First World Problems: “My latte is too hot, the DVR Didn’t Record ‘Dexter’ and the NSA Has My Metadata”

For two and a half months now, it seems the Left has been talking about little other than Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. With 11.5 million Americans out of work, the GOP’s war on women continuing and the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, aren't there more important things to worry about?
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For two and a half months now, it seems the Left has been talking about little other than Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. With 11.5 million Americans out of work, the GOP’s war on women continuing and the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, aren't there more important things to worry about?
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spilled coffee

By David Harada Stone

The steady drip, drip, drip of recent revelations about the National Security Agency has some liberals in a panic. The Republic is in peril, they warn. The faux progressive occupying the White House is a "snake" says Oliver Stone. "Worse than Bush," insist Glenn Greenwald and his worshippers followers. The United States no longer has a functioning democracy, declares Jimmy Carter. Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together ... Mass hysteria.

Yawn. To paraphrase Jay Z, I've got 99 problems, but the NSA ain't one. Well, not a very big one, anyway. But it is a distraction, and a troubling one. For two and a half months now, it seems the Left has been talking about little other than Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (okay, some of it is Glenn Greenwald talking about Glen Greenwald, but still ...).

Last I checked, the official unemployment rate was still 7.4%, with 11.5 million Americans out of work and another 8.2 million underemployed, forced to work part-time for economic reasons. Republicans have refused to even allow a vote on most of President’s Obama’s jobs initiatives. They’ve also ignored the president’s pitch for an increase in the federal minimum wage, which at $7.25 an hour is worth 20 percent less, adjusted for inflation, than it was forty years ago.

The GOP’s war on women continues unabated, as Republican legislators and governors elected on promises of more jobs devote their energies instead to shutting down women’s clinics and relegating abortions to the back alley.

Lest we forget, it was just two months ago that the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, freeing Texas, North Carolina and other states to erect new barriers to minority voting. Add to that the Trayvon Martin tragedy, racial profiling and stop and frisk, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream is still unfulfilled 50 years after the March on Washington.

Immigration reform is stalled in the House. Millions of undocumented workers live in fear of deportation. “Dreamers” still worry that the reprieve provided by Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals will end if and when Republicans take back the White House.

Senate Republicans gave Sandy Hook parents the finger and sided with gun manufacturers and mass murderers by blocking universal background checks, leaving the rest of us to wonder when – not if – another madman will gun down dozens of innocents again.

As if all this weren’t enough, Republicans in the House and Senate remain determined to defund implementation of the Affordable Care Act, even if it means a government shutdown or debt default. Republican governors and state lawmakers have decided they would rather see some of their own residents die for want of health care than hand Obama a “victory” by agreeing to a federally-funded Medicaid expansion.

I’m sorry, but compared to these issues – each of which directly affects the lives of millions or tens of millions of Americans – the NSA “scandal” tastes a little like “white whine” to me.

Call me cavalier. Or callous. Or worse. Maybe. But from what I gather from reading the Guardian and other papers, the worst of the NSA "scandal" involves the daily collection and storage of "metadata" about Americans' phone calls. Metadata. Phone numbers. Call durations. IMEI numbers. But no names or, according to officials, location information. The NSA can't actually tap an American's phone without an individualized warrant. NSA analysts don't even ever look at more than a tiny fraction of the metadata records the agency collects. They couldn't if they wanted to. With billions of such records, It's just mathematically impossible.

The agency also isn't allowed to deliberately target an American for internet or email surveillance without a warrant. But the NSA can and does sometimes "inadvertently" or "incidentally" collect Americans' communications as a byproduct of surveillance directed at foreigners (not unlike the way local police or the DEA might record your call to the drug dealer they're wiretapping when you're trying to score a quarter of weed). Minimization rules require that the identities of U.S. persons be masked in such data and/or that it be destroyed, unless the information is necessary to understand some foreign intel (such as an American's identity as a target of or participant in an act of terror), is evidence of a crime, or fits some other exception.

Sometimes the NSA screws up. According to a report by the NSA's Inspector General, there were 2,776 "violations" of rules and statutory requirements intended to protect Americans' privacy. The vast majority of these incidents involved "roamers," foreign surveillance targets who brought their phones into the U.S. A recently declassified opinion by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court shows that in 2011 the court reined in an NSA foreign intel effort that had scooped up as many as 56,000 domestic emails between Americans a year (though it is unclear how may of these, if any, were actually read by the NSA) and failed to promptly destroy or minimize these records.  Fifty-six thousand is a lot. Except when expressed as a percentage of the 90 trillion emails sent ever year. Then it’s a little, as in a number with a lot of zeroes in front of it: 0.00000006222222222222222%.

Many of the headlines talk about the NSA "monitoring" or "spying" on Americans' communications. But it appears what the agency is mostly doing is collecting and warehousing data. The NSA may be the biggest electronic hoarder in history. But the likelihood that an NSA analyst has actually listened to YOUR phone calls or read YOUR emails is infinitesimally small, unless you’ve been in contact with overseas militants on the agency’s watch list. The agency has neither the time nor any reason to peruse the mundane. Those cat pictures you posted on Facebook last week are safe. So is that email you sent to confirm your attendance at next Sunday’s Tea Party weenie roast.

It wasn’t always so. I’m old enough to remember the Church Committee hearings of the 1970s and the revelations they yielded about government spying on Americans. From 1956 to 1971, the FBI’s COINTELPRO projects targeted political dissidents, anti-war activists, civil rights leaders and others, including Martin Luther King, Jr. J. Edgar Hoover’s objectives included not only surveillance, but discrediting government critics, disrupting protests and spreading misinformation. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon all used the FBI and other government intelligence agencies to gather info on political rivals, government officials and even Supreme Court justices.

None of the recent stories about the NSA point to similar abuses by the Obama administration, or the kind of malicious intent and the targeting of political enemies that earned Nixon his notoriety. Indeed, the closest thing is a story on Bloomberg that revealed that individual NSA analysts had abused their power, e.g., spying on girlfriends and the like, “multiple times.” In turns out that “multiple times” means about a dozen times, over ten years. What’s more, the perpetrators were caught and disciplined. That’s actually a pretty good record for an organization with tens of thousands of employees. It certainly isn’t one that makes me fearful of government eavesdropping every time I send an email or dial a number on my cell phone.

By way of comparison, the N.Y.P.D. stopped and frisked 4.4 million people between January of 2002 and June of 2012, the overwhelming majority of them African-American or Hispanic, and innocent. While “stop and frisk” and other examples of racial profiling by local cops have generated headlines and condemnation in the liberal blogosphere, they haven’t garnered anywhere near the attention or outrage devoted to the NSA. Yet they represent a very real and tangible infringement of Americans’ rights.

That’s not to say NSA overreach doesn’t pose a potential threat to our constitutional rights. By all means, progressives should support reform. Let’s publish the opinions of the FISA courts. Let’s, as Obama has proposed, appoint an advocate to argue against NSA and FBI requests to the FISA courts for surveillance orders. Let’s make the NSA justify the bulk collection of telephone metadata and explain why limiting collection to the records of individuals tied to terror investigations won’t keep us safe. If it can’t, let’s impose those limits. Let’s strengthen the rules regarding the destruction or minimization of information about Americans collected during the collection of foreign intelligence.

But if you’re a progressive and you’re consumed by the NSA story, if it has become the only or even the primary issue holding your attention, or if Obama’s complicity in maintaining a surveillance network that he inherited and has taken small but meaningful steps to rein in makes you unwilling to support his efforts to create jobs, to protect women’s rights, to promote marriage equality, to reform health care, to control guns, or to protect voting rights, then guess what? You’re probably not really a progressive after all.

Progressives are not libertarians. We don’t fear or despise government. We see it as a tool for good, at least in the right hands. We should support intelligence reform, but leave the paranoia and obsessing to the Ron Paul crowd. We have too much work to do trying to improve people’s lives, or at least keeping them from getting worse, to get bogged down in this.

(Courtesy of TheBigSlice)