Professor, why did people once think this story described a dystopia?

Here’s the New York Times:

President Obama’s Dragnet

Within hours of the disclosure that federal authorities routinely collect data on phone calls Americans make, regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counterterrorism investigation, the Obama administration issued the same platitude it has offered every time President Obama has been caught overreaching in the use of his powers: Terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms (that we are not going to tell you about) to make sure we do not violate your rights.

Those reassurances have never been persuasive “” whether on secret warrants to scoop up a news agency’s phone records or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism “” especially coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability.

The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. That is one reason we have long argued that the Patriot Act, enacted in the heat of fear after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by members of Congress who mostly had not even read it, was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and overbroad surveillance powers.

Based on an article in The Guardian published Wednesday night, we now know that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency used the Patriot Act to obtain a secret warrant to compel Verizon’s business services division to turn over data on every single call that went through its system. We know that this particular order was a routine extension of surveillance that has been going on for years, and it seems very likely that it extends beyond Verizon’s business division. There is every reason to believe the federal government has been collecting every bit of information about every American’s phone calls except the words actually exchanged in those calls.

Articles in The Washington Post and The Guardian described a process by which the N.S.A. is also able to capture Internet communications directly from the servers of nine leading American companies. The articles raised questions about whether the N.S.A. separated foreign communications from domestic ones.

I know what you are thinking.  Another hysterical libertarian exaggerating the threat to our liberties.  “I mean come on now, it’s not like the book “1984,” when they had devices implanted in our homes to spy on us.”

Oh wait . . .

More and more personal and household devices are connecting to the internet, from your television to your car navigation systems to your light switches. CIA Director David Petraeus cannot wait to spy on you through them.

Earlier this month, Petraeus mused about the emergence of an “Internet of Things” “” that is, wired devices “” at a summit for In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm. “‘Transformational’ is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies,” Petraeus enthused, “particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.”

All those new online devices are a treasure trove of data if you’re a “person of interest” to the spy community. Once upon a time, spies had to place a bug in your chandelier to hear your conversation. With the rise of the “smart home,” you’d be sending tagged, geolocated data that a spy agency can intercept in real time when you use the lighting app on your phone to adjust your living room’s ambiance.

PS.  The title of the post refers to the sort of questions that professors will get when they teach “1984” to their freshman English students in 2084.

PPS.  I’m just kidding folks.  Honest people have nothing to fear.  Senator Feinstein assures us that it will only be used against terrorists, and also people that someday might become a terrorist:

The defense of this practice offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to be preventing this sort of overreaching, was absurd. She said on Thursday that the authorities need this information in case someone might become a terrorist in the future.

And since I don’t ever plan on becoming a terrorist, I figure I have nothing to fear. Yes, I do publish one post after another calling for the IRS to be abolished, but I’m confident that IRS agents have too much professionalism to single me out for special treatment.



23 Responses to “Professor, why did people once think this story described a dystopia?”

  1. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    6. June 2013 at 18:47

    Scott, I doubt anyone thinks you are a real terrorist, but some might accuse you of nominal terrorism.

  2. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    6. June 2013 at 18:50

    Well if the neocons on Fox are OK with it, so am I. 😉

    Charles Krauthammer always has America’s best interests in mind!

  3. Gravatar of jknarr jknarr
    6. June 2013 at 18:57

    This is clearly set up for abuse — again and again, both parties in DC cannot restrain themselves from abusing IRS power. So just imagine what this will open up. Lots of mere coincidences in everybody’s future, I am sure.

    You mean that if they gather the data via hidden backdoors; then their database may very well also have a hidden backdoor to utilize, again despite all assurances?!

    This also may only be an opening act to warm up the citizenry for the big show — imagine the surveillance database for bank-only electronic currency.

    Only criminals must want privacy. I thought state-sponsored spying and surveillance was only for those considered to be foreign enemies and criminals! Oh, wait…

  4. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    6. June 2013 at 19:14

    The War on Terror, like the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, is intended by federal agencies to last forever, and suck money out of your pocket.

    Since 9/11, about 300,000 American have died in auto accidents, and another 180,000 or so by plain-vanilla gunshots. The terrorists have killed 3,000 or so.

    The Cato Institute has long called for cutting defense outlays in half, but they were saying that even before real defense outlays doubled after 9/11.

    BTW, the budgets of just tree federal agencies–Defense, VA and Homeland Security (and something called civilian defense)–now come in nearly exactly at $1 trillion.

    That is about $3,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. $12k off the table of the average family of four.

    There was a time we faced a large military adversary–the Soviet Union had three million men in uniform, a blue water navy, supersonic bombers, ICBMs, a KGB, and were manufacturing thousands of tanks every year.

    They (happily) collapsed.

    Terrorists, in contrast, are armed with box cutters and homemade bombs.

    Can we get real about the level of threats posed by terrorists?

  5. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    7. June 2013 at 01:49

    Steve +1

  6. Gravatar of Bill Woolsey Bill Woolsey
    7. June 2013 at 02:38

    “Scott, I doubt anyone thinks you are a real terrorist, but some might accuse you of nominal terrorism.”


  7. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    7. June 2013 at 02:43

    We had quite a lot of “anti-terrorism” legislation in the UK under the Labour government. In each case, we were told that they would only be used for the purposes of fighting terrorism.

    It look less than a decade for all of that to be disproven-

    It is cruel and unusual treatment to give politicians and public servants power that they cannot be expected to wield wisely.

  8. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    7. June 2013 at 03:39

    Geez, listening to Greenspan right now. He says that QE is pushing long-term interest rates down. Kill me now!

  9. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    7. June 2013 at 03:42

    Greenspan is on Squawk Box on CNBC right now.

  10. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    7. June 2013 at 04:19

    Not helpful!

    “Greenspan: Taper Now, Even If Economy Isn’t Ready”

    Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told CNBC on Friday that the central bank should taper its $85 billion a month bond-buying even if the U.S. economy is not ready for it.

    He said in a “Squawk Box” interview that near-zero interest rate policy at the Fed has helped stock prices, but the markets need to be prepared for faster-than-expected rise in rates.

    If the Fed moves too quickly in reining in its accommodative policies, it could shock the market, which is already dealing with a very large element of uncertainty.

    Greenspan said that he’s not sure the markets will allow an easy exit and they may not give policymakers the leeway might like.

    The former Fed chair said he’s sure the Fed is formulating a “Plan B” for unexpected circumstances.

    Remember, tapering is still increasing the Fed’s balance sheet, he said.

    The issue is not only when the Fed will taper, but about when “we turn,” he explained.

    “”By CNBC’s Matthew J. Belvedere. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_SquawkCNBC.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. June 2013 at 05:33

    Everyone, Naturally I agree.

    Travis, Let’s hear no more talk that Bernanke is worse than Greenspan.

  12. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    7. June 2013 at 07:16

    I suspect that most of the criticism of this program is overblown. As does this guy;,0

    He points out that the order to Verizon only comes AFTER the FISC (C is for ‘court’) was convinced by the Executive branch that they had probable cause. And, to top that off, the leaders of both congressional parties were informed. So there were checks and balances in play, as was required by law.

    As the author of the Foreign Policy say, ‘Compared to what?’. Do we want police forces that merely sit in their offices waiting for citizens to call and report crimes being committed (or had been)? It doesn’t seem realistic to expect fewer terrorist incidents like the Boston bombing if that was the case.

    The author gives an example of a Yemeni terrorist cell using throwaway cell phones–several in number–to defeat anti-terrorist squads, that is at least a plausible explanation of what this program was doing. Legitimately…to protect Americans. Well worth reading.

  13. Gravatar of Randomize Randomize
    7. June 2013 at 07:21

    In the end, you’ll love big brother.

  14. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    7. June 2013 at 07:51

    A government that is big enough to give you everything you want is also strong enough to take everything you have.

  15. Gravatar of Churchman Churchman
    7. June 2013 at 08:03

    Great…the true terrorists will now avoid all internet related communications (if they havent already) and only honest people will end up being monitored.

  16. Gravatar of Scott Freeland Scott Freeland
    7. June 2013 at 08:35

    This is worse than the Nixon era and, sadly, Nixon was a better liberal than Obama. The right wing fascist nightmare liberals used to warn about is being extended by the liberal’s choice for President, and “liberals” in Congress voted right along with Bush and the Republicans to help birth it.

    And what’s worse, many seemed to think Bush was reacting to a large degree out of ignorance and stupidity. Obama is not stupid, nor is he ignorant. As a constitutional lawyer, surely he’s at least had opportunity to understand the damage he’s doing to the country.

    I honestly wonder now if we’ve gone too far in the direction of overreach to ever come back, or at least to come back any time soon. This is a very dark, ugly period in American history.

  17. Gravatar of Scott Freeland Scott Freeland
    7. June 2013 at 08:40

    I would also point out that this seems to be a general trend around the world. Many governments are responding to the growing dissatisfaction of constituents, who are organizing opposition with the help of social media revolutions, with crack downs on freedoms of assembly, speech, privacy, and the press.

    There also seems to be clear indications now of massive corruption at the top levels of essentially every government in the world. It’s not to say governments have ever been without corruption at the top, but that there seems to be less effort by increasingly arrogant governments to hide it. There seems to be open efforts to grind the poor into the dirt, destroy middle classes, and further empower and embolden the rich, in ways that both Marx and Friedman warned about.

  18. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    7. June 2013 at 09:45

    Sheesh, have a clue guys. Nixon (and Eisenhower, Truman, FDR) could order surveillance–even on American citizens–on his say so, that it was justified on national security grounds. And, often it was; that’s how we found out about all the spies working for Stalin et al.

    Today there is a full set of constitutional protections–which, in the case of that guy in Minnesota learning to fly, but not land an airliner, prevented the discovery of the 9-11 plot.

    I suppose one COULD make a cost benefit argument for NO intelligence gathering whatsoever. That any damage terrorists are capable of inflicting will be less than the costs of preventing it, but I haven’t heard it yet.

  19. Gravatar of Milton Freeman Milton Freeman
    7. June 2013 at 09:51

    It gets bigger, WAY BIGGER..

  20. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    7. June 2013 at 11:07


    “Geez, listening to Greenspan right now. He says that QE is pushing long-term interest rates down. Kill me now!”

    There is more than one monetary force on interest rates.

    If inflation of the money supply is expected to push up prices of consumer goods, thus encouraging a higher inflation premium on borrowing, then to this extent, inflation raises interest rates.

    But this is not the only monetary force. If inflation of the money supply enters the loan market first, then this puts downward pressure on interest rates.

    It is not wrong for Greenspan to argue that QE pushes interest rates down, especially when Greenspan himself was able to reduce interest rates by engaging in more extensive inflation into the banking system while he was chair.

    The way the FOMC reduced interest rates would be by stepping up their OMOs.

    But all the while they did this, there was also an upward force being put on interest rates from the side of increased prices. But if the Fed keeps the pressure on, then the downward pressure it brings about through OMOs, can, for quite some time, dominate the upward pressure.

    While you’re seeking browny points and pats on the back with your comments, little do you seem to realize that Dr. Sumner is taking you on a long ride off a short peer.

  21. Gravatar of Don Geddis Don Geddis
    7. June 2013 at 12:24

    @Geoff: “pier”. (It’s possible that is not the only error in your comment.)

    @Steve: +1 from me too! Classic.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. June 2013 at 06:39

    Patrick, I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. We are moving toward a regime where the government will know where you are 24/7 via tracking of cars, cell phones, etc. Then there’s the DNA decision.

    You may be right that this particular program is not being abused, I’m in no position to say either way. But then 2 months ago wasn’t the government telling us that the IRS wasn’t abusing people’s rights? If you give people this power, they are likely to abuse it.

  23. Gravatar of jurisdebtor jurisdebtor
    8. June 2013 at 07:35

    “He points out that the order to Verizon only comes AFTER the FISC (C is for ‘court’) was convinced by the Executive branch that they had probable cause. And, to top that off, the leaders of both congressional parties were informed. So there were checks and balances in play, as was required by law.”

    [There is no oversight. FISA courts are rubber stamp entities and there decisions are not subject to review (records made public show the court has not rejected an application in four years). Moreover, those presented with national security letters cannot challenge the orders contained in those letters (at least not until the 9th Circuit rules in the Google case), are subject to the letters’ gag order provisions, all under the penalty of criminal sanctions.

    There has been a complete absence of a public discussion on this topic, both the surveillance programs themselves, and the need for them–counter terrorism, U.S. foreign policy, blowback, etc.–because the government wants to keep the issue out of the public eye.

    What I am astounded by is how quickly people are to acquiesce to the government on this issue, but raise holy hell when it comes to universal background checks on guns because, as the ACLU argues, the next logical step is for a gun registry. In both instances we have the government mining for data in the name of public safety. In once instance it is acceptable, in the other it objectionable. Why? Since 9/11, and especially during the Bush years, anyone who raised objections to U.S. foreign policy, the PATRIOT Act, and the like was branded un-American, un-patriotic, or some other jingoistic garbage. Glenn Greenwald is right; we need to have this conversation.

    Cloaking government action in the name of national security to dismiss Constitutional, privacy, and other concerns about civil liberties without discourse is no longer acceptable (and never should be acceptable, in my opinion).

    But good news for Sumner; he could punch Krugman in the face, declare it was in the name of national security, and be exonerated.]

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