Meet Ed Snowden, and other notes from a remarkable week in privacy and espionage‏

As they used to say on every Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll station ever, the hits just keep on comin’:

After a stunning one-two punch of secret spying revelations last week, one thing that I hadn’t really counted on happened right away: a voluntary and fairly proud confession from the guy who says he turned over the secret documents to the reporters.  Meet Ed Snowden, and read the Washington Post reporter’s sidebar describing what it was like to communicate with Snowden, who knew that he had turned himself into a marked man.

Last week someone (I forget who) noted, possibly on Twitter, the irony that we as a nation feel confident in farming out our National Security Agency work to companies like Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, which didn’t know that he was gathering up documents and talking to reporters, but the job of groping us in airports is so critical that only a government employee will do.  Oh, by the way, in a classic horse/barn door kinda thing, Booz Allen finally got around to firing Snowden

I also expected this sooner: the ACLU is suing the government alleging violation of its rights of free speech, association, and privacy:

As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society’s most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone—a lot—to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers, and ACLU members. And since the ACLU is a VBNS [Verizon] customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work. So we’re acting quickly to get into court to challenge the government’s abuse of Section 215.

One of the most fun things here has been that the secret court orders forcing telephone and Internet companies to turn over information are so secret that the companies aren’t even allowed to discuss the orders, and the news has made it look like the companies have been happily cooperating with the feds in violating their customers’ privacy.  For anyone who still thinks there is no presumption of privacy anymore, consider this: Google is asking government permission to spill the beans and tell its customers what it has done, in order to “to ease public concerns about the privacy and security of users’ data.”

Google’s inability to disclose “the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests” fuels speculation that the company has given the U.S. government free access to all its users’ data. That speculation, [Google chief legal officer David] Drummond wrote, is “simply untrue.”

What about our national leaders, the men and women to whom we look for guidance and wisdom on such occasions…what do they have to say about this whole invasion of privacy/government spying on Americans thing?  Fortunately, some have been right on top of things, speaking out in favor of a national discussion about the proper balance of safety versus privacy; some have taken some time to think things over before coming to a conclusion about Snowden, and most are waiting for the polls to come in.

OK then, here’s the first poll: Americans tell the Pew Center that they’re pretty much OK with their government spying on them

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post…finds no indications that last week’s revelations of the government’s collection of phone records and internet data have altered fundamental public views about the tradeoff between investigating possible terrorism and protecting personal privacy.

Currently 62% say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy. Just 34% say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

Not everyone thinks that, though, me included.  But I’ve already had my say this past week; I recommend taking a look at Emily Bazelon’s thoughts on government abuse of power

The government has admitted to unconstitutional NSA spying before—last year. The existence of these newly reported databases should be worrisome because once the information is collected, it is so much easier for the government to misuse it. The more data mining, the more it becomes routine and the more tempting to come up with more uses for it. If you trust President Obama and his people not to go too far, what about the next president, or the one after that? We have now had a Republican and a Democrat administration sign up for a broad expansion of warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance, and bipartisan support in Congress for the tradeoffs we have struck. And yes, there is more to the current revelations than we know—in particular, the rationale for the FISA court’s long-standing order for the phone data, and the rationale for PRISM. Let’s concede that a terrorist attack somewhere has probably been prevented as a result of these efforts. So how do we ever go back?

We probably don’t. And someday, the abuses will begin, in all likelihood long before we know about them. I’m not usually moved by slippery slope arguments. But this one looks so very easy to slide down.

…and Charles Cooke’s consideration of a simple historical lesson on personal privacy in a free society:

The adult truth, as ever, is that being free means accepting the negative consequences of being free. I daresay that if cameras were installed in every one of the Republic’s private bedrooms and monitored around the clock by well-meaning sentinels, then the rates of both domestic violence and spousal murder would decrease dramatically. But a free people must instinctively reject such measures as a profound threat to their liberty and, in doing so, accept the risks of unregulated home life. Alas, the story of the last century is the tale of a gradually diminishing tolerance for risk. “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. In almost all areas, our modern calculation is quite the opposite.


The Fourth Amendment exists now for precisely the same reason that it existed in 1791: to ensure that, in the absence of extremely compelling situations, Americans are not subject to casual government scrutiny. Its authors understood that knowledge is power, and that, as there is no justification for the state to have too much power over you, there is also no justification for the state to have too much knowledge about you

I hope that as this story continues in the months to come, people will give it the serious thought that it deserves.  For those having a tough time getting a handle on what all the furor is about, try this as a starting place: would you feel the same way you do now about the actions of the U.S. government if the last president were still in the White House?

Stand by for American history

The United States Supreme Court hears arguments this week in two cases involving same-sex marriage that could make civil rights history.  For those who can get beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea of same-sex marriage, who are interested in the nuts and bolts of how the court operates, how this court operates, who want to be able to read the reports of the oral arguments or listen to the arguments themselves (yes, listen—the same day!) critically and develop their own insight into what’s happening and what the results may be, check out Emily Bazelon’s post in Slate today.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the Supreme Court will dive into back-to-back arguments about gay marriage. These cases that are probably the biggest of the term, and certainly the sexiest. First up is an hour of Hollingsworth v. Perry, the suit challenging the constitutionality of California’s voter-approved gay marriage ban. Next comes an hour and 50 minutes on United States v. Windsor, which takes on the definition of marriage in the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That definition—the union of a man and a woman—denies gay couples more than 1,000 federal benefits that come with marriage, relating to everything from inheritance taxes to health insurance for veterans, even when their marriages are legally recognized in the states they live in.

The arguments will feature top lawyers including Ted Olson (former Bush solicitor general, pro-gay marriage), Paul Clement (former Bush solicitor general, anti-gay marriage), Donald Verrilli Jr. (Obama solicitor general, pro-gay marriage, though the Obama administration is still enforcing DOMA), and Vicki Jackson (Harvard law professor who will argue that the Obama administration doesn’t belong in court). What should we watch for to gauge how these cases will come out? Here’s my checklist.

Meanwhile, in case you missed it, here are the stories about the amicus briefs from the White House and Bill Clinton,  now both in favor despite earlier efforts to the contrary, and from major businesses that have always tried assiduously to avoid taking sides on anything as controversial as same-sex marriage, but now argue that the ban hurts business.  Even prominent Republicans, including Clint Eastwood, are making a case in favor of same-sex marriage.  The times, they are a-changin’…we should find out in June, when the decisions are expected to be announced, just how much.

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting

Passing along links to what I think are worthwhile reads on the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the aftermath…

For starters, here’s a dispassionate chronology from the Hartford Courant of just what happened in that school that morning. Just the facts ma’am, as best as they are known at the time.

Adam Lanza blasted his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired a half-dozen thunderous rounds from a semiautomatic rifle to open a hole big enough to step through in one of the school’s glass doors.

Once inside, he had to make a choice.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s office was straight ahead. To the right, 25 or so children were rehearsing a play in the school cafeteria. To his left were the first-grade classrooms.

Lanza turned left.

The initial reaction of most people is disbelief that such a thing could happen…yet it’s been happening more and more frequently in recent years. In Slate Emily Bazelon wonders, if this doesn’t make us change our attitude about guns, what would?

In the United States, we’re divided, and we have no universal basic knowledge of weapons. We make it incredibly easy to buy the kind of weapons that shoot and shoot again instantly, but we don’t search people at the doors of schools or malls or movie theaters, and we don’t post armed guards in these places. We have the guns without the safety checks. We call that freedom.

Of course there are plenty of people renewing calls for more gun control, for outlawing assault weapons, for some kind of change in the law to make us feel safer. But it’s not just “gun control” people; some pretty staunch gun rights advocates are urging another look at the subject with an open mind.

Joe Manchin III, the pro-gun-rights West Virginia senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.

David Frum makes a great point about the nuts and bolts part of any change in gun laws: he believes the push must come from outside government, along the lines of what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to change the culture, to avoid politically polarizing the debate and dooming any chance for agreement.

That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties — Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.

Gun control should no more mean the abolition of guns than Mothers Against Drunk Driving abolished the car.


Responsible gun owners have a right to their guns. The challenge for the grass-roots gun-safety movement of the future is to focus on the danger posed by irresponsible owners. The goal should be less to ban particular classes of weapons — such a goal puts the law in a race against technology, a race the law will likely lose — and more to change the rules defining who may keep a gun.

Impossible, you say—there’s no way we could change the culture on guns. Well, we’ve done things like this before

To modern sensibilities, the injustice [of lynching] once again seems obvious, as do the solutions: Prosecute lynchers, fight for racial justice, strengthen the rule of law, and mobilize public opinion to condemn rather than excuse outbursts of brutality. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear as a feature of American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge the depth of its horror. In the meantime, thousands of influential people, including many esteemed congressmen and senators, argued that lynching was simply a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Mary Landrieu, apologized for failing to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, and for leaving hundreds of innocent people to be sacrificed to official inaction.

But just changing gun laws isn’t the answer; we should look at changing not only laws but our attitudes toward mental illness, and be better at seeing the warning signs that disturbed people give before they commit such an extreme act of attention-grabbing.

One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.

The shooting is the last act in a long drama: a search for acceptance and recognition. The earlier acts fail miserably. But once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion. Suddenly, he is getting the attention he has been craving.

Help for mentally ill. A change to the culture of guns. David Gergen makes the case that we must take action to honor these dead and do it now or next time the blood will be on our hands.

Some years ago, no one thought that we could change our tobacco culture. We did. No one thought that we could reduce drunk driving by teenagers. We did — thanks in large part to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Years from now, no one will note what we say after this latest massacre. But they will hold us morally accountable for what we do. To honor all of those who have been slain in recent years — starting with the first-graders in Connecticut — we should highly resolve to change our culture of guns.

Meanwhile, to some measure of surprise, the National Rifle Association is laying low. Out of respect? Don’t know; they’re not talking.

On Dec. 13, the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account announced a giveaway promotion, thanked its followers for getting its Facebook page up to 1.7 million “likes,” and related a story from Wyoming in which a gunman apparently retreated from a nail salon after realizing one of its customers was “packing heat.” It tweeted the Wyoming case using the hashtag #ArmedCitizen.

On Dec. 14, the day an armed citizen killed 26 unarmed women and children at a Connecticut elementary school, the NRA’s Twitter account went silent. It has not tweeted since. Meanwhile, its Facebook page has disappeared, along with those 1.7 million “likes.” Navigating to now redirects to the Facebook homepage.


UPDATE Dec. 18: The NRA ends its silence with this statement.

Gay marriage news, the Anglo-American edition

It was only in passing that I mentioned last month’s election results that put another four states on the side of the angels in the fight to legalize gay marriage. There’s been an important development since then: the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments in two cases on the issue, opening the possibility of a legal precedent that will apply to every state in the union.

Supporters of giving same-sex couples the right to marry are enthused, since this decision comes in relatively close proximity to (1) President Obama announcing his support for gay marriage, (2) another appeals court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (Windsor v. United States), and (3) people in more states voting in favor of same-sex unions. Emily Bazelon writes in Slate with some great background on the two cases themselves, and offers a warning: don’t assume that because four justices agreed to hear the cases that there are five of them who will rule in favor of gay marriage. Conventional wisdom has it that the court follows the people, but I’m trying not to get overly optimistic: it could be that the justices who said yes to taking up the matter are predisposed to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act or to defer to states on the whole thing…and 39 of them have outlawed gay marriage either by statute or in their constitutions.

I wish we could get some of those states, or Congress, to think about this issue in the way Britain’s government proposes: legalize same-sex marriage in civil law, and make the clear stipulation that religions which object cannot be forced to perform gay weddings.

Face it: most of the objection to same-sex marriage in our country claims a basis in religious teaching. I sympathize with people who are afraid that legalizing a practice condemned by their religion would somehow infringe on their own religious freedom, although I don’t think that would happen in this case. But the core issue as I see it is not one of religious freedom, it’s a question of equal protection under the law. To try to put it simply, it’s not fair that only some citizens can enjoy the benefits of being married under law; if it’s OK for some it must be OK for all, assuming it doesn’t hurt society at large. And let’s don’t get sidetracked on age limits—we already prohibit minors from entering contracts—or possible plural marriages or bigamies, which might be seen to have built-in disincentives and punishments. (Remember the old joke—what’s the penalty for bigamy?  Two wives.)

Think of any given religion as a private club: no one of us is required to join that club but we each have the freedom to do so, and those who do join should be prepared to follow the club’s rules. If one club’s rules prohibit same-sex marriage, that is the club’s prerogative; but the rules of any one club or other are not binding on those of us who didn’t join the club.

The civil law is what’s binding on everyone in the civil arena, and it must be applied equally and fairly to all. The British plan makes it clear that each club/religion retains the right to apply its own rules to its members while inside its clubhouse, but that there is a civil law applicable on the broader scale to the rest of society regardless of the rules inside Club A or Club B.

So, there’s a lot to keep an eye out for on this issue, what with the courts and the lawmakers getting involved. There’s one more front, too, but in this case there’s a possibility that America’s emerging embrace of same-sex marriage, and perhaps of homosexuality in general, could have unintended and disastrous consequences. I refer, of course, to Choire Sicha’s discovery of just how gay marriage could lay waste to the quaint vacation industry:

Yes, America will have to rise up against the menace of bearded gay schoolteacher couples who like to weekend and all those inn-going lesbians with lawyers. With the end of small businesses in America, we’ll just go state-by-state and repeal these gay marriages and everything will be fine. That’s exactly how this will shake out.