Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A Simple Matter to Drag the People Along

August 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

This series includes:"Lavabit Confronts 'Complicit or Close?' Levison Closes," August 9, 2013; "A Simple Matter to Drag People Along," August 6, 2013; "The Future of Surveillance and How to Stop It," August 4, 2013; "Surveillance: Differences of Degree and of Kind," July 3, 2013; "Shooting the Messenger; Should Government Be Able to Keep Its Abuses Secret?," June 11, 2013; "From Zazi to Stasi; Trusting a Government That Doesn't Trust You," June 9, 2013; "Law's Losing Race With Technology," June 7, 2013.

"Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone"

-- Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"

Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. . . . [T]he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
-- Nazi leader (second to Hitler) Herman Goering, April 18, 1946, quoted in Gustave Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (1947), confirmed by Snopes.com.

We are in the process of losing one of our most precious rights as Americans; one our nation's founders fought the Revolutionary War to obtain for us: our rights to privacy guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment. See, "The Future of Surveillance, and How to Stop It," August 4, 2013. [Photo credit: Gregory Johnson.]

Make no mistake, it should be obvious that no American, including myself, treats casually the possibility of another 9/11. (Though now 50%, including myself, believe that eliminating every destructive, violent act, regardless of significance, is neither possible nor worth further loss of Americans' privacy rights.) And clearly, I am not saying that there will not be any terrorists' acts during the remainder of this week. How on earth could I know? There may be.

But I find this last weekend's rush to embassy closings throughout the Middle East and Africa very troubling.

1. The timing was suspicious. Having barely avoided passage of a Congressional bill restricting the NSA's domestic surveillance of Americans, only hours later this new, unspecified, terrorist threat -- primarily abroad -- offered the opportunity to brief all of those who had voted for the bill, saying in effect, "See, we told you how well the NSA's surveillance programs work and protect Americans' safety." ("Some analysts and Congressional officials suggested Friday that emphasizing a terrorist threat now was a good way to divert attention from the uproar over the N.S.A.'s data-collection programs." Eric Schmitt, "Qaeda Messages Prompt U.S. Terror Warning," New York Times, August 3, 2013, p. A1. Never mind that this newly found threat abroad, and the surveillance that uncovered it, is totally unrelated to the domestic surveillance that produced the nation's uprising of opposition and the bill for which those legislators had just voted. As the New York Times editorialized today, "No one has questioned the N.S.A.’s role in collecting intelligence overseas, but the debate is about domestic efforts to vacuum up large volumes of data on the phone calls of every American that are legally questionable and needlessly violate Americans’ rights. A threat from Al Qaeda, no matter how serious, should not divert attention from a thorough investigation of the domestic spying."

2. Governments, including ours, are notorious for manipulating their population with fear. Struggling to find a reason for invading Iraq, the Administration came up with a number of scary assertions, all of which proved to be false -- that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, was an ally of al Qaeda who helped plan 9/11, and that he had aluminum tubes for purposes of building atomic weapons. They were following Goering's advice (quoted above) to "tell them [the people] they are being attacked," up to and including, as Condoleeza Rice put it on CNN, September 9, 2002, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Bill Moyers, "Buying the War," Bill Moyers' Journal, April 25, 2007.

3. The supposed threat was so general as to be worthless. "Something is going to happen, somewhere, sometime this week -- maybe as soon as Sunday," we were told. How helpful is it to know that there may be a suicide bomber outside an American embassy somewhere in Africa, or a train derailed in France, or hackers into the power grid causing a blackout throughout the Midwest -- or something else we can't imagine at a place we'd never suspect? What are we supposed to do with that information? Isn't that now true of every day of every week? We've been living with that, and most folks have been going about their business -- with the realization that more pedestrians are killed each year than died in the 9/11 disaster. Aside from scaring people, and gaining support for NSA domestic surveillance, what was the point?

4. Isn't it more likely this was what's called "rabbit chatter"? The intelligence community talks of "chatter," meaning what their surveillance picks up as cell phone conversations or text messages. But the terrorists -- especially their top leaders ["Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of the global terrorist group, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, "Qaeda Leader's Edict to Yemen Affiliate Is Said To Prompt Alert," New York Times, August 6, 2013, p. A1.] -- did not need Edward Snowden to tell them this was going on. They are many things, including evil. But they are not dumb. They have work-arounds, including couriers, for carrying on communication among themselves when they don't want to let the NSA in on their plans.

When they do let us listen it's usually deliberate, and designed to mislead us. Indeed, in this instance, concerned that our intelligence might miss their messages, "the Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, posted on jihadist forums on Tuesday [August 30] . . . his address [calling] for attacks on American interests in response to its military actions in the Muslim world and American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen" -- something we could have found out with a $200 used laptop rather than a multi-hundred-billion-dollar NSA. Eric Schmitt, "Qaeda Messages Prompt U.S. Terror Warning," New York Times, August 3, 2013, p. A1. (Our "military actions," not incidentally, have been an enormous recruiting program for AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), which has seen the number of volunteers increase after every drone strike.)

The intercepted messages were most likely their "rabbit chatter" -- as in, "Oh, look at the cute rabbit!" -- designed to take our eye off of the ball, cause the U.S. government to spread the terror amongst us, and save Al Qaeda the cost of the airline tickets to send their terrorists here -- kind of a win-win from their perspective. We should not be dismissive, or otherwise find their rabbit chatter reassuring. After all, it just means they're planning on carrying out something else while we're busy gearing up for embassy bombings in the Middle East or Africa. But it does mean it's highly unlikely they are going to risk telling us their plans.

5. The media's reaction was frightening. Most newspapers and TV programs fell in line as propagandist cheerleaders, repeating the Administration's line with great solemnity and alarm, without a whisper from reporters -- or the opportunity for guests -- to express either skepticism or even ask serious questions about what our government was doing. It's Iraq all over again. As Bill Moyers observed in 2007 about the media's role in that war, "Four years ago this spring the Bush administration . . . plunged our country into a war . . .. The story of how high officials misled the country has been told. But they couldn't have done it on their own; they needed a compliant press, to pass on their propaganda as news and cheer them on. . . . [T]he story of how the media bought what the White House was selling has not been told in depth . . .. As the war rages into its fifth year, we look back at those months leading up to the invasion, when our press largely surrendered its independence and skepticism to join with our government in marching to war." Bill Moyers, "Buying the War," Bill Moyers' Journal, April 25, 2007.

6. The government's double standard hypocrisy doesn't build trust. Have you noticed? Our government has leaked that it is monitoring the Al Qaeda leadership, by name (see 4, above), that it includes messages between Pakistan and Yemen, the time it received the messages in question, and their content. So far as I have read, there has been little to nothing written about the possible risk to our national security, and the effectiveness of NSA programs, from these revelations.

Compare this to the reaction to Edward Snowden's revelations. He carefully did not reveal such details; he was concerned about domestic surveillance programs relatively unknown to the public (and, as it's turned out, many senators and members of congress. If I recall correctly, he said little if anything about our foreign surveillance of Al Qaeda operatives.

The former, the government's revelations, may well have caused serious damage to the real efforts to protect us from terrorism. Whether you consider Snowden a hero or a criminal, it's hard to deny that his revelations did not risk that kind of damage.

And yet, those providing the government's revelations are apparently not going to confront even criticism, let alone prosecution. Meanwhile, those in the intelligence community, and their apologists in Congress, while silent about the government's leaks, describe Edward Snowden as a "traitor," engaged in "treason," who ought to be imprisoned for life if not put to death.

What is the consistent theme here?

It seems to me it relates to the impact on the Administration's, and intelligence community's, public relations. Revelations that embarrass the government will be considered "treason" (for example, that the government has withheld from the American people the extent to which it is spying on them). Those that demonstrate how wonderful our surveillance programs are working to protect us from terrorism (deceptively suggesting the unrelated domestic surveillance programs are equally valuable) will be considered "patriotism."

7. More bizarre, inexplicable inconsistency further challenges government's credibility. If there really is a potential danger to all U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Africa, warranting their closing and protection of their employees -- a matter as to which I don't express an opinion -- why, oh why, would our embassies in the two countries where we are at a stage of "war" be exempt??!! "The United States is to keep some of its embassies in North Africa and the Middle East closed until the end of the week as a precaution due to a possible al-Qaeda terror threat. Yesterday [Aug. 4] 21 diplomatic posts were shut . . .. However US embassies in Kabul, Baghdad and Algiers will reopen today [Aug. 5]." "Terror Threat Keeps Some U.S. Embassies Closed Until Saturday," Euronews, August 5, 2013.

8. "Do unto others . . .." Imagine for a moment that the roles were reversed. Imagine that Canada was letting Al Qaeda have bases for drones -- or unable to prevent them. Imagine that Al Qaeda was targeting our leaders -- pick your favorites: Senators and members of Congress, the President, Joint Chiefs of Staff, football coaches, hedge fund managers, whoever you feel closest to. Imagine that, in the process, they ended up killing, probably unintentionally, members of your family, or your church, or your football team. Can you understand why what we are doing in Yemen -- as I write this -- is increasing, much faster than it is decreasing, the number of Yemenis who join AQAP, but the far greater numbers who simply seek revenge against us?

As I write this, I am sitting in the room where I lay on the floor, my head in the radio speaker, December 7, 1941, listening to the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, while my father brought me the globe, spun it, and pointed out Hawaii -- perhaps in an effort to reassure me it was farther away than Cedar Rapids. We may be better off these days, in a way, not accepting on blind faith everything our government tells us. But there were advantages to the government motivating us with a spirit of patriotism, rather than with a fear of terrorism. We came together as a nation then, fought and won a world war in less than half the time it will take us to become, and remain, bogged down in Afghanistan. There was a role for everyone in WWII, including seven-year-old boys; there was no political capital to be gained by a senator declaring his party's primary political goal was to make the president fail; then, that would have been regarded as treason.

I wish I could feel the sense of trust in my government this evening that I felt 70 years ago, but I just can't.

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