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Sunday, 11 August 2013

Obama's NSA debate redefines the term 'bizarre'

Public debate about US President Barack Obama's national security measures - including the recent revelations about the country's NSA communications analysis and monitoring, and drone strikes - is redefining the meaning of the term "bizarre" because of the thick cloak of secrecy that militates against transparency, making it utterly impossible to discern truth from official spin. The New York Times had a good go today with a story on its website ('Threats Test Obama’s Balancing Act on Surveillance') but the contrary forces at play result in some strange quotes, and this verbal throwing-up-of-hands from the newspaper's editors:
It is yet unknown who exactly was killed in Yemen during the past two weeks. Therefore, it is hard to judge the recent strikes against those standards the president laid out in May. Specifically, did the dozens of people reportedly killed all pose a “direct and imminent threat”? And, with American officials fearing that an attack could happen at any moment, just how much care was taken before each strike to determine that no civilians were in the missiles’ path?
Earlier in the story we have this quote from Obama:
“I will not have a discussion about operational issues,” he said.
But later in the same story we have this from the president:
“Let’s just put the whole elephant out there, and examine what’s working,” he said.
It's too strange. Admittedly, that first quote refers to drone strikes and the second quote refers to the NSA's activities - which have come under intense scrutiny in the press, making it incumbent on the president to at least appear to be open and transparent. But where even the existence of the NSA's colossal data mining activities were unknown until the Guardian's reporting Edward Snowden's disclosures, we're unlikely to get much satisfaction even from the top press vehicle in the country.

Hence the strange creature from a Medieval bestiary that accompanies this post: a combination of a rabbit and a snake; a creature like this seemed to me to be the only way to quickly illustrate the kind of fantasy-world of government spin and government obfuscation these issues produce. As the NY Times' headline shows, we're dealing with a trade-off between the legitimate public right to know and (what we're told is) an operational imperative to spy - on everyone, everywhere.

War always results in the reduction of the rights of the individual. The suspension of habeus corpus, for example, is a common outcome of war. Similarly, national constitutions globally are being ignored in order to "protect" people from (unknown, unknowable) threats by millions of people. Snowden was a rare man of conscience in a crowd of obedient functionaries. The strange kinds of official utterances and the odd stories appearing in the press are a product of the bizarre situation we find ourselves in, now, as the world changes shape inexorably. It seems that the first thing people do with new wealth is buy guns to protect their interests. The mere pursuit of wealth appears, in this context, rather anodyne. The urge to guard one's honour - and so prop up the basis of personal identity - seems to be rather unattractive, then. Let's hope there will arise institutions adequate to satisfying the (apparently) conflicting needs of people in all countries. War is a price too high to pay for repose.

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