Arizona Republican Senator John McCain died on August 25 after a long battle with brain cancer, and since then there has been much discussion nationwide of his role as an American hero both for his service in Vietnam and as a political figure afterward. Less noticed was the 63 month jail sentence imposed on former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Reality Winner on August 23 at a federal court in Georgia for supposedly violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Ms. Winner had in early 2017 turned over to online investigative news outlet The Intercept classified documents relating how the Russians had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. For many people and for Ms. Winner herself, what she did was more whistleblowing about malfeasance in the United States government than espionage on behalf of a foreign power because the NSA obviously knew of the meddling but for reasons it won’t specify sat on that information.
2013 Twin Cities Pride Parade in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in support of whistleblower Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning. Photo by Tony Webster.
Reality Winner is the latest in a recent series of whistleblower defendants to be charged by the government under the Espionage Act, starting in the Barack Obama administration. The most notable whistleblowers charged have been Army Private First Class Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning in 2010, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer John Kiriakou in 2012, and NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Ms. Manning and Mr. Kiriakou have served time in prison, and Mr. Snowden lives as an asylum seeker in Russia. The Espionage Act was always a draconian piece of legislation open to abuse by authoritarians in power, but it is only in the past ten years that those authoritarians have enlisted it to hammer down on whistleblowers to intimidate others into silence.
Calling whistleblowers national heroes in no way takes anything away from Senator McCain. Rather, it broadens the concept of heroes to include those whose patriotism included the courage to speak out against abuses of patriotism and authority by those in power. Sitting quietly by while a foreign power meddles in American elections is not patriotism, and neither is putting a lid on military abuses in Iraq or condoning torture by CIA agents or spying on American citizens at home. Whistleblowing on those abusers and their actions is true patriotism, while using the heavy hand of the Espionage Act to prosecute the whistleblowers is another abuse of government authority.
To those principled individuals bothered by abuse of authority and ethical dysfunction within any system the two options available are fighting or selling out, as illustrated in this scene near the end of the Mike Nichols film Catch-22, with Alan Arkin as Yossarian, Martin Balsam as Colonel Cathcart, and Buck Henry as Colonel Korn.
It’s hard not to notice the impact of the national security state in daily life, particularly for people who travel regularly or pay attention to news stories. Pat downs and x-rays at the airport, police road blocks with DNA swabs that are voluntary but are implied by the police to be mandatory, stop and frisk in minority neighborhoods, the shoot first and ask questions later garrison mentality of the police, SWAT team no-knock raids, and the nearly complete disregard by governmental authorities for citizens’ rights under Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable or warrantless search and seizure operations.
It may be hard to believe it is the citizens of the republic who allowed their agents in government to accumulate all that oppressive authority. People like to think government has a natural tendency to creep into citizens’ lives and to aggrandize itself at their expense, and that is true. What people often fail to acknowledge, especially in a nominally democratic republic such as the United States, is their own complicity in allowing the government to get away with it.
Fear can cause people to do some foolish things, and one of them is relinquishing unchecked authority to government following a catastrophe, such as what happened after the events of 9/11/2001 in the United States. Save us! Kill them! The tendency of people to allow themselves to be stampeded toward war has long been noted by manipulators in government, industry, and the press, who have used it to their advantage. There is a long history in America of cynical manipulations toward war, but perhaps the most blatantly obvious occurred at the start of the Spanish-American War shortly before the turn of the twentieth century.
The citizenry are usually stirred to support these wars by patriotic fervor and by some wildly exaggerated stories in the popular press of atrocities supposedly committed by the new enemy. Most people tend not to take time away from their busy lives to examine things more closely and rationally. Remember the Alamo! Until thirty or forty years ago, except for the large scale conflicts of the Civil War and the two World Wars, Americans could largely go about their daily lives without reference to the far away battlefronts their leaders had stirred them up to support initially.
In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper publisher at the time of the Spanish-American War, throws a party to celebrate his hiring of the staff from a rival newspaper. His colleagues, played by Joseph Cotten as Jedediah Leland and Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein, provide commentary on the proceedings.
Superficially, that still seems to be the situation at home, where Americans can go shopping, while far away the world burns. Look more closely, however, and it becomes obvious that the so-called “War on Terror” is different than any other past war in that to a hitherto unprecedented degree it has allowed government to infiltrate lives at home as well as abroad in the name of security. The reasoning is that there is no “front”, as in a conventional war; the front is everywhere, and government must therefore defend everywhere, from flying drones over the huts of Afghani opium farmers to using the NSA to monitor the communications of American citizens.
A 2007 image of Susan Hallowell, Director of the Transportation Security Administration’s research lab, taken with the backscatter x-ray system, in use for airport security passenger screening. This is not the image that screeners see at the airports. The machine that took this image does not have the privacy algorithm.
People line up for security checks at the airport, the majority of them probably unconcerned with the larger issues of government oppression and infringements on their liberty as long as they can get through with minimal hassle to themselves. But the hassles will only grow. Highway road blocks and intrusive police demands will only increase. The courts will continue upholding these practices and implicitly grant the authorities ever more leeway in pushing people around in the name of security. The way the American military occupiers treated the Filipinos in the early years of the twentieth century continues reverberating in unexpected ways, such as in how it informed our use of torture in the early twenty-first century; our treatment of various Latin American countries throughout the twentieth century haunts our relations there and here to this day; and at last the methods, materiel, and mindset of occupation we are deploying throughout the world today, and particularly in the Middle East, have come home to us, the fearful perpetrators of so much unnecessary violence. That’s Homeland Security.
“When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.”
― Vice President Dan Quayle, speaking at a luncheon for the United Negro College Fund on May 9, 1989, mangling the Fund’s slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Is the internet making us dumber? stupider? how about less bright? Listicles like this one could be one reason why we might not be that smart anymore. Maybe they’ve helped make us smarter than we used to be. Did listicles ever exist outside the internet, meaning a long, long time ago? Maybe in magazines, most of which were not meant for serious people, the way newspapers were, way back when.
Mel Brooks shows us an alternative past involving lists and tablets in his 1981 movie History of the World – Part 1.
Anyway, enough history. Here we go ―
Before the internet, you needed to know and remember stuff, because you couldn’t just look it up online at the drop of a hat. You maybe could find out from a book, if you knew where to find one.
Because you can look up practically anything now on the internet, some people think it’s making us smarter, especially about what our favorite celebrities have been up to lately.
Without the internet, we couldn’t check on what our friends had for dinner and all the cool places they’ve been out to eat, unless we called them, which we don’t want to bother with, just text. Everything would have to be texts, which is probably okay.
Spending lots of time playing computer games is good because it trains you for a good job with the military remotely piloting drones to drop bombs on terrorists over in their country from an undisclosed location somewhere else, and that’s really smart because otherwise they’d be over here blowing themselves up.
Knowing a lot of internet and computer stuff is also a smart way to get a job with the National Security Agency (NSA) looking into everybody’s business.
There’s no need to develop social skills when there are social media networks like Facebook and Twitter around.
The internet is also good for getting things off your chest by commenting online, and you don’t have to worry about being nice about it, because on the internet no one knows who you are, unless they’re with the NSA.
It used to be that before the internet you could be bored a lot. Now with smartphones and tablets that you always have with you, you don’t ever have to be bored and think about stuff, because you can do other things online, like Facebook or Twitter again.
According to Hebb’s Law, which you can look up online, when your brain spends a lot of time doing something, it gets smarter doing that thing. Even though the brain is mostly fat, it’s like a muscle that way.
Your brain is wired just like the internet. Well, actually, since your brain was here first, especially if you were born a generation or more ago, the internet is wired like your brain. Not that any central authority planned it that way, it just happened. If you’re an old person, that’s probably why you might not understand everything about the internet, because you have to think about it, instead of being wired up ready to go from early on.
Mike Judge shows us a possible future in his 2006 movie Idiocracy. Okay, it might be more than just a possible future and might be closer to now than is comfortable. Warning: foul language.
Okay, that pretty much wraps it up. It was fun. Now you know the internet isn’t necessarily making us any dumber, just different, but don’t think about it too hard or your brain’ll seize up and crash like you drank something really cold really fast. You can’t email Microsoft tech support about that.
In May of 2016, Department of Justice officials wrote a memorandum seeking a warrant to search a Lancaster, California, premises and to force the occupants to unlock any phones or electronic devices with their fingerprints if the devices were equipped with that technology. This amounted to a fishing expedition to circumvent previous court rulings which held that law enforcement could not compel a criminal suspect to unlock an electronic device with their pass code because that would be a violation of the Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination. It is unclear whether the DoJ ultimately received the warrant they sought because not all documents related to the case are publicly available.
“Creation of Adam,” by Michelangelo
Why is compelling a suspect to unlock a device with their fingerprint also not a violation of the Fifth Amendment? Because of a 2014 ruling in a Virginia Circuit Court which stated that fingerprints and other bodily attributes are not protected, while handing over a pass code to law enforcement is divulging of information, which is protected. Law enforcement has long been able to use a suspect’s physical characteristics to incriminate him or her, but has not been allowed to compel a suspect to give up information. The problem now is that technology has leaped ahead of current law, and judges and prosecutors are falling back on anachronistic case law to cope with the use of biometrics like fingerprints and iris scans to lock personal electronic devices. Case law going back one hundred years and more treats fingerprints as a way of determining a suspect’s culpability at a crime scene, not as a key to a suspect’s possessions which may or may not contain evidence. It is obtuse to claim that a fingerprint or any other biometric is not the same as a pass code when it is being used for the same purpose.
“All seeing eye,” from U.S. currency
The use of biometrics is springing up not only in consumer devices, but in technology used by the military and law enforcement. The 2002 film, Minority Report, depicts a dystopian future when law enforcement and advertisers make great use of biometrics, and those predictions are proving more accurate with each passing year. The Department of Justice already uses facial recognition technology for surveillance of people in public spaces, and as we have seen with the National Security Agency, the ability of modern digital storage to accumulate massive amounts of data encourages the practice of scooping up everything indiscriminately. Like a fishing trawler using a drift net, law enforcement intends to collect everything now, store it, and sort it all out later. They think they are being efficient and better safe than sorry. But people are not fish subject to by-catch, which ought to be obvious enough, and to be sure the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution make the distinction clear.
Randolph County, Georgia, Veterans Memorial Park Bill of Rights marker; photo by Michael Rivera