Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – October 25, 2013

The continued unveiling of the activities of the National Security Agency has elicited cries of “shock” from this country’s European allies. Have they been watching too much “Casablanca? Meanwhile, one of the residuals of New York’s odious Stop and Frisk policy has been the establishment of a new crime category –“Shopping While Black”. And finally, the rollout of Obamacare has been slowed by technology failures. Amazingly, the Teapublicans are outraged – and confused.

“Casablanca Redux”

It turns out that the National Security Agency has been monitoring the calls and communications of citizens in Europe. And it appears that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is included in this mix. And Chancellor Merkel was so “shocked” that she is said to have called President Obama to complain to him personally.

But what is the reason for all of this “shock” and outrage. Every developed country has an equivalent of the NSA and every country conducts various forms of industrial, military and diplomatic espionage and surveillance as a matter of course.

Chancellor Merkel may be shocked that the NSA surveillance of her communications was exposed. What she should be shocked about is that the German equivalent of the NSA or Secret Service wasn’t able to prevent that country’s head of state from being the subject of surveillance by another country for two years. Now that is shocking.

Buying While Black

The many harmful side effects to New York City’s horrible and hateful race-based Stop and Frisk policy have been recounted. The degradation of black and Latino youth and the erosion of trust of the police in communities of color are fairly obvious consequences.

And now a spate of recent news stories has revealed another consequence – the general criminalization of black people in New York. Three separate stories recount the unwarranted arrest of a black college student, a black nurse and a black movie star at prominent New York City stores – Barneys and Macy’s. Their crime? Buying While Black?”

While you won’t find this crime in the New York Penal Code, it is clear that in the view of the New York City Police Department – and local retailers – infected by the racial contagion of Stop and Frisk – feel that there is reasonable cause to arrest a black person for buying a $300 belt, a $2500 purse or a $1400 watch. Even if those purchases were purchased with the valid credit/debit card of the owner. Clearly a black person buying a high end item – or anything – is reasonable cause for arrest.

Gil Scott-Heron wrote an anti-apartheid song entitled “Johannesburg”. It might be time to change the lyrics to “What’s the word, New York New York.

Computer Blues

Since October 1st, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, has been the subject of numerous technical website problems. Although hundreds of thousands of people are already registered for affordable health care, there are millions who remain waiting online.

The Teapublicans, at their predictable knee jerk best, have convened Congressional hearings, but not for the purpose of finding out the reason for the unsurprising glitches in the most ambitious American healthcare initiative in a generation. The Teapublicans want you to believe that these absolutely correctable computer issues are justification for dismantling Obamacare in its entirety.

The fact that millions of Americans have benefited from the passage of Obamacare since 2010 is beside the point on the Planet Teapublican. The dismantling of President Obama’s signature legislative achievement is their one and only goal.

Clearly the Teapublican Party is a one trick elephant.

Have a great weekend – stay strong and be great!

Point of View Columns

Somebody is Watching You

Edward Snowden had better hope that his fifteen minutes of fame are worth the next several years of anxiety that he will be experiencing. It is not clear how Mr. Snowden is a traitor or a hero for revealing what most of us already know. But whoever thought it would be a good idea for him to go from China to Russia to Cuba in his flight from prosecution and his quest for asylum might want to have their head examined.

As an employee of a National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden is one of over one million people with Top Secret clearance. The sheer number of individuals with Top Secret clearance reveals that there aren’t very many secrets left in this country or in this world, for that matter.

Ever since Mr. Snowden released the NSA files indicating this gargantuan monitoring system that encompasses everything from phone calls to e-mails, there has been a reprise of that scene from the movie “Casablanca” where the corrupt Inspector is “shocked” that there is gambling going on in a night club while simultaneously receiving his bribe. The American press, civil liberties groups and predictably the right wing of the right wing have excoriated President Obama and his Administration for the continuation of a surveillance program that began during the Bush-Cheney Administration.

But before looking at the technical, strategic and policy issues related to the Prism program it is useful to reaffirm the facts of the world in which we live today. The expectations of privacy in the 21st century are fundamentally different from one hundred years ago or even twenty years ago.

The almost universal use of the internet for communication, commerce and recreation has lulled the global public into the dreamland of expectation – expecting that use of the internet is somehow private. And that delusion has continued even though most sentient beings realize that companies ranging from Google to Amazon to McDonald’s are tracking the use of the internet for various marketing and commercial purposes.

Computer technology is such that nothing is ever deleted and nothing can ever be retracted once that “Send” button has been pushed. Despite the various encryption features related to everything from personal banking to the recording of grades, no one should be surprised that there is no such thing as ultimate, iron clad security when the internet is used. Indeed, even a computer with no connection to the internet has a memory that retains its memory until it is thrown into a cauldron of molten steel.

Given the facts that our expectations of privacy are radically different, it is curious that there is such controversy regarding the NSA tracking patterns – not content – of cell phone calls and internet communications in order to discern possible links to terrorists or terrorist activities. This surveillance program involves the oversight of billions upon billions of messages and calls with an accompanying set of algorithms that allow the NSA to pick up on suspicious links.

To date there has been no assertion that this activity been used to harass or attack political opposition to the current Administration. Further, there has been no record of warrantless review and surveillance of the content of monitored communications. There have been, however, assertions by the NSA that over fifty serious terrorist attacks have been thwarted by reason of this Prism surveillance program.

What is clear is that this surveillance program is not necessarily the first stage of “1984” played out 29 years later. What is also clear is that a war on terror against actors who don’t wear uniforms, who don’t have a flag and who don’t have a home country is not a war that can be fought via conventional means.

President Obama has called for a reassessment of the so-called war on terror and now would also be a good time to reassess the tools for fighting that war.

In the meantime, Edward Snowden might want to hire a new travel agent.