Blame Congress, Not Edward Snowdon

A friend sent around Jeffrey Toobin’s well-reasoned argument that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is no hero.

I agree with Toobin’s piece, but I think it also misses the point. The Snowdens, Bradley Mannings and Julian Assanges are an inevitable byproduct of institutions that haven’t kept up with changing technology.

Forty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg photocopied 7,000 pages worth of the Pentagon Papers and circulated them among a few people he thought he could trust, including a New York Times reporter. Today, the papers could fit on a thumb drive, get uploaded to the cloud, and be halfway around the world in an instant. (Interestingly, the federal government officially unassed the documents in 2011, and you can download them from the National Archives right here.)

Today’s secrets aren’t printed tomes. They’re data, field reports, massive files, banal PowerPoint slides. They’re digital, like everything else and they can move easily from the hands of a disgruntled leaker to the rest of us. And the secret-keepers need our data, too. Everything we’re producing is part of an ever-expanding global net of information that can be harvested like grain: wheat separated from chaff, needles uncovered in haystacks.

Snowden’s decisions and fate are certainly interesting. But debating them won’t help us figure out how our 200-year-old Constitutional rights fit in with a modern security state based on fast-as-light bits. Right now, we have an NSA that may or may not be violating the living hell out of the 4th Amendment. For instance, Snowden claims the NSA algorithms can only detect a foreign communications source 51 percent of the time. I don’t see anything in the Constitution calling for respecting our rights a bare majority of the time.

If we wanted to know if the NSA is, indeed, violating millions of people’s rights every day, there’s no one to ask who can give us a straight answer. There’s no panel of security, privacy and Constitutional experts to tell us whether or not the NSA is cutting corners on our rights to protect us from harm. There’s no one to tell us whether or not all the data being collected is being used just to fight the terrorists, of if it’s leaking, too, and being used for unauthorized domestic purposes.

[Update 7/3/13 — I was reading a hard copy of the Post and happened upon an article that explained such a panel does, in fact, exist, but that it’s been moribund for years. One result of the Snowden leak is that it may become more active and various positions on said panel may actually be filled. Good on ‘ya, Ed.]

And that’s Congress’s fault. The PATRIOT Act’s 2001 journey from introduction in the House to passage by both chambers took three days. The Senate, the great filibustering cooling saucer of the democratic experiment, went 98-1 in favor. Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy were the only ones with enough temerity to ask pertinent questions in the mad rush after the attacks to DO SOMETHING. (Only Feingold ultimately voted against.)

Congress told the president to go ahead and create a massive, modern security state with no oversight, no transparency and no balm for the Constitutional soul of our democracy. In effect, Congress basically dared someone like Snowden to become a leaker.

Now that the law is on the books, nobody wants to be the one who takes away an anti-terrorism tool. It makes it too easy for their political opponents to blame them — and their party — the next time an attack happens. So instead, Congress should add some checks to the system. Give us a little oversight. Give us a few trusted people who can analyze what the hell the NSA is doing behind closed doors and report back to the American people — without compromising our security — to let them know whether or not our rights are being infringed. Maybe we’ll think it’s worth it. Maybe we’re okay with the NSA intercepting our drunken texts if that means someone doesn’t get blown up. Really. But we’re citizens damn it and we deserve to have just a modicum of information so that we the governed may offer or refuse our consent.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as Secular Anthem

I don’t love a lot of music, but I love Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The album has a dense emotional range and is based on Anne Frank’s lived and imagined life. In times of gladness and sadness, I go back to it and I cry out “Noootch!” to friends when I think we should listen to it together.

The title track sticks with me the most. In an odd way, it feels like a secular anthem, despite it’s focus on death and the afterlife. For secularists, our afterlife is the legacy we leave: our genetic progeny and the reverberations of our choices that echo long after we are gone. Our existence on the Earth is a privilege and one we’re grateful for. And in the end, we’re not that far away philosophically from some of our religious brethren.

Here are the lyrics and what I take away from them:

What a beautiful face I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in a blink of an eye
and be gone from me soft and sweet
Let me hold it close and keep it here with me

We live on a rock orbiting the sun. Everything we love and hold dear could be gone in an instant, as ephemeral as a forgotten dream upon waking. So we hold fast to the beauty we see.

And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Love to be in the arms of all I’m keeping here with me.

Despite the absolute certainty of death, we can not let it occupy our minds because all we have are the precious instants and long years of our lives.

What a curious life we have found here tonight
There is music that sounds from the street
There are lights in the clouds
Anna’s ghost all around
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me
Soft and sweet!
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees.

Well, the mention of a ghost throws off my experience with the song, but I take it metaphorically. Life takes us on curious detours and compels us — begs us, sometimes — to notice the details. The legacy of the dead is all around us. In a way they live, invisibly, like music waves propagating through air.

Now how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through your mouth to make those muscles move
That made your voice so smooth and sweet
And now we keep where we don’t know
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
With one you loved so long ago now he don’t even know his name.

Ah, finally, the topic of so many other songs. The pains, the regrets, the secrets! The controlling, demanding tendencies we direct at the people we love. And yet, we forget the pain. It eventually leaves us, even if we bear its scars.

What a beautiful face I have found in this place that is circling all round the sun
When we meet on a cloud I’ll be laughing out loud
I’ll be laughing with everyone I see
Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.

The song’s cathartic release. Finding love, laughing at the banality, grandiosity and absurdity of life. Meeting on a cloud as an angel? Or as another reverberation that bounced up there from the trees?

And finally, my favorite line: the disbelief at the mere fact of existence. To not be a “not!” To be real, to be able to see and think and feel. To be anything at all in a maddeningly beautiful world.

But hey, maybe that’s just me. Good songs are written to be open to interpretation. (I’m reminded of the creator of Hello, Kitty explaining that the character has no mouth so that children can project their emotions onto her.) But that last line….that last line nails it for me every time. And while I’m sure the sentiment it contains is a subject of many philosophical tracts, it’s distillation here is perfect.