freedom

Frog Boil

Boiling FrogThe news was broken by Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian and also by The Washington Post that FISA court Judge Roger Vincent approved a warrant drafted by the National Security Agency (NSA) to require Verizon to turn over all of its records of calls made to and from the US and any foreign telephone.  It was done under the provisions of FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  

FISA was designed to enable the gathering of – guess what – foreign intelligence.  It works in secret and is accountable to nobody, so we have no way to know if its actions are justified or appropriate and its provisions and restrictions are not well understood by the public.  Not surprisingly, our government has a way of stretching the meaning of the act to suit its purposes.  Here is an example of that stretching.

In addition to Verizon’s domestic-to-foreign calls being reported, the NSA also requires Verizon to turn over its records for all completely domestic calls.  Remember that part about FISA being about gathering foreign intelligence?  How a call from a domestically registered phone to another domestically registered phone is foreign is an unholy stretch, but that is what our government is doing.  And it gets worse.

The Washington Post broke the story that the NSA has a surveillance program called PRISM.  It is a another lovely piece of FISA stretch that delivers to the NSA all of the records of all the big online servers, like Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and more.

With the Verizon intelligence grab the NSA knows every call you’ve made and all the  calls made to you, the duration of the calls and the number your phone was connected to, the location of both phones and all of the records are delivered to the NSA daily.  With the PRISM program, the NSA can dig into anything you’ve ever done online, including your used-to-be-private emails and web surfing history. 

As reported in The New York Times, “James R, Clapper, Jr., director of national intelligence, “.  .  .  the government ‘does not unilaterally obtain information from the servers’ of telephone and Internet providers, saying that information is turned over only under court order, when there is a ‘documented, foreign intelligence purpose for acquisition’ of the data.”

Sounds reassuring.  And not confidently believable, if there is anything substantive to what whistle blowers Edward Snowden and William Binney have said.

These kinds of “data mining and harvesting” were supposed to be do-able only as part of a specific investigation that the NSA was conducting, not as a “grab the entire universe of information” fishing expedition.  Further, the warrant that is required for the NSA to dig its tentacles into you was supposed to be authorized by a FISA court judge using a very hairy eyeball, but nearly ever warrant requested has been allowed.

You may have committed no crime nor even have known anyone who has, but the NSA has all of your records, phone, emails and web surfing history, and is looking at them, even though you are not part of an ongoing investigation.  Honest person that you are, you are being snooped and groped.  Every day.

Let’s see – is there more?  Well, we’re killing people overseas with drones and we have a most strange way of quantifying the effect of these machines.  We identify the people we kill in various categories, including al Qaeda, militant, civilian and unknown.  Strangely, we’ve killed thousands classified as unknown yet our government has claimed that there were very few civilian casualties.  If we don’t know the identity of the people we killed, how can we know they weren’t civilians?

And, by the way, surveillance drones are already flying inside the U.S.

This is just the most recent few outrageous things our government is doing under the cover label of national security.  What is disturbing is that these kinds of government power grabs, this taking control of our privacy, our freedom and our lives is exactly what we used to abhor about the Soviet Union.  That government robbed its people of their freedom and millions of Soviets were killed by the state.  Indeed, our rendition programs are functionally identical to the Soviets sending their people to die in labor camps in Siberia.  Put any face, label or justification on it that you like; stealing your freedom is stealing your freedom.

It is said that if a live frog is suddenly thrown into a pot of boiling water that it will thrash violently and do everything it can to get out of the pot.  On the other hand, if a frog is thrown into cool water and then the heat is turned up so that the water warms gradually, the frog will swim about calmly until it is boiled dead.  That is to say, slow change doesn’t seem to get the frog’s attention, and then suddenly it is too late.

We’re a lot like that frog.  Our government has incrementally changed at a pace that doesn’t seem to get our attention, but we are gradually losing the America you believe in, as we plunge headlong into totalitarianism.

“Americans are living in a totalitarian state.  They just haven’t figured it out yet.”  Russian immigrant.

Copyright 2018 by Jack Altschuler
Reproduction and sharing are encouraged, providing proper attribution is given.

The Means, The End and Freedom

I was reading a news magazine recently about Pat Robertson, former candidate for President of the United States, owner of the Family Channel on cable TV, and head of the very conservative Christian Coalition.  It said that he plans to go to Congress and introduce an amendment to the Constitution that would allow “moments of silence” in public schools.  It said he figures this should be acceptable because he thinks it doesn’t violate the principle of separation of church and state in that it doesn’t prescribe prayer in school, just moments of silence.  That scares me.

I remember my mother telling me when I was young that the end doesn’t justify the means.  I think there’s sound wisdom in that.

Don’t  get me wrong:  I like the idea of instilling family values.  I like the idea of mom and dad marrying and raising children to be positive, healthy, contributing members of society.  These are good things, as I see them.  And, as I understand the people of the religious right, I think these are the kind of family values that they want and which most of us agree with.  But achieving the end of instilling family values does not justify whatever means are used to achieve them.  History teaches us that from such well intentioned actions have come some of the cruelest hatred and oppression.

In Sam Keen’s new book, Hymns to an Unknown God, he says that when people,  “ . . . claim to possess the only true revelation of God, they provide themselves with a theological justification for war.  There is a high degree of correlation between true believers, known gods and high body counts.”  If you have trouble with that, review your history book for what happened in the Roman Empire, during the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, and even today in Rwanda and Bosnia.  In each case, the true believers started with what seemed like good intent and eventually used it to generate high body counts.  Somehow we humans always seem to gravitate that way and I don’t think that we in the United States are somehow immune to that terrible gravity.

So far, we’ve managed to avoid legally declaring this to be a country of one particular religion, thus leaving room for all of us and our potpourri of beliefs.  We’re all the richer and safer for it.  Our Constitution mandates that there be no laws restricting freedom of religion.  That prohibition is there because the people who crafted the Constitution came from places where there was no such protection and they knew full well the terrible price that is eventually paid when religion and the state are mixed.

We as a nation have consistently said that freedom of religion also means freedom for all religion and from religion.  That specifically means that we have the right to practice religion as we see fit, but that freedom does not give us the right to force others to do as we do.  Institutionalized “moments of silence” in our public schools would violate that freedom with a tacit instruction to pray in the prescribed manner.

The place for formal prayer in schools is in private institutions; prayer doesn’t belong in the state arena.  I don’t want prayer in public schools forced on anyone’s children.  I don’t want us to take this step backward to having a state-endorsed We and They society.  Indeed, it’s taken decades of civil rights work for us to agree that we can all eat at the same restaurants, use the same seats on busses and not be subject to employment discrimination based on gender and race.  Let’s continue to break down the We versus They mentality, not build it up again.

I don’t want those who want us to conform to their views to use principles that most of us support to manipulate us because it will inevitably lead us into a downward spiral.  The end does not justify the means.  What history teaches us is that when true believers attempt to force us to their way, their means will likely separate us and become the beginning of the end.  And that end is cruel and, ironically, even god-less.

Copyright 2018 by Jack Altschuler
Reproduction and sharing are encouraged, providing proper attribution is given.

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