The Great Flattening

Two excellent pieces of perceptive analysis and interpretation of the latest NSA revelations and the Manning whistleblower case in The New Yorker today.

First, John Cassidy on Manning and Snowden, “In Defence of Leakers”:

We do know that, at great cost to themselves and their families, Snowden and Manning have illuminated much that the authorities would have preferred to keep hidden, and that they have sparked a long overdue public debate about what the Times, in its editorial about the Manning verdict, justly described as “a national security apparatus that has metastasized into a vast and largely unchecked exercise of government secrecy and the overzealous prosecution of those who breach it.” In short, the two leakers have performed a valuable public service.

Second, Amy Davidson on the NSA program known as XKeyscore. And let me stop to say I love her work. She is quite simply relentlessly intelligent and readable about everything she chooses to look at. (The title of her blog gives away a lot: her method is that of a close read, an intense scrutiny brought to bear on something until it yields meaning.)

She eloquently unfolds the rhetoric of how the NSA is presented:

[The] metadata told the N.S.A. what numbers called what numbers, when, for how long, and what cell towers the callers were near. This was something that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had specifically told the Senate was not happening—a lie Snowden caught him in. Its defense since then has been that the collection of telephone metadata is simultaneously a negligible detail and absolutely crucial, the only thing keeping more planes from hitting New York. Officials from the President on down keep talking as if the only issue was whether the N.S.A. was listening in on phone calls.

The XKeyscore presentation shows how empty those words are. The N.S.A., it appears, doesn’t just turn to its metadata library to see who’s been calling a terrorist; it uses it in a coördinated way as one of the magnets to draw people’s identities from the Web and gather information about them. Have you done things that both count as anomalous (without showing that you’re American first) and ever entered your phone number on a shopping site? Were you buying books there? And now there’s your e-mail, and log-in. The slides in the presentation (for example, one with the header “Plug-ins extract and index metadata into tables”) suggest that, in combination with the contents of the N.S.A.’s other databases, telephone information can be a powerful route to almost anything. We now have a partial view of many programs, and no view at all on the many FISA court opinions interpreting the law, which it has kept secret. XKeyscore seems to draw on the N.S.A.’s other databases and its sweeps of Internet traffic. The most important question is how everything fits together.

Davidson here and elsewhere in the piece also touches on an issue that concerns me, which is the chilling effect surveillance has on strangeness:

“Someone whose language is out of place for the region they are in.” That is a telling mark for a nation of immigrants, one that supposedly values that heritage. As for “suspicious stuff,” does that include reading articles expressing doubts about the honesty of what we’ve been told about the N.S.A.? The analysts don’t seem to have to ask anyone before doing these searches: they just say, via another menu, that they’ve got a reason.

Being out of the ordinary, not behaving the way other people do — this has become, to the off-stage machinery and analysts of the NSA, something worthy of suspicion, something that warrants institutional attention. This concerns me. We live in a time of great diversity, but also of great flattening, of things becoming more similar to each other. We should guard difference and be wary of

The awareness of this must surely exert some sort of pressure on the individuals under them. It must surely produce some leveling-out of difference over time? Some barely noticeable, subtle pressure on the personality. Unnoticed. Like the wind on your face which takes a decade to carve channels in your cheeks.

There already seems to be a sort of low-level awareness of this in many parts of US culture. The ironic paranoia, the jokes about being listened in on by the CIA, about what happens when you mention Osama bin Laden in blog posts or Facebook messages.

And now, the government comes by for a chat about your kitchen appliances because you google the wrong phrases, like “pressure cooker bomb” and “backpack”  as happened to writer Michele Catalano:

Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.

They searched the backyard. They walked around the garage, as much as one could walk around a garage strewn with yardworking equipment and various junk. They went back in the house and asked more questions.

Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb? My husband, ever the oppositional kind, asked them if they themselves weren’t curious as to how a pressure cooker bomb works, if they ever looked it up. Two of them admitted they did.

I love that line, “what the hell is quinoa?” I imagine a heavily armed SWAT team shouting (though that wasn’t what happened).

(More on this incident at The Atlantic)


“Portia” by Henry Woods

In not completely unrelated news, the Bradley Manning case had me waking up with Shakespeare on my mind today. Portia’s great (although quite antisemitic) speech about mercy from The Merchant of Venice, Act IV scene 1. It moves so well between the ideas of justice and the idea of law. And it reflects something of the current case. How what Manning did was illegal, but that the verdict against him still stands as an injustice, one of those human moments of turmoil and chaos, of messiness and disorder where the system fails to produce the intended outcomes. The public mechanisms fail to produce public goods.

A presidential pardon would be, at this point, redemptive. For both nation and international community. And not least for the president who pardoned him. It’s almost certainly not going to happen, but it should. Redemption has been a theme for this president. We’ll have to see.

Anyway, here’s sagacious Portia and Shylock being a jackass:


The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.


My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond.

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