regarding whose religion is right, better, truer, etc. What a ridiculous bunch of shit to be dying for.

    I can't wait till Big Bro learns to use computers to cross reference our activities directly with Federal and local laws and ordinances databases. Now that would be a terrifying thing. By the way, this is one reason that I'm against for-profit private prisons. It's in their interest to have more criminals. I wouldn't put it past them to manipulate the system to create that golden goose for themselves.

    Can you imagine a country where computer software matches your every move to a database in real time to determine if you're breaking any laws… and then sending RoboCop to come take your ass away to one of those nice for-profit private industry prisons, after a quick and efficient trial, of course. But then, why bother? You wouldn't have any defense, anyway. The system caught you red handed, after all.

    George Orwell was on the right track. He just didn't have enough imagination. 😉