August 13 Update: It’s encouraging to see that not many people have been fooled by President Obama’s press conference last Friday, the one in which he tried to give the appearance of reining in the Bush/Obama spying program without actually doing anything meaningful at all. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson had some excellent observations here.
But perhaps the most devastating critique of Obama’s Friday performance has come from Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine. His comments here and here are so devastating that I wanted to call your attention to them. They are well worth reading, especially since I fully agree with his view that the “surveillance debate is arguably the most important of our era.”
August 11 Original Post
The big news coming out of President Obama’s surveillance state this past week while I was away was NOT his press conference on Friday before he headed off on vacation. That was typical Obama … lots of words backed by no meaningful deeds and all of it signifying pretty much nothing.
We know Obama is terrific when it comes to mouthing words that leave misleading impressions. In this case, the impression he left was that he was actually doing something to rein in the surveillance state. But he isn’t.
It was all a bunch of phony theatrics designed to lull you to sleep. Theatrics is what Obama does best.
So, no, like I said, the big news wasn’t Obama’s press conference. It was the announcement a day earlier that Lavabit, a secure e-mail service that provided its customers with real privacy protections, was shutting down rather than give in to what its founder suggested was Federal government pressure to make his customers’ e-mail messages available to the government.
In a message on his Web site, Ladar Levison, the founder of Lavabit, said he was forced “to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” He also went on to add that he was prohibited by law from explaining what had happened over the last six weeks, but the suggestion was that he was fighting a government demand for access to the e-mails of one or more of his customers, perhaps all of them.
PROHIBITED BY LAW from even telling you what the Federal government was asking of him. If that isn’t the essence of the totalitarian state, I don’t know what is.
“I’d rather shut down my service and my primary source of income than be complicit in crimes against the American people,” is all Levison could say.
A couple of hours later Silent Circle, a similar service founded by Phil Zimmermann, who created the email encryption software PGP, announced it was also shutting down and deleting all of its customers’ existing e-mails because it could see the handwriting on the wall.
“We’ll try to do something nice for them to numb the pain,” Zimmermann said.
I guess it isn’t obstruction of justice if you delete the e-mails before Obama and his buddies come calling for them.
You can read more a lot more about these decisions to close here, here, here, and here. But the bottom line is that the Federal government drove these American companies out of business by insisting on compromising their integrity; and the reason that’s important is because it tells you everything you need to know about the Bush/Obama spying program.
Specifically, it tells you that the Federal government will not allow ANYTHING you write down to remain private if it wants access to it. NOTHING except your own private thoughts is beyond the reach of Obama and his cronies. And how long you’re private thoughts will elude the government remains to be seen. The point is that the principle has been established. You will not be allowed one shred of privacy; and nothing Obama said on Friday changes that fact.
Yes, Obama promised greater accountability to keep his surveillance state in check. Yet he also made it clear that the expansive monitoring of telephone and electronic communications would continue regardless of what the Constitution states or you happen to think. The government is going to keep spying on you whether you like it or not, but Obama would like you to feel happier about that so he announced a couple of things that were totally meaningless.
He announced the Justice Department was releasing the legal rationale underpinning the spying program and that the N.S.A. was also releasing a summary of the programs it operates under several provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act. I know this may come as a shock to you, but Obama’s (In)Justice Department says what he is doing is legal. Who would have guessed that’s what it would say?
I was also suitably impressed when Obama announced that the intelligence agencies will set up a Web site with the goal of better explaining their legal authorities and actions and appoint a privacy officer. Of course, if you actually visit the web site, it’s likely your I.P. address will be recorded and you’ll be added to a very special file somewhere. And does anyone seriously think the spooks in the N.S.A. will take a privacy officer seriously? Privacy is NOT what the N.S.A. is about and the career incentives within the agency are stacked against privacy.
The point is, if you’re not already convinced, the Justice Department, the N.S.A. and the rest of the spooks will be happy to provide you with whatever information you need to get with the program. But the program itself remains the same.
Obama also said he intends to work with Congress on proposals that would add an adversarial voice – such as a lawyer assigned to advocate privacy rights – to the secret proceedings before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. If that happens (and it’s by no means certain it will), we can all pretend that this privacy advocate is a reasonable stand-in for a truly adversarial court system and being able to review the actual legal decisions of the court, which Obama did not release.
And we can also pretend that it doesn’t matter that all of the FISA judges are appointed by John Roberts and that Roberts has stacked the court with conservative Republican judges who are not going to pay any attention at all to what any privacy advocate says; assuming he or she says anything at all. How will we know?
In the end, what Obama didn’t release were the relevant FISA Court opinions and agency memos that have created a body of secret law that is far removed from public oversight and adequate congressional review. And he’s not planning to do that either.
Finally, Obama announced the creation of a panel of outsiders – former intelligence officials, civil liberties and privacy advocates, and others – to assess his spying programs and suggest changes by the end of the year. Just what we need, another toothless committee to make non-binding recommendations months in the future, once it’s safe to ignore them. Republicans like John Boehner and Peter King have already made clear that nothing that reins in the spying programs will be allowed to pass the House of Representatives.
In the end, like I said, all of this was just more theatrics from Obama. Trust me, he said; all of these concerns being raised are just some foolish misunderstanding.
But I don’t and you shouldn’t either.
What Obama offered on Friday was not good enough.
What his minions did to Lavabit on Thursday is everything you need to know. And Mr. Levison needs your help to defend your right to privacy.