Friday, 12 May 2006

Knowledge, Security, Privacy, & Trust

The NSA's newly revealed database of phone call records won't generate any outrage from me. I felt the wiretapping uncovered a few months ago was clearly illegal, and holding Congressional hearings on that was appropriate. But really my concern is not with the surveillance so much as with its potential misuse. If our government was composed of gods, it wouldn't really be troubling if every secret was known, but it is of course composed of human beings so requiring documented justification for surveillance is certainly reasonable. If the government has to be more open about its activities, that prevents it from abusing the privilege. When secrecy is rampant already, I don't buy the argument that eliminating oversight is necessary for security. Indeed security is damaged if insiders become compromised through bribery or self-interest, and that secrecy is used to protect those from whom it is supposed to protect us. The FISA solution made a lot of sense by providing oversight without wide knowledge, and so the Administration's bypassing of it requires more public oversight in spite of any perceived risk.

This newly revealed program which gives access to a database which can be queried if real terrorist numbers are discovered, sounds like a very defensible program in the right context, but Bush defenders should hardly be surprised that it arouses major suspicion in the context of a secretive administration which regularly flouts the law, misleads the public, and manipulates the press. Still I want to be careful about flying off the handle and declaring that the existence of this database is an outrage. It is not. Misuse of the database might range from somewhat unethical to truly outrageous, but the potential for it to be used only in the interest of security does exist, and I wouldn't want to deny the method forever and for all time simply based on my mistrust of Bush and his minions.

What I really want is a government I can trust. Imagine a program where every infant born or immigrant to our shores got DNA sequenced and that information was retained in a secure database for future medical decisions and law enforcement. That would frighten most libertarians and civil libertarians to the core, and with good reason. But ideally it would be a wonderful asset if guarding against its misuse were taken seriously, and we could feel assured that it would only be used appropriately. This would be great, not only for victims, but for the wrongly accused, where DNA evidence could exonerate them. And what a deterrent to crime when you know that any found DNA can pinpoint you to a scene or weapon. In the long run it would be worth developing the system to guard the system against misuse, in order to benefit from it. I'm not going to push for it any time real soon, however.

Having a searchable database which records billions of phone call records is pretty small potatoes on the Big Brother meter, certainly compared to my DNA suggestion above. Rather than going ape over its existence, I believe the appropriate response is to continue to demand accountability by the executive branch for how it uses any such program. There may be cases where approval of further surveillance needs to be done by a secret court such as FISA, but approval needs to come from independently created sources which shouldn't be too chummy with those making the requests, and there is a strong case to be made that FISA is not sufficiently independent. That the NSA bypassed the required step in the earlier revealed wiretapping, in spite of that, feeds the distrust that more and more Americans are feeling for the current crop of leaders.

Tuesday, 2 May 2006

Turning Congress & the New Silent Majority

I came of age politically when Richard Nixon was President, and dissent against the Vietnam war and his Presidency was noisy and noticed. Nixon spoke of the "Silent Majority" of Americans who were not outspoken and remained at home, presumably supporting his policies. Noise is more apt to draw attention, and one could sense Nixon's petulant indignation that these objectors got all the press, while regular folk went about their business unnoticed.

The conservative movement which has been building since that time learned that lesson, and has been all about creating noise of a different sort. Like the antiwar movement of the 60's, this one represents a minority, but unlike that movement, the conservatives have their base already entrenched in the power elite. There is some new noise on the left, but the "new silent majority" is one of cynical distrust of all politicians. It is an ideologically mixed majority, but if the question was the generic one of trusting politicians, the answer would be pretty overwhelming.

I'm not much interested in silent majorities. They prove nothing about what is right or wrong - but it is worth noting their presence when electoral results are used to prove a point about what "most people" believe. I'm much more interested in honoring the few committed individuals who act on their conscience to make real differences that silent majorities don't care to make. But we live in a nation where political power is real and does make a difference. So it makes a difference to me who wins these contests, even if it means supporting the campaign of someone I may view as "the lesser of two evils."

Which brings me to Congress - turning Congress, that is. There are those who just want to "throw the bums out", and they can make a compelling argument that if incumbents became an endangered species due to the distrust of voters, that in itself would engender real reform. But they stand no chance of convincing me that voting against my Democratic Congressman is any way to make a positive difference. Right now we are stuck with two parties in national elections, and there is a difference. While there are flaws all around, the Republicans in power are a scary breed - not as individuals, but as a group and as a force for maintaining the current imbalance of power and wealth.

I don't buy the suggestion that putting the Democrats in power would represent no change. Even to the extent that Democratic politicians are also beholden to the money that puts them there, there is not the same strict allegiance to a corporate agenda which pays only lip service to the public good while being truly committed only to a program of, by, and for the established plutocracy. Some readers who have been peppered with the language of the failure of socialism, will roll their eyes at this suggestion, but the evidence seems clear enough to me. It's as if those in power use Marxist critique as a script for their behavior so that anyone who calls them on their misbehavior will sound like a Marxist, and thus be discredited. My own belief that the personal incentives inherent in capitalism lead to productivity and innovation which tends to be absent in a strictly controlled egalitarian economy, doesn't mean that Marx did not correctly identify some of the ills of Capitalism. Western liberalism, while not perfect, represents a better method of addressing some of those ills than Marxist revolution.

At least the Democrats are obliged to act like they represent common folk, even when we know it's often not true. The Republicans' focus on being steadfastly opposed to any hint of liberalism or mandated controls on business assures that the economic interests of common folk will be subjugated to the almighty power of the boardroom. Common sense balance is discarded in favor of ideological purity.

The rules of Congress give so little power to the minority party, that Republican control of the House has become the primary roadblock to any chance of economic justice for the growing population living in poverty in the United States. It is why at this point in time I would vote for any Democrat over any Republican in any Congressional race, regardless of my opinion of the individuals involved.

There has been a lot of attention lately to the possibility that the House could change hands this year. Even many Republican strategists are conceding the possibility, though there remain many reasons to doubt it will happen. It's not a very sexy issue, but it is very substantive, and if the right set of progressives get energized around the effort, there is potential for a very real stanching of the growing power of the corporate elite. Turning Congress is not enough -- progressive vigilance will need to follow -- but moving the leadership of the House to the Democrats represents a huge step in the right direction.