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Obama’s Legacy

I’ve been seeing a barrage of posts by many of my friends lamenting that such a dignified man is leaving office to be replaced by a coarse caudillo. Barack Obama is certainly very intelligent, and I suspect that he, Michelle, and their children are very nice people, but I regard him as only a placeholder president.

As described in Listen, Liberal, which I am most of the way through reading, our outgoing president initially enjoyed a supermajority in Congress, but instead of executing the will of the American people as a whole, catered to the concerns of about ten or twenty percent of Americans: highly-educated, successful professionals.

While most people wanted Wall Street to be reformed, Obama bailed out the institutions and guaranteed millions upon millions in bonuses.

While most people wanted peace, Obama continued war-for-profit and escalated assassination via drones.

While most people wanted a single payer system, Obama settled for a mandated gift to private insurance companies.

While most people wanted a more transparent government, Obama has persecuted whistleblowers.

And today, while people are praying that he will pardon Chelsea Manning, we read this:

NSA Gets More Latitude to Share Intercepted Communications

In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.

The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.

Previously, the N.S.A. filtered information before sharing intercepted communications with another agency, like the C.I.A. or the intelligence branches of the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The N.S.A.’s analysts passed on only information they deemed pertinent, screening out the identities of innocent people and irrelevant personal information.

Now, other intelligence agencies will be able to search directly through raw repositories of communications intercepted by the N.S.A. and then apply such rules for “minimizing” privacy intrusions.

But Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the move an erosion of rules intended to protect the privacy of Americans when their messages are caught by the N.S.A.’s powerful global collection methods. He noted that domestic internet data was often routed or stored abroad, where it may get vacuumed up without court oversight.

“Rather than dramatically expanding government access to so much personal data, we need much stronger rules to protect the privacy of Americans,” Mr. Toomey said. “Seventeen different government agencies shouldn’t be rooting through Americans’ emails with family members, friends and colleagues, all without ever obtaining a warrant.”

Update20170118: President Obama has commuted the sentence of Army whistleblower Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera, and has pardoned retired Marine General James E Cartwright, who had been convicted of lying to the FBI. Obama has reportedly pardoned or reduced the sentences of a few hundred non-violent drug offenders.No one is sure whether  Julian Assange will make good on his promise to face extradition to the US in exchange for Manning’s commutation.

Refusal to Learn

Greenwald just knocks it out of the park. Here are some snippets, but read the whole thing at The Intercept. [Update: Greenwald was interviewed on this topic on today’s Democracy Now]

Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit

THE PARALLELS BETWEEN the U.K.’s shocking approval of the Brexit referendum in June and the U.S.’ even more shocking election of Donald Trump as president last night are overwhelming. Elites (outside of populist right-wing circles) aggressively unified across ideological lines in opposition to both. Supporters of Brexit and Trump were continually maligned by the dominant media narrative (validly or otherwise) as primitive, stupid, racist, xenophobic, and irrational. In each case, journalists who spend all day chatting with one another on Twitter and congregating in exclusive social circles in national capitals — constantly re-affirming their own wisdom in an endless feedback loop — were certain of victory. Afterward, the elites whose entitlement to prevail was crushed devoted their energies to blaming everyone they could find except for themselves, while doubling down on their unbridled contempt for those who defied them, steadfastly refusing to examine what drove their insubordination.

The indisputable fact is that prevailing institutions of authority in the West, for decades, have relentlessly and with complete indifference stomped on the economic welfare and social security of hundreds of millions of people. While elite circles gorged themselves on globalism, free trade, Wall Street casino gambling, and endless wars (wars that enriched the perpetrators and sent the poorest and most marginalized to bear all their burdens), they completely ignored the victims of their gluttony, except when those victims piped up a bit too much — when they caused a ruckus — and were then scornfully condemned as troglodytes who were the deserved losers in the glorious, global game of meritocracy.

1. Democrats have already begun flailing around trying to blame anyone and everyone they can find — everyone except themselves — for last night’s crushing defeat of their party.

2. That racism, misogyny, and xenophobia are pervasive in all sectors of America is indisputable from even a casual glance at its history, both distant and recent.

3. Over the last six decades, and particularly over the last 15 years of the endless war on terror, both political parties have joined to construct a frightening and unprecedentedly invasive and destructive system of authoritarian power, accompanied by the unbridled authority vested in the executive branch to use it.

Watching Snowden

The Charles Theatre’s Revival Series matinee yesterday was The Conversation, a Francis Ford Coppola film about surveillance and eavesdropping. In 1974, having seen Gene Hackman in Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection, and Cindy Williams in Laverne and Shirley and American Graffiti, I drove two of my siblings and their friends to some theatre on Wisconsin Avenue to watch it. John Cazale, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford and Teri Garr played supporting roles. I already knew Duvall, but not the others. Even after Watergate, I found the idea that we could always be watched very dark and paranoid. Roger Ebert reviewed the film as one of his Great Movies, in 2001:

Coppola, who wrote and directed, considers this film his most personal project. He was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.

I had to work midday Saturday, but watching that film again would have been a fine lead-in to Oliver Stone’s new film, Snowden, which was showing at only a few local theatres. I had read several positive reviews – some recommended seeing Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary CitizenFour first – and one discouraging review. One friend at work had heard (on NPR) a former NSA deputy director’s claim that it was all lies, that Snowden had actually stolen important state secrets, and that agents had died.

I stopped off to see Snowden on the way home Saturday afternoon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a convincing Edward Snowden. I had watched him telling Steven Colbert that he met Snowden in Moscow, which helped his characterization. Rhys Ifans was convincing as a composite of a CIA bigwig that took Snowden under his wing. Nicholas Cage was restrained as a composite of a disaffected techie genius, reduced to teaching young agents. Zachary Quinto, playing Glenn Greenwald, had a chance to yell a bit (at his cautious Guardian editor); Melissa Leo had more to do playing Laura Poitras, but I wonder if she is actually that warm and motherly on the job.

In the same way that Hannah Giles attracted right-wing fanboys to the Acorn entrapment story, Snowden’s outgoing girlfriend Lindsay Mills let it all hang out on the internet, and was a bonus ‘manic pixie dream girl’ for his libertarian supporters. Shailene Woodley gave a fine performance, but she doesn’t look that much like (how I remember) Mills, and reportedly never could meet up to learn her mannerisms. One of the dumbest criticisms I read beforehand was a complaint that the film spent too much time on their romance. Mills was, and is, a big part of the Snowden story.

Snowden was very dramatic, well-filmed, well-paced, etc, but I wanted to see more of his time hiding with poor refugees in Hong Kong, and more of his escape and refuge in Moscow. Towards the end when Toronto students cheer Snowden speaking via a video feed, I felt like standing up and cheering, too, but still I felt that a more balanced, less laudatory film – one that addressed and answered criticisms – would better serve Snowden’s desire for repatriation.

The film was careful to make clear that Snowden published all documents through the established news outlets, but just today, the Washington Post editorial board repudiated calls that Snowden be pardoned and may have become the first newspaper to call for prosecution of its own source.

The complication is that Mr. Snowden … also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy. … he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain offensive cyber operations in China. No specific harm, actual or attempted, to any individual American was ever shown to have resulted from the NSA telephone metadata program Mr. Snowden brought to light. In contrast, his revelations about the agency’s international operations disrupted lawful intelligence-gathering, causing possibly “tremendous damage” to national security, according to a unanimous, bipartisan report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. What higher cause did that serve?

In response, the real Glenn Greenwald yelled, in The Intercept:

In arguing that no public interest was served by exposing PRISM, what did the Post editors forget to mention? That the newspaper which (simultaneous with The Guardian) made the choice to expose the PRISM program by spreading its operational details and top secret manual all over its front page is called . . . . The Washington Post. Then, once they made the choice to do so, they explicitly heralded their exposure of the PRISM program (along with other revelations) when they asked to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Our crusading mainstream media.

Face the Music

No event has caused me to lose faith in the mainstream and new internet media as has their reaction to the revelations of Edward Snowden. Former Attorney General Eric Holder made news last week when he admitted that Snowden had done a great service to the citizens of America by revealing the extent to which we were being monitored by our government. But Holder, President Obama, candidate Clinton, and many others also assert that Snowden should have followed normal whistleblower channels, and now should return to face the sealed charges against him.

Last week on Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed Mark Hertsgaard, author of a new book about the experiences of two NSA whistleblowers before Snowden, and one of his subjects, John Crane, whose career was ended when he revealed NSA wrongdoing:

Pentagon Whistleblower’s Disclosures Put a Lie to Obama, Clinton Claims About Snowden

MARK HERTSGAARD: … everybody knows what Snowden did at this point, but to really understand it, what Snowden did and why he did it the way he did it—he did it, you need to know the stories of … Thomas Drake [and] John Crane. … when you see everything that John Crane tells us about how the whistleblower protection system inside the Pentagon is broken, only results in a whistleblower having his life ruined, as we saw with Tom Drake, you see that really Edward Snowden had no other choice but to go public. …

And so I think that’s what’s important about John Crane’s story, is it puts the lie to what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are saying and have been saying about Edward Snowden from the beginning. “He broke the law, bring him home. He should face the music,” is what Hillary Clinton said. “Face the music. He could have been a whistleblower,” Hillary Clinton added, “and he would have gotten a very good reception, I think.” Well, I would just like to invite Secretary Clinton, tell that to Thomas Drake, tell that to John Crane, that you would have gotten a good reception by following the whistleblower law inside of the Pentagon.

And today, Juan Cole has addressed Holder directly, Dear Mr. Holder: Why Ed Snowden can’t get a Fair Trial in your National Security State:

… nobody in the Obama administration still in office ever said that Snowden did a public service. He certainly did, since the NSA and other intelligence organizations had gone rogue. In essence, they unilaterally abrogated the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. PBS Frontline alleged that the NSA did not even read Obama into their warrantless surveillance of millions of Americans until 2010! In a system like that, the president isn’t really the president– the Deep State does as it pleases.

It is also clear that the NSA has been sharing metadata with local law enforcement, which has been using it to build cases against people without ever seeking a warrant, and then lying to judges about how they knew someone was, e.g., in touch with a drug dealer by phone. In other words, NSA surveillance has corrupted the entire justice system of the United States and made the Fourth Amendment a dead letter.

Such sharing of illicitly-gathered private information among US government agencies is becoming routine. (These cases have nothing to do with terrorism.)

My favorite moments in CBS’ The Good Wife, which recently ended, was their matter of fact portrayal of just how routine it was that Alicia Florrick, her governor husband and all their associates were being electronically-monitored on the basis of a tenuous connection with a former client. That the agents were a bunch of geeky millenials in a cubicled space out of Dilbert, who fit their surveillance between teasing each other with the latest memes, added to the absurdity, but might have led people to think the writers were joking.

They weren’t.

And we’re the ones who will face the music.