November 14, 2012

The Oldest Show in Town

I'll tell you the God's honest truth. I can't even begin to get worked up about this:
The F.B.I. investigation that toppled the director of the C.I.A. and has now entangled the top American commander in Afghanistan underscores a danger that civil libertarians have long warned about: that in policing the Web for crime, espionage and sabotage, government investigators will unavoidably invade the private lives of Americans.

On the Internet, and especially in e-mails, text messages, social network postings and online photos, the work lives and personal lives of Americans are inextricably mixed. Private, personal messages are stored for years on computer servers, available to be discovered by investigators who may be looking into completely unrelated matters.

In the current F.B.I. case, a Tampa, Fla., woman, Jill Kelley, a friend both of David H. Petraeus, the former C.I.A. director, and Gen. John R. Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, was disturbed by a half-dozen anonymous e-mails she had received in June. ...

[A] squad of investigators at the bureau’s Tampa office, in consultation with prosecutors, opened a cyberstalking inquiry. Although that investigation is still open, law enforcement officials have said that criminal charges appear unlikely

In the meantime, however, there has been a cascade of unintended consequences. What began as a private, and far from momentous, conflict between two women, Ms. Kelley and Paula Broadwell, Mr. Petraeus’s biographer and the reported author of the harassing e-mails, has had incalculable public costs....

For privacy advocates, the case sets off alarms.

“There should be an investigation not of the personal behavior of General Petraeus and General Allen, but of what surveillance powers the F.B.I. used to look into their private lives,” Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview. “This is a textbook example of the blurring of lines between the private and the public."

Law enforcement officials have said they used only ordinary methods in the case, which might have included grand jury subpoenas and search warrants.
I can easily believe that last point may well be true: that officials "used only ordinary methods in the case." So the question is: At present, what exactly do "ordinary methods" entail?

But, many are saying (and saying and saying), this is terrible! We have no privacy left at all! What the bloody hell is the government doing? What makes them think they have the right to trample all over the private lives of citizens in this manner?

Well, gosh. I'm sorry, but I can't get upset about this -- and I tried, I really did -- because this is very old news. I say that for many reasons. Here are just a few.

I recall someone paraphrasing a defender of the old FISA regime a few years ago. (The defender was Steny Hoyer, if anyone cares.) By "the old FISA regime," I mean the one that everyone thought was completely swell, even those folks who were yelling about the awful changes that the government wanted. And the paraphrase was entirely accurate as to the substance of what the government had been doing for years. This is how it went:
We can already spy on everyone. Everyone! Got that, you schmucks? And we don't even need a warrant a lot of the time! Every once in a while, we kinda think we should get a warrant. No reason for that actually. But it looks better, you know? Keeps the stupidly annoying civil liberties crowd happy. But those idiots at the FISA court will give us one nearly every time! [See here again.] And since FISA is a secret court, none of those peons (otherwise known as "citizens") will ever know a damned thing about what's actually going on anyway. It's good to be an Empire!
I repeat: that's what the government had been doing for decades, and nobody gave a damn.

I also remember hearing an argument about privacy issues in general several years back, and it went like this:
With regard to FISA and issues of liberty and privacy in general, let me now ask you a few questions. How long do you think it would take you to identify, read, and understand every provision in every statute, regulation and other authorization that gives surveillance powers to the government? Furthermore: Would you know each and every place to look, or how to determine what those places were? Additionally: With a staff of 20, or 50, could it be done, even if you were provided with limitless time and limitless funds?

I submit to you, without qualification or reservation, that you could not do it. No one could. Consider that most legislators in Washington aren't even aware of much of what's in the bills they so eagerly vote on. Consider the prohibitive length and complexity of legislation that comes before Congress. That's true of what is going on now. If you tried to track down every piece of legislation, every regulation, every administrative agency ruling, and every other pronouncement still in effect that allows the government to surveil and otherwise keep track of you, me, the guy down the street, the woman next door and the man in the moon, based on alleged concern with and the need to protect us all from the ravages of drugs, "illicit" sex, any and all other suspected criminal activity and, natch, terrorism, how on God's green earth would you do it? You couldn't. I further submit to you that the only reason you appear to have some precious remnants of freedom left, and the only reason you remain at liberty, is that the government hasn't comprehensively focused on all the powers it already possesses and hasn't come anywhere close to utilizing them fully and consistently. This is the moment you should fall to your knees and thank whatever gods may be for the miraculous, close to perfect incompetence of the pathetically ineffectual blockheads in Washington.
Haha. No, no, the fact that no one has any privacy left at all -- and hasn't had for years, once the government decides to go after you -- isn't funny at all. I just thought it was pretty funny that this old argument referred to "illicit" sex, even with the quotes. That's pretty funny because...oh, you know.

And I heard the more general point made this way -- and again, this was said a very long time ago in internet time:
The fact that every aspect of our lives is regulated, directed and controlled has a further result, one of the most dangerous of all: If someone in government decides to go after you, he has an endless array of weapons from which to choose. Even if you emerge from the battle with your life largely intact, anyone in government who wishes to do so can turn your life into hell for years on end, even for decades. It may all begin with some pathetic bureaucrat in a cramped, stifling cubicle. Perhaps someone cut him off in traffic that morning; perhaps he had a fight at home the night before. Perhaps he's just a rotten human being. He happens to come across your name on some document, and he thinks: "I know: I'll go after him. That could be fun." And your life is destroyed.
You probably figured out where I heard all this stuff. Yeah, I wrote it -- four and a half years ago.

That old article has a lot of other information in it, some of which you may find of interest. This was my conclusion:
I do not find the least bit of enjoyment in breaking the news to you, but I suppose someone must. In terms of liberty and freedom, the right to be left alone is the most precious value of all. Regardless of what happens with FISA, and even if FISA were abolished altogether, you lost that right decades ago.

And if it is up to the ruling class, you are not getting it back.
This latest story is not, in any respect at all, news. This has been the state of affairs in this country for decades.

So whatcha gonna do? Write outraged blog posts and newspaper columns? Demand congressional hearings? Please. The whole point of hearings is to soothe the disgruntled and the people who are yelling about how terrible it all is, while changing absolutely nothing of consequence -- of consequence, that is, to the ruling class, which will engineer any and all hearings to make certain that their power and prerogatives are not altered to any degree whatsoever. The only way their power and prerogatives change is to be increased. They'll be happy to have hearings for you. It's entertainment, baby! And then everyone will shut up for another five years, until the next big "new" scandal erupts. And then the whole routine will be repeated again.

But be sure to vote in 2014, and in every election! This is a democracy, after all! It's your country! Love it or leave it!

I should mention one other point. It's just a minor little thing, no biggie. Don't you assume that every email of yours, every blog post and comment, every telephone call, anything you write or say using media of any kind is monitored by some government agency or other, if only they decide to check up on you, for any reason they dream up or for no reason at all, just because they're bored and, hell, you look like you might be fun to investigate for a while? I have assumed exactly that for years. I find it hard to believe that everyone doesn't make the same assumption.

But "privacy"? You don't have any. You haven't had any for a long, long time. And this latest story? Fodder for conversation, and outraged posts and articles of course, for a week or two, perhaps three. Then everybody will forget about it. There will be another BIG STORY to talk about, another BIG CONTROVERSY. It's a circus, with flashing lights and lots of colors. Oh, the beautiful colors!

No, I'm not upset in the least about this latest story. I am disgusted -- disgusted that so many people fall for this same routine over and over again. Don't people ever get tired of it? Christ, it's the oldest show in town.