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Bill Maher, Edward Snowden, and the NSA

Bill Maher, Edward Snowden, and the NSA

By Dennis Loo (1/19/14)

The manner of collecting evidence of anyone who is trying to solve a puzzle or track a criminal is the same. What you want is not more information. Too much information gets in the way. What you want and need is more relevant information.

In this week’s HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher episode, Maher interviewed Glenn Greenwald from long distance. Greenwald lives in Brazil and is, by the way, trying to find out from the US government whether he can safely travel to and from the US any more given the furor kicked off by his assistance as a journalist in making some of Edward Snowden’s revelations available to the world. Some prominent figures have called for Greenwald’s head for, can you believe it, doing what journalists are supposed to do?

During his interview with Greenwald, Maher said that Edward Snowden has done good things – for example, Obama would not be commenting about the NSA spying without it – but sometimes Snowden says some “batshit crazy” things.

Maher’s examples of Snowden’s “crazy” talk are that a) the mass warrantless surveillance doesn’t have to do with anti-terrorism and 9/11 per se but is designed for social and political repression, and b) the government can trace who you were friends with and associate with far back in time as long as it holds onto this data.

Greenwald’s response to Maher was that “what’s crazy is that you think that’s crazy” and proceeded to give some examples of what the NSA has been doing.

Maher responded, “We’ll have to agree to disagree on that.”

I guess this explains why Maher has yet to invite me on his show – I’ve been writing and speaking seriously about both of these “batshit crazy” things for years. LOL.

One has to wonder how much attention Maher has been paying to what this NSA surveillance actually is. Let’s begin with the first “crazy” claim of Snowden’s:

As someone who had years of access to exactly what the NSA and its private contractors were collecting, Snowden has the right to speak to what is actually being collected. As Greenwald pointed out, for example, among the things the NSA has been doing has included their spying on the love lives of American citizens, including NSA’s own spouses and that of prominent Americans. What does this have to do with al-Qaeda? What is even more important overall than that, however, is the fact that first, with the NSA collecting data on everyone and everything, they have explicitly overturned the principle of probable cause and are operating instead off of the principle of “total information awareness.” In other words, they are not pursuing leads per se, founded principally upon individuals and organizations that they have any reason to suspect are terrorists, but are collecting all electronic communications from everyone.

As I have written extensively previously about this, if your goal is to actually track and prevent terrorists and their plans, then you don’t spend resources and time on finding out what grandma is saying to her grandchildren. If you’re trying to connect the dots to determine what plots are afoot, collecting terra-bytes of data everyday makes finding those dots to connect harder, not easier. You are obscuring what you should be focusing on by having no focus at all. From my June 24, 2013 article, “The NSA Spying Scandal and Improbable Cause”:

[I]f a set of murders were committed, with all of the earmarks of a serial murderer's work, and the police sent a detective to the crime scene, what would you expect that detective, if he was any good and not some Inspector Clouseau, to do in conducting the investigation?

Would you think it strange if besides his insisting that the suspects list include not only those who had a motive to kill the victims, but also everybody else in the entire world?

Would you object to this way of solving a crime and demand that this detective be taken off the case?

If the entire police force and political authorities of your city backed up this particular detective's methods and lauded him for his work, would you begin to think that there was something wrong with the officials running your city?

If in the course of this detective's investigation he rounded up thousands of innocent people and tortured them to extract confessions from them and killed many of them, would you object?

If because he tortured these thousands of suspects and suspected that they might want to get revenge in some form because they were tortured, he refused to release these innocent people and was holding them indefinitely, many of them for over ten years (because this detective still hasn't solved the crime), would you object to this?

If you knew because a whistleblower revealed this to the world, that this police department and the political authorities were recording and listening in on everyone's electronic communications, would you be outraged about not only the unbelievable invasion of privacy but the fact that enormous resources were being employed to go after everyone in the entire world when there was a specific set of murders that was supposed to be the reason for this dragnet?

If, in response to the whistleblower's revelations, authorities finally admitted what some had been warning about that "yes, we have been monitoring everyone's electronic communications, but it's for everyone's good and we are being very careful not to abuse anyone's rights and only going after criminal suspects," would you smell a rat, a great big mountain of dead rats?

If this whistleblower were indicted for his whistleblowing and declared by authorities to be a traitor and someone who ought to be executed, would you think authorities had gone mad?

Or would you say in response to authorities' outrageous demands and actions: "I have nothing to hide, thank you for keeping us all safe"?

What the U.S. government has done, supposedly in response to terrorism and 9/11 (and I say supposedly because these policies based on "improbable cause" began before 9/11 and before any other major anti-U.S. terrorist incidents), is move from employing the legal and Constitutional standard of "probable cause" (the Fourth Amendment standard) to "improbable cause" as its guiding principle. To even say the phrase "improbable cause" is to make apparent its absurdity. What sense does it make to employ "improbable cause" as a guiding principle for governmental policy?

It makes absolutely no sense if your objective is to actually solve a crime. It only makes sense if your actual objective is not to solve a crime but to keep the crimes unsolved and to keep the danger of further crimes in the forefront of everyone's consciousness. It only makes sense if your real goal is to clamp down and repress the entire population of the world.

What most people don’t know but need to know is that these “war on terror” (WOT) policies date not from 9/11 but from the late 1970s in Europe. Massive warrantless surveillance and criminalizing people for what they might do rather than what they have done is part of what is called “public order policies” (POP). Under POP “everyone is a suspect.”

POP emerged out of the end of the Cold War and the need for the military and related agencies to find rationales for their ongoing existence in the absence of the “communist threat.” POP also emerged – and this is the more important reason - because authorities recognized that as wealth distribution becomes more lopsided, and more and more people are left unemployed and underemployed and without a social safety net, repressing the inevitable public restiveness and rebelliousness is necessary to continue these ruinous policies. Part of that strategy includes frightening the public into seeing enemies where they either don’t exist or groups who are victims rather than the perpetrators of unemployment – labeling, for example, immigrants, minorities, and women as the real threat - rather than jobs being exported to Third World nations and the corporate and governmental policies responsible for that. Scapegoating, in other words, becomes inextricably and prominently intertwined with governance. The reason for this is that when the socialist camp disappeared, capitalism and imperialism no longer had any real rivals in the world and could proceed to systematically undercut the majority of the people’s living standards and allow profitmaking to decide everything without the leavening influence of having to meet the public interest. Private interests could ride roughshod over the public interest because the organized forces most in favor of protecting the public interest – the revolutionary Left, unions, Left-wing social movements, socialist countries - were now either gone or heavily diminished.

Magnus Hornqvist observed in the “Birth of Public Order Policy” in 2004:

Over the last twenty years, the nature of the rule of law and the basis on which nation states employ force has been changing fundamentally. The distinction between what is criminal, to be dealt with by the legal and justice system, and what creates a ‘perception of insecurity’— formerly to be dealt with by social policy—is being eroded at both the macro (‘war on terror’) and micro (‘public order’) levels.

This paves the way for the unbridled use of state force, in the first instance, and the criminalisation of behaviours that are not necessarily illegal, in the second. Fear becomes a controlling mechanism for the maintenance of the social order and any element of non-conformity is construed as a threat. (Emphasis added. Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 146)

POP, in other words, grew up before anti-state terrorism really emerged as a serious phenomenon. The Bush Regime began secretly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications seven months before 9/11, in February of 2011. So when Snowden says that the NSA spying is aimed at social control and repression, he is precisely correct.

As to the second point that Maher cited of Snowden’s that he thought was just crazy:

The underlying logic of “total information awareness” is evident in its name: the idea is to collect everything and to know everything.

One expression of this universalization of public order policies can be seen in the development and growth of “intelligence fusion centers.” Fusion centers gather government and private intelligence in one place based on the rationale that the response to terrorism requires an unprecedented degree of data collection and surveillance. In June 2009, DHS recognized some seventy-two fusion centers nationwide. As stated by one of its advocates:

Signs of Cold-War-era threats to national security—troops massing, submarines departing, and missile launchers where they weren’t before—were easier to detect than today’s more subtle indicators of terrorist activity. Emerging terrorist threats can hide in plain sight on our own soil, scattered among millions of driver’s license applications and bank transfers or amid tourists snapping photos of national icons. In this new environment, vigilance is everyone’s job, and the tasks of vetting, analyzing, and sharing information about threats can’t be left to the federal government alone.

This article goes on to cite the words of the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center’s director Richard Kelly: “We want to be able to search everything, so we could see if Mohammed Atta ever got a parking ticket in Roselle. You can’t connect the dots if you can’t see them.” Kelly is arguing for the viewpoint that underlies the advocates of the national security state: more information, and ideally total information, will give us the power to prevent undesirable events from occurring.

In each and every known terrorist incident—beginning most famously with the tracking of the 9/11 conspirators before 9/11 through the Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up a Northwest flight on Christmas Day 2009—there was no shortage of information. The dots were there to be connected, and in the case of 9/11 some people connected them, such as Counterterrorism Czar Richard Clarke and FBI Agent Coleen Rowley; but they were stymied by those above them and, in Clarke’s case, those below him as well. As Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian, observed after the Abdul Mutallab incident, the NSA receives four times as much data every day as is held in the Library of Congress. The intelligence community is, in other words, drowning in data.

More information is not necessarily better, and in these instances there is obviously far too much irrelevant information. How can there be too much information? If you have too much data, then connecting dots becomes extremely difficult because you have too many possible threads to perceive and millions upon millions of irrelevant data points obscuring those threads. It is like trying to find multiple needles in a haystack while haystack after haystack after haystack is being dropped on you in an avalanche of hay. Obama and the bureaucracies’ efforts to approach total information awareness are doomed to fail again and again because they are based on an incorrect premise.

The notion that knowing that Mohammed Atta got a parking ticket somewhere will somehow send off alarm bells assumes that you have already determined that Atta is someone to whom you have to pay particular attention. What good would it have done to know that he got a parking ticket in Roselle, even if he was already known to be a terrorist, which he was? If you have a list of more than half a million people that are possible suspects (as the US government had as of late 2010) with the list growing longer every day, this task of focusing on the next Atta becomes more difficult than ever. You have to make choices all along the way about what is relevant information and what is not. As you amass more and more irrelevant information, you make it more difficult, not easier, to determine what is relevant and what is noise. (GDS, Pp. 149-151)

Now the question you might want to ask yourself is this: if the government who is supposed to protect us against harm is doing the exact opposite of what any sensible detective would do in trying to track down and capture a criminal who is preying on the people, is this because the government is spectacularly incompetent and stupid or is this because the government’s real objective isn’t to protect us against harm?

You might come to the conclusion, upon thinking this through and looking carefully at all of the relevant evidence, that the answer is a mixture of both: that the government is hamstrung by its bureaucratic and neoliberal fascination with high-tech and its real objective isn’t to prevent terrorist incidents.

Why would you use terrorism to fight terrorism if you know that by using state terrorism you are exacerbating anti-state terrorism? Those in authority cannot help but notice, if they didn’t notice this from the very start, that the WOT provides them a Get Out of Jail Free card for anything they want to do, as long as they cite the magic words “He’s a terrorist!” And “It’s a terrorist plot.”

There are virtually no holds barred now under the WOT. You can torture people. You can kill them with drones or with police clubs. You can annihilate the Fourth Amendment and spy on everyone. You can hold people indefinitely without charging them with anything. You can even hold people indefinitely because of what you suspect that they might do (aka preventive detention). You can hold people indefinitely because even if you realize that they are innocent, the very fact that you have unjustly brutalized them and held them makes it possible that they will want to retaliate against you when they’re released and that becomes sufficient grounds to continue to hold them, at least to many Americans and public officials. You can silence journalists by threatening them with treason and even kill them, as the US military has done in war theaters.[1] (The thing you better not do, however, is threaten to clamp down on Wall Street, as Governor Eliot Spitzer did, or get caught deliberately causing a terrible traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge as political payback, as the Chris Christie Administration did.)

Does this sound like the kind of country that you want to live in? It is in fact an unexaggerated description of the USA today. And remember, it isn’t just the Republicans who endorse these measures. It’s also those dear old Democrats. Indeed, if you track the different White House administrations over the last few decades, what you see is not that Democrats are more civil liberties sensitive than the Republicans. What you see is that over time, whoever is in office, is farther to the Right in their policies than their predecessors.

Who's crazy now? Those who notice this and call it out? Or those who aren't aware that this is going on but ought to be? While ordinary citizens who don't pay close attention to the news might be excused for not knowing this, pundits like Bill Maher who make their careers from following the news and commenting on it ought to know better.


[1] “In February 2005 CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, was forced to resign after his comments at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland were roundly attacked by right-wing bloggers and by liberals. Jordan apparently remarked (accurately) that journalists were not being killed accidentally but were being aimed at by American troops in Iraq.” (Dennis Loo, “Never Elected, Not Once,” from Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney, Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips, Eds., New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006, p. 45)


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