Tag Archives: national security agency

The downside to Glenn Greenwald

TW: police detention, mass surveillance, police brutality

You may have heard about the controversy earlier this week as Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained while returning to the UK from a visit to Brazil. Greenwald was understandably incensed and wrote several thousands of words on the subject for The Guardian over the course of these past few days. While this incident has been largely pushed aside in light of the sentencing news for Chelsea Manning, I think this story from earlier in the week in illuminating in terms of the flaws in Greenwald’s journalistic practices.

To be clear here, this is not to suggest that Greenwald’s reporting on these events was biased or that either he or his partner “deserved” the scrutiny or restrictions placed on them by the UK government (and, as Greenwald and others have alleged, at the US government’s request, which the Obama administration has wholly denied). There’s something of a media campaign underway to paint this issue as reasonable comeuppance for Greenwald and Miranda which is obviously an elaborate profession-wide apology by the highest echelons of US-based journalists who hope to be the best stenographers to power that they can be. Greenwald’s bucking of that trend is something that we should all appreciate, and even if failing that, we shouldn’t hold Miranda culpable for Greenwald’s actions.

That said, the way that Greenwald’s role in reporting international surveillance systems has expanded to experiencing them as well is worrisome. Concerns about bias are understandable, but in this case seem unfounded. Instead, I think the real damage is in how this limits the most public reporting on these issues of the increasing use of mass surveillance by the US and UK governments. As David von Ebers wrote at This Week In Blackness, the UK has its own history of using these same methods of surveillance and detention to crackdown on both anti-colonial activists that had been displaced from British colonies as well as against locally marginalized and anglicized Irish protesters. There’s more than a past pattern of those tactics, actually, as across the UK and other EU countries anti-surveillance protesters took to smashing CCTV cameras (publicly placed video recorders) this very week.

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(One German dissident dismantling a public surveillance camera in January, from here.)

On the distinct but related issue of the wave of UK riots two years ago, which were prompted in part in opposition to police brutality, Greenwald struck an odd tone. While he admitted that the riots were rooted in opposition to exploitation and “the system,” he likewise reduce them to being nothing more than “opportunistic criminality and inchoate rage“. Instead of attempting to sort through the diverse motivations for the riots, Greenwald essentially gave up, and missed out on reporting a connection between this larger backdrop of protest and resistance and the state systems he now takes so seriously.

As long as he’s reporting on the US’s possible involvement in detaining Miranda and likewise the US’s National Security Agency’s broad surveillance programs, why can’t he also mention Stop and Frisk, which as near as I can tell, he’s never covered? It’s also rather timely this week, given how New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has responded to the declaration of that policy as unconstitutional with calls for mass fingerprinting in poor, predominantly Black and Latin@ neighborhoods. Both that former policy and Bloomberg’s interest in replacing it with a similarly overpowered form of policing has gone chronically underreported and could do with a larger name like Greenwald’s throwing some attention its way.

The problem here, to repeat myself, isn’t his choice to cover the surveillance state and police overreach as it affects him personally, but his decision to primarily cover it then and only describe the system’s hostile actions as violence in that case. The contours of his reporting on this issue leave so much beneath the surface, unexplored.

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There’s good news and bad news

There’s been a lot of revelations in the past couple of weeks in terms of how Kafkaesque the criminal process has become in the US. Most importantly, the NSA leaks have led to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s extensive and often misrepresented use of surveillance for comparatively minor domestic offenses. As it turns out, the criminal investigation process in the US is shockingly loose and fast with the facts.


(A description of how normal intelligence gathering methods are used to confirm information originally gleaned by the NSA and DEA through extensive internet surveillance, which can then remain relatively obscure. From here.)

The silver lining in recent news, however, has been the US Supreme Court’s striking down of existing legal precedents that allowed judges to push for mandatory minimums on the basis of evidence not presented to the jury during the criminal proceedings. As the American Civil Liberties Union’s amicus curiae filed during the case explains the issue (on page 14):

A drug quantity that is not charged in an indictment or proved to a jury, but nevertheless sets a mandatory minimum, also raises the statutory maximum to which the defendant is exposed, a circumstance ‘Harris simply does not speak to.’ United States v. Gonzalez, 420 F.3d 111, 127 (2d Cir. 2005). The penalty provisions of the drug statute lay out three distinct ranges: 0 to 20 years; 5 to 40 years; and 10 years to life. 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C), (B), (A). These penalty ranges correspond to offenses of conviction involving an unquantified amount of drugs, a quantity of drugs above a certain threshold, and a quantity of drugs above a higher threshold, respectively. A drug quantity finding that sets or increases a mandatory minimum therefore raises the punishment ceiling as well as the punishment floor.

In essence, this mechanic not only forced increases in jail time but further permitted sentences to inflate massively with effectively very little review within the judicial process. Thankfully, the court seems to have rescinded it, although numerous similar propositions (such as “three strikes” laws, to say nothing of the misrepresented DEA surveillance system) also need to be dismantled.

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Update: still the same, but here’s how to change it

TW: US national security apparatus, mass surveillance

Alright, do you remember this? There’s a cross-party consensus of sorts in the US in terms of the need for and legitimacy of most of the hallmarks of the growing national security state (drone warfare, mass surveillance, indefinite detention, and so on). The unsuccessful vote last Wednesday on whether or not to begin restricting the surveillance program is simply another demonstration of that, as significant numbers of both parties voted against the amended bill, allowing the program to stand as is.

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(The voting results – 205 for the limiting amendment, 217 against, and 12 not present. In terms of party composition, 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats were in favor, while 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats were against. Those who didn’t vote split evenly between the two parties, six votes on each side. From here.)

But likewise, it’s also rich in the same indications, in terms of how best to solve this problem. The vote breaks down not only with more favorable proportions of the Democrats compared to the Republicans voting for initial restrictions, but also with some indications of which Democrats are more likely to be supportive of these measures. From congressional representatives Pelosi (the minority leader), Wasserman Schultz (chair of the Democratic National Committee), and Hoyer (the minority whip), nearly every leadership figure voted against this. The major rift this reveals isn’t between libertarian and authoritarian wings of the Republicans but between the majority of Democrats and their leadership.

Frankly, the same could be said of the Republicans, whose speaker (Boehner), majority leader (Cantor), most recent Vice Presidential candidate (Ryan), majority whip (McCarthy [CA]), and a nationally contender for their nomination for the presidency (Bachmann) all voted in favor of it as well, in spite of it being introduced by a Republican.

The most important fact here however is that not only did Democrats break about 6-to-4 for the bill, but they did so against the indication of their leaders. The Republicans broke about 6-to-4 against the bill ostensible because of the signalling from their leadership. Not only do the raw data indicate that a lazy “both sides do it” argument is flawed, but the context indicates how ripe the Democratic Party is for the emergence of any leader who would break from the Republicans on this issue.

Besides the leadership, the unfortunate many other Democrats who voted in favor of the bill was full of many currently serving their first term (to name all 23 of them, representatives Bera, Castro [TX], Delaney, Duckworth, Enyart, Etsy, Frankel, Gallego, Garcia, Heck [WA], Kelly, Kennedy, Kilmer, Kuster, Sean Maloney, Meng, Murphy [FL], Peters [CA], Ruiz, Schneider, Sinema, Vargas, and Veasey). The indications of the Democratic leadership likely hold the highest sway over these representatives, so the appearance of any alternative position within the leadership appears likely to change many if not all of these representatives’ minds. Even without a key Democrat that could come forward and push this through, direct lobbying would still be best concentrated on these representatives.

Considering that the amendment was shot down by a simple majority with only 12 more votes than the opposition, targeting that group of senators is not only likely to produce different votes but also different votes that could sway the outcome of votes like these. In short, this is the most pragmatic approach to the current predicament, but it involves acknowledging differences between the parties’ representatives’ behavior and working within one of their established structures.

The question before this country’s civil libertarians is whether those are acceptable costs for changing US policy. Or rather, do they prefer decrying both parties in favor of a fairly good chance at changing the status quo?

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There’s the how and there’s the against whom

TW: PRISM, government surveillance, drone strikes

The Ed Bott Report beat me to the punch on how (among other developments in the PRISM scandal) The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and various Washington Post reporters have started surreptitiously qualifying their statements on the basic functions of the extensive and arguably unconstitutional information-gathering network. In a nutshell, most electronic surveillance requires information to come directly from a particular company, which the government cannot access without their knowledge or even cooperation (although, under those conditions, they do share significant amounts of information). PRISM has been used to supplement that data with what the NSA can pick up directly on their own, but under similar legal restrictions (namely the requirement of a warrant or court order).

Admittedly, I’m a bit skeptical of Bott’s conclusion that these data-amassing companies are privacy’s plucky canary in the internet coalmine, but his analysis of the shifting reporting on what programs are key to surveillance and how they operate is much less ideological and seems rooted in factual analysis.


(Image from one recent anti-PRISM protest, where the protester’s sign reads: “Hands off my meta-data”. From here.)

The legal system that surrounds the surveillance mechanisms that Snowden helped maintain was something that he appears to have remained ignorant of, like too many US citizens, since its failures are pivotal to understanding the risks and problems with PRISM. There’s a real missed opportunity in that, given how its already shaped how Snowden, and consequently Greenwald, and as a result many civil libertarians. In the second video of Greenwald’s interview with Snowden, which was released this week, Snowden opened with a frankly bizarre statement (in response to what response he anticipated from the US government): “That argument [that his leak aided and abetted enemies of the United States] can be made against anybody who reveals information that points out mass surveillance systems, because fundamentally they apply equally to ourselves [presumably meaning US citizens] as they do our enemies [presumably non-citizens].”

Actually, much like the legal standards of what’s cruel and unusual punishment and what’s a public and speedy trial, this entire debate is informed by radically different attitudes and procedures towards US citizens and non-citizens. This implied fear that that distinction is eroding at this point seems fundamentally central to the modern civil libertarian movement. From Rand Paul’s filibuster to Snowden’s analysis, lots of White men with US passports seem to be worried that drone strikes and excessive surveillance could become their reality in spite of their citizenship (and not, you’ll notice, their humanity – this is about the rights of citizens not all people).

The fact that the biggest threats are to those without US citizenship (or, complicating the issue, people of color who are presumed to lack US citizenship) is essentially missing from that political movement’s consciousness and specifically the picture that Snowden painted of US-run surveillance. Court orders and warrants to take the information of US citizens and non-citizens alike generally flow through the FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), which has frankly terrifying legal standards, but that’s not the only information that that unique court system handles. As the Washington Post reported, it was a member of the FISC who ruled that the Obama administration could keep a secret list of non-citizens it wanted killed. The same system is indeed spying on us all, but under court orders which view secret murder as a fair use of information gathered of non-citizens. In only one case, for this moment, have standards remotely akin to that been applied to a US citizen.

The system is predicated on a political distinction, which civil libertarians seem loath to acknowledge.

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