Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cold War NSA Redux: The Obama, Putin, Snowden Shuffle

So, President Obama has made some vague promises to review current policies about NSA surveillance and possible limits on it, appointing some committee to make recommendations, although the FISA court was already supposed to be those experts keeping a leash no NSA from just watching and listening to everybody and everything.  This looks not only like too little too late, but that his heart is really not into it.  He has by far the worst record of any US president of any for prosecuting leakers, and making the US look like the old USSR in doing so with such stuff as actual torture of Bradley Manning, etc. see Juan Cole on how bad all this is  see .  That Edward Snowden has ended up defecting to Russia may be surreal, but it may also be appropriate.

Which brings me to Cold War redux.  OK, so Putin has been very badly behaved over a long period of time on many issues and has even engaged in clearly personal insults of Obama, including his own pulling out of a one-on-one summit last year at Camp David.  His latest walking against the spreading global movement for LGBT rights  sticks out like a sore thumb, and Obama mentioned it.  But it is all too clear that Obama's recent pullout from a one-on-one with Putin was triggered by Putin finally granting Snowden protection.  Heck, while all sorts of opinionmakers and policy wonks think Obama is right to do this, it is opposed by 56% of the US population, and libertarians as well as many others have no sympathy with Obama on his defense of massive bugging.

I am not sure why Obama is so obsessed with all this secrecy and NSA megadata gathering.  Juan Cole speculates that it is a combination of fear of a Cheney mole in the intel estabishment or just fear of being dinged by Republicans in Congress if there is a terror attack on US soil that he could have stopped with this all-out bugging and mass surveillance.   I do not know, and of course, there may really be some Awful Truth he knows, but Cannot Tell US, although I doubt it seriously.

While I think all this should be cut back drastically, including the 16 (at least) intel agency establishment, it is also the case that this stuff has basically been going on for much longer than most realize, even though it was drastically expanded with the Patriot Act and its exanded interpretations, and that there was some cutback for awhile after the 1975 Church Committee.  Nevertheless, anybody who read the 1983 The Puzzle Palace by James Bamford should have known that NSA was even back then essentially gathering at least all international phone calls into and out of the US, generally scanning them for key words, reportedly.  An old paranoid like me (who had a father with the same last name who was so high in NSA he appeared in The Puzzle Palace) has ever since assumed that anything I say or write or post or whatever pretty much anywhere will be picked up and observed and stored, although little of it would be worth the time for anybody to actually read or listen to (and it is one thing to have your phone calls or emails picked up and stored and another for them to be actually listened to or read by a human being, even if NSA HQ at Fort Meade is now larger than the Pentagon, and NSA has thousands of employees).

Let me make a final point on how ridiculous so much of this is, particularly all this over-emphasis to the point of torturing people on secrecy about this stuff.  OK, so maybe we don't want to let terrorists know just how we are listening to them, although any of them who do not know are probably stupid.  But the hard fact is that most of our real or presumed enemies know way more than does the US public about all this, including almost certainly the Chinese and the Russians.  Let me illustrate this with a bit of my own personal ancient history.

So, even more secret than the NSA is the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), whose budget is reputedly on the same scale as NSA's, several times that of CIA's, although with many fewer employees (those spy satellites cost a lot of money).  Anyway, I first visited the then USSR in March, 1984, when I would meet my later wife for the first time.  On arriving at the National Hotel in Moscow, a tsarist era gush not too far from Red Square, there was a copy of the English language Moscow News on a table in the reception area.  At this time the existence of the NRO was classified and far less known than the NSA's.  Nevertheless, the top headline on the front page was a story about something the NRO was doing; I do not even remember what it was, although I think it had to do with naval activities.  In any case, I suspect that there is not much on those four laptops Snowden was reportedly carrying that is not already known by the relevant Russian organs.

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