The Amnesiatic Society And Institutions Of Permanent Memory

L’Affaire Snowden is pretty much a Rorschach test. Except with consequences.

We haven’t weighed in almost at all so far. Frankly, most of the froth — from allegedly scandalized American sans cullottes to the security Nomenklatura — have been acting according to pre-determined, pre-ordained scripts. It’s been a bore. And doesn’t change the status quo.

Former NSA Director Michael Hayden conceded after Snowden’s debut that the Verizon order and the PRISM slides contained almost nothing not already in the public domain. NSA’s major concern? The release tidied everything up in one morsel for grokking by a Twitter-debauched, nanosecond mentality. Snowden’s initial leaks were that most dangerous of things: meme friendly.

If there’s one thing America in the Age of Obama can do well, it’s consuming memes. Still, why would a society obsessed with forgetting yesterday in return for a transient dopamine fix today take a stand on privacy now? Some of it’s politics to be sure. A white God Emperor King presiding over socialist authoritarianism from 2001-2008 is an all too different kettle of fish to someone, er, half white. So the Movement’s reaction is pre-cooked. Then there’s the motley crew (note the e and w) of long time privacy activists, Mac Book Air anarchists, Twitter self promoters, Net Roots types and everyone else who long since sold their souls to Google, Amazon and Facebook. Who here thinks this assortment can create durable politics when the memes grow stale? To take on and prevail against Nomneklatura planning on global, decades-long scales? These are institutions of permanent memory.


In 2008 we explained in detail why those hoping a Democratic Congress could take on the Intelligence Community and prevail were then tilting at windmills. Those blithely calling for new committees today to do this or that have not read that history. It’s not the committees per se that ultimately matter, but the Congress. And nothing in this diminished Congress resembles the independent branch of the 1970s and early 80s. One way to vet commentary you see or hear? If someone calls for a new congressional committee without understanding the above. GIGO.

We wrote that piece above in 2008. Congress has only become more feeble, and the oversight committees even more captured. There’s a systemic breakdown as some have noted. Snowden and leaks are occurring in large part because Congress failed to provide an oversight platform for dissent or the concept of dissent. In this, the Community’s seeming castration of Congress is their own undoing. The 1980 Oversight Act’s mechanism can still function if Congress has the will. A Congress that could rekindle meaningful, adversarial if necessary, oversight is the best means of conferring legitimacy to the Community. Dianne Feinstein’s sad pirouettes defending her endorsements of the Community with laughably inaccurate talking points a case study in the captured mentality.

Prospects for meaningful reform apres Snowden we believe likely were gutted from the beginning, given how this conversation started and by whom. It didn’t help much that self promoters soon glommed on to the meme explosion to advance their own visibility. Some have the audacity to read famous contractors’ public websites and pass it off as knowledge hard won, as if they had just exfiltrated it from Moscow circa 1948. Or list contractors for the Community as ferreted information, as if they are not well known, don’t have trade associations, etc. When personal branding, self promotion and circulation of public knowledge as arcane secrets are the forefront of any conversation, how can it not be tawdry? And deservedly ineffective?

Whether one thinks Snowden a hero or something other, there’s no denying he is now providing information that has nothing to do with his alleged concerns of ‘Americans’ 4th Amendement rights’. For some, perhaps, that’s ok. Advising Beijing which leading technical and research centers America is targeting and how has nothing to do with your privacy or ours. Same with him advising which companies in Hong Kong America targets, etc. (GCHQ we give a pass to only because again the intertwined, corrupt nature of NSA/GCHQ has been public for decades). Perhaps you think the entire Community structure needs to be torn down? If so, then your interest is not reform but a more fundamental social objective.

Can one really expect meaningful selective privacy anyway? If, after Snowden, you still allow Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft and others to monitor your every move and purchase, isn’t it a bit late or selective to complain? After all, the IRS will be working with these companies to monitor you online to compare against your tax returns to look for audits. How is that really different than what the NSA does now? Isn’t it maybe worse?

We are optimists despite America’s meme addled attention span and latest leak’s provenance. Do you think this time it’s different? That a critical mass has been reached? As always the question quickly becomes one of politics. It’s always been about who and whom. Do you have an idea how the new politics work? That would be a start. And given the addictive nature of meme-besotted amnesia, can Americans focus long enough to be in it to win it? If they forget, how will they even know?

For those determined to embark upon the long fight for Community reform, let me tell you a long bedtime story . . .


  1. anxiousmodernman says

    Had a rather extended discussion with some friends about Snowden last night, and we all agree that the manner of his escape, and his dealings with the Russians and Chinese make it extremely difficult to actually build a politics around opposition to domestic spying.

    Honestly, it’s a little more difficult to see the direct harm to the national interest involved in what’s been revealed so far. Doc, did he leak names of undercover folks?

    • says

      This episode likely will be seen as solidifying and entrenching the IC status quo with only modest desk chair movement with political embarrassment. Snowden/his organizational and journalist [sic] enablers have also undermined prospects for future reforms from leaks as well.

      U.S. reforms to protect privacy and the 4th amendment aren’t their priority. Theirs is a wider, more emotional and unfocused desire to strike at what they claim is ‘global U.S. imperialism’ and unjustified U.S. international influence.

      Domestically, this line has a limited shelf life. It violates the first rule of politics – it’s the art of addition. Their global crusade against U.S. status in international relations will only appeal to a finite minority at home. Worse, it’s offered in exclusionary, intolerant and often glaringly condescending tones.

      Outside the U.S., their activities are more successful in mobilizing outrage to tear at so-called U.S. hegemony. That it involves working with Beijing, initially Moscow, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and host of objectively authoritarian regimes is unimportant. What’s key is that they agree to help generate Tweets, clicks and video aimed at damaging U.S. prestige (Putin as an ex-KGB officer and desperate for U.S. help to secure Sochi let them down).

      As far as what’s been disclosed, Snowden and his acolytes have it backwards. Signals intelligence can be far more important and delicate to disclosure than a human asset. The Soviets, for example, used to call the NSA their “OMEGA” target. Consider that Churchill, for example, famously allowed the Luftwaffe to devastate the city of Coventry in WWII rather than act to defend it and tip the Germans their codes might be insecure.

      When the Soviets obtained the US Navy codes from Walker in the mid 1980s, they created an entire 1,000+ man new organization to exploit them. One hopes he hasn’t actually blown cryptographic assets.

      Snowden claims he is only leaking ‘systems, not the really important things like spies’ identities but by saying that he demonstrates he really doesn’t understand intelligence. As an IT guy, that’s perhaps understandable.

      Agree that the PRISM and Verizon leaks created political inconvenience rather than a security leak. We don’t buy the Community’s claim they can detect significant changes in ‘terrorist’ activities after those disclosures. If anything, so-called terrorists tend to overestimate U.S. competence and capabilities.

      The additional leaks, however, are not directed to reforming U.S. privacy. Writing about NSA activities in Brazil, for example, is purely about generating global opposition to the U.S. The NSA is supposed to spy on other nations. If it didn’t and a situation arose, the Snowdenistas would be the first to bitch about ‘failure.’

      We don’t know what’s on Snowden’s 4 laptops and USB drive. One alleged journalist says Snowden gave him over 1,000 documents. The question is how will the papers and individuals Snowden leaked to secure these documents? How are they discussing them? They aren’t secure and won’t be.

      US has to assume the worst case. It would be irresponsible not to do so. Every document he’s touched is blown. In another example of Snowden undermining his alleged cause, he’s likely guaranteed additional budget requests and new capabilities for those documents he’s compromised.

  2. says

    A new reader.

    First, for over 8 years this blog and its readers have explored and embraced the very issues that vex you so: the Surveillance and National Security State, the decay of citizenship, unaccountable bureaucratic and corporate power, technology, and authoritarianism – among other themes. You’re welcome to join this long running conversation.

    As for specifics: even a casual examination of the Putin regime and the dead will reveal your bootstrap argument to be especially inapt. Better still, engage with the few members of the so-called Opposition remaining active and ask them.

    The notion that private citizens should be able ‘cooperate’ with Russian intelligence with his knowledge and while with potentially 4 laptops of core NSA secrets, a USB drive filled with more and (depending which Snowden adherent explains) 200-1,000 more documents is justifiably called treason.* To compare a private citizen with a sovereign nation in excusing behavior is perhaps revealing more than you know.

    As readers here will recall, we have more than passing real world experience with the KGB and Russian intelligence. Not based on movies, books or a distant relative’s potential demise. What Snowden is doing is not a Bourne movie. This is not a coffee house kvetch fest. The Russians do not share Twitter romanticism.

    Regarding Snowden’s initial decision to flee abroad, your assertions unfortunately are not shared by real NSA whistleblowers like Binney or Tice. They, like us, believe that there were alternatives for Snowden to stay domestic/keep his information away from foreign exposure that do not necessarily involve a ‘Bradley Manning’. You might want to see their views on Snowden. Snowden adherents want consequence free leaking.

    Agree with you that the U.S. unfortunately can be the bad guys. That, too, is a core conversation here over the last 8 years, from the Neocon nightmare to Obama’s mistakes in Libya, drones, the Afghan surge, and more historical examples.

    Those mistakes do not, however, excuse the large scale vandalism intended by Snowden. By his own admission, his goal is to expose the NSA and U.S.intelligence worldwide, beyond American privacy and the 4th Amendment. The latter are what interests us.

    Glen, frustration and justifiable fear can lead any of us to want to lash out. And force change by blunt means because our normative politics do not work. But the how matters as much as the why.

    * Edit added 6/26/13

    ‘Treason’ referred herein not the technical constitutional definition as wartime but ala the Espionage Act/aiding our enemies.

    Snowden adherents claim he hasn’t spoken to Russian intelligence. Doesn’t change matters, if it’s improbably true. (Apart from whether at 29 he knows if he’s been technically compromised). He admission that he gave classified information to the Chinese is enough to put him beyond the Stiftung pale.

    • says

      > or a distant relative’s potential demise.

      What the heck, I’ll be specific. I’m related to the US ambassador to Pakistan who died in this “mysterious circumstances” plane crash:

      (We were invited to the funeral but didn’t attend). A popular theory is that the plane was brought down by the KGB to assassinate President Zia, which makes Mr. Raphel collateral damage. However, this attack was strange enough (and done with sufficient competence!) that nobody is really quite sure what happened and conspiracy theories have since multiplied. (Pakistani investigators think a *case of mangoes* added to the flight was tampered with in such a way as to disable the pilots, which is at least as bizarre as the polonium thing.)

      > there were alternatives for Snowden to stay domestic/keep his information away from foreign exposure that do not necessarily involve a ‘Bradley Manning’

      How on earth could somebody in that situation stay in the US and avoid a ‘Bradley Manning’ if Bradley Manning couldn’t? We once lived in a world where the US at least *pretended* not to torture people and pretended to abide by the rule of law. In that world, a high-profile arrestee could be reasonably safe.

      But now that we live in a world where the executive is free to secretly murder or torture or imprison whoever he wants – and one in which the government secretly records every conversation ever had on the off chance of later finding something that might be construed as damaging – there are no guarantees to be had. the US is NOT trustworthy. The whole POINT of these leaks is that the government has been systematically lying to us. How can you trust the promises of a government that lies and that lashes out violently to the extent ours does? It seems like madness to even *consider* trusting any sort of guarantee of safe conduct.

      If you’re doing something likely to annoy a tyrannosaurus, you don’t ask it politely not to eat you. You get the hell out of the way and find somewhere else to be as fast as possible.

      • says

        Remember the incident well, Glen. Respects to your family. Oakley’s no shrinking violet re Soviets. His investigation conclusion of mechanical failure seemed most convincing at time – although memory is a bit hazy on details. As you note, we’ll never conclusively know with the Pakistani agendas and rumors.

        It’s a great loss for your family in any event. Thanks for sharing.

        As mentioned, both Tice and Binney as former NSA whistleblowers have spoken how they would have handled the leak re domestic abuse and minimize a risk of a ‘Manning’. And without exposing the Nation’s most vital foreign intelligence secrets to our enemies. Check them out.

        All for domestic reform, rolling back PATRIOT, privacy and 4th amendment. In ways not always able to articulate here. But that can never excuse what Snowden has done or that journalist plans to do. There were and are choices between doing nothing and handling things ala Snowden. See above.

        Happy to admit this site and this author are far from perfect. Sometimes, glaringly so. Appreciate your thoughtful observations and criticism. Hope to continue our dialogue.

  3. says

    Even more interesting how much of the pro-freedom Snowden American crowd is actually revealing its true sentiments of wishing to see the U.S. destroyed/smashed/unformed thinking. Intelligence reform is being used as a stalking horse for these irrational and unarticulated emotional impulses.

    A CF all around.

  4. says

    Another sign of the amnesiatic nation. The Snowdenistas labored mightily to portray him as a hero and icon in the tradition of Ellsberg, etc. Then, when his dealings with China and Chinese assisted exfiltration to Moscow became undeniable, on a dime the line became forget about personalities, focus on the underlying facts, etc.

    We’ve mocked Washington’s obsession with ‘serious people’ for years. But there is no denying there is something profoundly unserious about the stunt posing occurring here, from Snowden, his initial enablers and their attacks on people interviewing them, etc. The whole exercise is increasingly coming across as vandalism and a vehicle for self branding.

  5. says

    Snowden’s flight from China to Moscow with the active planning and support of Wikileaks underscores the essentially anti-American nature underlying much of this enterprise. Assange’s interviews post Snowden clarifies his sainthood in the Wikileaks pantheon along side Bradley Manning.

    A sign of the intellectual incoherence or even cynical bankruptcy of the Snowdenistas (Greenwaldistas) is their attempt to brush aside working with Putin as justified by the cause, which is to prevent Snowden serving time in jail.

    That Wikileaks et al. collude with a man and regime who treat their dissidents with polonium in their tea as segue to painful radiation poisoning execution to prevent jail time says much.

    We reiterate what we said above. How this matter arose and by whom matters. This is truly shaping up to be an opportunity squandered for meaningful reform. How nice to be surprised.

    • says

      Strauss: I like how a single bizarre incident becomes in your mind not just plural but representative of the regime as a whole – it treats dissidentS with polonium in THEIR tea, as if this were a regular policy. By that logic, Waco would suggest the US is “a regime that surrounds dissidents and burns them to death in their homes”; Ruby Ridge says the US is a regime that “frames dissidents, then shoots their family in cold blood (along with any kids, neighbors or pets in the vicinity)”, and Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan says we’re a regime that blows up dissidents with drones along with anyone standing nearby including those trying to administer first aid. (Wait, that last one’s actually true. Sigh…)

      Yes, the KGB has been known to kill people. They even (probably) killed a not-very-distant relative of mine in the ’80s. However, the word you’re looking for here isn’t “collude”, it’s “cooperate”. The US government cooperates with China and Russia all the time when it suits us; why shouldn’t private citizens do the same?

      “to prevent jail time” is a serious understatement. The BEST case Snowden can expect is what Manning got – solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and a bit worse for a year before he even gets a day in court. The worst case is he gets “disappeared” into Guantanamo or some other more secret prison featuring indefinite torture with no trial. A man who did something so important and valuable in service of his country doesn’t deserve the kind of treatment we’re likely to inflict upon him.

      Yes, the Chomskyite left can be irritating in their rush to blame Amarica first. But sometimes we actually ARE the bad guys! And this seems, alas, to be one of those times.

      • anxiousmodernman says

        As a card-carrying member of the Chomskyite left, even I am pretty sensitive to the poor optics that Snowden’s put on display here.

        Broadly, I’m for the strategy of blowing the security state wide open with leaks, but Snowden should not have run. I can’t blame him on a personal level, but he has blunted the cause and now it’s a big game of “Where’s Waldo”, which is a distraction.

        My hope is that we can recover and focus on what really matters.

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