Friday, November 15, 2013

Maybe they're not watching us. Just throwing that out there.

Monkey at MacRitchie Reservoir. Photo by anoukinsingapore.
Here's another one, to set alongside the Royal Star Chamber and the Stasi:
Apparently an ongoing thing, happening, as I started writing this post, about 20 blocks away, at the Fordham Law campus, where Dorfman was speaking on a panel together with James Bamford, Bruce Schneier, and Glenn Greenwald (presumably on video, he doesn't believe it's safe for him to come to the US, right?) on the topic
They're Watching Us: So What?

And I have to say, of course, how much I respect Dorfman as a suffering Chileno and as a great writer, but no, and no specifically in the sense that this is more bad writing, an analogy making itself look foolish when it means to be very deep and defiant—the way that young woman's awkward twerking made her look even younger and less sexually experienced than she presumably is, just the opposite of what she intended.
Singapore National Day Parade 2010. Tilt-shift photo by Derrick Cheng at DeviantArt.
It just so happens that I know something from personal experience about living in a surveilled society; not as much as Dorfman, of course, and without the suffering—because I'm a profoundly lucky person in a lot of ways, and even the most terrible things that happen to me tend to happen in a somewhat comical way, right down to cancer. Nevertheless I really did spend most of the 1980s, for the first few years working as a university lecturer, in the Republic of Singapore when the personality cult of the old prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was at its height, and I was extremely aware of being watched.

It wasn't the kind of situation where you were going to get that knock on the door at three in the morning and be taken out and shot. The worst that ever happened to anybody was detention without trial, and that was limited in my time to a really tiny number of people, none of whom died; there was a certain amount of what I'd call torture and they called "psychological pressure" in the Israeli parlance of the time (according to the gossip, it was Israeli security people that had taught them how—keeping people in stress positions, 24-hour bright lights and loud music, nakedness and cold).

Which was certainly not going to happen to me, either. The worst things that could happen to me, as an insignificant expatriate, were that I might lose my job (as I did, in due course, but probably not for political reasons, not that I ever learned what the reasons were) or get thrown out of the country and separated from the girlfriend, later helpmeet (which didn't happen at all, we left when we felt like it).

But you knew you were being watched. You could see that a letter from overseas had been opened somewhere en route, no serious attempt had been made to disguise it. You knew who the People's Action Party members in your department were, or in your block if you lived in government housing (as few expatriates ever did, of course). Your boss quietly advised you to break up with the girlfriend, about whom you certainly hadn't told him (who did?). And you watched what you said, and what you wrote (academics in the social sciences, whose thoughts might contain an implicit criticism of the regime or for that matter an explicit one), and what subjects you raised with which interlocutors, and learned to chat in an implausibly bright and neutral way with some and a kind of samizdat sarcasm with others.
Singaporean attorney Teo Soh Lung, detained without charge for all but about seven months from September 1987 to June 1990 as a member of a putative "Marxist conspiracy" to overthrow the government; and Singapore Democratic Party candidate for Parliament in the watershed 2011 elections (she lost, to tell the truth, but she's still smiling, because that's the kind of person she is). Photo via Wikipedia.
The thing is—it's not about my suffering, you see, because I didn't particularly suffer, and I wasn't especially brave, and it hardly even changed my life—that when they "deploy surveillance to create fear, crush courage," they're very careful to let you know. Fact is, they have to, that's how it works, and how it's always worked. They use a spying apparatus, but they're not really spying; they're not even interested. The point of the exercise isn't to find out what's going on, it's to make sure that there isn't anything, or anything beyond futile posturing.

In the Cheney-Bush administration, there were clear signs of the rulers wanting to let us know (from CMD Sourcewatch):
  • "Since October [2005], news accounts have disclosed a burgeoning Pentagon campaign for 'detecting, identifying and engaging' internal enemies that included a database with information on peace protesters. A debate has roiled over the FBI's use of national security letters to obtain secret access to the personal records of tens of thousands of Americans. And now come revelations of the National Security Agency's interception of telephone calls and e-mails from the United States -- without notice to the federal court that has held jurisdiction over domestic spying since 1978.
  • "But Mr. Bush secretly decided that he was going to allow the agency to spy on American citizens without obtaining a warrant - just as he had earlier decided to scrap the Geneva Conventions, American law and Army regulations when it came to handling prisoners in the war on terror."—Editorial, New York Times, December 18, 2005.
  • "Mr. Bush says Congress gave him the power to spy on Americans. Fine, then Congress can just take it back."—Editorial, New York Times, December 20, 2005.
  • "What do we make of the president boldly proclaiming that he has spy powers? Does he have X-ray vision too?"—Bob Fitrakis, Online Journal, January 11, 2006.
It wasn't the whistleblowers who were cluing us in, it was Bush himself, and his stable of officially sanctioned leakers. But even they were just playing at it. Even though it was pretty much Stasi for the Muslims rounded up en masse and held without charges, and the mosques and sports clubs and halal butcher shops infiltrated by informants; and it was a little bit scary for the peace movement such as it was. Their feelings weren't at issue for our overlords.
The Friends in North Carolina. protesting CIA front Aero Contractors last April, from A Friendly Letter. They don't just not mind being photographed, they plainly enjoy it; they're just not interested in being afraid. Also pretty confident Holder's not after them in any case.
But you could tell they were never going to come for Pastor Niemöller, if you know what I mean, and we all said and did whatever we wanted, as we knew we could. They didn't even want to frighten the population in general, though they certainly hoped to cow the Quakers, and Code Pink, and above all those heroic librarians—they just wanted people to think they were tough. The harm they did was very real, and just as bad as we were saying it was, but it wasn't totalitarian: it wasn't aimed at controlling our emotions and ideas, at making us be obeying them all the time in word and deed. Except maybe within their own Republican circles, where I'm sure they didn't like being laughed at.

The Obama administration is considerably less Pinochet-like than even that. They would plainly prefer that whoever they're spying on should not have a clue that it's happening, a sign that what they're after isn't fear or obedience at all, but intelligence. And above all they don't want the people being spied on to know who they are, even at the price of letting us believe, following the Snowden document dumps, that it's all of us. Am I confident nobody's spying on me? Yes. Am I confident nobody's spying on harmless dissidents, cheating girlfriends, or Binyamin Netanyahu? No, but I sure hope they're tapping Netanyahu. Charlie Savage and Mark Mazzetti have just told us the CIA is monitoring international money transfers, authorized by the Patriot Act and overseen by the FISC: that's what I hoped, against hope, they were doing!

But on the whole, no,
They're Not Watching Us.

Police in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, "looking for wanted and suspected drug criminals". There just isn't any place where everybody feels safe. Photo via avshithappens.

This just in, via Charles Johnson:
Holder indicated that the Justice Department is not planning to prosecute former Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who received documents from Snowden and has written a series of stories based on the leaked material. Greenwald, an American citizen who lives in Brazil, has said he is reluctant to come to the U.S. because he fears detention and possible prosecution.

“Unless information that has not come to my attention is presented to me, what I have indicated in my testimony before Congress is that any journalist who’s engaged in true journalistic activities is not going to be prosecuted by this Justice Department,” Holder said.

“I certainly don’t agree with what Greenwald has done,” Holder said. “In some ways, he blurs the line between advocate and journalist. But on the basis of what I know now, I’m not sure there is a basis for prosecution of Greenwald.”

Greenwald said he welcomed the statement but remains cautious.

“That this question is even on people’s minds is a rather grim reflection of the Obama administration’s record on press freedoms,” he said in an e-mail. “It is a positive step that the Attorney General expressly recognizes that journalism is not and should not be a crime in the United States, but given this administration’s poor record on press freedoms, I’ll consult with my counsel on whether one can or should rely on such caveat-riddled oral assertions about the government’s intentions.” (Washington Post)
Honestly, to the extent it's on anybody's mind, Greenwald's efforts to keep it there play a bigger role than, um, Holder's (inexplicable) failure to drop the Bush administration's botheration of James Risen which is as far as I can see the most serious attack on journalism in the US in the past five years and not, up to now, all that serious, if you think about Anna Politkovskaya, and Charlie Horman, and... here's a bit of a meta-list.
Anna Politkovskaya. Photo by Maria Söderberg/Ordfront. Via Bellona, and one of the original reports of Politkovskaya's murder, on Vladimir Putin's birthday in 2006. Singapore never came close to the way the Russian Federation is right now, today, Edward Snowden and all. You can really tell the difference if you just calm down.

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