January 16, 2014

Nobody Expects the SS!

Because I am so incredibly generous and thoughtful, I've decided to once again give you the benefit of a look into my crystal ball. (I had to get a new one; the old one was worn out from years of use and needed a vacation.) On this occasion, we will consider Obama's widely anticipated address tomorrow, a speech, as described by the New York Times, that he will give "this time at the Justice Department [sic] defending government spying even as he adjusts it to address a wave of public concern over civil liberties."

On an earlier occasion several years ago, when I considered the likely blubberings to be heard from Obama on the subject of his "new" strategy for Afghanistan, I wrote the following. Note how few adjustments are required to adapt the previous introduction to this moment:
The mountains will be in labour; an absurd mouse will be born. -- Horace
So many meetings of the war council! government agencies and committees, and even a special review panel! So much intense deliberation over so many months! So many knowledgeable experts training their finely honed minds on the problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan! government surveillance! So many challenges to conventional wisdom and the policies inherited from the reviled Bush administration! So much independence of thought, sober reflection, and careful calibration of the array of competing objectives and concerns!

Truly, the operations of our government -- and if not of government generally, certainly of the Obama administration -- are a wonder to behold. We are comforted by their deliberate, subtle approach, we are bathed in the soothing liquid of their studious avoidance of easy slogans and empty rhetoric. These are profoundly thoughtful people, putting forth their best effort to arrive at the best solution for all concerned.

And so, so many people fall for this stinking load of unmitigated shit. ...

Obama will offer something for everyone, although no one will be truly happy with the result. But this, we will be assured by the allegedly adult monitors of our behavior, is what real "compromise" means! In turn, this is a further demonstration of Obama's seriousness, of his willingness to make difficult decisions. No one is satisfied; therefore, he must be right! Aren't people even just slightly tired of this overused script? Not so that anyone in the ruling class need be concerned for more than a fleeting instant, if that.
I admit that I find it grimly amusing how entirely accurate this description remains, even though the specifics change. But once you understand the basic dynamics of how this game is played, the mystery evaporates.

I will also note, for those keeping score, that everything I predicted about the Afghanistan speech turned out to be right -- although the speech contained one additional (and awful) element that I hadn't predicted, all of which I discussed in a followup post. I suspect that Obama may offer a variant of that additional element in the speech tomorrow; I'll get to that in a moment.

The NYT story offers a useful blueprint for the speech, and for much of the commentary we will undoubtedly hear in its wake. (Should we call tomorrow's address the Spy Speech? And abbreviate it as "the SS," just to annoy those in the peanut gallery? Done.) One of the themes of the Times piece, and it may well be one of Obama's own themes, is that you have a very different perspective on questions of national security once you're the President. And those who use this argument actually do mean you, and they particularly mean anyone who dares to criticize Obama for violations of individual liberty and constitutional protections, and similarly inconsequential matters. "If you knew what the President knows, you'd understand how difficult these questions are!" Oohh, see, the President has secret information! If you only knew what that secret information was, you'd agree with him! And you'd see how much he suffers to do what is right!

The only problem with this argument is that such secret information is almost always wrong. Remember the comedy of errors concerning the Boston bombing? Just in case you've forgotten:
Consider how haphazard this business was. The FBI only investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the first instance because Russia asked them to. When Russia later failed to respond to a request "for further information to justify more rigorous checks," and after an interview (just one, apparently) "revealed nothing suspicious," they dropped it. Then, the U.S. government knew (or didn't know) about the trip to Russia. And then: Boston.

Feeling safer?

What I fervently wish at least a few more people understood and appreciated is that this is how "intelligence" is conducted generally. I've written numerous essays about the farcical charade that is "intelligence," and still almost everyone (including people who I know have read several of these articles at a minimum) talks endlessly about how crucial it is that "we get the intelligence right." The "intelligence" is almost never right.
For the full argument about "intelligence," see this and this, and follow the links for much more.

The supposed possession of "secret information" can be used to justify anything. Anything. And such "secret information" is almost certain to be wrong. You forget these crucial truths at your great peril.

But the Times adores this argument:

*** "Like other presidents before him, the idealistic candidate skeptical of government power found that the tricky trade-offs of national security issues look different to the person charged with using that power to ensure public safety."

*** "[Aides] said his views have been shaped to a striking degree by the reality of waking up every day in the White House responsible for heading off the myriad threats he finds in his daily intelligence briefings.

“'When you get the package every morning, it puts steel in your spine,' said David Plouffe, the president’s longtime adviser. 'There are people out there every day who are plotting. The notion that we would put down a tool that would protect people here in America is hard to fathom.'”

*** "'[Obama is] sitting on the other end of the pen now,' said the former Obama aide. 'He has more information than he did then. And he trusts himself to use these powers more than he did the Bush administration.'"

And so on.

The Times story is nauseating in its deference to Obama's own PR efforts. Get a load of this:
[Obama] was surprised at the uproar that ensued [following the Snowden revelations], advisers said, particularly that so many Americans did not trust him, much less trust the oversight provided by the intelligence court and Congress. As more secrets spilled out, though, aides said even Mr. Obama was chagrined. They said he was exercised to learn that the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was being tapped.

Mr. Obama appointed a panel to review the programs. “The point we made to him was, ‘We’re not really concerned about you, Barack, but God forbid some other guy’s in the office five years from now and there’s another 9/11,’ ” said Richard A. Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser who served on the panel. He had to “lay down some roadblocks in addition to what we have now so that once you’re gone it’ll be harder” to abuse spying abilities.
This is supposed to be some kind of "news analysis" -- and it's a goddamned fan letter written by a not very bright 12-year-old.

As for what Obama will specifically recommend: to the extent he will be specific at all, and it appears much of his speech will be deliberately vague on details, all of his recommendations are meaningless cosmetic changes. Whether it's maintaining telephone records at the phone companies themselves or some other third party, adding some sort of "public advocate" to the FISA court, creating an additional step or two for certain forms of surveillance (particularly of foreign leaders -- Obama wants to make sure they, or at least some of them, feel placated) -- none of it challenges the legitimacy of the surveillance itself. But look for many phrases on the order of, "I completely understand the concerns of many Americans with regard to respecting their privacy, and preventing the government from going on unnecessary fishing expeditions," blahblahblah. None of it will mean a damned thing. Not a single activity that the government cares about will be limited in any meaningful way.

In essence, the speech tomorrow will follow this pattern:

One: We face SERIOUS THREATS. We all know this, but it's even worse than you think. I have SECRET INFORMATION! It's BAD!! Be SCARED!!!

Two: My primary responsibility as President is TO PROTECT THE AMERICAN PEOPLE -- TO PROTECT YOU!

Three: I understand that we must find THE RIGHT BALANCE. And I'm completely sympathetic to your concerns for PRIVACY! It's one of the cherished freedoms that MAKES AMERICA UNIQUE AND THE GREATEST COUNTRY EVER!!

Four: Therefore, Cosmetic Changes 1 through whatever.

In my post several years ago following Obama's Afghanistan speech, I analyzed the additional element in Obama's remarks that I hadn't anticipated. I would not be the least surprised to hear a reprise in some form of the same idea in the SS tomorrow. (Hehe, I like that abbreviation.)

In the concluding section of the Afghanistan speech, Obama decried the "rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse," and he added this to drive the point home: "I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fiber of my being that we – as Americans – can still come together behind a common purpose."

I discussed these comments in the context of Obama's entire speech and observed:
Obama has put us all on notice: if we disagree with his policies, if we condemn the endless series of aggressive wars waged by the U.S., we are imperiling the strength and security of the United States itself. If we dare to criticize him or the actions of the U.S. government, we are displaying "rancor and cynicism and partisanship" that will "split asunder" the absolutely necessary national "unity." If we challenge Obama on any point of importance, we are "poisoning" the "national discourse."

In other words: disagreement on any matter of moment is not only dangerous, but illegitimate and even immoral. And if you consider the logical end of this argument, and what has happened before in American history (see this post about what happened during both World Wars, under Democratic presidents; much more about Wilson, World War I and the suppression of dissent will be found here), there is a further meaning: such disagreement may well be criminal.
I further noted that Obama hadn't yet made this argument in fully explicit terms, but the meaning of the principles he enunciated has certain implications. I would expect him to continue to avoid those implications -- Obama is such a wonderfully sympathetic figure (and also brave and heroic!), and he certainly doesn't want us to feel that we need to be scared of him! -- but he may well talk about how we need "to come together," recognize the concerns "that we hold in common," that we all understand we face genuine, serious threats and we must protect ourselves, etc. and so forth. And if you don't agree with him about all of that, you're just a horrible, terrible, cynical, rancorous, divisive, truly horrible person.

I think that covers the major points. It's going to be awful. And as before, it might be even more awful for still more reasons that I don't expect. We'll see soon enough.