The sifting cloth is binding

18 08 2013

I’m not much disappointed in the Obama’s administration’s approach to national security.

I hate it, but I never expected anything else.

I’ve said in the past that presidents are so keen to go overboard on national security issues because a) they can and b) because they’ll be punished if they don’t. I think “a” still holds: presidents have far more leeway in foreign policy and national security matters than they do in domestic policy, not least because Congress is (in part due to fear of “b”) almost always willing to go along with the president when he says certain powers are needed to protect the (sigh) “homeland”.

President Bush almost certainly acted outside of the boundaries established by Congress when his administration authorized the torture of prisoners, but everything else by Bush and Obama? Okey-dokey by them. Detention. Rendition. A FISA court which never says no. Restriction of oversight to, well, oversight rather than overseeing. The gulping down of any and all data transmitted electronically. And who do you think authorized the expenditures for that massive data-storage complex in Utah?

This is not confined to the US: Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained by the British security service for the full 9 hours (which almost never happens) allowed under the horrendously loose provision of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000—passed by Parliament a year before the September 11 attacks.

I’ve also argued in the past that we, the people, basically authorize Congress to authorize the president to grope around in our private lives: we want to be safe, are willing to give power to those who promise to do everything possible to keep us safe, and will punish those who are unwilling to do everything possible. We won’t tolerate failure, I’ve asserted, so will tolerate almost everything else.

I’m no longer so sure that’s true, at least the part that we’ll punish leaders if something bad happens. In fact, I think I was badly, grossly, wrong about that in ways that should have been obvious.

What have been obvious failures of security in the past century or so? William Randolph Hearst trumpeted “Remember the Maine!” and pushed McKinley toward war, but was McKinley himself punished for the alleged Spanish perfidy? Pearl Harbor was attacked on FDR’s watch, and, again, the result was war—but not punishment for the president. LBJ trumped up the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led, yep, to war, but not to a diminution of his power.

Carter was considered weak in the wake of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, but it’s not at all clear that the determination of weakness was due to the takeover itself rather than the long siege or the lousy US economy. The Marine compound was attacked in Beirut under Reagan and the Black Hawk Down incident occurred under Clinton, but because both presidents chose to cut the US’s losses, it’s not clear to what, if any, extent either man was punished: each was re-elected after these events.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing? Again, Clinton wasn’t punished for that, easily winning a second term the following year.

And, of course, there’s the example of President George W. Bush. The worst attack by foreign terrorists on US soil and not only did he not pay a price, his approval ratings went up.

Now, it is common to talk about a rally-round-the-flag effect in response to national crises, but if this effect is real, then the punishment thesis doesn’t really work: they’re mutually exclusive.

This is just so goddamned obvious I have no excuse for having missed it.

I do think it’s possible that politicians are afraid they’ll be punished by constituents, but the real threat is less from constituents than political opponents, and from worrying that they’ll be called “soft” on terrorism or crime or drugs or whatever. If they don’t have any response to that charge, then they might get tagged as weak—but the weakness (if it is really even a weakness) may be due less to the alleged softness than to the lack of response itself.

Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Bush responded with war; presidents Reagan and Clinton responded with cut-and-run, and President Carter, the one considered weak, didn’t seem to have a clear response. In Carter’s case, that lack of clarity was read as lack of competence.

There’s a lot I’m throwing out, here, and much that I likely should be considering and am not. But on that basic point, that politicians act aggressively so as not to punished for [the consequences of alleged] softness, I’m pretty damned sure I was wrong.

I may be wrong on this, too, but I now think the issue isn’t punishment for an attack or even for lack of aggression following that attack, but lack of clarity  in the response.


Can you hear me calling you?

11 06 2013

Howza ’bout a quickie?

Personal experiences, privacy, disclosure, spying, blah blah: When I was in college I worked for The Daily Cardinal, the radical campus newspaper.

The editorial editor was always a Marxist (almost always of the Trotskyite persuasion, although the brilliant and scary Karen once referred to her “Stalinist friends”), and the former editor (who the staff loved when he was editorial editor and hated as editor-editor) was prosecuted and imprisoned for failing to register for the draft. Oh, and one of the bombers of Sterling Hall (mentioned a few posts back) had worked at the Cardinal before heading underground.

So: It was not inconceivable that mere association with the Cardinal was enough to land someone on a a government list somewhere.

I never worried too much about it, even though I was quite active politically (anti-nukes, anti-apartheid, US-out-of-Central-America, etc.): I just didn’t rate. I joked that if the FBI did have a file on me, then they were wasting their damn time.

This, then, is the flipside to my flipping out about privacy: I don’t rate, so if the NSA is scooping up information on me, they’re wasting their damn time.

I’m all over the place on this NSA thing. I hated and hate the PATRIOT Act, and think any scandal over snooping is due to the fact that it’s policy, that it’s been stamped RIGHT ON! by Congress and the courts. I get why journalists and pundits (and I) are banging on about this—journalists and pundits (and I) like disclosure of governmental activity—but I’m more flabbergasted by the flabbergast of those journalists and pundits than I am by this particular bit of governmental activity.

I mean, what the hell did these people think we were getting with the PATRIOT Act and FISA and deferential courts?

And there ain’t no surprise about Obama, either: He made clear when he was running the first time that he was going to hit the national security thing hard, differentiating himself from Bush in seeking to legalize data seeking.

Any scandal is that this is all SOP, and insofar as the majority of those polled seem just fine with it all, t’ain’t no scandal at all.

I may be in the minority on this—I hate the info dragnet—but I also understand the general shrug on this: most folks just don’t see or feel any effects from this. And hell, back in the day when I might have had some, small, reason to think there might be eyes on the crowd I ran with, even then I noticed no effects.

Damn, this is getting too long: lemme truncate it. One,  I’ve long assumed any electronic transaction was not confined to private wires, so the latest bit is less revelation than confirmation. Two, in sucking up every last bit of info about every last person, I find a kind of safety in numbers—I and tens of millions of my fellow Americans (and hundreds of millions of my fellow Earthlings) don’t rate. Three (and this requires an argument I’m not going to give, because already tl;dr), I’m more worried about corporate than govt info-hauls precisely because I think corporations are more likely to use the info than is the govt.

Finally, what matters more than the info-haul is the mindset behind the info-haul but I am not going to get into it tonight because this post is not the 3-or-4 grafs I was thinking it was going to be and it’s time to go to bed.

So, whomsoever may be reading this (wink, wink): nighty-night!