Making Sense of the Surveillance Scandals

A roundup of readings.


If you're trying to put the latest revelations about the National Security Agency into a larger context, here are four articles that are worth your time:

Christmas morning at the NSA.

* In The Atlantic, Bruce Schneier takes a broad look at recent surveillance stories, reeling off many of the things we now know about how the government spies on Americans and stressing how much we still don't know about how the government spies on Americans. The piece concludes with a stirring call for more leaks. "Whistle-blowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power," Schneier writes. "If you see something, say something. There are many people in the U.S. that will appreciate and admire you."

* In The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald picks up and extends the thought. "The way things are supposed to work," he writes, "is that we're supposed to know virtually everything about what [officials] do: that's why they're called public servants. They're supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that's why we're called private individuals." He continues:

This dynamic—the hallmark of a healthy and free society—has been radically reversed. Now, they know everything about what we do, and are constantly building systems to know more. Meanwhile, we know less and less about what they do, as they build walls of secrecy behind which they function. That's the imbalance that needs to come to an end.

* In The Daily Beast, Daniel Klaidman and Eli Lake describe how Barack Obama learned to love Big Brother. This doesn't just mean contrasting his old criticisms of excessive surveillance with his rather different behavior as president; it means detailing the steps he took along the way from one stance to the other. The key turning point came with Sen. Obama's vote for an updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in June 2008, and his shift only accelerated after he took office.

* Finally, in The Nation, Rick Perlstein offers some historical perspective, looking back at Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Bella Abzug's NSA investigations of 1975. This isn't the first time Americans have been alarmed at the agency's activities, and this isn't the first time there's been talk of reining it in. The whole thing reminds me of Nicholas Dirks' description of the episodes we call "scandals":

For the most part, public scandals become ritual moments in which the sacrifice of the reputation of one or more individuals allows many more to continue their scandalous ways, if perhaps with minimal safeguards and protocols that are meant to ensure that the terrible excesses of the past will not occur again.

NEXT: Teen Arrested for Posting Rap Lyrics on Facebook, But Grand Jury Refuses to Indict

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  1. It’s easy to love Big Brother when you’re sitting at the head of the table.

  2. The key turning point came with Sen. Obama’s vote for an updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in June 2008, and his shift only accelerated after he took office.

    In other words, his opinion about executive power and what constitutes an appropriate amount started to radically change in favor of more executive authority when it was becoming clear that he was going to trounce McCain and become the chief executive.

  3. Congress will rein in the NSA, right after they rein in the FBI, ATF, IRS, DHS, EPA, and the FDA.

  4. If you think you can stomach it — and I warn you, this is atomic weapons-grade derp, right here — a wholly representative example of today’s frantic, flailing “defense” of The Boy-Pharaoh, by his committed partisans:


    1. Goddamn you for making me aware of that. Goddamn you to hell.

      1. I foolishly clicked on the link, saw the title and closed the page.

        I’ve had enough rage inducement for one day. And yet, here I still am…

    2. In their defense, a good number of people in there do appear to be against this stuff, so many of them aren’t hypocrites.

      Of course, many of them were probably okay with the IRS targeting the Tea Party, so I guess it’s more realistic to say “Many of them aren’t hypocrites this time.

  5. I didnt catch the whole thing, I was distracted. I had turned on the TV, which I rarely do, and just caught the tail end of an interview conducted by Sheppard Smith of an ex NSA deputy director.

    There were quite a few fireworks as Smith repeatedly asserted that the administration and the NSA were acting illegally, unconstitutionally, and were, in his words, “telling bald faced lies”. The smarmy motherfucker just offered platitudes in defense.

    I tried googling it up and found where Smith and Nepolitano were livid about all this yesterday, openly saying that the govt is out of control and acting criminally.

    Anyone catch the interview today?

    1. TV still on. I just heard Mitt Romney declare that what the NSA has been doing is not necessarily illegal.

      In other words:” If you had elected me, I would have violated my oath to the constitution the same way.”

      1. Don’t all of you damn libertarians feel terrible for refusing to RomBot your vote?

      2. Tulpa? Oh, Tulpa?


        1. Please don’t summon him.

          Since he went away, the discussions have been far more interesting and enjoyable.

          1. If you say ‘Tulpa, Tulpa, Tulpa’ in front of the mirror, he shows up and insults your grammar.

            1. No, he criticizes your method of summoning him and suggests only using crystal clear lake water, as suits his crystal-clear logic.

          2. But how could I summon him? He doesn’t read my posts. [snicker]

  6. “I wont criticize the president on this.”

    “The safety of the country comes first.”

    /Mitt Romney

    1. Was there something about keeping us all safe added to the oath of office?? No, didn’t think so. Mittens, the Constitution comes first. Period. That means all of it, even the parts that become inconvenient at times.

      Things were certainly more dangerous back when those damn slaveholding white men were still alive than they are now. The redcoats burned the freaking capitol but you know, things are different now, no the world’s only super power hasn’t invaded and marched into Washington, but terrorists hate us and want to kill us. So you see, things in the complex world today are really much, much scarier than when we were actually invaded.

  7. That’s fine, I didn’t want your fucking Hat Tip anyway.

  8. Welcome to the New Regime!


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