June 12, 2013

Fed Up with All the Bullshit

In the final section of the preceding post (the section subtitled "The Filtering of the NSA/Surveillance Stories"), I discussed the manner in which the journalists to whom Edward Snowden provided documents chose to continue to conceal much of the information he had given them. I emphasized that the explanations provided to the general public are notably threadbare, and filled with familiar, vacuous phrases. One of the links I included itself links to another article. It is worth noting the fuller version of some comments from Glenn Greenwald in the BuzzFeed piece:
“We’re not engaged in a mindless, indiscriminate document dump, and our source didn’t want us to be,” said Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer, in an email to BuzzFeed Saturday. “We’re engaged in the standard journalistic assessment of whether the public value to publication outweighs any harms."

“I’m sure the Guardian has consulted lawyers about all of this, but as far as I know, none of the decisions have been legal, only journal[istic],” Greenwald said. He tweeted earlier on Saturday that the Guardian would not be publishing one of the full unredacted PowerPoint slides related to the PRISM datamining program, because “it contains very specific technical NSA means for collection - we’d probably be prosecuted if we did."

“We’re applying the standard judgment test that journalists apply every day: first, is it newsworthy and relevant, ie, is there public interest in knowing this?” Greenwald told BuzzFeed. “If so: is there genuine harm that comes from publication? And if there is harm, does the public value outweigh/justify the harm?"
My earlier post discussed only a few of the many problems with these formulations, including: Who makes up "the public," and what specifically are the factors involved in determining what is in "the public interest"? Greenwald (and many others) appear to assume that everyone just sort of "knows" what these phrases mean. In fact, we don't know what they mean with any specificity. When critical terms are left undefined, alarms should always start clanging in your head. And as I pointed out, "the public interest" can mean anything at all. Something which can mean anything, means nothing. With regard to political matters, such phrases usually indicate that someone is trying to put something over on you.

I also pointed out that Greenwald (and Gellman, and Snowden himself, and many, many others) all talk about "harms," but we are never told what particular harms with any degree of specificity, just as we are not told who it is who is supposedly in danger of being harmed. As far as Greenwald's comment that "we're applying the standard judgment test that journalists apply every day" is concerned, I can only note that the irony is rather heavy when Greenwald, who writes endlessly about the numerous failures, limitless misrepresentations, hugely significant lapses, and so on, of mainstream journalism now appeals to some notion of journalistic "community standard." If journalism is, generally speaking, so rotten and filled with failure, who cares what the journalism community's standard is? Apparently Greenwald cares, at least now.

The preceding post also discussed what ought to be a disturbing similarity between the justifications for concealment employed by Snowden's chosen journalists and the State's justifications for keeping massive amounts of information from the public. In both cases, the "authorities" rely on factors and standards that are never specifically defined, on the basis of which they engage in some kind of unexplained "weighing" process, all to decide whether to reveal or conceal the information in question.

In summary: we are left with terms that are never defined and/or that are largely devoid of meaning, and a process of reaching judgments which remains a complete mystery to all the rest of us. That is to say: we have absolutely no way of evaluating what it is they are doing, for the simple reason that we don't know what they're doing with any specificity. And in terms of what has not been disclosed, and as I already pointed out, we are not given even the slightest indication of why particular information has been withheld. With regard to the 41 slides that make up the Prism "brief," for example, we might have been told: "Slides 9 through 16 concern X," where X is still generally described, if necessary, as for example: "disabling computer security systems in terms we view as potentially helpful to enemies of the U.S." That at least would make what they're doing minimally intelligible. But we're provided no details at all. We just have to "trust" them. Do you hear those alarms going off again? You should.

I will also state frankly, again with regard to the similar justifications offered by both these journalists and the government, that there is a very strong element of elitism involved that I find objectionable in the extreme. In the case of the Guardian, we know that Greenwald and at least two other reporters had access to Snowden's documents (or at least parts of them). We can safely assume that at least one editor was also involved, and probably more than one given the "sensitivity" of the material and the attention they knew the stories would receive. We can also safely assume, as Greenwald does, that "the Guardian has consulted lawyers about all of this." How many lawyers? We don't know. I have some familiarity with matters of this kind, and I think we can say it's at least two or three, and possibly five or six (given the importance of this material and the stories based on it). So how many people are we talking about? Eight, 10, 15, 20? Almost certainly between 10 and 20, at a minimum. That's just at the Guardian. The same would be true at the Washington Post. So we're talking about 40 or 50 individuals, possibly more, who reviewed Snowden's documents or at least some of them. I'm probably undercounting.

On top of this, we've all seen the stories about how the government hands out clearances to classified and "Top Secret" information like candy. But now we're told that all those very special workers for the State, plus the 40 or 50 people (and probably more) at the Guardian and the Washington Post, well, they're so responsible, and conscientious, and impossibly pure that they can be trusted with information that apparently will cause the simultaneous implosion of numerous galaxies if it were to fall into the hands of irresponsible, criminally careless, and stupid people -- like you. Like me.

It is at this point that you must forgive me for expressing my conclusion somewhat crudely: Peddle this bullshit somewhere else. I'm not buying it, not any of it.

I'm especially not buying it because the State's insistence on "secrecy" is a series of lies from beginning to end. And I implore you always to remember that we are speaking of a State which arrogates to itself the power to murder anyone it wishes, for any reason it chooses. This is a viciously authoritarian State running entirely out of control. Of course they would prefer to keep every single thing in the world "secret" and away from public view -- because they want and intend to do whatever the hell they wish, they don't want you to know about any of it (until they do want you to know, at least one or two things, when you'll be sorry you found out even that), and they don't intend to ever have to account to anyone for a single damned thing.

I therefore repeat: dump every single goddamned document you can get your hands on in toto, and make every last bit of it available to the public. It's the public that's paying for all of it, and not merely monetarily -- and it's the public for whose benefit everyone claims to be working (another similarity between the journalists and the State). If it's all for the public, doesn't the public have not only the right to know all about it, but the first right to know about it? But, no: you're too stupid to know what's best for you. Your betters will have to make these determinations. They'll decide what you can know, how much, and when.

Bullshit, all of it. These are the dishonest, insulting arguments of power used to justify itself. To hell with it.

Many of the same problems continue with regard to what these journalists have chosen to tell us about. Thanks to this tweet, I was directed to this article. Take a look:
Now that Snowden has revealed himself to the world as the NSA whistleblower, details about his interaction with the press are surfacing. And at the center of the drama is a still mostly unpublished 41-slide presentation, classified top secret, that Snowden gave to the Washington Post and the Guardian to expose the NSA’s internet spying operation “PRISM.”

Only five slides from the presentation have been published. The other 36 remain a mystery. Both the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and the Post’s Barton Gellman have made it clear that the rest of the PowerPoint is dynamite stuff … which we’re not going to be seeing any time soon. “If you saw all the slides you wouldn’t publish them,” wrote Gellman on Twitter, adding in a second tweet: “I know a few absolutists, but most people would want to defer judgment if they didn’t know the full contents.”

Even Greenwald, who urged me rather strongly in 2010 to publish Bradley Manning’s personal chats, is taking a more conservative view of the NSA’s PowerPoint. “I’m not going to discuss our legal advice with you,” Greenwald wrote on Twitter, “but we’re not publishing NSA tech methods.”
We are confronted with several problems here. First, we have only a small fraction of the total number of slides from the presentation. Second, we have the problem with PowerPoint presentations themselves. And third, related to the second point, we have a problem interpreting the minimal amount of text contained on the slides. The Wired article fleshes out the second and third points:
It’s strangely incongruent that a PowerPoint deck has taken on such importance. Indeed, the very properties of PowerPoint that make it one of the most hated conveyances of information in the world have contributed to the lingering uncertainty about PRISM and what it really does. Crude vector art and bullet points leave too much to the imagination, even when it’s the most highly classified crude vector art and bullet points the public has ever seen.

After company executives and administration officials disputed the key finding in the newspapers’ first reports — that the NSA has unilateral access to backend servers of Google, Facebook, and seven other technology companies — the Guardian released a new slide (slide number eight, we’re told) to support the paper’s claim. This one includes this PRISM point: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube [and] Apple.”

But in context, that additional line adds little. The slide is intended to distinguish PRISM collection from the NSA’s raw internet wiretapping. It doesn’t address whether the collection is broad and automatic, or narrow and mediated by lawyers at the target companies, as subsequent reporting by other news outlets has indicated.
We thus begin to see how difficult it is to evaluate even the information that has been provided to us. After we try to sift through the available details, we're left with the sense that the government is engaged in intensive, systematic intrusions into individual privacy, but many of the details -- exactly what is happening, how, and in what manner -- are still elusive in varying degrees. In a significant sense, this isn't different from what we already knew from numerous stories over the past several years (see here and here, as only two examples from my own archives).

The problem is exponentially worsened when we consider how little of the total presentation we've been given. We all know the great dangers of selective information. Let me provide a very different kind of example to make the issue clearer. A very familiar, indeed cliched, scene in a certain kind of lousy movie (or novel) involves a person who tries to start trouble between two friends. The troublemaker says to one of the friends, "Do you know what Tim said about you? He said you're a manipulative, backstabbing son of a bitch, and he'd like to punch your goddamned lights out." As it happens, Tim said exactly that. But, as a wise friend of mine once remarked, "Context is everything." And the context surrounding Tim's remark was his explaining how he would feel if he were to find out that a close friend had acted in a certain way. He then went on to say that the close friend in question -- the person to whom the troublemaker ran with this dynamite story -- had never acted that way, and Tim was certain he never would. But the troublemaker neglected to include that part of the story. The trouble will begin if the person who is told the selective version of the truth believes that he has all the relevant information. In fact, all he has is one small piece of a larger story. The small piece of the story by itself, if treated as the totality of the required information, is not only not the truth: it is the opposite of the truth.

The parallels between this little fictional example and the Prism story are obviously not exact. I'm not suggesting that what we do know is not true, or that the actual truth is the opposite of what the slides we've been provided convey. But as indicated above, there are huge difficulties in interpreting the slides we know about with precision. Moreover, as my friend noted, context is everything. The full truth might be far worse than what we now know, or it might be awful, but in a way that is significantly different from what we now think. The critical point is that, because we have been provided with only a very selective part of the truth, we have no way of answering these questions. The problem goes still deeper than that: because we have only a small fraction of the entire presentation, we don't even know what questions we should be asking. It may be that we should actually be worried about an aspect of all this that hasn't occurred to anyone -- at least, to anyone in the great unwashed public. Some of the select few who have reviewed all 41 slides may have performed a brilliant analysis, and they may know that there are additional issues out there that would make our heads explode (or explode even more) -- but if they have such knowledge, based not on what they've shared so far but on the totality of the presentation, they aren't going to tell us.

Note, too, that we don't know that what we've been told is the most important part of the Prism story. You might argue that the published stories imply that, but they don't explicitly make any such claim. The published stories represent the newspapers' judgment concerning what information they believe, via some mysterious alchemical process, it is "responsible" to share with us. So perhaps what we know isn't the most important part of the story.

This is an entirely unsatisfactory way of imparting information to the public. In fact, what we're left with ("we" huddled masses, that is) is not knowledge at all in certain critical respects. We have isolated bits of information (which are unquestionably very bad and deeply troubling), but we have no idea how those bits would look when placed in the full context of the entire presentation. I can't imagine anything that would make the isolated pieces we have look "good" or "satisfactory," but again, to know that much isn't to know much more than we did before these stories were published.

And now we have the prospect of many more stories from the Guardian. We have no reason to think the Guardian is going to alter its basic approach to divulging the information it possesses; to the contrary, indications are that the methodology will remain the same. Of course, I will read the stories, and it may be that even the isolated pieces of information we're given will be so explosive that a major debate will occur, and even some modifications to current policy. But I wouldn't count on it.

I'm enormously tired by all the filtering, all the selective sharing of information, the repeated insistence that the general public can't be trusted with the full truth and that a select elite will decide what's best for us to know. It's all bullshit, and it needs to stop. Even to attempt to reach the truth, or just one part of the truth, when confronted with such an unending series of obstacles is absolutely exhausting. In truth, I think those in the elite ranks count on that: the prospect of trying to make sense out of the little information we're given is so forbidding that most people give up. They finally accept the tiny morsels they're provided, because they're too goddamned tired to fight for more. And they probably have at least a dim suspicion that what they know isn't the truth, or perhaps even close to the truth, but they simply don't care any longer.

It's a fucking rotten way to run a newspaper. It's a fucking rotten way to run a country. It's a fucking rotten way to live.