Thursday, October 3, 2013

Reflections on Surveillance

A mystery, still unsettled, and unsettling: Do the innocent have anything to fear from federal surveillance and invasion of privacy?

I have to smile: My own lens for looking into this, an unusual lens I think, is to look with warmth and understanding upon federal workers. While I’m fiercely for citizenship, I’m not “agin’ gov’mint,” I’m not a libertarian or survivalist or—say, is there still a Tea Party movement? (Yes)

My reasoning about fellow Americans begins with my sunny boyhood… when suburbs were new, and we liked the good agents of the central intelligence agency, and we liked their good wives in their hair curlers too. In those days it seemed to me most of the girls who married wholesome clean-cut C.I.A men, if not to be housewives, hoped to be nurses, secretaries or schoolteachers. As teachers of elementary school, I can imagine them initiating homework for the children: With the purpose, or mission, of exposing them to responsibility and projects… then adding more homework for the mission of introducing them to what school would be like as teenagers… then adding more homework for the mission of “accelerated learning” which is the intent of studying—study interrupts the natural “forgetting curve.” What those teachers were innocently indulging in was “mission creep.”

As a boy, I carried to school nothing but my lunch in a bag; after lunch I folded up the bag and put in my pocket; after the last bell I walked home, arms free, back light, to have adventures on the way: Between the new suburbs were frog ponds, creeks and forests. As God is my witness, none of us had backpacks! When I first saw innocent kids in the funny papers with adult-style backpacks I thought it was a joke: but no, little children today really do look like turtles. Call it mission creep.

As for the good husbands in the C.I.A., they too had mission creep. The agency was started up under President Truman to avoid another Pearl Harbor, avoid separate agencies not cooperating to share information. Truman (in the book Plain Speaking) later called setting up the C.I.A. one of his few mistakes. While news has been slow to leak out, we know now the agency had mission creep: Starting with a clear mandate to spy only outside the US, and to gather and analyze intelligence, the enthusiastic Americans jumped the fence and started to do “covert operations” and then assassinations. These shameful actions have been documented in the feature length documentary, boringly irrefutable, but at least denial-smashing, On Company Business. And so today, when conversing with pleasant foreign tourists, the American people can no longer enjoy plausible deniability.

I like Americans; I like how federal workers, including the various “guns and uniforms” crowds, are not like dispirited minions of Darth Vader (or middle east armies) who merely go through the motions. In fact, I am touched by how idealistic they are: I’m still chuckling fondly over Vietnam. After the Japanese left, the French fought there the same way as any other western army would, but the Americans in their turn were exceptional. Who else would have brought in grueling long range patrols, complete with special long-range rations, lonely snipers, the widespread phoenix assassination program, candy for the children, and all sorts of plans to “win the hearts and minds?” And who else, unlike Europeans, would have kept their hands off, no hiring and firing of bad Vietnamese officers, insisting the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam be allowed to screw up? “This is their war and they have to win it.”

It was during Nam I first heard the term mission creep. The grunts, I heard, started with a mission to defend the Vietnamese airport, presumably from foxholes along the perimeter. But then… they would go out on reconnaissance patrols, “reconnaissance in force,” combat patrols… forward listening posts, bigger posts, and “force protection” by dominating the area… “We need more troops!” And so it goes. Civil servants are no different. Even if transparently for all to see are plainly written and clearly defined perimeters and mandates, the federal workers, at home and abroad, can be infinitely resourceful in finding ways to step over the bounds. It reminds me of riding horses: If the citizens and senators of the republic are alert, then we can yank the bridle on these jokers before they take another step off course and start to gallop.

I like American workers; years after Nam I innocently bought a brand new home. I discovered I was legally required to have one-year home insurance, for in case the contractor associations, unable to monitor themselves, needed to have their work redone. Call me innocent with something to fear. There is a reason why my for-profit company has to pay thousands of dollars to be audited by an outside firm—at the company’s own expense. Call it old wisdom. To my disgust, in our brave new 21st century, the government has failed to monitor its own contractors in Iraq.

The book Fiasco about Iraq was published quite early in the war on terror, even before the American liberators in Iraq had enough self-honesty to call what they were doing an “occupation.” (Although the Iraqi’s themselves were already using that word) Fiasco shows the massive US armed contractor, Blackwater, undoing all the efforts by any other Americans to “win the hearts and minds,” making null and void the efforts to convert the Iraqi’s into believing in democracy—and in the occupation. You might hope that by the time the book was proofed and printed the government would have monitored—after all, there was a war on! —and then told Blackwater: “Pull up your socks, dammit!” Nope. It was only after years of undoing US goodwill that the scandal of Blackwater started to appear on the front pages of my daily newspaper. Regrettably, I don’t remember reading any news articles saying that Blackwater had ever reformed. Judging by Blackwater, in wartime, I don’t think government would have any luck, in peacetime, at trying to monitor the folks doing surveillance… People in government have my sympathy. “Keep it simple, sweetheart”: If monitoring and oversight, when it comes to surveillance, is so hard for mere mortals, maybe canceling all domestic surveillance is the simplest answer.

 Having already mentioned a movie, On Company Business, I will mention another: the Steven Spielberg drama, Munich. What I found significant in the film was that while only a few secret agents had the secret mission of hunting the Munich terrorists, regular soldiers at the Israeli airport told them to keep up the good work: It was no secret.

If, just like in Israel, idealists like to share information, then back during my boyhood in the 1960’s, when the F.B.I. had a few agents doing a COINTELPRO program for “dirty tricks” against law abiding Americans, including Reverend Martin Luther King, was this truly a secret within the Bureau? And did nobody else in the Bureau know their boss was using agents to generate “gotcha!” files on prominent Americans?

Did no one else know of the F.B.I. agents being present the night of the killing of Karen Silkwood, or sound the alarm later when papers about her death on that night were being shredded? (And so were papers about the ongoing surveillance of her) If only there had been oversight of the surveillance, then maybe, knowing this, the agents would have reacted differently, and Karen would still be among us. As you know, the attorney general back during the Camelot years of the 1960’s —the good-hearted Robert Kennedy, John’s brother—had a perimeter that included the F.B.I. But monitoring is hard and just like President Truman with his new  C.I.A., Kennedy was helpless unless someone, anyone, was willing to be a whistle blower.

Since the 1960’s, of course, to help people be brave and do the right thing, we have implemented laws to protect whistle blowers, but this year, 2013, such laws did not help when rogue agents in the Internal Revenue Service were being punitive against American members of the Tea Party movement. Sometimes, government is something to fear.

I have a symbol for the rarity of whistle blowers, the reality of mission creep, and rogue departments going unmonitored by government. My symbol is a photograph from Eisenhower’s last year in the White House: Forever frozen in time, a lesson to future generations, are men around a long table. These men in sober dark suits with sober responsibility, aided by their degrees in law and history and so forth, these men each agreed, unanimously, to initiate what was to be one of America’s greatest military defeats of the cold war: the wet firecracker known as the Invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

I suppose American school kids have been Orwelled, that is to say, sheltered from knowledge of the scandal, but I hope adults in Business College scrutinize the fiasco in management class. Today we have a word for what causes such disasters: groupthink. In theory, we have remedies such as staff empowerment, respect for free speech, and “If everybody is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” In practice, human nature still remains. Hence Iraq. Let’s face it: Our conformity is a part of our humanity, and our humanity means we have feet of clay, and our common clay means bad luck trying to monitor surveillance; our clay means amusing foibles, ensuring that during every single day of every future decade there will be a fresh editorial cartoon—unless editors are under surveillance.

While I don’t hold with the stereotype of Americans anxious to conform, back slapping and eager to be popular, I do think federal workers will always find themselves becoming embedded in their agency culture. Today civil servants know full well they have been delegated by the citizens to operate in certain clearly defined areas, and they realize those same citizens believe in the US Constitution. But nevertheless, as viewed through my lens, the good men and women at, for example, the National Security Agency, are embedded in a groupthink culture, complete with mission creep, without effective monitoring, without rebuke by other parts of the government… and therefore, just like other agencies, they don’t think they are doing anything wrong.

What now? In a year when we discovered how not just a few bad apples, but entire orchards of civil servants, in orderly rows, have indulged in massive domestic spying on citizens, will there be a creeping tendency towards more specific and more individual spying? Yes, just as surely as apples fall from trees. If passion or money is involved, such as a boyfriend or real estate, will there be a temptation to spy? In Governor Palin’s words: “You betcha.” Meanwhile, in Canada this week, the CBC reported Revenue Canada had been infiltrated by organized crime: A mobster in prison had received a massive tax refund cheque for four hundred thousand dollars, even though he in fact owed more than million dollars in taxes. To rework an old quote, “Government is like organized religion: We are saved not by our faith, but by the lack of it.”

So much for domestic surveillance today. I’m sure things were better when I was a boy.

To me the remedy starts with leadership at the top, which means, needless to say, you and me. We citizens delegate to our government workers the authority to act in specific limited areas: If they jump the fence—and the horse never seems to jump when anyone is looking—there should be consequences. I think even if persons above a certain pay grade are immune there should still be consequences for individual junior leaders. As depicted in black-and-white in the film Judgment at Nuremburg, “I was only following orders” is no defense.

I find I lose my sense of humor when someone tells congress with a straight face there is no domestic spying, as happened earlier this year, until the lie was exposed by Just One Man—what if he had been hit by a bus? I see congress as being the republic’s last best defense; I think such lies weaken the republic’s immune system.

And why did that guy blow a whistle heard shrilly around the world instead of quietly going to his congressman? I can’t resist answering a question with a question: When the department of Homeland Security began “patting” everyone’s genitals at the airport, why did some folks behave like powerless juveniles at a boarding school, proposing people join in a mass no-fly day? Maybe because those guys didn’t trust their congressmen to have any power. And one last question: Why didn’t those guys insist the republic’s last best defense be given a teeny tiny bit of power over Homeland Security? …Maybe because homeland surveillance is a symbol, like an army salute, saying, “you guys don’t have any power.”

I can feel my sense of humor returning.
Imagine a deep official voice in Washington, saying: “And now will the honorable senator from Texas, who, regarding domestic surveillance, has only been kept ‘out of the loop’  for security reasons, please raise his right hand and swear, “I am not, and never have been, a member of Al-Qaeda.”

Sean Crawford

~While waiting for Thursday, to do my weekly post, I found a Reuters story in the Edmonton Sun, Saturday Sept 28, 2013 p. 36; headlined NSA staff spied on lovers “…The practice is known in intelligence world shorthand as “LOVEINT” and was disclosed by the NSA Office of the Inspector General in response to a request by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican Charles Grassley for a report on abuses of the NSA’s surveillance authority…”

~Update- This morning, Friday October 11, the CBC , Canada's national radio, reported that both the F.B.I. and the Justice Department refused to be interviewed. (Oh, if only the US government was innocent with nothing to fear from people, and from the rest of the government) This after a brave man, a former businessman who ran a US Internet server, said today in a CBC interview that he was ordered to give up his "keys" to all his users AND that he was legally  forbidden to warn his users or tell the public AND he heard that a legal court order would make him stay in business if he tried to shut down, AND that his staying open being compulsory would have to be secret. So he closed up abruptly before he could be legally notified. The problem is that in a democracy unwise laws and court powers, as above, can eventually be repealed... ONLY if people are allowed to legally communicate and think about them. Without freedom to speak…  —Regrettably, this is not the first time I've heard of this.

~The splendid book The Killing of Karen Silkwood by Richard Rashke, 1981, could stand alone as a convincing argument the innocent have something to fear: Even in the idealistic aftermath of the Watergate tapes, in the book we see so many US justice and defense organizations breaking the law regarding surveillance! (For example, by wiretapping without a judge’s warrant) From that book I learned of the F.B.I. shredding their documents covering the night of the killing. (I haven’t seen the movie Silkwood)

~“… Above a certain pay grade, a politician can never be prosecuted or imprisoned,” a sentiment voiced by a character in Inside Out, a novel by Barry Eisler, 2010, as documented in the references, p 349 (paperback)

 ~The problem with immunity for the leaders, i.e. corruption, is the resulting cynicism reduces everyone else’s motivation to back up their ideals with action: Lest we forget, the once virtuous Roman republic declined into an authoritarian regime, with the first emperor being as popular with the Romans as Vladimir Putin is with the Russians, only after the senators no longer could count on backup from the no-longer-virtuous citizens.

...Say, I seem to recall the emperor taking off his shirt, like Putin, and swimming the Tiber. Putin must think it's safe for history to repeat, not to mention feeling safe with oppression creep, since he can feel safe the Russian peasants don't know history.     

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