Monday, June 24, 2013

The surveillance state: An American vampire

It must feed.

Like a vampire, the surveillance state (SS) abhors sunlight, performing its business under cover of darkness were it can peek surreptitiously into people’s lives undisturbed by oversight or prying villagers. Its lifeblood is information, secrets, the private parts of your life that no one else has access to. Its hunger is insatiable. Not satisfied with focusing solely on “the enemy,” its pale fingers reach out farther, to those who had never considered being terrorists or, for that matter, committed any crime. Let’s suck information from them all, it said, eyes wild with the thought of such unchecked power.

By day, the SS is nearly invisible, and when noticed, those under its pall provide it with the necessary cover to remain beyond accountability and unchallenged. Its coffin is protected from discovery by ancient incantations involving “national security” and “state secrets” used to lull the initiated into acceptance and obedience. Occasionally, an intrepid vampire hunter will peel away the layers of protection and expose the hideous monster that exists in the corners of the windowless government rooms, yet the vampire’s powerful protectors always seem to find a way to turn the hunter into the villain before permanent damage can be done.

The SS lives and grows in the dank, black night of despair and fear. It thrives on our terror, becomes stronger as we grow weaker, stands taller the more we cower in the corners of our villages. We can’t believe it has become so powerful. How did we allow this to happen? Although all signs point inward, we refuse to acknowledge our part in the process, and lower the blinds while turning up our TVs louder.

So it will feed and grow, as long as we let it. And there will come a day, perhaps not that far off, when it will be strong enough to emerge from the darkness because it will no longer fear anything or anyone.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Despite their rhetoric, Republicans really want a government on steroids

Don’t ever let a Republican get away with telling you he wants the government to stay out of people’s lives.

Although they constantly complain about America being a “Nanny State,” their proposals and policies are all about creating a “Daddy State,” the judgmental, authoritarian daddy of 1950s sitcoms.

House GOP members
  • want to drug test food stamp applicants and recipients of other federal programs
  • support the most intrusive surveillance techniques of the CIA and NSA
  • want the government to decide whether a woman can have an abortion or not
  • support injecting religious beliefs into public school curricula
  • approve of discriminatory practices against gays and lesbians
As they demonize government out of one side of their mouths, the other actually supports a government on steroids that pokes itself into every facet of your private life. Republicans don’t really hate government, they only hate government they don’t control.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

We wear our tinfoil hats proudly today

Conspiracy theorists of the world arise. Come up from your parent’s basements. Step away from the computer and your latest letter to the editor. Take a break from stalking your congressman.

Now bask in the warm glow of this victorious moment (although put on some sun screen if you burn easily).

You were right!!!

The government IS spying on you. And that’s not all. A new documentary has been released that confirms what you believed all along: The crash of TWA flight 800 was no accident. And officials may be on the verge of finding Jimmy Hoffa’s body. (UPDATE: No body was found. Of course, they could be lying about that.)

These are glorious days for us indeed. Now you can hold your head up high at this summer’s family picnic and tell Uncle (you-can’t-really-believe-that) Al to go eat a pickle. This Christmas you won’t have to sit in a corner drinking in anger at your family’s collective ignorance of the nefarious goals of the Trilateral Commission.

You were right.

Breath in the sweet aroma of vindication.

But don’t become complacent. We still have work to do. The reptilian Bush clan is still active and may try and put another member in the White House.

Stay vigilant, my friends. Stay vigilant. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘tll it’s gone

A very discouraging article in today’s Star-Tribune: Minnesota Poll Finds Acceptance of NSA Data Collection Program. The “poll finds that 57 percent of Minnesotans approve of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) court-authorized dragnet of phone and Internet data to spot possible terrorist activity. Only 33 percent say they disapprove, while 10 percent are unsure.”

It’s interesting to read the comments of some of the people who support the eavesdropping, which run the gamut from fatalism (“It’s par for the course.”) to unquestioning loyalty (“I trust the President.”).  Even more surprising to me is that there was significantly higher support for the snooping among Democrats than Republicans. Huh?

The government is clearly winning the propaganda war on this one, and Obama’s “trust me” speeches seem to be enough to lull many Americans into complacency. I guess after 12 years of fear mongering about the threat of terrorism, it seems that our citizens will accept almost any form of government intrusion. At the same time, all of our sophisticated surveillance technology couldn’t stop a couple of yahoos from blowing up bombs in Boston.

I don’t think you’ll find anyone on my side of the fence arguing that there is no threat from al Qaeda or even home grown terrorists. And no one, myself included, would suggest that we dismantle our surveillance programs entirely. The issue, especially after Snowden’s revelations, is that government is ignoring the basic Constitutional rights of Americans to privacy by tracking everyone, regardless of suspicious activity or not.

The attitude of many people is, “Why should I worry? I don’t have anything to hide.” If that’s true, why do you have curtains on your windows? Why do you have password-protected information? Why do you close the bathroom door? We all have privacy concerns even though our actions may be totally legal, and, according to the Constitution, we have a right to expect the government to respect that privacy. As I’ve said before, Obama might be an honest and just President, but what will the next President be like? How will that person use the vast surveillance powers at his or her disposal?

I’m afraid Minnesota Nice is translating into a complacency that I find unsettling, and we tend to be a more liberal state than most. Where does democracy end and totalitarianism begin? I don’t know either, but it all reminds me of a line from Joni Mitchell’s great song, Big Yellow Taxi:

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How skeptical liberals become devoted soldiers in the war on terror

I wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post where I questioned how ostensibly liberal politicians like Franken and Obama and so many other Democrats ultimately drank the Kool Aid when it came to national security.

Of course, I am not a Washington insider, but I think I can make some reasonable assumptions about what happens to newcomers when they enter the vortex that is D.C. politics.

The seeds of the national security state were planted by a frightened and reactionary Bush Administration immediately after 9/11 and have sprouted into myriad agencies and programs related to homeland security and surveillance.

Now imagine you are the director of a large surveillance program. It could be at the CIA or NSA or some other government branch. You’re called to a top-secret briefing for congressional members on your latest activities and accomplishments. You know that there will be many new representatives at your presentation. So what is your primary objective? To present a sober, realistic picture of the department’s successes and failures? No, silly. YOU MUST JUSTIFY YOUR EXISTENCE.

Exactly what is the best way to justify your existence? It’s to present your division as an essential bulwark against the threat of terrorists who are hiding in every American neighborhood plotting their next deadly assault. In other words, you are going to scare people into believing your services are essential to the safety of America. There may be some truth in what you say during your presentation, but whatever the real situation is on the ground, however many times it’s been shown that massive data mining is an ineffective approach, your argument is going to be that the world is a very dangerous and scary place with threats lurking everywhere, therefore your division’s work is absolutely necessary.

In other words, as an expert in your field, your job is to scare skeptical liberals into becoming devoted, unquestioning soldiers in the war on terror, thus securing your position in the vast machine powering the surveillance monster. Up to this point, it has been a highly successful approach.

With recent revelations of the immense scope of the NSA surveillance program, it remains to be seen what effect the outrage of normal citizens will have on those “liberal” politicians on Capital Hill. I fear it won’t be much. No one ever likes admitting they were wrong. I will be very surprised if any of the Kool Aid drinkers turns around and says, “Wow, sorry. I made a mistake.” This is Washington, D.C. after all.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What’s happened to Al Franken?

To hear Minnesota Senator Al Franken defending the NSA domestic spying program is very dispiriting. The one time progressive Democrat has stepped over to the dark side, just like Obama. I sent a letter to Franken expressing my disappointment in the representative’s response to the NSA revelation. If I know anything, it is that if the former SNL member were a private citizen right now, he would be front and center criticizing the government’s surveillance overreach.

It’s interesting to me how much the insular Washington scene has changed Franken and Obama. It’s as if they were recruited into a cult that separates members from family and friends and in this case, average Americans. The big picture is shrunk to a narrow perspective. They’ve been hypnotized by charts and graphs and serious people who convinced them that what they’re doing is for the good of the country. The fact that they are let in on “secrets” makes them believe that they know better what’s good for the country, and they adopt a patronizing, “If you only knew what I know” attitude towards citizens who challenge them.

I had great hopes when Franken was first elected to the Senate that he would carry forward the lonely but necessary efforts of Paul Wellstone to challenge the status quo and work toward peace and a progressive agenda. Unfortunately, Franken has disappointed by asking us to blindly trust the government as they shred the Constitution in the name of security.

Check out my new novel Fall Lake. The link is below my photo.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ben, you nailed it

Joe Klein to America: Go back to sleep

Here they come. The Serious People, like Time’s Joe Klein, are stepping into the NSA fray to tell us all to calm down, cool our jets and go back to sleep. You should trust the government, especially this administration, to do the right thing, he argues. This little kerfuffle is not as bad as the wackos on the left and right make it out to be so stop your grousing and let our leaders keep on spying and prying to prevent a problem that is less common than getting stabbed by a unicorn.

One thing that our Founding Father’s knew from first-hand experience that we seem to have forgotten is that too much power concentrated in the hands of too few can lead even well-intentioned leaders into dark waters. Our three branches of government, each intended as a check and balance to the other, was a brilliant solution that worked pretty well for a couple hundred years. But then came 9/11 and the scales tipped drastically toward the executive. Scared, foolish authoritarians like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld took advantage of the situation to secure vast new powers for the executive branch that could be shrouded in secrecy. Unfortunately for all of us, Obama was sucked into the Fantasyland rationales for keeping the surveillance state going and even expanded it.

The key word here is “trust.” Klein and others who see themselves as the voices of reason insist that we trust the government to do the right thing. I would argue that this is directly opposed to the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the pillars on which this democracy was formed. We have the system of government that we have precisely because the founders knew that concentrating power in the hands of a few inevitably leads to problems. For a time in the twentieth century we had an active news media that tried to keep the government honest, but that hasn’t been the case for at least thirty years. What we have now are the few whistleblowers courageous enough to risk their lives to step forward with the truth about what our leaders are doing in our names.

Democracy only works if citizens have a healthy skepticism of the motives of those in power and, like a safety valve, have some mechanism for challenging our elected leaders on their decisions and policies. Those who argue that Americans should calm down and put their trust in the government harbor a serious misunderstanding about the relationship between citizens of a democracy and their elected officials. We don’t just have a right to question our leaders, we have a duty to keep them honest. The horrific reality today is that those people who are fulfilling their roles as citizens of a democracy, the whistleblowers, are labeled enemies of the state and thrown into prisons.

But don’t worry your pretty little heads advises Klein. Everything’s under control. Night, night.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Why we can’t take national elections for granted any more

In the June 7 The Atlantic, writer Conor Friedersdorf’s article All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama goes into depth on a subject I wrote about recently; future presidents.

The secret surveillance policies set up by Bush and expanded on by Obama, with the approval of Congress, are ripe for abuse. The Obama administration could very well be filled with honest, scrupulous men and women (although everything is so secret we have no of knowing that), but what about the next administration? If you consider the yahoos and nutjobs who regularly get elected to Congress, this is a legitimate concern.

Many of us as citizens want to think that in America, despite it’s frequent failings, the government has our best interests at heart. That it would never use its immense power for evil. And maybe that’s true for Obama, but what about the next president? As Friedersdorf makes clear, the secret policies that have been put into place give future presidents far more power to invade the personal lives of Americans than any previous Commander-in-Chief ever had.

Although terrorist attacks on American soil are extremely rare, we have allowed our government to set up a surveillance system that makes 1984 look like tin cans with strings. Think about the implications the next time you walk into a voting booth.

Friday, June 07, 2013

The President asks us to trust him, yet everyday there are new reasons not to

After the revelations came to light of the NSA’s massive domestic surveillance program, the President and other’s in his administration and in Congress are in full damage control mode, claiming that they are not reading the emails of Americans, everything they’re doing is legal, blah, blah, blah.

My question is, why should we believe you, Mr. President? Everything this administration does is implicitly followed by the phrase, “Trust us. We know what’s right.” Why should we trust you? In 2007 you said this:

“That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do no more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.”

Were you lying then? What made you do a complete about face? You once called for transparency, but this is the least transparent administration in American history. And on top of everything else, you want to prosecute whistleblowers, the very people who are shedding the smallest amounts of light on the activities you say are completely legal and appropriate.

You’ve lost the trust of millions Americans, and rightly so. Your actions are clearly unconstitutional and immoral.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The surveillance state: Did Obama drink the Kool Aid or was he even invited to the party?

There are some days when I just can’t stop myself from indulging in a conspiracy theory. The theory is a simple one: Barack Obama is merely a cardboard cut-out, a face of the presidency who’s great at giving speeches and mingling with the common folk, but isn’t actually in charge of anything. He doesn’t make the important decisions; someone, or some group of people, make those. He is Madison Avenue’s concept of a President.

It’s either that or Obama is one of the shrewdest, most calculating, most manipulative individuals to ever hold public office.

I can come up with no alternatives after reading the story that broke yesterday about the NSA conducting widespread domestic surveillance on millions of Americans. And when I say “widespread,” I’m talking about capturing the call histories of every single Verizon customer in America, and very likely, customers of other communications companies as well.

Is that the sound of the Founding Fathers turning over in their graves?

The White House is defending the practice with the, “We’re keeping you safe from terrorists” canard, but this response is patently ridiculous. First of all, let’s put the threat in some perspective. The odds of being a terrorist’s victim on a flight: 1 in 10,408,947. Odds of being killed by lightning: 1 in 500,000. It reminds me of the old joke about the guy walking around the city streets carrying a large rifle. “What’s that?” he’s asked. “It’s an elephant gun,” he responds. The first man says, “That’s insane, there aren’t any elephants around here.” The rifleman replies, “Right. It’s working.”

 This type of untargeted, massive domestic surveillance is absolutely, unequivocally unconstitutional. Perhaps Obama really didn’t understand this point. Oh wait, he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. What convoluted rationale does he tell himself to justify a program that ignores the basic lynchpin of our system of justice: innocent until proven guilty? Or, is he simply kept out of the loop?

There are groups out there, specifically the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that are actively working to bring this lawlessness to a stop, but it gets even more difficult when you have an overly compliant Congress that continuously puts its stamp of approval on these illegal actions.

As many others have said before me, the loss of liberty doesn’t happen with a clap of thunder, but in tiny, incremental, barely perceptible steps over years. I say “barely perceptible” because there are those few canaries out there that try to warn us, yet they are often ignored until it’s too late. While we slept, the government took it upon itself to spy on you and everyone you know. That’s not tinfoil hat stuff anymore. It’s the world in which we live.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Intercepted memo: Midterm marching orders for Republicans


From: Frank Luntz, Luntz Global, LLC

To: Republican candidates for office, 2014 midterm election

Re: Campaign talking points

Dear ,

As you are well aware, midterm elections are fast approaching. As a candidate for elected office, you will be giving many speeches, interviews, panel discussions, etc. and it necessary for you to be well prepared for these public interactions.

To help with your preparations, we are offering a handy guide to appropriate and inappropriate response strategies to today’s most controversial topics. The liberal press is always ready to pounce on conservative candidates who may express their valid beliefs in less than articulate ways. So keep this guide handy and stay on message. United we stand, divided we fall.

Best of luck with your campaign.

Topic: Abortion
Strategy: Avoidance. Change the subject.

“I’m here today to talk about (national defense, Flag Day, puppies, etc.) not abortion.”

“My views on this subject are well known. Is that pork I smell?”

“Accordions? I love accordions. Next question.”

Topic: Women’s rights
Strategy: Empathize. Change the subject.

“Some of my best friends are women. That’s a lovely dress. Very flattering.”

“My mother was a woman. Don’t tell me I don’t know anything about women. My god, it’s a UFO.”

“I truly value the contributions women make to society. My wife is the boss. I let her make all the important decisions in our family. Now, let’s talk baseball.”

Topic: Global Warming
Strategy: Question science. Change the subject.

“The minute we put science ahead of common sense, we lose our humanity in a gas ball of data and lifeless facts. Go with your gut, and my gut tells me it’s lunch time.”

“Oooh, let’s bow down and worship the scientists. They’re little wizards who know so much more than we mere mortals. Ooooh. Give me a break. Are they smarter than God? Let us pray.”

“The scientific community is in utter chaos regarding global warming. In fact, I read yesterday there was a running gun battle between pro- and anti-global warming factions at the University of Zurich, and that reminds me of a story about my father…”

Topic: President Obama
Strategy: Nothing is off limits. Be creative.

“I have seen photos that prove Barack Obama clubbed baby seals with a prosthetic limb stolen from a decorated Iraq war veteran.”

“No one has yet proved that Obama is not an Al Qaeda agent trained in Afghanistan who has had extensive plastic surgery and vocal chord replacement.”

“There are documents that prove conclusively that Obama is the point man for a secret society that sacrifices white babies on the altar to Elathan, a Celtic lord of darkness.

Monday, June 03, 2013

You can put lipstick on a pig, but…

It seems that every day there is an article about what Republicans should be doing to strengthen their damaged brand. How can they better reach minority and young voters? What can they do to appeal to women? How do they overcome the perception of being the party of angry white men?

There’s no question the GOP has lurched farther to the right in recent years under the influence of the Tea Party. This is not Richard Nixon’s Republican party. If the Republican leadership could keep their elected officials from opening their mouths and speaking in public, this might actually help bring about the desired results. Could be a bit unpractical.

What’s wrong with the Republican Party is that it’s the Republican Party. Asking how to strengthen the party’s brand is a lot like asking how you can make a rabid dog seem more like a kitten. In other words, it really can’t be done, because the Republican Party’s basic ideological foundation is flawed, unappealing and out of step with the direction the world is moving.

Just yesterday, a panel of cavemen at FOX News were tearing at their animal skins over the fact that more women than ever are family bread winners. What voting demographic, exactly, would find this position compelling? Young working women? Professional woman? How about angry white men? Check. You name the demographic and tell me what Republicans have to offer this group of people. Minorities? The poor? The unemployed or underemployed? Women? Union members? Anyone making less than $1 million a year? Republicans want them all to just shut up and go away.

There’s not enough pretty wrapping paper on the planet to make ignorance, bigotry, and sexism look appealing.