A shrug for big brother



The 24/7 news cycle turns so swiftly that major stories often vanish within hours, having barely penetrated the public consciousness. So it went last Wednesday evening, when the news broke that Washington's national security snoopers - straying far beyond the lenient rules established in 2008 by the Democratic Congress - have engaged in "significant and systemic" surveillance of the domestic phone calls and private domestic emails of untold numbers of Americans living on these shores.

I've waited nearly six days to see whether the news of the National Security Agency's self-described "overcollection" of domestic communications, in apparent violation of the aforementioned '08 law, would resonate. It has not. Instead, it has been trumped by other stories, mostly concerning the Friday release of the Bush terror memos and the ensuing debate over whether Bush-era bigwigs should be prosecuted.

That, of course, is a substantive debate. But big brother's "systemic" breaches of domestic privacy - reportedly involving "significant amounts of American traffic" - surely warrant a little attention before we all continue on about our business with barely a shrug about the loss of our traditional civil liberties.

These newly-disclosed domestic surveillance abuses - in which President Obama is complicit - are hardly shocking, because it was clear last summer, even as the Democratic Congress was preparing to enact their lenient NSA surveillance rules, that the snoopers would be able to exploit the loopholes with ease. Some lawmakers, notably liberal Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, voiced warnings about this, but his fellow Democrats, concerned as always that they might be branded as weak on national security during an election year, gave the lame-duck Bush regime virtually everything it wanted.

The new law established some very broad guidelines that allow the government to monitor international phone and e-mail traffic without the need for any court-approved warrants, as long as the government "reasonably believed" that their surveillance targets were living outside the United States. The NSA was required to seek court warrants for any purely domestic snooping, but skeptics at the time warned that, in practice, untold number of Americans on the home front would get swept up in the surveillance. The law was enacted. Obama, the senator and candidate, voted for it.

And now - quelle surprise! - we learn that, since last summer, the snooping on domestic calls and emails has been "significant and systemic." And now, of course, the Senate Democrats are vowing to hold a hearing and get to the bottom of this (Dianne Feinstein: "We will make sure we get the facts"). But it probably won't be easy to learn all the facts - or at least to share those facts with the American people - because top intelligence officials consider the facts of the abuse to be, well, confidential for reasons of security.

They said late last week that the "mistakes" were "inadvertent," but declined to explain how it happened. They blamed their actions on the law enacted last summer, but declined to pinpoint the blameworthy provisions. They said that they had operational and legal problems complying with the law, but declined to say what the problems were. They acknowledged that they targeted purely domestic traffic without proper warrants, but declined to say how many Americans were affected, insisting that the number of improperly targeted Americans was "very small in terms of our overall collections." They also said that "corrective measures" have been taken, but declined to say what they were, much less whether the fixes will endure.

I'm struck by how this surveillance story - and the likelihood that the full extent of the domestic abuse will never be known - has barely caused a ripple. Why is that?

Maybe it's just a post-9/11 reality, the notion that most Americans are willing to cede certain civil liberties protections in order to ensure their security - although, on that issue, the results are mixed. In late 2007, the Pew Research Center reported that, by a decisive 54 to 40 percent, Americans believe that terrorism can be fought without ceding civil liberties.

Or maybe it's just because the traditional American concept of privacy has become so eroded that many of us have reached the point where we simply shrug at the idea that the government is listening in.

I have no poll data to support what I'm about to argue. This is purely instinctive: We have become a national of exhibitionists. We don't want privacy anymore; we virtually invite strangers by the millions to get up in our business. That's what YouTube is all about. And Twitter, which posits the notion that the news of one person's itchy armpit might somehow hold the masses in thrall. And let us not forget Facebook; the cultural critic Leon Wieseltier recently described Facebook as "essentially a cheerful instrument of surveillance...two hundred million publicity campaigns."

Actually, this tech-driven anti-privacy trend began during the '90s with the advent of cellphones, which allowed people to jabber at top volume about their personal affairs with barely a glance at whoever might be listening. My own initiation came on an Amtrak train in 1995, when the guy with the baritone voice sitting behind me proceeded to serenade his spouse back home with the details of his chronic diarrhea.
It has been exhibitionist season ever since. We live in a glass-house culture of our own design, and the government, driving a Hummer through a loophole, can peer inside at will. Not that we seem to care.


Announcement: Readers yesterday may have noticed that, for a considerable period of time, the comments section was totally shut down. I was informed that the section had become infested with an unusually large number of vile and obscene remarks - to the point where certain sane readers actually complained to blog management. Bravo to them. The offensive commenters have since been weeded out, and the more civil commenters have been re-posted. I have long encouraged an open and vigorous exchange of views, and strive to indulge even the most egregious juvenilia. But further abusers will be excised at our discretion. To avoid future shutdowns, I suggest that everyone try to play nice. Those who cannot are advised to go elsewhere, perhaps to a permanent course in anger management.