The Matlock Moment

 | 

METV recently showed an episode from the old television series Matlock in which the eponymous hero is delivering a closing address to a jury in a murder case. He says, in words somewhat similar to the following: “Not only is my client not guilty of murder, but the alleged victim is still alive, and is about to walk through that doorway and into this courtroom!” All eyes turn expectantly to the door — through which, eventually, enters a quite different person. There is a general sigh of disappointment, and Matlock turns back to the jury. “The person who came through that door is not, of course, the alleged murder victim. But the fact that you turned to the door in full expectation that the victim was alive and about to enter indicates plainly that you have a reasonable doubt a murder occurred!” The jury acquits his client.

Sometimes, merely to make a seemingly outrageous claim is enough to show that the claim is credible and that most people are already prepared to believe it.

Then came the now-predictable, hopelessly muddled statements by Obama officials.

I don’t know whether Donald Trump began his political career with an understanding of that principle, but he has certainly put it to good use. He said that Hillary Clinton belonged in jail, and the nation responded with a general feeling that, well, yes, we believe she does. He said that Barack Obama was a disastrous president, and the nation said to itself, “Yes, I already knew he was nothing but talk.” Then, on March 4, Trump said that Obama had been spying on him, and the reaction was far from the media-anticipated, “Now he’s done it. Now everybody can see that he’s crazy.” People in general were quite willing to believe that Obama, or his administration, would naturally have been tapping Trump’s phone, reading his emails, or whatever it was that Trump was suggesting.

Some people continue to demand that Trump prove his claim. The media instantly asserted that the claim could not be proven, that nothing of the kind could even conceivably have happened. Consumers of the media’s own claim were not supposed to have noticed the media’s own, fairly constant, retailing of secret information about Trump — information that must have come from some unfriendly government source. On January 20 the front page of the New York Times had exulted in the alleged fact, certainly leaked to it by people in US intelligence agencies, that said agencies had carried out or were carrying out a program of wiretapping (“intercepted communications”) against Trump or his associates or both. This alone made Trump’s charge seem plausible.

One of the least welcome surprises in the past year has been the extent to which elite opinion has become not merely acquiescent but brazenly complicit in government by intelligence spooks.

Then came the now-predictable, hopelessly muddled statements by Obama officials, and something more important: the realization that, by recent edict of Obama, 17 US intelligence agencies are now able to share “intercepted” or invented information, one with the other, thereby greatly increasing the possibility of leaks, harassment, blackmail, and whatever else any one of them may want to inflict on any US citizen against whom secret investigations have been undertaken. Seventeen times the 16 other agencies is 272. Obama’s action made it 272 times more likely that someone would leak, harass, or blackmail under the succeeding regime than under his own.

Many things about the past year in politics have left my mouth open in amazement. One of the least welcome surprises has been the extent to which elite opinion has become not merely acquiescent but brazenly complicit in government by intelligence spooks, now called “the intelligence community.” People who loudly lamented the activities of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and refused to believe even its most plausible findings now encourage the kind of behavior by which secret agents attempt to control political events — the commissioning of investigations by political hacks, the initiation of investigations that result in nothing except intimidation and implied disgrace, the provision of group statements that cannot be tested for truth because they are based on secret information, and the relentless leaking of information or surmise to a partisan public press.

One doesn’t have to possess any love for conspiracy theories to sense a bad smell coming from the back room of the republic. Now that Trump has announced, in his dumb, clunky way, that he smells it too, maybe someone will open the door and find out exactly who is trying to control this country.




Share This


Hard Landings

 | 

We tend to assign major significance to minor occurrences, especially where travel and potential accidents are concerned. “Thank goodness,” we think, “I stopped to check the mail, or I might have been involved in that crash I just passed.” We may even hesitate to change seats on a plane, or to change flights when an overbooking voucher is offered, for fear that, in the (very unlikely) event of an accident, we will have made a fatal mistake.

I thought of that tendency while watching an early scene in Sully. Three men (father and sons, as it turns out) rush to catch an alternative flight after their intended flight has been cancelled. They share high fives all around as the gate attendant relents and lets them board the plane, happy that their fishing vacation will not have to be delayed or postponed. Of course, we in the audience know that they just thwarted their guardian angels’ attempt to protect them; they’ve just boarded US Airways 1549, headed for the Hudson River and a whole new kind of fishing expedition. The dramatic foreshadowing continues as one son opts for the lone seat at the back of the plane so that his brother and father can have two seats together. Will this generous offer be his last?

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong.

It’s risky to make a movie about an event so recent and fresh in the public’s memory as the miraculous water landing of a jet plane on the Hudson River in January 2009, after a flock of geese got sucked into the engines. And the entire event took just 208 seconds, plus another 20 minutes or so to rescue the passengers and crew. We all watched the news clips and interviews. What could a director — even one as skilled as Clint Eastwood — do to stretch the event into a full-length feature more interesting than what we’ve already seen on the news?

Despite my skepticism, I was fully engaged throughout this film. Eastwood chose to focus most of it not on the crash — er, I mean, water landing, as Sully (Tom Hanks) is quick to point out — or on Sully’s heroism, but on what he endured during the aftermath.

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong. Instead of a river, we see buildings. This isn’t right. This isn’t the way it happened. Then Sully wakes up, and we realize that our hero, this man who managed to save 155 passengers and crew without a single casualty, is having recurrent nightmares about what happened, and what might have happened. Unable to sleep, he puts on jogging clothes and runs through the streets of New York, but he can’t run away from his fears.

This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business.

Worse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is having similar thoughts about what might have been, except that their thoughts aren’t nightmares. The NTSB actually sets out to prove, using computers and cockpit simulators, that the plane had enough thrust, altitude, and time to have returned to LaGuardia or landed at nearby Teeterboro Airport, thus sparing the plane and the trauma endured by the passengers. If they find against the captain, his career, his reputation, and his retirement pension will be gone. This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business. We are outraged that they would sully Captain Sully’s reputation, and for a while I’m outraged at Eastwood too, for making this the focus of the film.

Eastwood knows best, of course, and the positioning of the NTSB simulators against the tense, calm, and quick-witted actions of Sully and his copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the real cockpit make for a conclusion as exciting as the moment when we turned on our television screens and saw a plane sitting pretty as a duck on the Hudson, with 155 people huddling on her wings, surrounded by ferry boats. Watch for Vincent Lombardi playing himself as the ferry boat captain who was first on the scene, and stay for the credits to see the actual passengers and crew in a cathartic reunion with Sully and his wife (played by Laura Linney in the film).

Another eponymous biopic that opened this week also tells the story of a man whose reputation has been “sullied” by the government — or so we are led to believe. But we aren’t sure about Edward Snowden. Is he a hero who sacrificed essential freedoms in order to blow the whistle on government snooping and intrusion? Or is he a traitor who put patriots and foreign operatives at risk when he revealed sensitive, top-secret documents? Real people have real questions about this case, and those questions are not addressed in the film.

Both Snowden and the 2014 Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour present just one side of the issue: Edward Snowden’s side. I tend to be on that side, but as pointed out in my review of Citizenfour, Snowden controlled the famous interviews he provided to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewan MacAskill (played in this movie by Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson) at the Hotel Mira in Hong Kong. They never challenged him or did any additional investigation (that we know of) to see whether U.S. operatives were harmed by his revelations. So the story is undeniably one-sided.

Snowden's patriotism feels a little odd, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.

The movie’s interviews, which provide the running narrative of the film, are almost identical to what we saw in the documentary, prompting me to question the point of making this narrative feature. However, Snowden provides a satisfying backstory we didn’t see in the documentary’s interviews, and that makes this film worth seeing.

Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to have been a patriotic young man with a fervent desire to serve his country. (This felt a little odd to me, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.) He serves first in the military, then as a computer coder for the CIA, and then as a private contractor providing services to both the NSA and the CIA. A brilliant mathematician and analyst, he was able to crack codes and create complex computer programs designed to thwart hackers and aid government surveillance. But soon he discovers that the NSA and CIA have been spying on virtually everyone’s private phone calls and emails; they even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off. (Yes, I have a post-it taped over the camera on my laptop as I write this, and it will remain there. You start to feel sort of paranoid after watching this film.)

As depicted in the film, Ed Snowden is a quiet, soft-spoken young man without the outgoing charisma we normally associate with courage and heroism. He doesn’t have enough personality to engage potential operatives at a cocktail party, although he does come alive when he’s with his girlfriend, amateur photographer, pole dancer, and left-leaning semi-activist Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Her glowing smile and natural charisma, and her unrestrained love for him, help us to care about him too. Their relationship also serves to convince us that his motives are pure: how could he leave this charming young girl behind, unless he truly believed in the rightness of what he was doing? On the other hand, could her left-leaning politics have influenced his actions more than his own patriotism did? She left the United States to join him in Russia. For love or politics? We don’t know, and nothing in the film suggests that she is anything but innocent.

They even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off.

At 134 minutes, Snowden is about 30 minutes too long. The scenes that show what the CIA and NSA were doing, and how, are heavy on technical jargon (although I suspect they worked hard to simplify it), and we spend a lot of time watching the characters watch screens. But the second half of the film, especially the part beginning when Snowden realizes that he has to blow the whistle in order to protect the public, is tense and exciting. The final scene, when Edward Snowden himself appears, is thrilling. I wanted to applaud him in the theater. (We are hoping to bring him to FreedomFest this year through Skype.)

Both these films present interesting character studies of unlikely heroes — men who never craved the limelight or set out to change the world but rose to greatness when presented with crises that only they could address. Sully is the better film, but Snowden is worth seeing as well.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Sully," directed by Clint Eastwood. FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 96 minutes; and "Snowden," directed by Oliver Stone. Endgame Entertainment, 2016, 134 minutes.



Share This


Citizen Snowden

 | 

Thanks to the generosity of a very thoughtful husband, I had the opportunity to attend the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with my figure skating daughter. Before we could enter any venue or even walk around the grounds outside the venues, we had to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. You probably don’t find that news particularly surprising or appalling; a dozen years later, we take it for granted that our bags will be checked before entering any arena, terminal, school, or public building. But at the time this was brand new. It angered me that strangers were looking through my purse and personal belongings every time I entered the area. The Marines provided aerial and radar surveillance of the event, and we learned later that all email and text communications were intercepted by the FBI and NSA, supposedly for a period of six months surrounding the event. This was the opportunity for the folks at Homeland Security to try out all their new toys and gadgets, and they reveled in it.

Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides.

The 2002 Olympics became a gateway moment for justifying indiscriminate snooping in the name of national security. I couldn’t help but remember that experience while watching Citizenfour, the documentary based on interviews last year with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that provides technology and security services to civilian and government agencies, when he became alarmed by the scope of surveillance being conducted by the NSA. He decided to take the story public by stealing top-security documents and sharing them with two journalists of his choosing: documentarian Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian.

Snowden has been called a patriot, a traitor, a dissident, a thief, a whistleblower, and even an accessory to the murder of those whose covers he blew when he revealed the contents of sensitive security documents. As I watched the film, all I could think of was the courage it took for this 29-year-old man to sacrifice his home, his family, and his relationships to warn you and me that Big Brother is watching and recording everything we say and write.

Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. Being selected by Snowden to tell his story was quite a coup. However, while the story is certainly important, I was not impressed with her filmmaking. Basically we watch Snowden talking in a Hong Kong hotel room, and we see clips of Glenn Greenwald being interviewed on the cable news networks after his stories were published in theGuardian. Most of this we have seen before, and Snowden is in complete control of the interviews; Poitras does what he tells her to do and says what he wants her to hear. We never see her onscreen, but she enters the documentary through elaborate typing of their email conversations recreated with white Courier on a black screen.

Poitras doesn’t do any digging for this documentary, and she doesn’t reveal anything beyond what Snowden wants to say to the camera. She doesn’t tell us what was in the documents Snowden stole and made public, and she doesn’t interview anyone about the harm those revelations may have caused. She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas because of an automated misinterpretation of something they’ve written in an email. She didn’t interview Snowden’s colleagues or parents or his longtime girlfriend, although she knew who and where the girlfriend was. Perhaps Poitras was worried about being charged under the Espionage Act herself, or perhaps it was just shoddy journalism; regardless, I found the documentary one-sided, incomplete, and full of the kind of technical jargon that suggests Snowden is either really really smart, or really really knows how to snow his audience. (Occasionally I felt as though I were listening to a Truther explain how Building Seven came down . . .)

Despite the gravity of the topic, Citizenfour is strangely unsatisfying and lacking in suspense. Yet there was plenty of suspense to be had: US authorities were trying desperately to find Snowden and extradite him here, before he could finish his interviews and secure asylum in another country; and undercover agents were scrambling to find safety as the contents of his documents were revealed.

She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas.

According to Snowden, the NSA engages in sweeping, indiscriminate collection of all telephone and email transmissions and then uses automated language analysis programs to search for suspicious conversations or Google searches. The NSA was tapping directly into search engines such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and others and making assumptions based on reports generated by automated analysis. (Think about this the next time you search to find out the schedule of Viola Davis’ new hit TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder.”)

Poitras includes some footage of congressional hearings about NSA snooping. Several other NSA employees turned whistleblower at the same time as Snowden, including William Binney, who sat down with documentarian Tricia Owen, just days before the Snowden story broke, for the short film Before Snowden: Behind the Curtain, which premiered at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July. Poitras also filmed a training meeting conducted by Jacob Appelbaum of Occupy Wall Street as background for Citizenfour. Watching Appelbaum explain to Occupiers how to avoid surveillance as they planned their sit-ins and protests, I thought of Voltaire’s famous line, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — and to say it without being surveilled.

Citizenfour is important as a piece of history, but it is not a good documentary. Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides. She had a powerfully significant story dropped into her lap, but she let Snowden call all the shots. Patriot? Traitor? Martyr? Simple thief? We may never know the truth. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is set to play Snowden in a biopic next year, and that film will of course have a point of view, determined by the bias of the filmmaker. Laura Poitras was the only one who had primary access to the actual source, and she blew it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Citizenfour," directed by Laura Poitras. Praxis Films, 2014, 114 minutes.



Share This


Techno-Fascism

 | 

In January 2014, for one month, I held a job as a document review attorney in Manhattan. I was a member of a team of 30 attorneys, and we each reviewed about 500 documents a day. This means that 15,000 documents in total were reviewed each day. One day, out of those 15,000, my supervisor (who only had two assistants and was very busy herself) found one document on which I had made a serious mistake, and gave me a talking to about not making that mistake again. I was very embarrassed and promised to do better. But my initial thought was: how did she find my one wrong document out of 15,000? Then I realized: all the documents were stored electronically, and she simply ran a computer search that notified her of which documents contained the error.

My point is simple: there are no needles in haystacks anymore. One document out of 15,000 can be detected using a computerized search, because a computer can read 15,000 documents in a few seconds. If a computer search can find that, what else can it find? A search of every email in the Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook email systems with the word “libertarian” in it? A search of the internet for a list of every libertarian Meetup? Given a set of names from a libertarian mailing list, a list of all addresses? Can you see where I’m going with this? How difficult would it be for a socialist government to round up all the libertarians? Using computers, a government could find us. Using computers, it could monitor every email and every phone call, so that we could never organize any resistance. Using computers, it could even do profiling to identify the people whose personalities would make them sympathetic to liberty, and add those supporters to a list before they made a move to act or even knew what libertarianism is. What Ellsworth Toohey said about “future Roarks,” namely, that they will all be destroyed, comes to mind.

Look at your smartphone. Does it have a webcam? Yes. Is it GPS enabled so it can give you driving directions? Yes. But how easy would it be for a government to turn on that webcam and direct a permanent video feed from your device to a government monitoring station? And to keep a constant record of where you go, every minute of every day? And could the government do it by issuing secret orders to Google and Apple, and to Microsoft, which controls the smartphone operating systems, so that your own device spied on you without your knowledge? I can tell you that your smartphone could easily be turned into a chain around your leg. If 300 million smartphones were so converted, the data could be sent to computers that, as I described above, could analyze the data for trends useful in detecting rebels — for instance, by listening for a conversation including such keywords as “freedom” or “rebel,” or noticing when you go to a place where libertarians are believed to meet in secret. 1984 is a real possibility, though a little late in 2014.

The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment.

Advances in technology bring great joy. But they also bring danger, especially when the advancement of politics lags far behind. Einstein’s work revolutionized physics; it also led to the nuclear bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Similarly, I fear that the rise of computer technology, in the hands of a dictator, could lead to “techno-fascism.” The dictator would not need spies, because cameras and sensors, analyzed by computers, would detect all traces of resistance, and tell the secret police exactly where to go to crush rebellion before it started. Under all dictatorships of the past, rebels could meet in secret, make plans, and try to revolt, because spies could not be everywhere. Now they can be.

The fact that there are no needles in haystacks anymore was actually visualized in Batman: The Dark Knight, where, toward the end of the movie, Batman uses the Bat Computer to hack into Gotham’s cell phones and eavesdrops to locate the Joker. If, in this way, the government spied on people in the name of safety and fighting crime, then the public might let it happen, until it was too late to reverse the practice.

Well, if doom awaits, what do we do? The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment. Read it. In the modern era, no charter of civil liberty is more crucial. We must fight to protect the Fourth Amendment, and to use it in courts.

Meanwhile, we can expect spies to spy on other spies. Because there are no needles in haystacks anymore, every side can see what the other sides are doing. The techno-fascist wants to spy on others while remaining invisible himself, but this is impossible; everything is visible in the world of Big Data.




Share This


Pigs R Us

 | 

Responding to President Obama’s January 17 speech about intelligence gathering (i.e., spying on people), some anti-NSA activists opined: "Rather than dismantling the NSA's unconstitutional mass surveillance programs, or even substantially restraining them, President Obama today has issued his endorsement of them. . . . The speech today was 'historic' in the worst sense. It represents a historic failure by a president to rein in mass government illegality and violations of fundamental rights." The madcap Julian Assange commented: "I think it's embarrassing for a head of state like that to go on for almost 45 minutes and say almost nothing.”

For once I agree with the supposed progressives (although Assange could have made the same remark about any of Obama’s speeches). The president has no interest in restraining any aspect of government. In this he resembles his immediate predecessor, and the resemblance is becoming uncanny. From government stimulus of “the economy” (i.e., state employees, welfare recipients, and phony capitalists) to government interference with education to government intervention in foreign wars, Obama has been enthusiastically devoted to Bush’s causes and Bush’s ways of working. The difference is that he has been less “transparent” about how he carries on his work.

While listening to Obama’s monotonous, empty speeches, one often feels one’s mind wandering, just as one felt one’s mind wandering while one tried to listen to Bush. You find yourself doing things you seldom do. You dust that odd place behind the DVDs. You inspect the carpet to see if the edges need repair. You see if you’ve got enough cards to send next Christmas. Sometimes you lapse into fantasy. In recent weeks, I’ve been picturing myself on the last page of Animal Farm, where Clover wonders why everything seems “to be melting and changing.” How is it that when you look at the purported animals and the purported men, it’s impossible to say which is which?




Share This


Jesuits, and Failed Jesuits

 | 

Don’t you hate it when people say, “Let me be clear on one thing . . . Let me make this perfectly clear”? Don’t you think, “So, you’ve been unclear about all those other things, and you knew it, but you went on being unclear anyway?” Don’t you immediately conclude that these people are about to tell you some enormous lie?

President Nixon was always talking in the “clear” mode. He was always “making one thing perfectly clear.” Now, President Obama has become an addict to the same approach.

“So, I wanta be very clear,” he announced on June 7, “nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.” Please define “nobody,” “listening,” “content,” “people,” and “phone calls.” Surely, the government is listening to somebody’s phone calls. May we simply conclude, from Obama’s clarifying remarks, that the government is listening to your calls, and mine? Or that it would if it could, and it probably can?

This administration began with the famous self-advertisement that it would be the most “transparent” in history. Obama reiterated the claim on February 14 of this year: “This is the most transparent administration in history.” That should have been a clue to several things.

1. Anybody who uses such a cliché as “transparent” hasn’t been giving a whole lot of thought to whatever he says.

2. For Obama and company, “history” is everything they don’t know, and have no intention of looking up. That covers a lot of territory. Do you think the claim of transparency issued from a careful, or even a superficial, investigation of the forty-some presidential administrations in American history? Do you think that Obama asked someone to research the matter and find out what degree of transparency prevailed in the Buchanan administration? On what basis, do you think, can Obama assert that he is more transparent than Jefferson? Or Truman, who was always blurting things out? Or all those 19th-century presidents who walked freely around Washington, meeting strangers and talking with them, and sometimes being pelted with oranges when the conversation didn’t go so well? So much for “history.”

In the preceding paragraph I noted a number of historical facts that Obama has undoubtedly never heard of: the mouthiness of President Truman, the orange attack on President Pierce, the existence of President Buchanan. Maybe I should add the existence of strangers — persons who are neither enemies nor part of one’s official circle. I don’t think Obama has any knowledge of strangers, although they (i.e., we) are the people he is supposed to be transparent to.

It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be.

But speaking of history: impartiality impels me to deplore the absence of even the vaguest historical sense among the Republican leadership. Consider the remarks of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) at the Tea Party rally in Washington on June 19. Referring to the current spying scandals, he intoned: “This big brother has gotten a lotta creepier than George Orwell ever thought it would get.” No, Orwell thought a lot of things. Read a book, Mr. King.

3. Eventually, the most transparent administration in history would have to spend virtually all its time trying to clear things up after its constant, hilariously comic attempts to fool people.

One of the most notorious clarifiers is Attorney General Eric Holder. He has spent many moons clarifying what went on with Fast and Furious, and look at the damned thing now. And I’m sure you will recall the statement he made on May 15 in response to congressional questions about whether journalists can be prosecuted for divulging or attempting to divulge classified information: "Well, I would say this. With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy. In fact, my view is quite the opposite."

Attorney General Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course.

This remark was emitted with a look that has become nearly universal among clarifiers in the Obama administration, from the chief clarifier on down, but is perhaps most vividly manifested by the attorney general. It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be. It’s the expression of a self-righteousness too pure to be acquainted with self-doubt, a self-righteousness now shocked to discover these strong and painful rumblings, deep inside. Can it be that the truth is coming out? If so, how can this be prevented?

Lately, truth has been coming out more quickly than usual. Only a few days were required for Holder’s May 15 testimony to be publicly falsified. Yet the truth about Fast and Furious and most of the other matters about which Holder has been questioned is still to emerge. Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course: he does it by being a Washington insider, known and feared by the rest of them; and by being capable of looking blank on virtually all occasions. I guess that’s easy for him.

Anyway, he is certainly a more accomplished liar than James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. On March 12 Clapper was testifying before a committee that included Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a prominent opponent of secret investigations of US citizens. Clapper had been given a copy of Wyden’s questions in advance. He wasn’t blindsided or bushwhacked by the senator. But look what happened.

Sen. Wyden: So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No, sir.

Wyden: It does not.

Clapper, massaging his forehead and trying to look profound, like a professor being pushed to the farthest corner of speculation in the field of his most abstruse research: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.

Wyden: All right. Thank you. I'll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.

On June 9, after an obscure employee of a government contractor informed the world of the wholly predictable truth, that the NSA collects telephone data on tens of millions of Americans, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News pressed Clapper on the exchange with Wyden. Clapper suggested that the senator's question was unfair:

First as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked “When are you going to start — stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.

Clapper indicated that he didn’t think "collection" of phone data was taking place unless government officials were actually reviewing the contents of the (billions of) conversations that they have records on.

Most people, even college professors, know that “when are you going to stop beating your wife?” questions — ordinarily known as “when did you stop beating your wife?” questions — are entirely different from the kind of question Clapper was asked. But this is just one of those things that the Director of National Intelligence doesn’t know. I think that most people — all we strangers and little people out here in the dark — know more about life and human communication than Mr. Clapper does.

One thing that few people know is the word “equivocation.” It means a type of lying, as when somebody asks, “Did you go to the liquor store today?” and you answer, “No, I didn’t, and if I did, it was only unwittingly” — because the place isn’t called The Liquor Store; it’s called Ye Olde Liquor Shoppe. Equivocation isn’t just lying; it’s an especially nasty form of lying. It’s a favorite with self-righteous elitists, who think that any lie they tell is sanctioned by their cause or their position. The Jesuit order was famous for its crafty equivocations; hence the term “Jesuitical.”

Following the Clapper interview, President Obama’s press secretary told inquiring minds that Obama regarded Clapper’s answer to Sen. Wyden as “straight and direct.” This wasn’t a Jesuitical response; it was a blatant, impudent, aggressive, in yo’ face, down home stupid lie, a lie so flamboyant that no one could be expected to regard it as anything other than what I just said it was.

Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect.

Now what? What are we to conclude from this? Is Obama stupider than everyone else? I wouldn’t go that far. His lie prompts the question (no, it does not beg the question — that’s something different): what hold does the intelligence community have on the president?

That is not a conspiracy-theory question. That is a political and personal question.

Ever willing to criticize myself, I am happy to say that there are two reasons for questioning the assumptions from which my question proceeds. One is the possibility that Obama is simply a leftwing proponent of government in all its forms. In his speech to the graduates of Ohio State University on May 5, he took on critics of government:

Unfortunately [he said], you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

The “we,” of course, is he. But the contempt appears to be directed against all the foes of “government” — as opposed to his usual targets, such as “special interests,” non-Democratic “politicians,” Republican voters, global warming skeptics, people who cling to God and guns, etc. So maybe he believes that as soon as someone is associated with a government that is legitimate in his terms, that person can do no ill, say nothing other than what is straight and direct. If true, this would explain a lot.

The other problem with the question I asked is that Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect. I picture Obama and his staff staying up late, writing his stuff out, and sharing high fives because this time they’ve really put the horsemeat in the hotdogs, and nobody else will notice.

An example. On June 17, on the Charlie Rose Show, on PBS (where else?), Obama assured every American citizen, “What I can say [pause pause pause] unequivocally [pause pause pause] is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen [jabbing the air] “to your telephone calls.” In other words, you won’t be electronically raped by the federal government. Rose, of course, was hibernating too deeply to ask The President what the hell he meant by “US person.” But Obama didn’t want to say “citizen.” Why? The only explanation I can think of (and one that does not exclude nearly complete rhetorical incompetence) is that he wants all the illegal immigrants (US persons, persons present in the United States at any given millisecond of recorded time) to vote for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, they can be spied on just the same as the rest of us; that’s democracy.

I think that almost everyone who is sentient, and aware of what Obama said, got the point, and the point is that Obama and his crew cannot be trusted with the English language. Almost everyone concluded that Obama, and whoever writes these things for him, was really talking about immigration, and that when he said that the NSA wasn’t listening to your phone calls, he meant that of course the NSA is listening to your phone calls, but the important thing is that the illegal immigrants be legalized so they can vote for all the Obamas of the future.

So when Obama says that the chief of national intelligence is straight and direct, why should I make a mystery out of it? It’s all nonsense anyway.

Postscript: Yahoo! News has finally done something good: it has tabulated White House spokesman Jay Carney’s verbal techniques for escaping public scrutiny: “Over the course of 444 briefings since taking the job, the White House press secretary has dodged a question at least 9,486 times.” This is a classic.




Share This


The Pharaohs of the Current Dynasty

 | 

The thing that interests me most about the intelligence scandals is the revelation of how amateurish the people who run our Great National Institutions seem to be.

I had assumed that the government was doing exactly what it has been revealed to be doing — getting everyone’s telephone records. I had assumed that any serious terrorist would assume the same. But if Edward Snowden was able to “reveal” the taking of this super-secret information, how many other people could reveal the same, or more?

Snowden is a badly educated young man who in his early twenties began a meteoric ascent through various spy agencies. Either the government’s secrets are so massive and take so many hands to manage, or the government is so ridiculously bad at contracting with people to take care of them, that the mighty inwards of the government’s self-knowledge end up in the grasp of Edward Snowden and the like. The same could be said, and more, about Bradley (Bradass87) Manning, who appears to have been put in a job where he dealt with military secrets because he was so outrageously unqualified for any other job.

Should I now mention some dramatis personae of other current scandals — Lois Lerner, Susan Rice, Kathleen Sebelius, Eric Holder? Qualified to handle secrets? They’re not even qualified to handle the secret of their own incompetence.

Now we have FBI Director Robert Swan Mueller, a 12-year veteran in his job, who received, a week in advance, a list of questions that he would be asked by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, but who on June 13 repeatedly assured Chaffetz’s congressional committee that he didn’t know anything about anything, finally apologizing, not very contritely, for failing to do his “homework.” Tell me, what else does the guy have to do?

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA — anything with three initials — as a monument to strong organization. They were cunning; they were tricky; they might be malevolent; but they were tightly and cleverly administered. They were places where people who looked like David Niven, men who knew the world, subtly schemed to outwit their enemies. As for the US military, they were so hard-assed that they would never even consider hiring a person like me. And they still wouldn’t. But they trained Bradass87 as an intelligence analyst.

The image that now comes to mind is about as far from David Niven as you could get. It’s General James Clapper (USAF, rtd.), current director of national intelligence — the stereotyped representation of a befuddled, forehead-rubbing, double-talking academic bureaucrat, a man who doesn’t seem to understand what he himself is saying, much less understand the world. With people like this posing as pharaohs, what must the rest of the human pyramid be like?




Share This


North Korea: A Mirror unto Myself

 | 

I went to North Korea.

Why?

I travel to self-reflect, to challenge my own conditioning, and to question my irrational beliefs and patterns. The more extreme my new surroundings, the more challenges my psyche gets. Laughing at others and considering them backward might be a self-satisfying reason to go abroad, but mostly futile.

Do I accept paying half of what I earn in taxes, making myself a slave for half my life and a bit more, filling up forms and chasing bureaucrats, and then make fun of others who slave under a different pretext?

Do I find women wearing veils in Islamic cultures deplorable but not girls who wear virtually nothing while lining up outside discos in the frigid night of Canada?

At the death of Princess Diana, whom I had always considered rather stupid, hundreds of thousands of people in England, a relatively sophisticated society, went into hysteria. These were exactly the same people who until a day before had lived for the next issue of the tabloids so they could practice voyeurism on the intimate details of Diana’s life. Of course there was another subgroup — of do-gooders — that was more interested in watching Diana photographed with starving African kids, while she was flying around in the most luxurious jets. Unable to see the contradictions, that subgroup firmly believed she was doing a service to society.

When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Canada, thousands of girls wanted to touch them. When Kim Jong Il died, virtually everyone in North Korea mourned.

My question is why North Koreans should be made fun of if they grieve over the death of someone they consider their savior? The shallow thoughts of starving people are perhaps more understandable than those of people who live in comfort.

Apart from always trying to provide myself tools for understanding my own thinking as rationally as possible, I went to North Korea assuming that this last pure Communist country was not going to last for long, so I should see it while I could. And I was in for a treat, an educational one.

By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not difficult to visit North Korea. Also, I had enough to eat and felt very safe. There were spies all around, but I never felt threatened. They were normal human beings playing out their indoctrinations. Despite my initial, strong worries, the fact is that in virtually any dictatorship, you are safer than you would be elsewhere.

North Korea is developing missile and nuclear technology. I am not sure why this should merit moral condemnation, at least by the United States. I recall that not too long back, the US promised Gaddafi that he would not be attacked if he gave up biological and nuclear weapons. The promise was forgotten the moment the risk of those weapons went away.

I find it remarkable that North Koreans have partly developed such high technologies. North Korea has a population of only 24 million people; it occupies a hilly part of its peninsula, making agriculture difficult. Under sanctions it has very limited trade with outsiders, something that seriously harms and constricts its economy. And it is forced to spend an absolute fortune to defend its border. The military expenditures of its enemies at that border may be higher than the GDP of North Korea (so far as it is possible to estimate that).

I was told that I would meet very heavy-handed soldiers in North Korea. In contrast, I found it easy to have a laugh with them. And even at the DMZ, they allowed quite a bit freedom of movement. I had my arms on the soldiers when photographing with them. At the least they are just normal human beings.

It was a week later, when I went to exactly the same part of the DMZ, from the South Korean side, that I faced heavy-handedness. American soldiers dictated our moves in minute detail; we were asked not to smile at the North Korean security, because that might be taken as a hostile signal. The drama Americans create at the DMZ is their way of instilling fear in people and perhaps their way of legitimizing their presence in South Korea. By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Ironically, the room you visit at the DMZ when coming from the north is exactly the same one you visit when coming from the south; it is just that the control of that room keeps changing between the two countries. Of course despite their denials, both sides talk with each other to orchestrate events at the DMZ. The televised posturing that they do at DMZ — with alert army men — is only a show, for there is only one side present at any point of time, all based on negotiations. In the end, I could not shake off the feeling that it is not the North and the South that are enemies; it is as if the two governments and their allies ganged up together to keep fear and hostility between the two forcibly separated societies.

North Korea is a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

People keep talking about the huge size of the North Korean army. In truth, a lot of work that would be classified as civilian jobs is done by the army; for example, all construction and infrastructure work is army work. You could easily halve the size of the North Korean army to compare like to like.

So do I think North Korea is a great place? Actually, it is by far the worst country I have ever visited. Its personality cult is water-tight. Its government has perfected tyranny. North Koreans have virtually no access to outside information. Even the North Korean air hostesses on their planes bound for Beijing are not allowed to leave their planes when they land there.

For a tourist, it is not possible to travel in North Korea independently. You must be escorted by two “guides” provided by the state-run travel agency. I joined a tour group from Beijing. This was almost a year ago, in April 2012, when Kim Il Sung’s centenary celebrations were being held. Wherever we went, spies followed us. We had no freedom of movement.We could not even leave our hotel unaccompanied. In fact, whatever we did was closely monitored.

Not allowed into local shops, we had to use euros or US dollars at foreigners-only tourist shops at highly elevated prices, making it impossible for any local to convert his currency into dollars and to put it to any good use. Locals not only cannot go to another city without a permit but they usually cannot even move within their cities freely. The army is everywhere and it keeps checking ID cards.

Army units are not allowed to travel much — they don't have much means of transportation anyway, making any coup almost impossible. You often see army men walking from one city to another. The nice looking vehicles that you see on TV seem mostly for propaganda purposes. The army trucks I usually saw were the broken-down old vehicles on the side of the roads.

There is virtually no concept of private property. Everyone works for the government, in a position decided by the government. Every hospital is owned by the government. Every house is owned by the government. People can own cars, but you don't see vehicles. Sometimes you can go a kilometer within the capital and not see a car.

Most North Koreans have no money left to save at the end of the month. They have no incentive to save anyway, as they can keep their savings only at the bank — remember there is no other means of investment possible — where it can be devalued at any whim of the government. Some people might save in gold, illegally, but imagine the repercussions in a country where 50% of the people have at one point or another denounced their family or friends. You can imagine what moral effect the lack of possibility to save would have on you.

Many houses have pots of beautiful flowers, particularly of the two kinds named after the Kims. They look very bright and nice. On closer inspection I realized that a lot of them are plastic.

We were taken to a laboratory filled with colorful chemicals, but all evidence showed that they were never used. It was the same with the big computer room. The keyboards had never been used.

A year or so back, all the universities were closed. Students were asked to report for road work. You can see families — parents and kids — mending roads and electricity poles outside their houses. They are asked to do this, under threat. But really they just accept it as normal life. They don’t seem to know of any other way.

All fun activities have a strong dose of patriotism and Kim-ism in them. There are statues of Kim Il Sung all over the country, statues that must be kept sparkling clean at all times. Early in the freezing morning, I could see tens of thousands of people everywhere descending, on foot or on their bikes, to the statues of Kim Il Sung to pay their respects. You might encounter a group of women singing praises of Kim Il Sung in front of a spellbound audience of locals, while I stood shivering. If one is a local, one must either sing or join the audience or go to the gulag. The system offers none of these people the option of distinguishing between enjoying what they are doing or doing it as a compulsive action. Their thinking and emotions are certainly very numbed, making North Korea a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

A North Korean citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state.

Locals are mostly kept out of the way of tourists. But sometimes actors and actresses appear to create a fake environment for outsiders. You might see a group of locals playing “tourist” at the DMZ, when you know you did not see any tourist bus apart from yours. At the store, you might see a couple of women in traditional clothes browsing the books — all of them “written” by the Kims — and when you turned back after leaving you would see them switching off the lights. At the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, everything is new and fake. The furniture, the cutlery, the walls and the thatched roof cannot be more than a few years old. But perhaps everything touched by Kim Il Sung defies aging.

North Korea is a true 1984, and may even have exceeded it. Piped revolutionary music from loudspeakers installed all over the city is virtually compulsory for everyone. You wake up with it. The same music runs on the TV and, it seems, the locals must switch it on as soon as they wake up. The only vehicles that look in decent shape are propaganda vehicles, with loudspeakers on top of them. A citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state. He must from his birth learn thought control, or life would be unbearable and a continuous reminder of humiliation.

I have been to Myanmar (in 1996 at the height of its military dictatorship), Laos (where I traveled with early-teen insurgents), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Belarus, and so on. But none has the kind of perfect tyranny and lack of personal freedom that North Korea has established.

I feel sorry for North Koreans. I don't travel to feel better than other people. I do it to understand human nature, mostly mine. And it is sad that in North Korea virtually everyone has been made a puppet and a parrot. It is a totalitarian state on top of cultural Confucianism. The elites have structured it so well that I can see no way for any revolution to happen. And people's minds have been so indoctrinated and their development so constrained that they would feel hugely insecure about not having a firm leader. But that is exactly the path the West is increasingly on now, isn't it? The irony is that Western people laugh at North Korea but cannot see themselves in the mirror.




Share This


Santa’s Not-so-Secret Spy Network

 | 

Have you ever wondered exactly how Santa knows who is naughty, and who is nice? In 2005, a mother-daughter team wrote and self-published a book, ostensibly for kids, that set out to answer just that question. That book, The Elf on the Shelf, is both a smash-hit bestseller and a creepily straightforward symbol of our overreaching national security state.

Here’s how it works. Parents buy the Elf on the Shelf kit, which comes with a copy of the book, as well as their very own elf doll (available in both sexes and diverse shades, the better to maximize marketing potential). The parents read their children the book, which outlines how it is precisely this elf who informs Santa when they’ve been bad and when they’ve been good. Every night, in fact, when they’re sleeping, the elf flies from the kid’s home up to the North Pole and passes along the fruits of its surveillance, and then flies right back so as not to miss a minute of potential misbehavior.

The sign that the elf is making this trek is that every morning, it’s moved to a different location in the house. I leave it to the reader to divine what sophisticated method produces the elf’s locomotion — as far as the kids are concerned, though, the one hard and fast rule in the Elf on the Shelf state is “Don’t touch the elf.” You can talk to it — tell it your deepest desires — confess to it — reveal to it the misdeeds of siblings or parents — but don’t you dare lay a finger on it, or else, as it notes in plaintive verse, “My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or know.”

Yet this is precisely the demand the American surveillance state makes on us: to respect above all else its presence, its wisdom, its necessity. And this demand becomes ever more pressing; as the Wall Street Journal recently revealed, the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC] now claims the right (backed by the signature of the attorney general) to “examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them.” Moreover, they can store this data for up to five years (with longer durations doubtlessly on the way, if not already de facto present) and share with any foreign government for joint investigations.

While Santa always represented unimpeachable extrajudicial authority, it wasn’t as if he had a uniformed agent present inside the house itself.

As the WSJ article shows, anyone speaking out against this new regime from within was purged from the ranks — their meddling potentially preventing Santa from hearing all that the elves had seen, and thus endangering the magic of the entire system. Those left to oversee the activities of the NCTC are the same ones who were gung-ho for it in the first place — those falling all over themselves to put an elf on every shelf, the better to have minutely detailed lists of the naughty and the nice (or, more accurately, the naughty and those who might yet prove naughty, if only we survey them long enough).

The Elf on the Shelf fad might seem innocuous — in most cases, is innocuous: a little bit of wonder added to the days leading up to Christmas. Still I can’t help but wonder myself about anything that encourages citizens, and especially children, to recognize the validity of an arbitrary authority; still more, to internalize that authority, by conducting themselves by thinking first and foremost about what that authority will report to its higher-ups.

Is this really such a big revision of the much older and still creepy idea that Santa (or some other omniscient white-bearded figure) is keeping tabs on you? I would argue yes; while Santa always represented unimpeachable extrajudicial authority, it wasn’t as if he had a uniformed agent present inside the house itself. And you could petition him directly, making the case for your goodness by letter. Now, a kid hoping to sway the balance to “nice” has to appeal to Santa’s intermediary, and hope nothing gets lost on the way through the North Pole bureaucracy.

I’m sure there’s no causal connection here. It’s not as if the DHS or CIA or anyone is funding Elf on the Shelf as part of some grand conspiracy to produce a more compliant citizenry. They don’t have to: as the Journal report and the deafening lack of protest shows, we’re already compliant enough. Rather, games like this — and often the sillier, the better — help prepare children for the age in which they will live; it’s a form of socialization that doesn’t have to evade resistance because it doesn’t seem like there’s anything to resist. It’s just natural that there’s a spy in your midst, the public face of a distant organization whose power you can’t imagine; it’s just natural that this power must go unquestioned and even unexamined. Because that’s the fundamental assumption of American and much other modern governance today — and any who dare resist will find themselves on the naughty list. And as a recent Christmas release, Zero Dark Thirty, taught us: we have ways of dealing with the naughty. If contemporary America excels at anything, it’s in its many and various ways of dealing with the naughty.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.