New NSA Director Found Snowden Leaks Not Harmful To National Security

Edward Snowden provided the nation a valuable service in revealing how the government was lying to the American people and Congress about the extent of NSA surveillance. Those opposed to his release of classified information have often claimed that he endangered the country by revealing the information despite lack of any evidence that this is the case. A recent interview with the director of the NSA in The New York Times agrees with previous assessments doubting that Snowden’s revelations have done any serious harm:

The newly installed director of the National Security Agency says that while he has seen some terrorist groups alter their communications to avoid surveillance techniques revealed by Edward J. Snowden, the damage done over all by a year of revelations does not lead him to the conclusion that “the sky is falling.”

In an hourlong interview Friday in his office here at the heart of the country’s electronic eavesdropping and cyberoperations, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who has now run the beleaguered spy agency and the military’s Cyber Command for just short of three months, described the series of steps he was taking to ensure that no one could download the trove of data that Mr. Snowden gathered — more than a million documents…

Notable in his comments was an absence of alarm about the long-term effects of the Snowden revelations. Like former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who urged colleagues in the Obama administration to calm down about the WikiLeaks revelations in 2010, Admiral Rogers seemed to suggest that, as technology progressed, the agency would find new ways to compensate for the damage done, however regrettable the leaks.

He repeated past warnings that the agency had overheard terrorist groups “specifically referencing data detailed” by Mr. Snowden’s revelations. “I have seen groups not only talk about making changes, I have seen them make changes,” he said.

But he then added: “You have not heard me as the director say, ‘Oh, my God, the sky is falling.’ I am trying to be very specific and very measured in my characterizations.”

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Sarah Palin Saw A Russian Invasion Of Ukraine From Her House

I really wouldn’t mind if Sarah Palin just made her amusing quip about the Ukraine crisis saying “Yes, I could see this one from Alaska” on her Facebook page. It is understandable that she would react this way, both in response to criticism for giving a foreign crisis example of Russia invading Ukraine in 2008 and for the impression of her by Tina Fey. Palin and other conservatives just should be happy with a quick quip such as this an not overplay their hand and pretend that Sarah Palin really had the slightest idea as to what she was talking about.

Steve M. reviewed this in far more detail than is probably needed considering that nobody really needs an explanation as to why Palin is not really an expert on Russian policy, or anything else. Steve pointed out that Palin, or actually her speech writer as this was in a prepared speech, raised the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine during the first six months of his presidency to test Obama. That would be the first six months of his first term. In the same speech Palin criticized Obama for his statement during the campaign that he might go into Pakistan to go after known terrorist targets without their permission. In other words, she attacked Obama for doing what he did to kill Osama bin Laden.

With the full context, Sarah Palin doesn’t look all that bright on foreign policy but thanks for helping us recall Tina Fey’s spot-on impressions. The video and transcript of her routine in which she had Palin say “And I can see Russia from my house” can be found here.

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Detention of Glenn Greenwald’s Parter Results In Further Questions Of Government Secrecy

Airports have become a zone where we have less rights and are more at the mercy of government intrusion. Over the weekend, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours (the maximum allowed under British law). For Andrew Sullivan, this tipped the balance:

Readers know I have been grappling for a while with the vexing question of the balance between the surveillance state and the threat of Jihadist terrorism. When the NSA leaks burst onto the scene, I was skeptical of many of the large claims made by civil libertarians and queasily sympathetic to a program that relied on meta-data alone, as long as it was transparent, had Congressional buy-in, did not accidentally expose innocent civilians to grotesque privacy loss, and was watched by a strong FISA court.

Since then, I’ve watched the debate closely and almost all the checks I supported have been proven illusory. The spying is vastly more extensive than anyone fully comprehended before; the FISA court has been revealed as toothless and crippled; and many civilians have had their privacy accidentally violated over 3000 times. The president, in defending the indefensible, has damaged himself and his core reputation for honesty and candor. These cumulative revelations have exposed this program as, at a minimum, dangerous to core liberties and vulnerable to rank abuse. I’ve found myself moving further and further to Glenn’s position.

What has kept me from embracing it entirely has been the absence of any real proof than any deliberate abuse has taken place and arguments that it has helped prevent terror attacks. This may be too forgiving a standard. If a system is ripe for abuse, history tells us the only question is not if such abuse will occur, but when. So it is a strange and awful irony that the Coalition government in Britain has today clinched the case for Glenn.

A disclosure upfront: I have met David Miranda as part of a my friendship with Glenn Greenwald. The thought of his being detained by the British police for nine hours because his partner embarrassed the American government really sickens me at a gut level. I immediately think of my husband, Aaron, being detained in connection to work I have done – something that would horrify and frighten me. We should, of course, feel this empathy with people we have never known – but the realization is all the more gob-smacking when it comes so close to home. So of course my instinct is to see this exactly as Glenn has today.

This was more of an emotional response than a fact-based one, yet it is a response which many feel sympathy with, along with many in the news media. Technically the use of a law in the U.K. (which many there agree needs to be reformed) says nothing about NSA abuses by the United States. Looking at just the law, and not questions as to whether Snowden did the right thing in releasing this specific classified information, there does appear to be some justification for investigating Miranda (even if handled in an excessive and abusive manner). The New York Times reports:

Mr. Miranda was in Berlin to deliver documents related to Mr. Greenwald’s investigation into government surveillance to Ms. Poitras, Mr. Greenwald said. Ms. Poitras, in turn, gave Mr. Miranda different documents to pass to Mr. Greenwald. Those documents, which were stored on encrypted thumb drives, were confiscated by airport security, Mr. Greenwald said. All of the documents came from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Mr. Snowden. The British authorities seized all of his electronic media — including video games, DVDs and data storage devices — and did not return them, Mr. Greenwald said.

Despite the attention this detention has received, the real issue remains the abuses by the United States government regarding surveillance, and the failure of those bodies entrusted to provide oversight. The detention of Miranda is a side issue. However on an emotional level seeing someone detained for nine hours and having their property seized is a more tangible warning of the dangers of government abusing its power, for many easier to understand than the evidence released to date.

Updates: The White House had advanced notification but denies having any role in the detention. Glenn Greenwald is threatening to release UK secrets in retaliation.

Update II: It looks like Reuter’s took Greenwald’s statement out of context in their interview and a better summation might be that Greenwald said he would not let this deter him from continuing to release documents.

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Quote of the Day

“The National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of Verizon customers since April. That explains Verizon’s new ad campaign: ‘They can hear you now.’” Jimmy Fallon

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Bush NSA Director Describes Greater Transparency Under Obama Than Bush

General Michael Hayden, director of the NSA under George Bush, is happy to see that upon taking office Barack Obama has continued many of the surveillance programs initiated under George Bush. There are some differences. Obama has utilized the FISA Courts while surveillance under Bush was often outside the law. Hayden also states that the programs have been more transparent under Obama:

Gen. Michael Hayden, NSA director under former president George W. Bush, defended the legality of the agency’s massive phone and internet data surveillance programs on Wednesday, calling them important and suggesting that opponents didn’t understand what was actually going on.

Speaking with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Hayden downplayed criticism of the data collection effort as governmental overreach by claiming President Barack Obama’s administration had actually been more forthcoming than Bush’s on the issue.

“Frankly, the Obama administration was more transparent about this effort than we were in the Bush administration,” he said. “I mean, they made this metadata collection activity available to all the members of Congress. Not just all the members of the intelligence committees.”

Some lawmakers have admitted that they were aware of the NSA’s activities before the string of reports last week, which has led many to defend the programs as vital and standard procedures. Others have spoken outagainst them in the wake of the recent disclosures, arguing that the reports held details that they hadn’t been told about and wouldn’t have supported.

This does help demonstrate the hypocrisy of conservatives who supported the surveillance under Bush but now attack Obama. What’s their complaint–that Obama is allowing judicial oversight and is more transparent? Somehow this doesn’t seem to be what they are saying.

Unfortunately, even if Obama is acting more within the law, and with greater transparency, he continues to allow a massive accumulation of data which many question whether is Constitutional and which carries risks to liberty. Obama has also shown an understanding which George Bush lacked of the need to consider issues of security versus liberty, which will hopefully lead to a change in policy.

 

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Orwellian and Kafkaesque Aspects Of NSA Surveillance

The revelations regarding NSA surveillance has led to a boom in sales of 1984. Further exposure to Orwell’s work is one good outcome of the recent leaks, showing the ultimate results of a totalitarian surveillance state. As I’ve pointed out before, to actually compare our current situation to 1984 is a tremendous act of hyperbole. The problem is not that we are experiencing anything as severe as the society portrayed in 1984 but that the NSA surveillance program is one step on the road towards developing the infrastructure which might make such a society possible. Those who run the intelligence programs should remain servants of the people in a free society, not masters. While we expect accept a certain degree of secrecy, this does not justify outright lies by leaders of the intelligence community such as James Clapper,director of national intelligence, in speeches and testimony before Congress.

Orwell provides many things to think about beyond surveillance. Consider his concepts of “War is Peace, ” “Freedom is Slavery,” or facts disappearing down the memory hole. The NSA surveillance program poses a serious threat to liberty, but to keep things in perspective, there are far more Orwellian threats to liberty which we face, such as Fox News. Promoting such propaganda as news is quite hazardous to a free society where we want self-rule by people who vote based upon facts, while living in a free society prevents any action against such anti-freedom propagandists beyond aggressively exposing their tactics. To the right wing, “Ignorance is Strength.”

1984 is the obvious classic to read when considering the risks of slipping into totalitarianism. There are many others worth reading, such as Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. There might also be novels which are more pertinent to what we are facing. Yesterday Rebecca Rosen quoted Daniel J. Solove in describing why another novel might be more applicable:

I suggested a different metaphor to capture the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used. The problems captured by the Kafka metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition or chilling. Instead, they are problems of information processing–the storage, use, or analysis of data–rather than information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but they also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

The surveillance can certainly be called Orwellian. The laws which try to hide the very existence of surveillance are more Kafkaesque.

This debate over security versus privacy and liberty has been needed since September 12, 2001 but I suspect that most of the country was not ready for it until now. The first poll taken on this subject by Pew showed that 56 percent supported the NSA program of tracking phone records. Gallup now has  slightly more recent poll out, which includes the revelations regarding both telephone data and the more recently revealed inclusion of internet communications. Gallup found that fifty-three percent disapprove and only thirty-seven percent approve of these programs.

Barack Obama has been quiet on this subject, frustrating many of his supporters. I hope that this means that another debate is going on, between the views of candidate Obama and those of President Obama. We have seen Obama’s views evolve on other issues, such as support for same sex marriage. Obama discussed the issue of privacy rights versus security before the recent leaks. I am hoping that the current public debate prompts further evolution on this issue, or devolution back to the views he expressed as a candidate.

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Let The Debate Commence: Calls For End To NSA Surveillance

Eighty-six civil liberties organizations and internet companies have called for an end to the NSA surveillance in the following letter:

Dear Members of Congress,

We write to express our concern about recent reports published in the Guardian and the Washington Post, and acknowledged by the Obama Administration, which reveal secret spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) on phone records and Internet activity of people in the United States.

The Washington Post and the Guardian recently published reports based on information provided by a career intelligence officer showing how the NSA and the FBI are gaining broad access to data collected by nine of the leading U.S. Internet companies and sharing this information with foreign governments. As reported, the U.S. government is extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time. As a result, the contents of communications of people both abroad and in the U.S. can be swept in without any suspicion of crime or association with a terrorist organization.

Leaked reports also published by the Guardian and confirmed by the Administration reveal that the NSA is also abusing a controversial section of the PATRIOT Act to collect the call records of millions of Verizon customers. The data collected by the NSA includes every call made, the time of the call, the duration of the call, and other “identifying information” for millions of Verizon customers, including entirely domestic calls, regardless of whether those customers have ever been suspected of a crime. The Wall Street Journal has reported that other major carriers, including AT&T and Sprint, are subject to similar secret orders.

This type of blanket data collection by the government strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy. This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens’ right to speak and associate anonymously and guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that protect their right to privacy.

We are calling on Congress to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs. We call on Congress to immediately and publicly:

1. Enact reform this Congress to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court;

2. Create a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying. This committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform to end unconstitutional surveillance;

3. Hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Access

Advocacy for Principled Action in Government

American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

American Civil Liberties Union

American Civil Liberties Union of California

American Library Association

Amicus

Association of Research Libraries

Bill of Rights Defense Committee

BoingBoing

Breadpig

Calyx Institute

Canvas

Center for Democracy and Technology

Center for Digital Democracy

Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights

Center for Media and Democracy

Center for Media Justice

Competitive Enterprise Institute

Consumer Action

Consumer Watchdog

CorpWatch

CREDO Mobile

Cyber Privacy Project

Daily Kos

Defending Dissent Foundation

Demand Progress

Detroit Digital Justice Coalition

Digital Fourth

Downsize DC

DuckDuckGo

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Entertainment Consumers Association

Fight for the Future

Floor64

Foundation for Innovation and Internet Freedom

4Chan

Free Press

Free Software Foundation

Freedom of the Press Foundation

FreedomWorks

Friends of Privacy USA

Get FISA Right

Government Accountability Project

Greenpeace USA

Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA)

Internet Archive

isen.com, LLC

Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)

Law Life Culture

Liberty Coalition

May First/People Link

Media Alliance

Media Mobilizing Project, Philadelphia

Mozilla

Namecheap

National Coalition Against Censorship

New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC

Open Technology Institute

OpenMedia.org

Participatory Politics Foundation

Patient Privacy Rights

People for the American Way

Personal Democracy Media

PolitiHacks

Privacy and Access Council of Canada

Public Interest Advocacy Centre (Ottawa, Canada)

Public Knowledge

Privacy Activism

Privacy Camp

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Privacy Times

reddit

Represent.us

Rights Working Group

Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association

RootsAction.org

Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic

Sunlight Foundation

Taxpayers Protection Alliance

TechFreedom

The AIDS Policy Project, Philadelphia

TURN-The Utility Reform Network

Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center

William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI)

World Wide Web Foundation

A bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill to declassify FISA Court decisions:

Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), accompanied by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mark Begich (D-AK), Al Franken (D-MN), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), introduced a bill that would put an end to the “secret law” governing controversial government surveillance programs.  This bill would require the Attorney General to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, allowing Americans to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Merkley said. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies.  We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”

“This bipartisan amendment establishes a cautious and reasonable process for declassification consistent with the rule of law,” Lee said. “It will help ensure that the government makes sensitive decisions related to surveillance by applying legal standards that are known to the public. Particularly where our civil liberties are at stake, we must demand no less of our government.”

meanwhile takes the opposite viewpoint, and calls Edward Snowden a traitor. Diane Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee agrees, but then she also agreed with George Bush on invading Iraq and has been a strong supporter of the Patriot Act.

At least we are now getting the debate over security versus liberty which both Edward Snowden and Barack Obama want.

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Building The Infrastructure For A Police State

The government has accumulated and is storing massive amounts of data on Americans but is keeping this information secure and promises not to use this to spy on individual Americans not connected to terrorism. What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, obviously that is a sarcastic rhetorical question. One good answer to this question is found in an op-ed by Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a bit about whistle blowers:

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement – like the one we had against the war in Vietnam – or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely dangerous.

Unfortunately this is run under the title Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America. Yet another example of hyperbole seen on this issue, like another example I gave here. Fortunately Ellsberg acknowledges that this is not a police state, and is warning about a potential threat as opposed to exaggerating about the current situation. I certainly don’t see any sign that anyone fears discussing this issue, as would be the case in a true police state. On the other hand, would anyone trust John McCain, who has never seen a war he didn’t like. to have this information about people who might protest whatever wars he got us into if elected? Would you trust Mitt Romney, who seems to be devoid of any principles? In a two party system, who knows what type of Republican might manage to win an election in the near future (and not all Democrats can be trusted either).

There are a number of answers I’m hearing which aren’t very good, ranging from paranoia to the opposite reaction of denying the problem. I have received an answer that “Bush did it.” Is George W. Bush the standard by what is right? Yes, as I pointed out last week, this is an ongoing problem, not a new issue, and not a question of whether you like Bush or Obama better. Look at the issue independent of political personalities. Besides, if you want to blame politicians, as Steve Benen pointed out you can also blame Congress:

With this in mind, Jonathan Bernstein asked a compelling question over the weekend and provided a persuasive answer: “If you don’t like the revelations this week about what the NSA has been up to regarding your phone and Internet data, whom should you blame?”

There is, to be sure, plenty of blame to go around. The NSA has pushed the limits; federal courts approved the surveillance programs; George W. Bush got this ball rolling; President Obama kept this ball rolling; and telecoms have clearly participated in the efforts.

“But save plenty of your blame — perhaps most of your blame — for Congress.

“Did you notice the word I used in each of the other cases? The key word: law. As far as we know, everything that happened here was fully within the law. So if something was allowed that shouldn’t have been allowed, the problem is, in the first place, the laws. And that means Congress.”

It’s worth pausing to note that there is some debate about the legality of the exposed surveillance programs. Based on what we know at this point, most of the legal analyses I’ve seen suggest the NSA’s actions were within the law, though we’re still dealing with an incomplete picture, and there are certainly some legal experts who question whether the NSA crossed legal lines…

In theory, Obama could have chosen a different path after taking office in 2009, but the historical pattern is clear: if Congress gives a war-time president vast powers related to national security, that president is going to use those powers. The wiser course of action would be the legislative branch acting to keep those powers in check — limiting how far a White House can go — but our contemporary Congress has chosen to do the opposite.

This is, by the way, a bipartisan phenomenon — lawmakers in both parties gave Bush expansive authority in this area, and lawmakers in both parties agreed to keep these powers in Obama’s hands. What’s more, they not only passed laws these measures into law, they chose not to do much in the way of oversight as the surveillance programs grew.

We cannot expect any president to voluntarily give up powers present upon taking office, but at least there have been favorable signs that Obama is starting to ask the right questions. Under normal circumstances we need Congress to do their job. Unfortunately many Democrats were afraid to do this under Bush, and the Republicans are preoccupied by matters which are more important to them, from restricting reproductive rights to voting to repeal Obamacare thirty-seven times.  We also need the courts to do more than rubber stamp requests. Even under the best of circumstances, we cannot count on government to reveal its sins. If not for whistle blowers, we would not know much of what we know about Viet Nam, mistreatment of prisoners at places such as Abu Ghraib, CIA rendition, and the use of drones.

I’m seeing far too many cases of liberals playing down this issue, seeing it as an attack on Obama, when most opposed these provisions of the Patriot Act under George Bush. I’m also seeing some making this about Glenn Greenwald (who says more revelations are coming). I agree that at times he has gone overboard in attacks on Obama, but this is about the facts he is reporting, not his personal views.  Meanwhile the right is divided between those want to attack Obama and big government, contradicting their previous support for big government under George Bush, and those who are such big proponents of an authoritarian surveillance state that they will even overlook the fact, just this one time, that Obama is involved.

Another poor response I’m seeing is a comparison to all the information we give up when we go shopping, or post on Facebook. There is absolutely no comparison to information which is given voluntarily and to a retail store as opposed to information being secretly obtained by a government. When Google was accused of possessing too much information they initiated action to notify users of the information they have and offer ways to opt out. This might not be completely satisfying, but it is far preferable to a government system where it is illegal to even discuss requests for information.

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NSA Whistle Blower Speaks Out

The former CIA employee who released the NSA surveillance to The Guardian has gone public with his actions and has gone to Hong Kong (which is rather ironic considering what I wrote about comparisons to China yesterday).

The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell…

On May 20, he boarded a flight to Hong Kong, where he has remained ever since. He chose the city because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.

In the three weeks since he arrived, he has been ensconced in a hotel room. “I’ve left the room maybe a total of three times during my entire stay,” he said. It is a plush hotel and, what with eating meals in his room too, he has run up big bills.

He is deeply worried about being spied on. He lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping. He puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them.

Though that may sound like paranoia to some, Snowden has good reason for such fears. He worked in the US intelligence world for almost a decade. He knows that the biggest and most secretive surveillance organisation in America, the NSA, along with the most powerful government on the planet, is looking for him.

Since the disclosures began to emerge, he has watched television and monitored the internet, hearing all the threats and vows of prosecution emanating from Washington.

And he knows only too well the sophisticated technology available to them and how easy it will be for them to find him. The NSA police and other law enforcement officers have twice visited his home in Hawaii and already contacted his girlfriend, though he believes that may have been prompted by his absence from work, and not because of suspicions of any connection to the leaks.

“All my options are bad,” he said. The US could begin extradition proceedings against him, a potentially problematic, lengthy and unpredictable course for Washington. Or the Chinese government might whisk him away for questioning, viewing him as a useful source of information. Or he might end up being grabbed and bundled into a plane bound for US territory.

“Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads. Any of their agents or assets,” he said.

“We have got a CIA station just up the road – the consulate here in Hong Kong – and I am sure they are going to be busy for the next week. And that is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.”

The article also provides his arguments for why he released this information and information on his background.

An interview with Snowden has also been published. Much of the interview rehashes what we have already read and discusses the question of whistle blowing. Edward Snowden also discussed the CIA’s general attitude towards situations such as this and due process:

In Dulles UAL lounge listening to 4 US intel officials saying loudly leaker & reporter on #NSA stuff should be disappearedrecorded a bit

— Steve Clemons (@SCClemons) June 8, 2013

Q: Washington-based foreign affairs analyst Steve Clemons said he overheard at the capital’s Dulles airport four men discussing an intelligence conference they had just attended. Speaking about the leaks, one of them said, according to Clemons, that both the reporter and leaker should be “disappeared”. How do you feel about that?

A: “Someone responded to the story said ‘real spies do not speak like that’. Well, I am a spy and that is how they talk. Whenever we had a debate in the office on how to handle crimes, they do not defend due process – they defend decisive action. They say it is better to kick someone out of a plane than let these people have a day in court. It is an authoritarian mindset in general.”

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Serious Concern Versus Paranoia

Over the last few days Glenn Greenwald has posted so much information on NSA surveillance abilities that I almost expect the next revelation to be that the machine on Person of Interest is real. There are certainly many things to be concerned about in the recent news related to privacy rights and civil liberties. The problem is exacerbated by the extreme secrecy surrounding this intelligence gathering making it impossible to have the type of informed debate which is necessary in a free society.

On the other hand, there has also been a considerable degree of paranoia and unwarranted hyperbole this week. With the NPR stations limited to Prarie Home Companion on my drive home this evening, I turned to a left talk radio station I have rarely listened to before on XM which was making a fallacious argument that the United States has become like China. Earlier today I discussed this topic on Facebook, posting a link I received via email to an article entitled Beyond Orwellian’: Outrage Follows Revelations of Vast Domestic Spying Program.

This is just ridiculous hyperbole. It’s not that I disagree with the specific criticism, but “Beyond Orwellian” is as absurd as the conservative sites trying to compare the IRS scandal to Watergate. Even if wrong, what we are seeing now is not at all close to either Watergate or 1984. (I won’t even get into Rush Limbaugh’s attempt to compare imagined crimes by Obama to the Holocaust).

When you combine the urge for provocative titles to get people to read with the unfortunate fact that some on the left are every bit as nuts as those on the right, reading through blog post titles in email or RSS feeds can make both look paranoid and crazy. Again, in the case of this specific linked article it wouldn’t be bad if they hadn’t used such hyperbole in the title. It is also possible that an editor and not the author added the title to attract attention.

There are problems being exposed but so far there is no evidence that the information has been misused. The people on the talk radio show I mentioned above speculated that people might disappear because they read the Koran. There is zero evidence that the information being obtained has been used for such a purpose.  However, it is conceivable that there are abuses which are unknown due to the high degree of secrecy surrounding these programs. The risk of abuses is also much higher when people are acting in secret. We know that power does corrupt. We should change the law due to the potential dangers to privacy rights and liberty, and far more meaningful Congressional and judicial oversight appears needed, but that does not mean we are suffering from Orwellian tyranny.

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