Privacy, Security and Sanity

Obama FuhrerBy Robert C. Koehler
COTO Report

What I keep longing to hear, in the hemorrhaging national debate about Edward Snowden, whistleblowing and the NSA, is some acknowledgment of what the word “security” actually means, and what role — if any — the government should play in creating it.

“You can’t have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy.”

A moment of silence, please, for the dying patriarchy. That, of course, was how President Obama explained it to the American public shortly after the spy scandal hit the fan. When did we become “the children” in our relationship with the government, irrelevant to its day-to-day operations, utterly powerless as we stand in its massive, protecting shadow?

If you want to be safe, boys and girls, we need to collect and store data about all the phone calls you make and all the emails you send, along with the phone calls and emails of nearly everyone else on the planet as well. This is just how it works. Privacy is nice, but the terrorists are out there, plotting stuff even as we speak. And that’s really all you need to know — that we’re working round the clock to stop them and keep you safe.

When government officials aren’t outright lying about what they’re up to, this is the argument they revert to, in the process making an extremely important point: The issue here is sanity. As James Bamford, a security expert who has written four books about the NSA, put it in an interview last month with Politico, tracking all this data doesn’t even make sense on its own terms; a data ovfaerload of such magnitude simply intensifies the difficulty of spotting a real threat. “It’s just,” he said, “insane.”

Forget privacy. Our major institutions are mission-dysfunctional. “The NSA has this fetish for data, and will get it any way they can, and get as much as they can,” security scholar Bruce Schneier told Bob Sullivan of NBC News. He compared it to the obsession of hoarders. And as Politico noted, the NSA has just opened a $2 billion data center outside Salt Lake City, where it will “store electronic information measured in quantities of ‘zettabytes’” — or sextillions.

Three years ago, the Washington Post ran a lengthy exposé of our run-amok security state, which, ingrained since the Cold War, exploded exponentially during the Bush-Cheney years, and has continued to grow under Obama. According to the Post, “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.” An estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances. And, in and around Washington, D.C., “33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001.”

Reflecting on all this at the time, I wrote: “The money we’ve poured into the intelligence industry in the last decade — expanding exponentially the worst excesses of the Cold War — has done more than gum up the wheels of government. It has usurped much of what remained of its legitimacy. The more secrets the government keeps from us, the less it belongs to us. In the Secrecy State, no one extols the value of openness. But a government that isn’t open is not a democracy.”

Even as it violates the privacy of much of the planet, the government is adamant about keeping its own secrets, and the biggest secret of all is that a dangerous force is on the loose within it.

It’s wasting absurd billions on counterproductive pseudo-security that makes us less secure, but that’s the whole point. The security, armaments and prison complexes — the major drains of our national wealth — are committed to a perpetual battle with The Enemy, with bogeymen and terrorists, who exist in objective independence from our own activities. In other words, only force and stealth will keep us safe. As long as they can sell that illusion, they can hide behind it and keep growing.

But the void in this debate is at the very center: at the nature of security. If we put more energy and resources into creating a fair world — building society around common sense, the Golden Rule, universal access to decent education, environmental sustainability, and nonviolent conflict resolution — we’d reap immediate and long-lasting benefits.

What I find immensely frustrating is that the national discussion about security never goes this far. The NSA’s fiercest critics blast its practices but seem to stop at a call for more oversight and transparency — which will only last until the scandal fades from the news or until the next Boston Marathon-type tragedy explodes in the headlines.

The issue of security will never be sensibly addressed until we can talk about it in a holistic context and acknowledge that we — the whole planet — are caught together in a single, interlaced web of danger. And that danger comes more from our own governments and other powerful institutions — the provocateurs of so much inequality and conflict — than it does from loners with grievances or fanatics carrying out orders.

Getting a handle on human security means understanding that no one acts alone.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.


8 responses to “Privacy, Security and Sanity

  1. Reblogged this on The GOLDEN RULE and commented:
    Obviously, I agree with what Bob is saying.
    On the pretended basis of security for all, a sort of madness has taken over and results in security for wrongdoers in the government, NGO’s and banking systems. This is accompanied by an increasing lack of security for the people and warfare against those who tell the truth.
    I like this extract: “But the void in this debate is at the very center: at the nature of security. If we put more energy and resources into creating a fair world — building society around common sense, the Golden Rule, universal access to decent education, environmental sustainability, and nonviolent conflict resolution — we’d reap immediate and long-lasting benefits.”

  2. Here’s my favorite line from Bob’s piece: “[D]anger comes more from our own governments and other powerful institutions — the provocateurs of so much inequality and conflict — than it does from loners with grievances or fanatics carrying out orders.”

  3. Unnecessary, extreme secrecy is the Monster running amok in the castle of national security.

    It is the Monster that has overthrown in spirit, if not in letter, a government that was meant to be of the People, by the People, and for the People.

    If unstopped, this Monster will consume to the last drop all our civil liberties which are the vital lifeblood of our partial republican democracy.

    To slay this Monster once and for all–speaking metaphorically for sustained nonviolent action by We The People–it must be dragged out into the bright light of day, subjected to the scorching sunshine that will scour away all its evil.

    Therefore, as the first step in my open-source solutioneer72-dot-com countersurveillance manifesto, I have proposed programmatic transparency with compulsory disclosure as per a variegated cloak of secrecy.

    In other words, all state surveillance actions must be logged in detail within a centralized database programmed to automatically capture such actions and alert targets (along with advocacy groups such as the ACLU, EFF, EPIC, and the National Lawyers Guild) immediately or up to no more than 13 months later, depending on where the targeted US citizen / permanent resident is listed on an innocence spectrum, from law-abiding American on one end to, on the other end, an American officially designated as a suspect in an attempted or committed act of terror.

    Such programmatic transparency will empower ordinary Americans seeking due process and redress–while inevitably sparking revelation-based debates on the morality, constitutionality, legality, and basic decency of state surveillance practices.

    Programmatic transparency, once enacted, will not only metaphorically slay the Monster, but also it will open the gates and lower the drawbridge for We The People to storm and seize the castle of national security–which is, after all, purpose-built for our protection, not our persecution.

    As the rightful rulers of this castle, We The People will then be able to holistically reshape our national security agenda–away from counterproductive, neocolonial, imperialist tactics which only create ever-new monsters to endlessly menace us–and towards a geopolitics of cosmopolitan, eco-sustainable, and truly democratic global coexistence.

    • After almost 14 years as a target of state and non-state surveillance, I am now speaking out on behalf of all who are or will be mistreated like me, before it becomes too late for us to universally secure life, liberty, equality, justice, and the pursuit of happiness.

      For this purpose, I have set up a website (, a facebook page (Solutioneer Seventy-Two), and a twitter stream (@solutioneer72)–all promoting my open-source countersurveillance manifesto ‘Mastering the Genie of State Surveillance’.

      In it, I propose a 3-step solution for unleashing civil liberties in our era of electronic existence, while still ensuring national security in an age of asymmetric warfare.

      Please help spread word and deed by reading, critiquing, sharing, and even rewriting this manifesto–as well as by creatively incorporating it into non-violent acts of protest.

  4. Pseudo-security is the correct term. The whole point of the NSA apparatus is control. A data overload is of no concern for that purpose, indeed, after the fact access to information is fine. The NSA is designed for blackmail and other illegal uses of info.

    What’s the power source of AIPAC? NSA info shuffled through Israeli firms Verint and Narus shuffled through the IDF to AIPAC? Why the incredibly high percentage of guilty verdicts in federal courts? Blackmail?

    Individuals can be targeted with no third party witnesses. Others going about their life will have no knowledge of the attacks. Welcome to Amerika.

  5. Ditto all of the above. a very cogent article, Bob, once again. TY.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s