from the and-also-the-favorites-of-the-week dept
In a bit of fortuitous timing, this week we had asked former deputy chief of staff for Ron Wyden, Jennifer Hoelzer, to do our weekly “Techdirt Favorites of the Week” post, in which we have someone from the wider Techdirt community tell us what their favorite posts on the site were. As you’ll see below, Hoelzer has a unique and important perspective on this whole debate concerning NSA surveillance, and given the stories that came out late Friday, she chose to ditch her original post on favorites and rewrite the whole thing from scratch last night (and into this morning). Given that, it’s much, much more than a typical “favorites of the week” post, and thus we’ve adjusted the title appropriately. I hope you’ll read through this in its entirety for a perspective on what’s happening that not many have.
Tim Cushing made one of my favorite points of the week in his Tuesday post “Former NSA Boss Calls Snowden’s Supporters Internet Shut-ins; Equates Transparency Activists With Al-Qaeda,” when he explained that “some of the most ardent defenders of our nation’s surveillance programs” — much like proponents of overreaching cyber-legislation, like SOPA — have a habit of “belittling” their opponents as a loose confederation of basement-dwelling loners.” I think it’s worth pointing out that General Hayden’s actual rhetoric is even more inflammatory than Cushing’s. Not only did the former NSA director call us “nihilists, anarchists, activists, Lulzsec, Anonymous, twenty-somethings who haven’t talked to the opposite sex in five or six years,” he equates transparency groups like the ACLU with al Qaeda.
I appreciated this post for two reasons:
First of all, it does a great job of illustrating a point that I’ve long made when asked for advice on communicating tech issues, which is that the online community is as diverse and varied as the larger world we live in. Of course, we are more likely to come across the marginal opinions of twenty-somethings with social anxiety online because, unlike the larger world, the Internet gives those twenty-somethings just as much of an opportunity to be heard as a Harvard scholar, a dissident protesting for democracy or General Hayden himself.
Sure, it can be infuriating to read scathingly hostile comments written by troubled individuals who clearly didn’t take the time to read the post you spent countless hours carefully writing (not that that has ever happened to me) but isn’t one of the things that makes the Internet so darn special its unwavering reminder that free speech includes speech we don’t appreciate? Of course, that’s a point that tends to get lost on folks — like General Hayden — who don’t seem to understand that equating the entirety of the online world with terrorists is a lot like posting a scathing comment to a story without reading it. You can’t expect someone to treat you or your opinion with respect — online or anywhere else — when you’re being disrespectful. And I can imagine no greater disrespect for the concepts of transparency and oversight than to equate them with the threats posed by terrorist groups like al Qaeda.
But my main reason for singling out Tim’s post this week is that Hayden’s remark goes to the heart of what I continue to find most offensive about the Administration’s handling of the NSA surveillance programs, which is their repeated insinuation that anyone who raises concerns about national security programs doesn’t care about national security. As Tim explains this “attitude fosters the “us vs. them” antagonism so prevalent in these agencies dealings with the public. The NSA (along with the FBI, DEA and CIA) continually declares the law is on its side and portrays its opponents as ridiculous dreamers who believe safety doesn’t come with a price.”
To understand why I find this remark so offensive, I should probably tell you a little about myself. While the most identifying aspect of my resume is probably the six years I spent as U.S. Senator Ron Wyden’s communications director and later deputy chief of staff, I started college at the U.S. Naval Academy and spent two years interning for the National Security Council. I had a Top Secret SCI clearance when I was 21 years old and had it not been for an unusual confluence of events nearly 15 years ago — including a chance conversation with a patron of the bar I tended in college — I might be working for the NSA today. I care very deeply about national security. Moreover — and this is what the Obama Administration and other proponents of these programs fail to understand — I was angry at the Administration for its handling of these programs long before I knew what the NSA was doing. That had a lot to do with the other thing you should probably know about me: during my tenure in Wyden’s office, I probably spent in upwards of 1,000 hours trying to help my boss raise concerns about programs that he couldn’t even tell me about.
Which brings me to my next favorite Techdirt post of the week, Mike’s Friday post entitled “Don’t Insult Our Intelligence, Mr. President: This Debate Wouldn’t Be Happening Without Ed Snowden,” which is a much less profane way of summing up my feelings about the President’s “claim that he had already started this process prior to the Ed Snowden leaks and that it’s likely we would [have] ended up in the same place” without Snowden’s disclosure.
“What makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation,” Obama said. “It’s the way we do it, with open debate and democratic process.”
I hope you won’t mind if I take a moment to respond to that.
Really, Mr. President? Do you really expect me to believe that you give a damn about open debate and the democratic process? Because it seems to me if your Administration was really committed those things, your Administration wouldn’t have blocked every effort to have an open debate on these issues each time the laws that your Administration claims authorizes these programs came up for reauthorization, which — correct me if I am wrong — is when the democratic process recommends as the ideal time for these debates.
For example, in June 2009, six months before Congress would have to vote to reauthorize Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the Obama Administration claims gives the NSA the authority to collect records on basically every American citizen — whether they have ever or will ever come in contact with a terrorist — Senators Wyden, Feingold and Durbin sent Attorney General Eric Holder a classified letter “requesting the declassification of information which [they] argued was critical for a productive debate on reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act.”
In November 2009, they sent an unclassified letter reiterating the request, stating:
“The PATRIOT Act was passed in a rush after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sunsets were attached to the Act’s most controversial provisions, to permit better-informed, more deliberative consideration of them at a later time. Now is the time for that deliberative consideration, but informed discussion is not possible when most members of Congress – and nearly all of the American public – lack important information about the issue.”
Did President Obama jump at the opportunity to embrace the democratic process and have an open debate then? No. Congress voted the following month to reauthorize the Patriot Act without debate.
In May 2011, before the Senate was — again — scheduled to vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act, Senators Wyden and Udall — again — called for the declassification of the Administration’s secret interpretation of Section 215. This time, in a Huffington Post Op-Ed entitled “How Can Congress Debate a Secret Law?” they wrote:
Members of Congress are about to vote to extend the most controversial provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act for four more years, even though few of them understand how those provisions are being interpreted and applied.
As members of the Senate Intelligence Committee we have been provided with the executive branch’s classified interpretation of those provisions and can tell you that we believe there is a significant discrepancy between what most people — including many Members of Congress — think the Patriot Act allows the government to do and what government officials secretly believe the Patriot Act allows them to do.
Legal scholars, law professors, advocacy groups, and the Congressional Research Service have all written interpretations of the Patriot Act and Americans can read any of these interpretations and decide whether they support or agree with them. But by far the most important interpretation of what the law means is the official interpretation used by the U.S. government and this interpretation is — stunningly –classified.
What does this mean? It means that Congress and the public are prevented from having an informed, open debate on the Patriot Act because the official meaning of the law itself is secret. Most members of Congress have not even seen the secret legal interpretations that the executive branch is currently relying on and do not have any staff who are cleared to read them. Even if these members come down to the Intelligence Committee and read these interpretations themselves, they cannot openly debate them on the floor without violating classification rules.
During the debate itself, Wyden and Udall offered an amendment to declassify the Administration’s legal interpretation of its Patriot Act surveillance authorities and, in a twenty minute speech on the Senate floor, Wyden warned that the American people would one day be outraged to learn that the government was engaged in surveillance activities that many Americans would assume were illegal, just as they were every other time the national security committee has tried to hide its questionable activities from the American people.