The hypothesis is this: the NSA’s secret telephone and internet surveillance program will reduce the chances of a terrorist attack on U.S. citizens.
As Karl Popper lavishly demonstrated, a hypothesis can only be considered proven if it is theoretically possible that it could be proven false. Now, there are two possible outcomes to the NSA’s secret telephone and internet surveillance programs. 1. There continue to be terrorist attacks. 2. There are much fewer or no terrorist attacks. And here’s the problem: if the result is 1, Obama can and will argue that the surveillance program is even more necessary because we have terrorist attacks. If the result is 2, the surveillance program is successful. Either way, we keep the surveillance program (does anyone seriously believe that, barring the election of Rand Paul, it will ever go away?).
This is an argument Obama cannot lose because it cannot be, in Popper’s phrase, “falsified”. That is, no matter what the evidence shows, the program is considered a success.
I have not heard anyone yet refer to something I would call “the secret police”. That is in fact exactly what the tens of thousands of employees of the NSA and Homeland Security are. They are governed by secret laws, authorized by secret courts, and conduct all their operations in extreme secrecy. The argument that, well, Congress has oversight, is so patently ridiculous it must be regarded as a rather preposterous, offensive joke.
John Oliver on The Daily Show made an excellent point with a brief joke. He suggested we combine cell phones with guns. That way, the Republicans and the NRA would be sure to resolutely oppose even the slightest inclination to list, register, track, or document cell phone calls.
Which leads me to another interesting thought: why didn’t Obama, being in favor of gun registration, simply create or empower a secret agency to record every gun sale in the U.S., registration number, bullets, and names and social security numbers of the purchasers? Then he could assure Americans that the government will never look at the data unless an absolutely genuine authentic warrant is approved by a secret panel of judges appointed by, oh, say, the President? I’m sure the NRA, which is so concerned about the safety of Americans, would roll over very quickly on that. Especially since the justification for the NSA surveillance program is 3,000 American deaths ten years ago, while guns kill 30,000 people every year.
Just how effective do you think this data collection program is, anyways? Both the hysteria and the apologetics serve the same function here: to glamorize the operation and suggest power and efficiency and authority. Here are a few things I think of when I consider just how effective the program might be:
- it is run by the same government that had virtually no Arab speaking agents in any of its intelligence agencies before 9/11
- it is run by the same government that blatantly lied about Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s capabilities and culpabilities before the invasion of 2005
- almost all of the recent terrorist arrests and convictions were the result of paid informants providing dubious information, false confessions, or outright lies or agents provocateurs who goaded naïve young fanatics into going along with manufactured plots
- about half of the people incarcerated in the Guantanamo prison are regarded by the CIA itself as innocent (but they are still there)
- officials in the government and military regarded torture as an acceptable strategy for obtaining information from suspected terrorists (who often turned out to be completely innocent)
When NSA or Homeland Security officials, and Republicans, claim that they have thwarted several dozen terrorist attacks (as they do claim, in fact), I find it depressing to consider that many Americans will believe them. I don’t. Firstly, we know that they see terror plots everywhere and have charged and convicted individuals on the flimsiest evidence imaginable. Secondly, they say they can’t prove it because that would compromise national security, which is the first thing I can think of that I would say if I were trying to hide the pathetic failure of an incredibly expensive program, in terms of money and civil liberties. I would lie. I would say, the program is a great success but I can’t prove it to you because that would compromise the effectiveness of the program. You can’t lose.
If it actually did thwart an actual terrorist attack, why was no one charged and convicted? I suspect that that is what he is talking about– plots that were thwarted before anyone actually committed an indictable offense, because if anyone actually did commit an indictable offense that could be proven or disproven in court, it would be. Would these Strangeloves miss an opportunity to toot their own horns, to prove the efficacy of their methods, their massive spending orgies, their infringement of civil liberties, just so the could to Congress with their pathetic, anemic, “we’ve had actual cases but we can’t tell you about them”?
Just think about it. Just because a computer has massive amounts of data in its files doesn’t mean that any of it is useful. The concept is probably this: a terrorist is caught (like, say the one Boston terrorist still alive) and authorities have access to his number. They get authorization from FISA (easy-peasy: the FISA court never rejects an application) and look up his number and get a list of all the other numbers he has called. I presume programmers would write a function to scan the data base for any similar numbers being called by other phones and correlate them to numbers used by other suspects. Then what? They go interview the recipients of these calls? They tap the phone?
So, is Al Qaeda so stupid that they would use phones to communicate their evil plots? Does anyone seriously think they didn’t already know that the phone system was being watched? What would prevent them from establishing the basic plans in person and then using code to send any signals that needed to be sent remotely? Who can assure us that the investigators looking at this information are smarter than the ones who were warned about the underwear bomber but ignored the information? Or the ones who couldn’t find a suspect because they had misspelled his name?
In the meantime, how hard would be for a conservative, Republican president to come along and decide that environmentalists or union organizers or animal rights activists were a threat to society, and could engage in terrorist acts, and therefore needed to have their data pulled from the data base for Homeland Security could investigate them more thoroughly?
Don’t laugh: that is almost exactly what happened during the Republican National Convention in 2004.
And More Yet
Are Americans disturbed to find they have a Secret Police force? No, because they are very, very easily frightened. Yes, for all the bluster and bragging of their anthems and monuments and parades, Americans are remarkably easy to throw into hysterics.
And because nobody uses the word “Secret Police”, because that’s what the Communists had, because they were very, very bad, and we’re very, very good. So, no, we don’t have secret police, or secret courts, or Big Brother, or torture, or rendition, or Guantanamo, or Mitch McConnell. We are good people.
Why does “soft on terrorism” have such political resonance but “soft on gun control” does not? If you are soft on terrorism, you would be partly responsible for a small number of casualties in the past five years. If you are soft on gun control, you are partly responsible for 150,000 deaths over the same period of time.
And One More Thing
Gail Collins on FISA
The magical outcome of this scandal is that Rand Paul’s chances of getting the 2016 Republican presidential nomination are considerably improved. Think about it– at those primaries and caucuses, where a small number of true believers can have a large impact?