Two articles on the same page of Tuesday’s Washington Post reported on similar activities from opposite perspectives. In one, “A 28-year-old British man whom prosecutors described as a ‘sophisticated and prolific computer hacker’ has been charged in connection with cyberattacks in which he illegally accessed the personal information of U.S. soldiers and government employees, and obtained other information about budgets, contracts and the demolition of military facilities, authorities said Monday.” Why did he do it? Why do such people do such things? For commercial/financial gain? In this case, it seems, the motivation was political, though I am not sure what the political point was. “British-man-described-as-prolific-hacker-indicted-in-cyberattacks-on-us-agencies/2013/10/28/”

The second article discussed the NSA program to eavesdrop on friendly heads of state, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, launched in 2002. President Obama apparently did not know the extent and details of such surveillance until very recently nor did Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who oversees the NSA as the Senate Intelligence Committee chair. Why did they do it? “Their [NSA staff] job is to get as much information for policymakers as possible,” a senior administration official said. “They’re used to coming at this from the other direction — that is, being criticized for not knowing enough. This is a new dynamic for them.” “Obama-didnt-know-about-surveillance-of-us-allied-world-leaders-until-summer-officials-say/2013/10/28/”

In the first case, we were angry and in the second case Chancellor Merkel and most of Europe were angry and both with good reasons. We want our intelligence agencies to collect all of the information needed to protect us from harm. All countries spy on each other, but the tools and activities of espionage agents are potentially double-edged swords. Because of the potential dangers of turning these tools on our own citizens (and friends) for political advantage, strict limits have been placed on domestic surveillance and our allies might have assumed they were spared as well.  Unfortunately following the 9/11 attacks many American’s were more concerned about security than privacy and liberty and willing to move the balance away from protecting privacy.

When these systems of spying were first developed, those using them had (I assume) the best of intentions—gathering information from and on enemies to help protect the nation. And this is exactly what we wanted from them. Whether it is really possible to detect useful information from the millions upon millions of messages (verbal and electronic) being collected is an interesting question, however. Targeting specific individually is dramatically easier than looking for needles in massive data haystacks, but the heads of state of our allies?

Those who work for the NSA and other intelligence agencies are surely motivated by the highest objectives. But what do good people do when they have such access to information on the private activities of those they don’t like politically—republican’s able to browse around in the private affairs of democrats and visa versa?  IRS agents abusing their power against Tea Party organizations comes to mind, for example. Snowden has shown us that as time has gone on the temptation to use more widely the enormous capability available to our intelligence agencies has grown. And not one hundred present of our government officials are always honorable to begin with.  In the following article in The Washington Post, Harold Meyerson quotes the WSJ as follows: “The agency [NSA] has been rebuked repeatedly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for misrepresenting the nature of its spy programs and for violating the court’s confidential orders.” “A-turbulent-spy-agency/2013/10/29/”

On top of this, the government’s insistence that American Internet access providers and large data collectors leave back doors through which the NSA can enter to collect data, has reduced Net security against the likes of the British hacker mentioned in my opening paragraph. Fortunately, once again, when things go too far there is a backlash. Even Senator Feinstein is saying stop.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden continues to amaze me and to rise in my admiration (see his interview by the New York Times). “Snowden-says-he-took-no-secret-files-to-Russia” 

He most certainly violated his pledge and the law, but the thoughtfulness and care with which he has revealed very selective documents contrasts very sharply with the damaging data dump of Chelsea Manning (AKA Bradley). Manning, who never convincingly explained what he thought he was doing or why, impeded the flow of candid information and discussion within the U.S. government (e.g. in cables between our embassy’s and the State Department). This will make future diplomacy more difficult.

Snowden, on the other hand, who revealed information gathering programs and their assessments rather than the content of information collected, has thankfully forced more open discussion of what tools the government has and how they should be used. He has risked his own future in the heroic service of the higher interests of his (and my) country.  Richard Cohn expresses these views very well in a recent Washington Post oped: “Snowden is no Traitor/2013/10/21/”

Our government has been caught lying repeatedly in connection with its spying activity. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/abuse-of-power/  In many respects this is an expected part of the game with regard to enemies we wish to protect ourselves from. But the law sets important limits and safeguards on the government when it comes to spying on its own at home or friends abroad (e.g. the President of Mexico, 70 million French phone records per month, etc). Records revealed by Snowden document that these are being violated as well.

Last week I attended a fascinating discussion at the Brookings Institute between Matt Apuzzo, Investigative Reporter for The Associated Press and author with Adam Goldman of Enemies Within: Inside NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and Bin Ladin’s Final Plot Against America (Touchstone, 2013), and Bruce Riedel, Director, The Intelligence Project, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. Apuzzo and Goldman’s book is a spy thriller account of the only specific case revealed by the government of the 50 potential attacks they claim their programs helped prevent. The government thwarted the September 2009 al Qaeda terrorist plot – led by Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American – to attack the New York City subway system. Without taking a position on whether NSA and related domestic spying activities helped with this case, Mr. Apuzzo reported that the link to the would be terrorist came as the result of an email he sent to a known British terrorist. This was enough to enabled the government to monitor Mr. Zazi’s communications on the basis of older and established intelligence authorities without resort to the more intrusive programs reveals by Snowden. So the government lied to us again.

The natural tendency of government is to grow and to expand their authority. Whenever our government seemed to go too far, American’s have pushed back. Edward Snowden has alerted us to the need to push back again and I am very grateful to him for that.

Can Washington Still Govern?

October 11, 2013

The popularity of the government is at an all time low. Different people want different things, thus none of us can have everything we want. What to do? Congress enacts laws and if they later decide that they enacted a bad one they can vote to amend or repeal it. The voting public can vote out representatives who don’t properly represent them and vote in new ones who will adopt the laws they want.  But at the end of the day compromise is required to satisfy the largest number of people.

Refusing to authorize government expenditures for existing laws and thus shutting down the government (sort of) is better described, according to Andrew Reinbach, as sedition:

“The definition of sedition says among other things that ‘If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire… by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States… they shall each be fined or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.’”

The best overview of the outrageous behavior by both the Republicans and the Democrats remains, in my judgment, the article by Charles Krauthammer that I posted earlier. “Who Shut Down Yellowstone? /2013/10/03/”.  This all came back to my mind as I drove down Clara Barton Parkway toward the District yesterday morning for an 8:30 am meeting with the Afghan delegation here for the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings. There are a number of parking areas along the parkway. People park there to take their canoes down to the Potomac or to walk along the river. You might have thought that closing the government would have no consequences for such pullovers. At most it might leave the trash deposited in the trash cans there uncollected. Instead, the government spent the money to place concrete barriers beside the road preventing anyone from pulling off and parking there.  I am told that the same was done across the river on the Virginia side along the George Washington Memorial Parkway and no doubt in many other places as well employing the well-known government trick of making the cuts as painful as possible to the public.  This is the government we have now. The moron who made those decisions should be fired (the gentlest penalty that passed through my mind).

I have always believed that one of the things that makes America great is that it has managed to create a system in which people of different cultures and faiths, but common core values, live peaceably together. This gives our country the enriching benefits of the creative power of diverse ideas from diverse cultures without the costs of social strife. A major source of this success comes from a constitution and system of government that has limited the power of the government and does not overly interfere in the private activities of its citizens. No ones religious beliefs are imposed on anyone else, etc.

These days our political class seems to have lost the capacity of compromise, an essential aspect of living together peaceably. Many of our politicians no longer see compromise as a virtue (the fools). The problem is not a new one, of course. When farmers from the Near East moved into Central Europe 7,500 years ago they were not assimilated by the hunters-gatherers who lived there. Rather they coexisted in parallel cultures, forced by necessity to get alone.  “Stone-age Farmers-Hunters Kept Their Distance /2013/10/10/”

Fortunately, the dysfunction of our government is not reflective of our broader society, though I know there are many ugly exceptions. I was happy to read in today’s Washington Post that a heart wrenching dispute between the natural father of a four year old girl and her adopted parents who actually loved and cared for and raised her has been resolved and a mutually sensible way, keeping hope for civilization alive: “Cherokee Nation and Father of adopted 4 year old girl drop court battle for custody /2013/10/11” Veronica’s adopted parents will retain custody of her but will cooperate in making ways for her natural, Cherokee father to be involved in her life.

Using an increase in the debt ceiling as leverage to reduce the government’s deficit to sustainable rates is quite a different matter.  It has been recognized for many years by both political parties that government spending commitments in the future, given the aging of the population (i.e., the fall in the working age population relative to the retired population), could not be met. The Congressional Budget Office’s current long-term, baseline forecasts, which assume current tax and spending laws (including the reduced spending growth required by the sequester) are for the debt to grow more rapidly than income, i.e., to rise as a percent of GDP without end. One bipartisan effort after another (Bowles-Simpson commission, the Senate Gang of Six, Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, the Super Committee, etc.) tried to reach tax and spending compromises and failed. Yes, even with the sequester (across the board cuts in planned spending increases) the growth in debt is not sustainable. Something must change. A compromise must be agreed. Using approval of an increase in the debt ceiling as leverage to achieve such a compromise is a reasonable tactic. If not now the market will force it later (significant increases in the interest rates demanded by the market to lend to an increasingly over indebted government). Better and cheaper sooner than later. “The-sequester”  “Thinking About the Public Debt”