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Obama Listens to Everybody, and Nobody

There are times when US President Barack Obama is amazing… an amazing douche bag. He entered the Oval Office with an extraordinary inheritance. He was a charismatic, intelligent, erudite black man. Better still, he replaced the worst President in living memory, a man so misunderestimated that he could barely string a sentence together. In contrast, Obama was misoverestimated. He was going to end global warming. And close Guantanamo Bay. And turn around the US economy. And end conflict in the Middle East. And he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for what he accomplished. But beyond all the abject failures, Obama has rolled on, trading on the lucky fact that many of his supporters were hopelessly unrealistic (as they now, grudgingly, admit) and because Obama was better than any of the dreadful alternatives. In 2012, after a long and painful nomination dogfight, the Republicans backed a stiff-as-cardboard cutout, scissored straight from a 1950’s magazine article on the benefits of clean living. Mitt Romney was so unproven in politics, and so incompetent as a statesman, that he tried to boost his credibility as a future world leader by flying to London and disparaging the Brits’ ability to manage the Olympic Games, just before they hosted the most successful Olympiad ever. Yet Obama still found himself embarrassingly outdebated by a man who had struggled to beat a gaggle of loose-lipped flops and fools, including Michelle ‘retardation’ Bachmann, Newt ‘moonbase’ Gingrich, Herman ‘no foreign policy’ Cain, and Rick ‘oops’ Perry. But even Obama’s most passionate liberal supporters must now be wondering how they found themselves saddled with such an illiberal president.

Recent events have revealed that the 44th President of the United States is a power-mad absolutist jackass. First, his lackeys procrastinated when asked to rule out the possibility they might use flying drones to execute American citizens, on American soil, without the inconvenience of a trial (or guilty conviction). Stand up, Senator Rand Paul, who accumulated maximum political advantage from that unforced error. And now, the ‘leader of the free world’ has shown he really does not give a damn about freedom, condoning a massively over-the-top government surveillance program which applies to everybody, everywhere.

To clarify, nobody has complained that the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) might want to monitor the actions of suspected terrorists. However, it was leaked that the NSA had obtained a court order allowing them to obtain every record, of every call, made by, and received by, every phone served by a major American telecoms business over a three-month period. Surely I am not alone in spotting the difference between monitoring suspected terrorists and monitoring every phone serviced by a big telecoms business. Unless the NSA thinks that every customer of Verizon Business Network Services is a potential terrorist. Maybe they do. It seems increasingly likely that Obama can justify such excess, at least to himself, through a heady mix of paranoia and conceit.

To make matters worse, a second leak suggested that the NSA has the ability to spy on every message, by every human being, that flies through the American portion of cyberspace. Whilst Google, Microsoft and their peers denied all knowledge, the American government proffered the scanty justification that they were spying on everybody else in the world. That tells us a lot about a President that leans so heavily on his supposed ability to maintain good relations with other countries. Next time the Arabs, Communists and totalitarian dictators demand that the UN take control of the internet, what will be the American diplomatic response? Will they say that it is safer to keep control in the hands of private American businesses, rather than trusting governments to oversee it?

Instead of allaying the understandable anger of millions of freedom-loving Americans, the Obama administration went into spin overdrive. In doing so, they rolled out a succession of twisted deceits and contorted rationalizations. Let us examine them, one by one:

1. The government didn’t kill your cat

The top rationalization, as repeatedly deployed by Obama and his cronies, was:

So I want to be very clear — some of the hype that we’ve been hearing over the last day or so — nobody is listening to the content of people’s phone calls.

But nobody said that. Literally nobody accused the US government of doing that. Obama’s response would be like George W. responding to questions over the use of waterboarding by saying nobody pulled anyone’s nails out and that thumbscrews have been banned. Also, the NSA obviously do listen to some calls, so this is not even true.

2. We have no idea who we are spying on (or who anyone is)

As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names…

In other words, the NSA is not really spying on anyone, because a phone number is a phone number, whilst a name is a name. Who has the power to match those two things up?? Not them! Which makes you wonder why they bother.

3. What the public doesn’t know, won’t hurt them

Apparently terrorists are really stupid. Which is undoubtedly true, in many cases. Even so, not all terrorists are that stupid. Only ordinary Americans are that stupid, on average. At least, Obama must think they are that stupid.

Now, the programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified. But they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program.

Meanwhile, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, issued a statement saying:

The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans.

The terrorists had no idea that governments might spy on them!! But the idiots in the ‘free’ press have given the game away. And by doing that, they have put American lives at risk. That is no exaggeration.

Anyhow, why should any member of a free society want to know if the government spends taxpayer’s money on spying on a very large proportion of the populous? Why should they care? They should chill out, because Members of Congress knew what was going on. Yes, there were some who strongly hinted they do not like what is going on. And yes, the law meant they could not speak openly about what was wrong with the government’s behaviour. But keeping a gag on the elected representatives of the people is very important, because otherwise the terrorists will discover that the NSA sometimes does spying-type stuff.

Terrorists are pretty odd, when you think about it. On the one hand, they want to overthrow governments. On the other hand, they assume governments are really easy-going and chilled-out. They assume the NSA is a bunch of fat guys who do nothing. Terrorists are such dopes. But now the free press has alerted them to the truth of what the NSA really does, and that means none of us can feel safe any more.

And when Osama Bin Laden made his messengers travel long distances by car, crossing national borders, just so they could use a completely new prepaid SIM to make a single phone call, before throwing the SIM away, it was because Osama wanted his assistants to get out of the house for a while, and it had nothing to do with any suspicions that the US government might use phone data to try to locate his hideout.

Meanwhile, Al Gore tweeted:

Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?

Well tweeted, that former Vice-President. But he obviously has no understanding of national security ‘risks’.

4. Trust us; government always knows best

The corollary to argument 3 is that it is better if some things are decided by government, without involving that messy democracy business. That way, the voters do not need to be confused. Or given a choice. Or as Obama puts it:

These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006

But are they supported by voters? Obviously not. Because voters should not know what is done to them, because if they did, they might disapprove be upset vote for somebody else to represent them in government fail to keep it secret from the stupid terrorists who had no idea that governments spy on millions of law-abiding citizens anyone.

5. We have to indiscriminately collect huge amounts of data in order to do something very specific

According to Obama, there is no need to limit data collection to existing suspects because:

…by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.

Yes, and they might get leads on who is homosexual. Or who is cheating on his wife. Or who is cheating on his taxes. Or who is friends with a union leader. Or whether a CEO is about to engage in a hostile corporate takeover. Or who is a secret communist. Or who is a secret conservative. Knowing who somebody speaks to, and when, can reveal a lot about that person. Which is why spying should be limited to those people who are already under suspicion of something serious, and not applied wholesale, to everybody using a telecom operator’s phones.

6. There is no such thing as a bad law (after all, we wrote them!)

This program, by the way, is fully overseen not just by Congress, but by the FISA Court — a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them, and that it’s being carried out consistent with the Constitution and rule of law.

If gathering every record, of every call, to every phone served by a big telecoms company is not an abuse, then what is the legal authority of the FISA Court to limit abuse? The answer is none, because when the NSA ask for excessive amounts of data, there is no legal definition of what is ‘excessive’.

7. Focus, focus, focus

Obama said:

But I know that the people who are involved in these programs, they operate like professionals. And these things are very narrowly circumscribed. They’re very focused.

In March of this year, Senator Ron Wyden asked the following question to spy boss James Clapper.

So, what I wanted to see is – if you could give me a ‘yes or no’ answer to the question: does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

The correct answer to this question is ‘yes’, because the NSA has, at least once, requested the right to all call records for literally millions of American users of Verizon Business Network Services. Clapper answered:

“No sir.”

8. We only spy on Americans
9. We only spy on foreigners

Obama said:

Now, with respect to the Internet and emails — this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.

Clapper’s statement said:

Section 702 is a provision of FISA that is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States. It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.

The first leaked court order said:

It is hereby ordered that, the Custodian of Records shall produce to the National Security Agency (NSA)… an electronic copy of the following tangible things: all call detail records or “telephony metadata” created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls. This Order does not require Verizon to produce telephony metadata for communications wholly originating and terminating in foreign countries.

In summary, if they want to spy on Americans, they will spy on Americans, as per the law that allows them to do so. And if they want to spy on foreigners, they will spy on foreigners, as per the law that allows them to do so.

10. Society has to make tough choices (by which we mean, President Obama has to make tough choices, on behalf of society)

I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards, But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content, that on net, it was worth us doing.

Some other folks may have a different assessment of that, but I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy, and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.

To summarize, Obama made some choices, and they were the right ones, and involve modest encroachments on privacy. And if you think indiscriminately obtaining records of calls made by, and received by, millions of Americans is more than a ‘modest’ encroachment on privacy, then you have to recognize that you cannot have everything you want, you unreasonable son-of-a-bitch. Yes, he was talking to you, Mr. Man-in-Society!!!! Obama has always always always made the right choices for society, the tough choices for society, and if somebody in that society disagrees… well, nobody should have told them what Obama decided. Fortunately, nobody in Obama’s administration gives a goddamn what you think. It is their duty to spy on everyone that they consider a threat… so you had better not threaten them, if you know what is good for you society.

2 Responses

  1. Would it have been more difficult to do this if they were using Chinese telecoms gear?

  2. @ Derek: harder for Washington, but easier for Beijing.

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