Thursday, August 22, 2013

I Spy

When I was in college I worked one summer for SANE/FREEZE, an international organization that lobbied for a nuclear arms race freeze as well as an end to US support of the Contras. I joined after having a horrific dream about a nuclear attack. I quickly discovered that I am no good as a door-to-door canvaser, but after that summer I continued to be involved in organizations like Amnesty International as well as a group specific to my college called Waging Peace. I even went to DC once as part of a lobbying group (something I am also not good at).

Some very odd people would show up to work for SANE. Turnover was relatively high, since it was hardly a well-paying job and you were likely to meet quite a bit of resistance. One day a new person joined the team, a very unpleasant, abrasive person in, I kid you not, a dark suit and sunglasses. We joked that he was a CIA or FBI plant. Why anyone in charge would have hired someone so antithetical to the cause was a mystery. He didn’t stay of course. Maybe he reported back to some top-secret agency about our motley crew of highly inefficient idealists. Maybe it was some sort of COINTELPRO style ploy to disrupt and degrade.

I knew when I joined SANE/FREEZE that such groups were under scrutiny.

The government spies on its citizens. I took it as a given. Someone was monitoring - not necessarily me - but the higher ups, and the organization as a whole. But, oh, the innocent days before email and the Internet. You worried about signing a particular petition, or subscribing to a particular publication.

I often ignore politics. The abundance of information that pours out everyday is overwhelming. I can’t keep up. I can’t figure out what is legitimate and what is trash. it’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing.  I’m pretty sure that both sides and the middle are busy spewing endless amounts of verbiage for the sole purpose of keeping us confused. No wonder we post lots of photos of cats.

What’s on my mind late? Bradley Manning. Edward Snowden. The NSA. The mess in the UK that involves the NSA. The NSA’s push to collect any and everything. XKeyscore. PRSM. All the arguments about how much they can actually look at and how much they are bound by law is not reassuring. We seem to be willing to sacrifice a lot in the name of a spurious safety. Do you feel safer?

Some people dismiss all concerns: Oh no one cares about your emails, just don’t be a terrorist and you’ll be okay, they still need warrants, it’s just metadata. Supposedly we have safeguards in place because of a long history of abusing surveillance of private citizens. It’s always okay until you find out what’s really going on.

We have legitimized torture and indefinite detainment - is anything really out of bounds? We have prosecuted whistleblowers or forced them into exile. A president who used to praise such acts has seemingly changed his mind and is now perfectly happy to expand the NSA’s reach. People call Manning and Snowden traitors, and sometimes I wonder what it would be like to trust the government enough to believe that. But we aren’t supposed to trust the government, or the military, or the organizations we’ve created to collect secret intelligence. We’re supposed to hold them accountable. We’re supposed to be able to access the information that would allow us to hold them accountable. 

A good overview of this mess can be found at The NSA Files on the Guardian website.

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