If you read one commentary on the meta-data gathering by the US government, do yourself a favor and read David Simon’s. The creator of “The Wire,” he is not exactly unversed in the intricacies of government power, police work and, er, surveillance. And he, even more than I, is baffled by the tsunami of self-righteous indignation:
Frankly, I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their shit together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication. For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse. We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.
I, like Simon, am actually impressed by the government’s efficacy in exploring these electronic trails and patterns. I thought that was largely being done by Facebook, Google or the Obama campaign. I never thought the feds would be that competent.
And when we stumble onto a government program that is clearly legal under the Patriot Act, when not a single case of abuse can be specifically found, when it only looks for patterns and algorithms, and would have to go to a court to do any more, are you not more relieved than creeped out? Wouldn’t you prefer that this stuff be found and isolated from two steps removed? Doesn’t this new Big Data actually increase privacy compared with the pre-FISA era wire-tapping? Not for the first time, Daniel Ellsberg is wrong. It’s not that Obama is not Nixon; it is that the new program is inherently different from previous ones, because of the new nature of the technology. And its sheer scope may actually be a refuge in some ways:
When the government grabs the raw data from hundreds or thousands of phone calls, they’re probably going to examine those calls. They’re going to look to establish a pattern of behavior to justify more investigation and ultimately, if they can, elevate their surveillance to actual monitoring of conversations. Sure enough.
When the government grabs every single fucking telephone call made from the United States over a period of months and years, it is not a prelude to monitoring anything in particular. Why not? Because that is tens of billions of phone calls and for the love of god, how many agents do you think the FBI has? How many computer-runs do you think the NSA can do? When the government asks for something, it is notable to wonder what they are seeking and for what purpose. When they ask for everything, it is not for specific snooping or violations of civil rights, but rather a data base that is being maintained as an investigative tool.
Exactly. And then this point, which seems to elude Snowden and Greenwald:
There is a lot of authoritarian overreach in American society, both from the drug war and the war on terror.
But those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy. And for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks.
Just for a moment. Imagine. Now listen to Snowden.
(Photo: haystacks in Oxfordshire, England. By Tim Graham/Getty.)