Thoughts On Obama’s N.S.A. Speech – The Neighbors

P1010271A couple of President Obama’s lines gave me an eerie feeling. I asked myself does he really believe this? I’ve heard others say it lately and it seems to me to be the most erroneous statement any person with a smidgen of knowledge of history can make. A logical follow through on it would be to suggest there is no need of anything like a Bill of Rights.

Using it makes me think the president or his speech writers think we are a nation of Simple Simons. Here’s what he said as part of his “few broad observations: . . . After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors. They’re our friends and family. They’ve got electronic bank and medical records like everybody else. They have kids on Facebook and Instagram, and they know, more than most of us, the vulnerabilities to privacy that exist in a world . . . . “

I guess from that we are supposed to say: “oh, it’s only my neighbors who are doing this so it must be all right.” I’ve written about this before.The great majority of the genocides of the last 2 centuries were carried out by neighbors. It wasn’t invading armies but the people next door.

Where to begin? After WWI I suppose is a good starting point. The Holodomor, aka the Great Famine, introduced by Joe Stalin to suppress the Ukrainian people, the neighbors were used to inform on others so that they could keep their own meager supplies which were eventually taken from them by the special police who were recruited from among the population.

Then all the Jews who lived in peace with their German neighbors suddenly found that their neighbors no longer wanted to associate with them. When the thugs came down the street destroying Jewish property, few neighbors tried to stop their Aryan brothers fearful of being on the wrong side of the authorities. It was the neighbors who helped with the round ups, drove the trucks and trains that carted the Jews away, and kept silent. I recently read of one woman of Jewish heritage who moved to France and lived there 20 years, even becoming a Catholic, but when the Nazis moved in she too was taken to a concentration camp by her neighbors.

It’s not just that Europeans can’t be trusted, I need not go into what happened in Africa between the Tutsis and Hutu in Rwanda in 1994. People who had lived side by side for generations were suddenly murdering each other. Who can forget the videos of the river with all the bodies floating in it. Afterward, few could explain why they had turned on their neighbors.

Slide from there a few years earlier into Asia with the Chinese Cultural Revolution where those not deemed sufficiently loyal were sent off to re-education camps; it was such a good idea that some years later the Khmer Rouge, another one of those Communist groups decided to experiment on its own people. Google “killing fields” if you want to know more about that horror.

It’s not just an African/Asian problem. From South America we have the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who are trying to find out what their neighbors did with their children in Argentina; again in Europe those with a few years under their belts can feel the horror that happened in Sarajevo when snipers, former neighbors, sat in the hills surrounding the city shooting anyone who dared walk the streets of this international city. Oh, here you can Google the words “sniper alley.”

A word or two or three tell us how much faith we can put in our neighbors. Keep in mind Holocaust, Holodomor, Killing Fields, Sniper Alley, Rwandan Genocide,  and Gang of Four whenever someone tell you not to be afraid because those who are coming to visit you in the name of the state are your neighbors. That Obama used those terms makes me wonder whether I’m missing something when I suggest the N.S.A. did nothing wrong.





5 replies on “Thoughts On Obama’s N.S.A. Speech – The Neighbors”

  1. I don’t think our Internet fulminations pose a serious threat to the security of the USA.
    I have a friend, who, over the years, has established himself as an controversial Internet personality, . He believes that Bush II, and, the Mossad, are responsible for the 911 tragedy. He says all sorts of incendiary things about Jews, and, holds David Duke in great esteem. One would think that he’d have been squelched long ago. Nope. The security apparatus recognizes nuance, and, can distinguish between threatening talk, and, actual threat.
    On the other-hand, Dan Webb’s journalistic investigation of mysterious doings in Central America constituted a very real legal, and, political threat to the Reagan administration. Webb’s articles exposed the Iran/Contra connection. Despite getting a Pulitzer, he found himself unable to find employment in his field. I have no doubt that if you, or, I, stung the Obama administration as badly as Webb stung Reagan, we’d be in as much trouble as he was. Being hounded into suicide sounds like a rough way to go.

  2. NSA info gathering is the real-world culmination of Michel Foucault’s concept of the “Napoleonic police state.” In modern America, the police are omniscient, omnipresent, and, omnipotent. Even our thoughts are policed. If you can’t talk on the phone without the fear of being penalized for your words, that is a form of thought-control. Likewise, if you can’t confide in anyone for fear that they are informers, your range of thought is further circumscribed by the state. Foucault points out that one can have all manner of private thoughts, but, cannot freely exchange them with others, if they seriously threaten the state, or, it’s supporting ideology.

    (alas, bar-stool Marxism isn’t considered to be much of a threat these days.)

    1. Khalid:

      When you think NSA and information think of the small law firm suing a big time client who is defended by a big time law firm. What’s the first thing the big time firm do: inundate the small law firm with papers. In the abstract it may look like something horrible that 5 billion or whatever huge number of telephone calls are being collected on a daily basis. But perversely the more information that is collected the more privacy one maintains. The NSA is inundating itself with this material and is just storing it; on occasion it might access a minuscule bit of it. Over 99.99% sits untouched forever.

      We certainly have plenty of police in our country but I for one feel no threat from them. Unless you are involved in a criminal enterprise, there is no reason not to talk freely on the telephone. If you are, you take a chance that it has been discovered and you or one or your associates may be the subject of a court ordered surveillance warrant if the crime meets certain basic requirements.

      Whether someone you confide in is an informant has always been a fact of life. That has nothing to do with the NSA. I don’t see that Foucault’s observations are relevant to present day America. I do believe the amount of crimes the federal government has created is somewhat ridiculous, in effect almost everything we do may be stretched into some sort of crime. The problem we have is the prosecutors have fallen down on their jobs, which is to stand between the cop and the citizen and only prosecute those who commit serious crimes.

      You’ve been pretty open about you opinions on this site as I have been. I don’t see the state having any interest in us.

  3. I know you’re a lawyer and whether the NSA did anything “illegal” is an important issue to you, but I think that completely misses the point on this.

    Everytime some cop shoots some unarmed person or some bystander’s cocker spaniel, the first words out of their lawyer’s/union rep’s mouth is “He feared for his safety, he followed all the correct procedures and he did nothing illegal.” And I have no reason to believe that isn’t true. It sucks, it’s not right, it violates all the “Serve and Protect” marketing we here at contract negotiating time, but it isn’t illegal.

    What did Gov. McDonnell (R-VA) mutter the instant he was indicted? “We made mistakes but we didn’t do anything illegal.”

    George Zimmerman didn’t do anything illegal (evidently) but the unarmed 17yo he was directly told not to stalk by the police dispatcher is still dead.

    What is the unwaveringing mantra of the bankers before the Senate Committees? That it’s awful we collapsed the economy, but we didn’t, you know, break any actual laws while gambling with people’s money.

    I think “legality” as a concept has largely become meaningless as the entire government seems up for sale to Big Money and Congress, in their constitutional wisdom, can make virtually anything “legal”.

    So, while I take your point regarding the constitutionality of the NSA operations, to non-lawyer me, that point is irrelevant.

    And while I’m snowed in and ranting, do I misinterpret that you somehow trust your NSA neighbors way more than you do your FBI neighbors? If secrecy and lack of accountability soured you on the FBI, what gets the NSA off that hook?

    I fear I am turning into a prototypical curmudgeon as I age, but for the life of me, between the Forever War fueling our economy and the rampant (but legal) corruption in politics, the minutia of the technical legality of one ethically sketchy tree or another seems just a wonky distraction from actually seeing the forest.

    1. Jeff:

      Things aren’t as bad as they seem. One of the things that probably distorts my thinking when it comes to the NSA is that when I did my investigations I was able to get the same type of metadata with a letter to the telephone company alleging that I had reason to believe a specific telephone was used in connection with a crime (it was usually a phone number of a drug dealer or bookie or organized crime person) and the telephone company would send me a copy of the bills relating to that telephone including the numbers it dialed. (I was unable to get the identity of the numbers that called into it.) I’s scan those numbers and see if the person had called other people who I believed were involved in criminal activity. It was an effective way to build connections but the connections would only make sense if I had other information showing the involvement of those other people in criminal activities. I believe the NSA actually reviews less than one-tenth of one percent of its metadata but in order to do that it needs to collect vast amounts looking for the needle in the haystack.

      I do believe that cops lately are too willing to shoot first and figure out what is going on later. I attribute this to their upbringing on video games where they continually shoot people. Obviously, when a cop shoots someone he’ll say he was in fear of his life. After that, everyone wants to get along so his action is approved up and down the line. But that and the NSA are not connected.

      As for McDonnell, I’m very uncomfortable with that case. I think McDonnell may be right. It’s reported the federals wanted to make a deal with him to let his wife walk if he pleaded guilty; McDonnell not believing he did anything wrong was being coerced into pleading to save his wife. How can that ever be considered a voluntary plea? How is it the federals play these games always threatening to over charge if a person doesn’t cave in. Quite tawdry if you ask me.

      As far as what is right and what is wrong that is a different story from what is legal and what is illegal. Just look at the tax code that makes legal things done by billionaires because of special circumstances. If things were on the level all income – salary, dividends, capital gain, stock traders, and the life would be the same. But the money people have bought up most of Congress (most of them are millionaires) and carved out special niches for themselves. That’s not right, nor are a lot of other things that happen everyday. Yet that’s nothing new. Our country has favored those with the money to hire lobbyists since its inception. Just the existence of the idea of a lobbyist tells us that. Is it right someone has better access than someone else? I suppose not but is it legal, no doubt.

      I don’t trust my NSA neighbors any more or less than my FBI neighbors. I want all of them to respect my rights and leave me alone. I don’t see any of them having a particular interest in me, and I like to think that if they did they would follow the proper procedures to pursue it. Although in my mind there is a difference, the NSA is just collecting and disseminating information; the FBI is working out on the streets and in contact with people who it empowers who are evil people. The FBI has its “top echelon informants” who it protects even when they commit murders. That’s a big difference from the NSA. It also is directly involved with the people and the chance for abuse from it is more likely; plus, the FBI’s history is that of not respecting the law which doesn’t seem to be the case with the NSA.

      The forever war is a problem especially because so much of the economy depends on war or at least an enemy. The fastest growing place in the US is the DC area where billions of dollars are being spent to keep our war machine and security apparatus running. Here’s the double think we’re fed: “We’ll leaving Afghanistan but will keep 10,000 troops there.” We’re getting back into Iraq because the country can’t manage itself. Libya, Syria, Iran, Somalia, Yemen are our enemies or are they? Overall we lack a foreign policy since the time of Reagan. Not that Reagan had one but he inherited our long standing policy of containment aimed against the Soviet Union. Our lack of direction has caused the Soviets to come roaring back.
      If we stayed out of the Middle East we’d be in much better shape than we are. Just hope the endless wars will not include Iran. For a country in debt in the amount of 17 trillion dollars you’d think the last thing we’d be wanting to do is getting further into debt but that’s not to be. As I said, things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Comments are closed.