Surveillance State? Federal Ruling Goes into Overtime

 

 

It’s been about eight months since Glenn Greenwald and collaborators began reporting on Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency surveillance leaks; and they’ve been rolling in steadily ever since. While intelligence gathering is certainly not a new or entirely unnecessary tactic, documents pointing to the magnitude, and arbitrary nature of oversight have cast the agency and its work in an Orwellian light. Undoubtedly, there has to be a trade-off at some point. Some secrets probably should remain secret; but where do we draw the line between security, privacy and moreover, our own personal freedoms?

Whether you believe Edward Snowden has been doing our civil liberties a favor or not, there’s also a line-up of ex-NSA officials, whistleblowers, and senators who have been trying for years to shine some light on the issue. Service providers such as Ladar Levison of Lavabit, have also come forward to shed some light on the story; having decided to shut-down the website rather than hand over the reins to surveillance agencies, though also clarifying that under legal restrictions, he was unable to disclose much of his interaction with the agency, stating instead that he “did not want to be complicit in crimes against the American people”.

We know now, through leaks such as the Verizon court order, that the NSA has been collecting phone records on most American’s on a daily basis through various phone and communications companies.

Slides have shown a timeline of Web and Tech giants who have provided, either willingly with the possibility of facing similar constraints as Levison; or perhaps unwillingly- as some of the slides suggest direct access could be reached unbeknownst through the Tempura program’s fiber optic cable taps. We’ve seen the expanse of networks reaching international agencies like the Five-Eyes surveillance alliance of the U.S’s NSA, UK’s GCHQ, Canadian CSEC/CSIS, as well as facilities in Australia and New Zealand.

The official responses echoed in the media have certainly shifted as revelations continued to roll out. Presidential addresses and hearings with agency officials when the leaks started were flat-out rejections of PRISM or meta-data programs even existing, as more information is made available, the stance has visibly softened and we are now witnessing calls for reform, and an acceptance of public debate. Of course debates only happening after the fact, are part of the problem. The NSA’s surveillance program is still defended by many, but there is clearly a significant call, and a begrudging admittance, for proper checks and balances on a very vast and capable agency.  President Obama’s review group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies has recently released a 304 page report for the Presidents consideration, including their recommendations for surveillance reform- all 46 of them. While the report is still certainly in favor of maintaining the program, Senator Ron Wyden stated on his website that “I’ve been arguing for two years that the programs’ effectiveness has been overstated. The panel of surveillance experts came to the same conclusion”.

The effectiveness or apparent need for the program has been one of the agency’s most adamant claims. NSA Director, Keith Alexander, stated in slides leaked from a Las Vegas presentation, that the program claimed to have prevented 54 terrorist attacks (25 in Europe, 13 in the U.S., 11 in Asia, and 5 in Africa). However, amongst the crowd that would disagree with this claim, is U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of Washington, A Bush-Republican appointee, who ruled against that claim, and against the likely constitutionality of the program stating:

“Although the government has publically asserted that the NSA’s surveillance programs have prevented fifty-four terrorist attacks, no proof of that has been put before me”

To couple this ruling with the report from Obama’s surveillance reform report, seems like an obvious vindication of Snowden’s message, although many would still disagree. Within ten days of Judge Leon’s ruling we have District Judge William Pauley of New York, who ultimately ruled in the complete opposite direction on every fundamental aspect of the case. To the role of surveillance in the prevention of terrorism, or more specifically, in his description- the September 11th attacks, Judge Pauley stated:

“Telephone metadata would have furnished the missing information and might have permitted the NSA to notify the federal bureau of investigation of the fact that Al Midhar was calling the Yemeni safe house from inside the United States.”

While the program still retains some value, and obviously with the proper checks and balances in place, could this not be one of the situations with probable cause and reasonable suspicion to issue a warrant for this specific data? This has been a key dynamic to the debate of just how the program should be amended. If the split decision holds on through the appeals process, ultimately, it could become the decision of the Supreme Court. Obama, as well, has 46 suggestions as to how things can be improved; of which –or any- he chooses to enact, is something that remains to be seen.

This Message Brought to you by The People Who Want Me to be Responsible for What Comes out of My Mouth??

 

Typically, historical ruminations of discrimination and prejudice
, and especially the often resulting violence, elicits disbelief as a standard response. There’s a detached sense of dismay and confusion that so many, in their day, had ever had the capacity to pass indifferently by, let alone
participate. The past is often judged through the lens of the present, though the present still has room  to grow.

Here is a PSA of comedian Todd Glass who, after coming out as a gay man, filmed this for the GLSEN support network. It’s turned up in a number of places, and while much of the commentary is encouraging and even inspiring, there is still a tangent of misunderstanding wherein toddglassa message of awareness is being taken to a very unintended and, frankly, a dangerous place.

The PSA brought on a lot of discussion online, and I think it goes without saying that internet commentary is heavily packed with trolling, confrontation, and bludgeoning ideology. Usually, it’s best left alone. Most of these people probably behave completely different offline, right? The “power of anonymity” kind of thing?

This PSA took sat stubbornly in the back of my mind for days. Truthfully, I had to wonder to what extent my own experiences, nestled comfortably in the sphere of “white, straight, female” had clouded my ability to recognize discrimination along the spectrum from “good intentions gone astray” to the full-fledged vitriol faced by those who were perhaps a lot less comfortable.

If I’ve ever failed to notice when it might have mattered to someone: I’m sorry.

Here’s the thing: this message is really only about understanding and respect. These biases exist in our own neighborhoods , and maybe our own homes. In the more abstract, ever-growing and diverse populations, it’s especially easy to distort or demonize individuals and entire groups when we don’t fully understand them. The digital world where I’d stumbled across Glass’s video revealed a lot about how out of sync some of us really are with one another.

The video may have been fiction, but clearly, the reality is not. As conversations grew more intensely polarized, as they do both on and offline, I felt like message was being lost. It was being buried in rhetoric, hyperbole, and finger-pointing; this is my attempt to try to dig it out.

“I’m not responsible for their happiness- suicide was their choice”

I don’t think i can stress enough how important it is to understand, in such a situation as this, what its like to want to take your life. It’s a perpetuation of short-sight to throw hands in the air and say “not my fault”. This is about responsibility, not blame. While there obviously is a choice in the end; it’s a decision that, in part, rests atop many moments, where feeling fundamentally flawed is in some -and often, unintentional- way transfixed into someones fabric of identity.

Survival is a basic instinct, and overriding it is counter to the vast majority of our evolutionary hard-wiring. The reasoning behind the choice is secondary to the fact that it’s perceived as the only one remaining. We don’t get to decide how much, or how efficiently others can cope with stress. We do, however, have the ability to extend guilt-free, unconditional compassion when others suffer, especially loved ones. You can’t solve a problem like this unless you understand where it came from. Where choices and responsibility weigh into this issue, they certainly do so for everyone involved. To argue about who’s rightly to blame, is never a good dragnet for catching positive change and ignores the conversation we should be having about our responsibility in creating solutions. This is subjective territory, and as much as we might worry about the perception of someone at risk, it’s important to consider how our own might be standing in their way. Good people, and good families have lost loved ones over the difference.

Here’s the story of one… This is no PSA.

“We love you.. but”

I think If Todd Glass had wanted us to understand anything, it’s how true, genuine love can be unwittingly framed as doomed to be a buck short. Anderson Cooper of CNN covered a series entitled “the sissy boy experiment” where this idea of, “you’re broken”, has grown into businesses and institutions who sell the “we can fix you” solution. George Rekers, the researcher involved in the sissy boy experiment, when made aware of his patients suicide, offered the all too familiar-  “we only wanted to help”. Manipulating a child, (as discussed in the video) whether by emotional or physical means, is irresponsible in its disregard of the psychological side effects.

Research and therapy are important, not everyone who thinks they are LGBT truly are. Although, when research comes off the rails and attempts to fit everyone into the same identity; many of those who inherently fit something else are being taught to be unaccepting of themselves.

“The Leftist-Propaganda Machine”

Politically, we have come a long way in establishing equal rights; though the fact that an historically oppressed demographic is accused of propaganda by sharing their own personal experiences is, in and of itself, a sad realization that despite all the progress, there still is a ways to go. A timeline showing a history of LGBT rights in Canada can attest to some of the progress we’ve made; not, of course, without tremendous struggle. The States-side of this continent is also seeing a shift in opinion, according to Gallup polls. The case is much more serious in other areas of the world, such as Iran where it’s commonplace for LGBT to face death sentences for their orientation, the infamous anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda, or Russia’s controversial legislation. The more we permit discrimination to pass by unchallenged, the more we give it the opportunity to grow.

The religious argument is one that I found to be the most conflicting, even amongst themselves. I have no reservations about anyone’s religious beliefs, in fact, religious freedom is just as important. However, I don’t believe religious doctrine has a right to determine the quality of someone’s life. Many in the LGBT community are religious as well and are finding themselves in a strange position between accepting their faith and being accepted BY their faith.

Returning to Todd Glass for a final moment, his appearance on the WTF With Marc Maron Podcast packed some choice words:

“Time will tell you’re wrong. I always say, if you are homophobic and you’re out there, you better be positive you’re right. Because isn’t it gonna blow if all these kids are killing themselves and later, how convenient, in 20 years you get to write a book, and god bless you if you do it, to say how wrong you were. They’re dead. So why don’t you have a soul-searching moment now? Go into your house. Shut the door. And be fucking positive you’re making kids feel like crap for no good goddamned reason, because you can apologize in 20 years if you’re a politician.”

We can only hope that it doesn’t take 20 years for us to all finally understand and respect each other, for who we really are.

The Rise (and Fall) of Objectivity

If you’re going to critique objectivity as a tool or an ideal of journalism, you have to look at the purpose of journalism itself and how objectivity helps to serve that purpose. Objectivity is, without a doubt, an important function of journalism. It points us to a rational- albeit, an ever shifting- middle ground; tries to provide a perspective not soaked in bias or knee-jerk sensationalism. For journalism to be valuable to public discourse, it has to be trusted. It should represent not just a teasing of facts, but their full meaning, and act as a credible, truth-seeking source of fair and accurate information, as best as it can be attained.

Therein lies the rub,

does journalism merely stake a claim to objectivity to create the ideal image of a trusted, truthful reporter; or do they employ it as a tool to actually earn that reputation? The benefits of professional neutrality are often misappropriated- serving the writer, rather than the reader. The principle of objectivity has taken a beating over the years from in and outside of media circles; no doubt in part due to the evolution of the press, the politics, and the society it all operates in.

Therefore, I suppose I would argue that objectivity as we know it, or perhaps, as it’s commonly been argued, is the means rather than the end.

The concept has stuck around throughout history. It’s adapted to new models and new styles of journalism; it’s been re-worded and at times disregarded entirely. We’ve seen the catch-phrases of some in the mainstream media slide their way from that of objective reporting, to *ahem* fair and balanced, to non-existent as the current backlash against objectivity itself continues. This on and off long-term relationship with the practice has produced a plethora of terms, theories, and conventions by which journalism has operated and through which it is examined in an ever-evolving field.

For some, objective reporting has evidently become a premium to such an extent that J-studies professors might yet be tempted to include a chapter on stenography in the journalism curricula. In the name of apparent neutrality, journalism has at times worked diligently, only to fail at satisfying other crucial ideals which are themselves integral to the job. From this perspective, objectivity seems to exist not necessarily as the highest water mark of journalistic professionalism, but a component with its own challenges and limitations; one which I necessarily a part of a larger function. Historically speaking, people have always had a basic need to communicate and share information and meaning with each other. Going back to ancient oral histories, Rome’s Acta Diurna and technological advancements like Guttenberg’s printing press, journalism began to take shape as an important voice of society; one which has helped to shape and redefine the way individuals, writers and governments interact with each other.

The colonial era in the west drew much of its influence from the news and practices of journalism abroad, namely Europe. Publick Houses and The Shipping News became important parts of the public sphere.

Historian Mitchell Stephens had curiously acquired an Aug. 5/ 1679 edition of Domestick Intelligence: a London-based publication credited to Benjamin Harris- who would go on to publish Publick Occurances, Both Foreign and Domestic: the first American newspaper 11 years later.** The import of European influence also impacted the American press’ ability to report independent of state control. American journalists were influenced by London newspapermen under the pen name “Cato”, who introduced the concept that truth is the ultimate defense against libel. The media’s adoption of the concept of free speech led to the acquittal of John Peter Zenger, a printer and critic of the Royal Governor of New York. I think it’s evident that this event, and the enshrining of press freedom in the constitution highlights the social importance of the press’ ability to take a particular stance when it’s appropriate.

The emergence of the public sphere was significant. As Micheal Schudson puts it..

“people could converse as equals. Individual reason, not social position, was the measure of an argument’s worth. Newspapers, pamphleteers, coffeehouses, and salons were among the key institutions that made a public sphere possible.”

And I have to agree. The media has gone through phases of revolutionary partisanship, political criticism and activism- like that of the pamphleteers; as well as economically-driven business models and detached professionalism. An outspoken press didn’t come to fruition without facing its own challenges, however. The Sedition Act in 1798 was a particularly unfriendly piece of legislation that sent up the river as many as 1 of 4 politically opposed editors.  As the press increasingly distanced itself from partisan reporting, the concept of the press as a business model was growing with publishing wars between William Randolph Hearts of The New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer of The New York World.

Henceforth we have “yellow journalism”, of course based in part on the “yellow-kid” comics meant to help rake in the business. Yellow journalism stuck around, a term that came to describe the sensationalist headlines and tactics used to gain readership, criticized for the papers growth expending accuracy. As media empires became prominent there was a greater call for journalism to adopt more rigorous methodology and objectivity in its work; realizing that writers were not without their own biases.

The political climate in the 1960’s was a particularly interesting example of this objective methodology leading the media to an over-reliance on official sources and falling completely behind the momentum of the public. Schudson said that:

“For journalism, habitual deference to government officials, especialy in foreign policy, came to be seen not as professionalism but as occupationally induced laziness, naivete, or worse”

They would eventually get on board with the public’s criticism of the administration, of course, via Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. The release was a defining event in media history; and one that would pave the way for future whistleblowers and journalists alike. The downside to the assumed high ground of professional objectivity is evident enough that media critics have been, for decades, discussion the error of its ways; to the extent that the press has in many ways become the butt of one of the world’s longest running jokes. The Iraq war coverage was again another example of objectivity getting in the way of the actual truth.

Linda McQuaig’s snippet from “it’s the crude, dude” does a good summation of this…

“Appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart after the release of the Senate report, a regretful [Wolf] Blitzer chalked up his failure to a kind of collective blindness: “We should have been more skeptical”

This admission is critically important and revealing as to the limits of objective reporting, even in the trusted, upper echelons of Blitzer’s Situation Room. To me, it seems that journalism and journalists develop habits. Many journalists still rely heavily on official, unnamed sources in lieu of stringent verification; as is present in many modern phenomena, including the spectacle of campaign coverage or foreign affairs. In a traditional sense, an active media in many ways required a society that is willing to seek out information, and it still does, although, with the boom of new media, journalism is able to reach farther out to grab it and reinvent some of the rules.

Perhaps this is just what the profession needs to give a new breed of journalists the ability to put objectivity to good use instead of misuse. Media criticism such as Geneva Overholser’s “forthright jettisoning of the objectivity credo” seems to advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater, does it not? It’s well noted where objectivity has failed, but objectivity is not a pit-stop to rest on your laurels a while; in its proper form, objectivity doesn’t ostracize fact-checking. 

The practice itself, is in a state of separation from it usefulness and its purpose. I think the ultimate desire of journalism would, or should, be to remain relevant and useful; if tweaking the criteria of objectivity is what is necessary for journalism to remain relevant as the 4th estate, then that is what journalists should be focusing on. I would have to assume that it’s not the fault of objectivity being a bad or unrealistic standard for journalists, but that we’ve mangled and muddied its meaning and importance so much that the media’s desire to appear professional is what essentially gave objectivity its bad reputation. Journalism should not have to sacrifice the truth for an audience. Neither should it let slide the standards of verification, loyalty to the citizenry, or even your own opinion to appear legitimate.

In instances where it’s necessary- journalists should follow their conscience and not be swayed by credo’s which look a lot better on paper than in reality. Thomas Nagel coined the phrase “The View from Nowhere” and suggested that by transcending our initial subjective response and taking an objective step back, we would achieve a wider and more accurate perspective of the world. Significant, I believe, because in that definition itself he suggests that a world view is an aggregate of experience; that a true picture cannot be wholly perceived without the contribution of the subjective; that the two, together, amount to a world view. Nagel believed that objectivity was an important addition to the subjective human experience. Though, the frequency with which modern journalism insists on divorcing the two and deciding that objectivity is the comfortable father figure they’d rather live with isn’t doing the profession, or us, any favors….Jay Rosen’s Pressthink examines the phenomena through the professional-lens whereby the state of devoid opinion or inquiry, is assumed to be a defining quality of good journalism.

While objectivity is undeniably an important aspect in good reporting, Rosen states that it has become “overrated by people who think it can replace the view from somewhere, or transcend the human subject. It can’t.

In the end, I think objectivity is only truly desirable if it can be re-aligned amongst the other responsibilities and elements of journalism. If not, then I think, as history has shown, objectivity has the potential to be a perfect catalyst of power aabusers and offers the kind of journalistic rigidity which degenerates the public sphere and limits citizens opportunities to be informed as well as handicaps whatever allegiance it had to a functioning democracy.