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Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

All of This NSA Stuff Sounds Rather Familiar . . .



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From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer Analyzed All of These Domestic Surveillance Issues 15 Years Ago

Imagine you’re a bad person up to no good.

Maybe you’re a terrorist who wants to harm or kill many, many Americans, or perhaps you’re a foreign spy attempting to steal U.S. secrets, in an effort to that may someday harm many Americans if your country and the United States go to war.

If you were one of these folks, and you weren’t, say, the dullest knife in the drawer . . . wouldn’t you already presume that the National Security Agency was already grabbing your signals from your cellular phone out of the air? Wouldn’t you presume that the moment they connected a particular e-mail address with you, they could crack the password and look through it with impunity? (All of this presumes you don’t have some sort of special encryption technology from your home country’s intelligence service.) Wouldn’t you assume that they were tracking the GPS in your phone? In every fugitive-on-the-run-from-a-sinister-government-conspiracy movie, the first thing the good guy does is smash his cell phone.

Haven’t these guys ever seen Enemy of the State? It came out in 1998, featured Will Smith and Gene Hackman.

All of Gene Hackman’s dialogue is more or less the actual domestic surveillance system we’ve seen unveiled in recent days:

“The government’s been in bed with the entire telecommunications industry since the forties! They’ve infected everything. They get into your bank statements, computer files, email, listen to your phone calls… Every wire, every airwave. The more technology used, the easier it is for them to keep tabs on you. It’s a brave new world out there. At least it’d better be.”

“Fort Meade has 18 acres of mainframe computers underground. You’re talking to your wife on the phone and you use the word ‘bomb,’ ‘president,’ ‘Allah,’ any of a hundred keywords, the computer recognizes it, automatically records it, red-flags it for analysis. That was 20 years ago.”

“In the old days, we actually had to tap a wire into your phone line. Now with calls bouncing off satellites, they snatch ‘em right out of the air.”

This was fifteen years ago, guys. Sure, it’s Hollywood, but this wasn’t supposed to be science fiction taking place in the far future. (Okay, the implausibly heterosexual lingerie store in Dupont Circle may qualify as science fiction.) . . . 

The last lines of the movie are from then-CNN host Larry King, who asks his fictional government official guest, “How do we draw the line — draw the line between protection of national security, obviously the government’s need to obtain intelligence data, and the protection of civil liberties, particularly the sanctity of my home? You’ve got no right to come into my home!”

Or course, Larry King works for the Kremlin now.

But the point is that while it’s good that the American public has a better idea of what the federal government can do with our phone records, e-mails, social network usage, and so on, in the name of protecting us . . . is it really that plausible that our enemies had no idea that this sort of thing was going on? If you’re FSB (the Russians) or VEVAK (the Iranians) or with the foreign affairs bureau of China’s Ministry of State Security . . . wouldn’t you already be operating on the presumption that the NSA had amazing abilities in penetrating, monitoring, and eavesdropping on every last method of electronic communication?

Don’t get me wrong, Snowden violated his oath and broke the law, and ought to see the inside of a courtroom, where a judge or jury could decide whether his crimes were committed in service of a greater good. But maybe Montana Democrat Jon Tester — not one of my favorite lawmakers — is hitting the right tone here:

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) on Wednesday rejected the notion that Edward Snowden compromised the country’s security when he leaked details of top secret National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Appearing on MSNBC, the Montana Democrat also said he disagreed with Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who argued that journalists who report on intelligence leaks should be punished.Tester said Snowden “probably shouldn’t have done what he did” but doubted that the disclosures undermined national security. In fact, Tester said he found the recent revelations — reported on by both The Guardian and The Washington Post — to be helpful.

“The information that they wrote about was just the fact that NSA was doing broad sweeps of foreign and domestic phone records, metadata. First of all, Snowden probably shouldn’t have done what he did. But the fact of the matter is I don’t see how that compromises the security of this country whatsoever,” Tester said. “And quite frankly, it helps people like me become aware of a situation that I wasn’t aware of before because I don’t sit on that Intelligence Committee.”

Oh, by the way, President Obama’s defense of these programs last Friday asserted, “Now, the programs that have been discussed over the last couple of days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified, but they’re not secret in the sense that, when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program.”


Tags: NSA , Jon Tester , Barack Obama


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