Big Brother is Watching

I have been very remiss about blogging these last few weeks/months. I have been reserving my energy for my Washington Spectator posts and trying to build a head of steam for my next, still nascent, long-form project. Also I have been pretty depressed about what I read in the news. It isn’t so much the “scandals”–try as I might, I don’t see the Nixonian parallels with the IRS, who it sounds to me were doing their job (albeit heavy-handedly and glacially) in scrutinizing political-sounding groups that claimed to be non-political. Benghazi is a non-starter.

But the NSA stuff….. The huge scandal there, it seems to me, isn’t what’s illegal but what’s legal–and that the Patriot Act was both signed into law and subsequently protested without sufficient thought as to the civil liberty implications of proactive policing.

How can you keep an eye on suspicious parties without watching them? How can you even tell who’s suspicious? How can you look for worrisome patterns like “chatter” without having a data base to scan? You can’t; you have to make choices. Me personally, I’m willing to err on the side of civil liberties, but that means that I’m willing to trade a considerable measure of security. Are you?

You can’t demand that the government keep you 100 percent safe, personally blaming the president for not connecting the dots with the Tsarnaev brothers and kicking them out of the country two years ago (or not letting them in when they were children) a la Rand Paul, while also insisting that it wear blinders. Everyone is innocent until a crime is committed; if your aim is to preempt crimes, you can’t do it without looking into the affairs of innocent people. David Simon of The Wire fame had a smart blog post about this yesterday.

If you’re really worried about being watched, there are a number of things you can do. You can follow the lead of  far-right patriots and bonafide terrorists and criminals, and stay off the grid. Use burner phones, change them constantly, and keep your conversations short and cryptic. Don’t post your whereabouts on Facebook, throw out your EZ Pass and your GPS. Drive unregistered vehicles, don’t pay your taxes, don’t collect your benefits. Use cash only. And most of all, don’t trust corporations or anyone else in the private sector to keep your stuff private. Not only will they use it to push advertisements at you and sell your particulars to God knows who–they’ll turn them over to the government in a drop of a hat if that’s what they need to do to protect their interests.

On the less extreme side, we can have a frank discussion about how much risk we’re willing to tolerate. If maximal privacy is our ideal, if we deplore any and all data “dragnets,” if we are appalled by Guantanamos and tribunals, then we should fight them, loudly but also consistently. If right wing groups that call for the overthrow of the state want to be left alone, then they should be OK with leaving their left wing and Islamist counterparts alone as well. If long security lines at airports are intolerable, then we should be willing to tolerate a greater risk of highjacking. Be transparent and grown up and actuarial about it–at least put the issues on the table. If you’re too afraid of terrorists to hold public trials for them in venues like  New York City, then you’re not brave enough to have all those liberties you demand. What did Benjamin Franklin say? “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Mind you, I’m not justifying the NSA business or even defending it–I’m just saying that I think a lot of the outrage is both knee jerk and shallow. We’re living in an increasingly Orwellian society, but the Patriot Act was passed long before Obama became president–and we should be as worried about the information we’re giving up voluntarily every time we look for something on Google as what the government is taking.

If we really do live in a police state (and every state is poised on a slippery slope that leads there), they’re going to be watching us, no matter how many constitutional protections we put into place. When it comes down to it, power flows out of the barrel of a gun. Judges can be convinced to rubber stamp exemptions; whole unaccountable, unacknowledged agencies can be set up to carry out black ops–like Peter Graves’ and Martin Landau’s IM Force, whose exploits I so enjoyed watching on TV when I was a kid in the not-so-innocent 1960s (“As always, should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions”).

Public outrage–fueled by whistle blowers and leaks–may be our last line of defense. But the outrage has to be sustained, considered, informed, and principled. Comparing Obama to Nixon and the NSA to the Stazi doesn’t get us anywhere.  If the ACLU and the Tea Party are really on the same page about this, then they should get on the same page about a whole lot of other things as well.


12 thoughts on “Big Brother is Watching

  1. Not sure why everyone refers to “Nixonian parallels” when the more appropriate comparison would be to John F. Kennedy who explicitly used the IRS to go after “radical right” organizations via a program entitled “Ideological Organizations Project”.

    This was carefully documented by the late Prof. John A. Andrew III in his book, “Power the Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS From Kennedy to Nixon”.

    I do not agree with your assurances that the IRS was merely “doing its job”. They selected one category for rigorous special attention. That category was then subjected to more than just “careful scrutiny”. Instead, it was deliberately examined with intent to thwart their ability to receive 501(c)(4) status via the most powerful weapons that professional bureaucrats have — inertia and ever-increasing and ever-more-intrusive demands for “information” or documents.

    Someone should also require the IRS to explain precisely whom authorized its bureaucrats to revise the applicable law so that “exclusively” social welfare activities became “primarily” social welfare activities — and why they did so.

    Ultimately, this proves, yet again, why we need to go to a flat tax system where the overwhelming majority of tax returns could be filed on a postcard and, in the process, we could eliminate most of the IRS bureaucracy.

  2. “Also I have been pretty depressed about what I read in the news.”

    Yes. It gets to a point where blogging about things that upset or depress you starts to suck the life out of you.

    1. You’re so right, Hume’s Ghost…. about having the life sucked out of you, I mean.

      Ernie, I didn’t presume to “reassure” from a position of authority (I’m no tax expert) but was saying that “it sounds to me”–strictly my subjective opinion. Did you see this? It provides some interesting historical context. My understanding is that many more conservative groups received tax exempt status than liberal groups, but I also acknowledge that punitive taxation has been a part of the tyrant’s tool box since the first city states of Mesopotamia.

      1. I am generally familiar with the data in the article you linked….but the issue still is what did Congress intend when it passed the original law? Why did the original statute use the term “exclusively”? What did Congress want to accomplish?

        Leaving that issue aside, however, there still is the matter of why the IRS selected groups with “patriot” or “tea party” or any other similar terms for special attention and that special attention delayed processing of their requests not by weeks or even by a few months — but for years (in some cases).

        I would expect there to be more right-wing groups receiving exempt status because many more right-wing groups applied. There was no comparable activity on the left that matched the sudden explosion of tea party organizations which formed around the nation. By 2010, there were more than 2000 tea party organizations.

        Lastly, let’s consider the bigger picture here. I’m not sure how we should construct metrics to evaluate this situation but it is my judgment (yes subjective) that when you consider the totality of our history since FDR was in office, most scandals of this type have originated when Democrats occupied the White House. And most of the “special attention” by the IRS has always been directed against right-wing groups.

        There are only so many excuses which I am prepared to accept before making a conclusion regarding why this problem so often recurs under Democratic Administrations.

  3. What irritates me is the usual passive concent:”If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about”, this ineffect allows the government to do anything within permissive reasoning, to protect the people against the ever-presence, ever-powerful, ever-evil enemy which of course is determined by the government. This isn’t patriotism, this is zombification by settle degrees.

  4. Agreed–both the passive consent and the Rand Paul-esque attitudinizing. We need to have a serious, grown-up conversation about what kind of country we want to live in–and then we have to suck it up and take the consequences. As David Simon put it, “We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.”

    1. I often wonder what it would take for our countrymen to reclaim our previous understandings about what the concept of freedom means.

      For me, this started 30+ years ago when our state legislature passed mandatory seat-belt legislation; then they passed (at midnite without significant debate) so-called “fair share fee” legislation which required all state workers to contribute union dues even if not a union member.

      Then somehow we “decided” that Presidents could send American military forces overseas to fight for years and years without bothering to ask Congress to declare war — and even when the object of our military activities never attacked us or threatened to do so! And if that was not bad enough, our President can authorize torture (aka waterboarding) and not be impeached or go to jail! Not to mention killing American citizens abroad via drone strikes.

      This year, we have seen New York City pass a ban on selling sodas larger than 16 ounces
      by restaurants, fast food chains, delis, sports venues, movie theaters and street vendors — and nobody seems interested in asking a first-principles question, namely, why is it within the legitimate purview of government at any level to tell us what size drink we can purchase and consume?

      Perhaps Americans have lost their ability to be outraged and we are now prepared to accept ANY depredations of our freedoms so long as somebody in government declares it to be “necessary” and “proper”.

      1. Unfortunately, it will take a collective “nervous breakdown” of society for any real change. We have a President whose saint-like aura shields him from criticism when in reality he is proving himself to be a clone of the previous President only with more tact. We have two political parties that serve no practical purpose to the needs of the nation much less the people. There must be a kind of reformation but this will only come outside of our comfort level, outside of our safety zones. This can only happen when things completely fall apart.

  5. The national security state is as out of control as it is, I suspect, for three reasons: 1) Because we expect to be kept safe at any cost; 2) Because the natural tendency of the bureaucracies and sub-contracting corporations that comprise it is to grow; and 3) Because the tendency of information technology itself is to exponentially increase its capabilities. Elected officials are both captives and caretakers of the corporatist superstate–it’s hard to imagine any president tearing it down. It’s hard to imagine any whistleblower doing so either, though they certainly do help to refocus the conversation.

    I honestly don’t have any answers myself–and I’m not sure that I would trust anyone who said they did either.

    1. Not many people (other than perhaps anarchists) object to prudent national security measures. The problems we currently are debating are:

      (1) Should we believe what our government tells us? [Based upon human history, the answer to this question is indisputably, NO!]

      (2) Consequently, the legislative branch has the obligation to enact strict rules regarding when, how, why, and how much data the state can collect on Americans and how it is used — and, furthermore, it must implement very specific safeguards which result in draconian penalties against ANY public official (elected or appointed) who violates the public trust by deliberately lying, concealing, evading, or otherwise not adhering to their oath of office to protect our Constitution and the underlying values which it represents.

      When I say “draconian” I mean automatic severe jail terms and a lifetime prohibition on working for any government agency (local, state, or national—directly or indirectly through contractors).

      Had such draconian measures been in place after 2001, Dick Cheney and George Bush would now be in prison — where they belong.

      1. I think our government has always been in the business of double-think. In that sense we voice a belief in democracy, beat it over the heads of our enemies but do the opposite. I think it’s hilarious when there is some State Dept. official and/or the White House states that so and so dictator of the day is quote “killing his own people” as if the U.S. never has or never will engage in similar actions. This is more than simply a highschool level realization of hypocrisy in government. Only a fool believes and trusts in any authority regardless of institution. This being said I suppose I am an anarchist. Governments and institutions of authority must ensure their protection and perpetuation most often at the expense of those people enthralled to them. They will use whatever tactics necessary regardless of morality or justification. The people can be fooled successfully into surrendering their liberties, which is less costly than beating them into submission, or even placing blame on certain group of people for the collective misery of all. This has happened before and is presently happening now.

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