Monday, June 10, 2013

The Difference Between The Lightning Bug and The Lightning* -- UPDATE

Here is a picture of an adorable baby hippo to enjoy while you carefully read one more post about Mr. Greenwald and the NSA.

Here is a quote by Mr. Mark Twain.
"The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."
See if you can spot the place where substituting the almost-right words for the right words makes a big difference.

But before that, let me say that Mr. Greenwald has done an admirable job of breaking a large and important story about the American surveillance state.  Even if this story may be somewhat of a rehash of stuff that was already available for public consumption, and even if David Simon (creator of "The Wire" and former Baltimore police beat reporter) is right is saying that the NSA data-mining OMFG! is somewhat less OMFG! than it might appear at first blush --
... Consider this from Glenn Greenwald, the author of the piece: “What this court order does that makes it so striking is that it’s not directed at any individual…it’s collecting the phone records of every single customer of Verizon business and finding out every single call they’ve made…it’s indiscriminate and it’s sweeping.”

Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.

Allow for a comparable example, dating to the early 1980s in a place called Baltimore, Maryland.

There, city detectives once began to suspect that major traffickers were using a combination of public pay phones and digital pagers to communicate their business. And they took their suspicions to a judge and obtained court orders — not to monitor any particular suspect, but to instead cull the dialed numbers from the thousands and thousands of calls made to and from certain city pay phones.

Think about it. There is certainly a public expectation of privacy when you pick up a pay phone on the streets of Baltimore, is there not? And certainly, the detectives knew that many, many Baltimoreans were using those pay phones for legitimate telephonic communication. Yet, a city judge had no problem allowing them to place dialed-number recorders on as many pay phones as they felt the need to monitor, knowing that every single number dialed to or from those phones would be captured. So authorized, detectives gleaned the numbers of digital pagers and they began monitoring the incoming digitized numbers on those pagers — even though they had yet to learn to whom those pagers belonged. The judges were okay with that, too, and signed another order allowing the suspect pagers to be “cloned” by detectives, even though in some cases the suspect in possession of the pager was not yet positively identified.

All of that — even in the less fevered, pre-Patriot Act days of yore — was entirely legal. Why?

Because they aren’t listening to the calls.
-- it is a large and important story about the massive surveillance machinery that our government has built and is using in our name that deserves a wide audience.

But then, thanks to the Twitter Machine, here comes the pivot.

Because as large and important as a story is, it is never large enough or important enough until it has been repurposed into one more cavil Greenwald lecture on the subject of partisan hypocrisy.
And the graphic proof Mr. Greenwald presents is pretty damning...

Damning...unless you go back and read the actual survey from which that graph was derived and find that the question being asked of survey participants in 2006 at the height of the Bush-era illegal warrentless wiretapping scandal differs substantially from the question being asked of survey participants in 2013.

The reason I know this is because a graph in the same study and located about one inch above the one Mr. Greenwald shared with his Twitter followers says so:

In case you could not read the graphic, in 2006 survey participants were  explicitly about whether they were cool with their calls being "secretly listened in on" without court approval.  In other words, wiretapped illegally with no warrant issued from a FISA court.

The question from 2013 asks survey participants how they feel about calls being "tracked" with the legal approval of the secret (FISA) court.

And while I am perfectly willing to concede Democratic hypocrisy and perfectly willing to own my own dread at the existence and behavior of America's surveillance state, it is absolutely unfair and credibility-crippling to level charges of "partisan vapidity" based on a single survey question which does not control for the fact that the Left's sharpest objection to the government's surveillance program in 2006 -- that it was being operated illegally and without court oversight -- is no longer true today.

But don't take my word for it.

Here, from that memorable year of 2006,  is noted constitutional law attorney Glenn Greenwald 

explaining how accountability to government's FISA court is what keeps the government's surveillance program on the right side of that terribly thin line between democracy and tyranny because ... "We all want eavesdropping -- aggressive eavesdropping on Al Qaeda.  They broke the law by eavesdropping without the judicial oversight that law requires."

Here is a fuller quote as transcribed by me:
"The other point I want to make is that nobody is against eavesdropping on Al Qaeda...  We have a law in place the purpose of which is to enable the government to eavesdrop on terrorists.  We all want eavesdropping on terrorists.  That's why we have a law in place.  That's why Democrats and Republicans came together to make the law stronger in the wake of 9/11.  And that's why President Bush said that law give him all the power we need.  The scandal is not about whether or not we should be eavesdropping: we're going to eavesdrop -- we should be eavesdropping. The question is about whether the President will exercise the awesome power of being able to eavesdrop on the communication of the American people in violation of the law -- meaning without judicial oversight, without anyone knowing what he is doing --  or in accordance with the law, meaning with judicial approval by the secret FISA court.  

They didn't break the law by eavesdropping.  We all want eavesdropping -- aggressive eavesdropping on Al Qaeda.  They broke the law by eavesdropping without the judicial oversight that law requires."
-- Glenn Greenwald, February 6, 2006 (emphasis added)
UPDATE:  For commentor mahakal , because he's a reasonable guy :-)
  1. I predict that my main point (Mr. Greenwald's citation of the Pew Poll to make a point about partisan hypocrisy was essentially dishonest given the fact that the framing of the question -- illegal wiretapping [2006] versus court-authorized tracking [2013] -- had changed substantively since 2006) will remain unrebutted.  Deflected?  Distracted from?  Buried under a pile of "Why are you such an Obot stooge?"  Sure. But unrebutted.

  2. In direct reply mahakal's comment,  Mr. Greenwald's threshold in 2006 for acceptable versus non-acceptable eavesdropping was not whether or not only Al Qaeda was being surveilled, but only whether or not the FISA court had authorized the surveillance.  I know this because Mr. Greenwald said it.
Mr. Greenwald from around the 23:00 mark:
In 1978, we realized that the power to eavesdrop on American citizens is an extraordinary power and it has been abused by Republican and Democratic administrations for decades As a result, we trust our government-- our federal government -- to have this power only if someone is watching over them.

And that "someone" is the FISA court that is expert in the law and that it trusted to keep the country's secrets and that was the way we could assure ourselves that this power would not be abused, that President abided by the law.

Since the President broke the law and is eavesdropping in secret,  nobody has any idea how the power has been used or what has  been done with that information...

*Thank you, Dan Hagen.


Anonymous said...

Go ahead—scroll down the endless lists of Politifact’s daring fact-checks. You’ll see powerful public figures get checked—and people no one has heard of.

The one group you won’t see on their list is the powerful people at Fox—along with those at MSNBC and CNN.

At this point, it’s pretty obvious—Politifact doesn’t do “journalists.” Those people can bullshit as much as they want.

At Politifact, that doesn’t count.

mahakal said...

Once again, super nitpicky, DG. It is clear that GG believes that judicial oversight should ensure that there is "aggressive eavesdropping on Al Qaeda" -- not eavesdropping on everyone.

mahakal said...

Also, too: There is a huge difference between the expectation of privacy when in a public place or using a public phone, and when using your own home phone or internet connection.

mahakal said...

Quoting Daniel Ellsberg today:

"For the president then to say that there is judicial oversight is nonsense – as is the alleged oversight function of the intelligence committees in Congress. Not for the first time – as with issues of torture, kidnapping, detention, assassination by drones and death squads –they have shown themselves to be thoroughly co-opted by the agencies they supposedly monitor. They are also black holes for information that the public needs to know."

Anonymous said...

At "David Simon" I stopped reading. A producer of a television show. Wow. What a supply of authority.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Nonnie Mouse, if you had read just half a sentence further, you would have noticed "former Baltimore police beat reporter".

It is especially amusing in that just a few posts prior was one that talked about the inability of people to read accurately in the Internoodles Age.

Anonymous said...

zombie you not understand the thrust of an intentional ad hominem argument when you hear one? My precise point was very simple: producers of television shows are by my lights by definition incapable of thinking clearly about anything. His former job offers no mitigation. Fuck David Simon, whoever he is.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Nonnie, do you not understand that ad hominem is what's known as a logical fallacy? Meaning that to use it in an argument results in a logically faulty argument.

Saying "I meant to do that" is merely lathering a PeeWee Herman non sequitur over it.

And to finally admit that you don't even know anything about the dude whose opinion you is to chuckle.

Anonymous said...

zombie etc.: yes, of course, I do know that ad hominem is a species of logical fallacy. For those who have difficulty ascertaining rhetorical maneuvers, I wasn't exercising logic. I was expressing an opinion, one whose force was precisely to convey that some of us give slight weight to judgments uttered by television producers based upon the flimsy foundation of their achievements in the entertainment industry. (And don't you find it ironic that Simon's career ("creator of 'The Wire' and former Baltimore police beat reporter") somehow contributes to his credibility? That, too, is ad hominem, by the way.) Ergo (that's a fancy Latin logical conjunction), that some textbooks describe ad hominem argument as fallacious has no bearing on my reflection. I'm exercising a different mode of persuasion.

Compound F said...

Your relentless efforts to discredit Greenwald are as awesome as they are incredible. It's becoming a flaming Freudian defensive reaction, and there's nothing to be done about it, except watch in fascination.

Anonymous said...

1. Essentially dishonest? Perhaps. At least misinformed. Is it essentially dishonest to accuse somebody of dishonesty when the basis of his assertion is a rather cut and dry report on "Partisan shifts in views of NSA surveillance programs"? I'm not sure. Could be.

2. This is bogus. The threshold of acceptability of eavesdropping is FISA authorization. It doesn't follow that FISA's authorization to conduct "massive surveillance"--by all accounts a "large and important story"--would be acceptable. GG is now challenging that development. Unless you're a legalistic simpleton (FISA says it's OK, must be OK), it has little to do with the need for real oversight when the scope of eavesdropping extends well beyond terrorists. These are two different legal issues.

Anonymous said...

To my mind this story has nothing to do with Greenwald's incoherent position about when it is or is not legal and/or morally justified to eavesdrop.

The debate we should be having is over whether we approve or disapprove of the programs that Greenwald/Snowden have re-exposed. They are vainly attempting to focus our attention on what is being done in our names and our behalf to "keep us safe".

Is the invasion of privacy, the astronomical expense and the fear that these programs generate worth it? Are these programs what we want for ourselves as a nation going forward? And if not what are we going to do about it?

Parsing the words of Greenwald does not answer these questions.

Batocchio said...

Well, to be fair, ZRM, what could a former police reporter who wrote a realistic entire series about wiretapping (and the statutes surrounding it) possibly know about wiretapping? Ispo facto, QED! (And here I thought blind hatred of Hollywood was mostly a right-wing thing...)

Dan Hagen said...

It's spelled "lightning."

Anonymous said...

anonymous-"I'm exercising a different mode of persuasion."

Yeah, you are. The mode of persuasion employed by the facile...

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

For those who have difficulty ascertaining rhetorical maneuvers, I wasn't exercising logic.

You're telling me.

You also weren't doing so well with the rhetorical maneuver.

Hamfast Ruddyneck said...

Aaaaand Cap'n Ahab Glass tries to sink another harpoon into Moby Greenwald... xD

Anonymous said...

You're telling me.

The effectiveness of "telling," as of rhetorical maneuvers in general, depends on the communicative skills of both the teller and the told. The former carries the heavier burden. Nevertheless the latter's unwillingness to receive information structured in any way other than mere syllogism--talk about facile!--will undermine the transaction.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Nevertheless the latter's unwillingness to receive information structured in any way other than mere syllogism

Big words don't make it any more true.

I understood what you were TRYING to say. You said it poorly and unconvincingly. You used crappy logic. And your premise was mistaken. None of that is my fault, much as you try to obfuscate the fact with overwrought phrases.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

also, Nonnie, if you're gonna get into the tall quibbling weeds, pick a goddam nym so you can be differentiated from all the drive-by Nannamusses that populate every Greenwald thread.

Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

Nonnie here. Nor do big words make it less. And jeez, what more could one ask than assuring one's interlocutor understands what one is trying to say? Ah, conviction, that's what. But convinced of what? That Simon misses the point? Yes, that would be nice. Or that Simon's background, and his anecdotes and blasé "Piffle!" over the scope and unconstrained nature of these revelations, are insufficient authority for this reader to take him seriously.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

That Simon misses the point? Yes, that would be nice

What would be nice is if that was what you argued.

But no, it was all dismissal and bluster. And when I pointed out that you weren't actually making an argument, insinuations that I was unable to understand your high-level discourse.

Of course, if all you were trying to do is say that YOU don't take him seriously, then that's OK. But it's not an argument.

As everyone knows, arguments are down the hall.

Anonymous said...

Nonnie here. "It was all dismissal and bluster." Half right. It was largely dismissal: that was the point! As another commenter put it, I exhibit blind hatred of Hollywood. I'd temper the level of vitriol; I don't hate Hollywood. With equal and opposite hyperbole I might accuse others of blind adoration, though.

But Monty Python, yeah, you got me there. Them I adore, too.

Demian said...

Agree with paragraphs 2 and 3, and have thought so (speaking generally) since Warren Burger and young Rehnquist went to work toning down the 4th A. Back then, it mainly affected criminal defendants from the disadvantaged classes. And now here we are.

mahakal said...

I suppose if you want to take isolated parts of things GG's said out of context and imply he was writing a permanent and irrevocable blank check with his words to advocate total surveillance...

but it's uncomfortable arguing with reply updates. I'd rather you came down here to reply in the comments.

Anyhow he made it clear he was talking about eavesdropping on Al Qaeda in the previously quoted passages. Is it really your contention that GG ever supported the total information awareness program as long as FISA rubber stamped things?

Arun said...

As I understand it, Glenn Greenwald wanted the oversight of the FISA court, but also railed against the fact that the FISA court was a rubber stamp, there were hardly any wiretap requests that it had disapproved of. Part of the outrage was the Bush admin was going around even this rubber stamp court.