Wednesday, January 22, 2014


This article originally appeared in the 1.23.14 issue of Metroland.

            So, did the President’s speech about NSA spying put your fears to rest?  Me neither.  I heard most of it in the car.  He sounded nervous, overly careful in his choices of words, and thoroughly unconvincing.  This from the guy who’s delivered, over and over, some of the most compelling speeches of our lifetime.

            What did he say?  It was kind of like this: we’ll have more “oversight” in section this and that proceedings (trust us, trust us!), we’ll have study groups look at scary things, we’ll have a secret public advocate attend secret court hearings and provide double-secret “oversight” (trust us some more!), and, maybe we won’t let the government hold all that surveillance data anymore, maybe we’ll leave it all with somebody in the private sector.  This last thingee, coming mere weeks after Target and a bunch of other big retailers admitted that their customer credit card data had been filched by folks using a program whipped up by a 17 year-old, does not make me feel safer.  Let’s outsource surveillance!  What could possibly go wrong?

            Obama failed to address the fact that his NSA henchmen had been caught bald-faced lying to Congress.  And while he acknowledged Edward Snowden, without whom this speech and the “reforms” it brings would not have happened, he refused to cut him any slack whatsoever.  So Snowden is still, in the eyes of the Feds, a rogue criminal, and not the whistleblower hero he so obviously is (NSA toady Rep. Mike Rogers, who has no more business being the head of the House Intelligence Committee than my dog Kimchi, was blabbing away on Sunday morning teevee that Snowden had help from the Rooskies, despite a total lack of evidence that this was remotely true).

            My go-to sources for this sort of thing, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, were surprisingly, albeit tepidly, positive following the speech.  Apparently expectations for any kind of change had been so low that the modest gestures approximating a call for reform generated some optimism.   Further to the left (over where it meets libertarianism), there were the predictable howls of protest about the wretched police state we find ourselves laboring in.  Normally, I’d dismiss these as the histrionic and narcissistic work of sad contrarians, except what these bohos were saying was pretty close to what I’ve been saying (or at least thinking) for a long time.  I highly recommend that you take the time to read Chris Hedges’ What Obama Really Meant Was... over at for a scholarly and comprehensive look at the historical and socio-economic forces that got us here.  Holy moly times 10. I used to think that I use the word “fascist” a little too much here.  Not anymore.  Fascist.  Fascist.  Fascist.

            The lack of meaningful change we can believe in is probably most evident in the lack of a firestorm from the NSA’s staunchest defenders, like the aforementioned creep Rep. Mike Rogers, various former NSA officials (who make fortunes from their NSA connections) or Rogers’ Democratic counterpart Senator Diane Feinstein, who has made one wacky statement after another about the propriety of the government’s unrestrained spying on its own citizenry.    Most recently, Feinstein went on Meet The Press and said that everything the NSA is doing is just fine because the NSA is so “professional.”  And she said it over and over again.  Professional!  Trust us! End of argument.  The mainstream press, as usual, gives the whole issue a pass.  You know the drill, there’s good arguments on both sides and it’s not our job to report the truth.  Next story.

            If you’ve read this column much, you know that we like Obama over here.  A whole lot.  Which makes this privacy thing troubling, to say the least.  As a presidential candidate, Obama was emphatic that he would end the government spying on its own citizens, add transparency to the NSA, and do everything he could to restore meaning to the Fourth Amendment. This was all way pre-Snowden; there were reports of abuses of the law, of the NSA being a little to cozy with telcos, but this stuff was barely front-page news.  And as a former constitutional law professor, one would assume he knew what he was saying.

            So what happened?  If you’ve read spy novels or war history books, you know that there’s oftentimes good-guy clandestine things going on that can’t be made public, like when the US let the Germans bomb the bejesus out of some European cities during WWII, because to reveal prior knowledge of the bombings would betray intelligence sources needed for the larger war.  Did Obama flip because of things we can’t know?   That’s the root of the whole “trust us” deal, isn’t it? 

            Or did he just hit a bureaucracy / shadow government more powerful than the presidency, and lacks the power, or the will, or the balls to take it down?

Paul Rapp is an earnest IP attorney busily practicing near the NY/MA border who is enjoying the IFC show“Spoils of Babylon” way too much.



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