Saturday, June 8, 2013

What Price Freedom? President Obama Defends NSA Surveillance

There’s been a riot of protest about the Obama Administration’s invasion of privacy lately, with the media milking it for all it’s worth. Protestors see it as the end of America and American freedom, the confirmation that the US is a police state, proof that President Obama is a thug, illustration that all your emails and your internet activity are being read and filed, andyou’re your telephone calls listened to and saved.
One wonders if anybody has thought about how many employees it would take to do all of that,  how long it would take, and how physically impossible it actually is, considering that we’re talking about all the phone and email activity of 313 900 000 people. 

Some research cited that on average Americans spend 7 hours a month talking on the phone. That’s 2 197 300 000 hours a month that would have to be listened to. Which would take one person 91 554 166 days to cover, listening 24 hours a day. So the Obama Administration must be employing millions of people just to listen into phone calls. 

What about emails? The figures are too astronomic to even contemplate, and the whole scenario is unutterably absurd.

The truth is that the content of phone calls isn’t being listened to, just who’s making them and who to. Which still doesn’t mean that every single call is being scrutinized. The information is mined for alerts. To catch terrorists. And the internet data of Americans isn’t being scrutinized at all. Plus, the reality of intelligence gathering is probably nowhere near as glamorous or sinister as many seem to fear, and as Hollywood has projected. It’s hard to separate fiction from fact most of the time, which I think is partly why so many people are going ballistic.

President Obama is keeping his head, however. He pointed out that surveillance is nothing new and that society sometimes has to make compromise if it wants ultimate protection. It makes sense to me. 

There seem to be two options to counter terror: intelligence or military invasion. The latter makes other people pay for your freedom. It maims or destroys - mentally and physically - huge numbers of US soldiers and innocent civilians, and enables illegal kidnap and torture. It’s conveniently far from home – except for the soldiers and their families, of course – and everybody can get on pretty much with their lives, adapting to paranoia, hoping a bomb doesn't blow up in their back yard. 

Not letting themselves really consider what this option is doing to innocent people. Not really thinking that their freedom comes at a horrible price, paid by somebody else.

But it creates more enemies, generates incendiary hatred and fosters more terrorist attacks. The  military industrial complex continues to make a profit, becomes more powerful, more controlling of politicians. That option will never free America from terrorism. Violence begets more violence. 

Intelligence, on the other hand, doesn’t maim or destroy anybody so integrity is preserved as well as lives and sanity. It doesn't make more enemies, and it has a chance of succeeding. That's a no-brainer.

In 2009 US intelligence analysts were alerted by an email which they traced to a young man, Najibullah Zazi, who asked an Al Qaeda operative how to make a flour-based bomb. Later, he sent another email saying the marriage was ready. He was traced and later confessed to having plotted to bomb New York subways. I find that both sobering and encouraging. 

One of the critics of this invasion of privacy said that the failures to catch terrorists far outnumber the successes and concluded that the intelligence gathering was a waste of time.  But that's the nature of success, that's how it happens in reality. You keep trying even when you fail, and you always fail more times than you succeed. But you do eventually succeed and your successes are noteworthy.
And I guess to the New York inhabitants who took the subway and were saved from losing body parts and/or their lives, the surveillance wasn’t a waste of time at all. 

I know that if I'd been one of those who would have been dismembered by a terrorist bomb if it hadn't been intercepted by intelligence I'd be grateful, not critical.

In World War II, people sacrificed their lives for freedom from fascism. Now all people are being asked to sacrifice is a tiny bit of freedom, so their lives and integrity can be preserved. It doesn’t seem like a very big price to ask, to me.