The Casual Blog

Tag: Glen Greenwald

The terrification of our intelligence

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We learned this week that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, died. Two years ago. And we didn’t realize it. We’re still in Afghanistan, still waging the longest war in American history (14 years and counting), at a cost of several trillion dollars and thousands of lives, so you’d think this would be something we’d definitely want to know. I realize that getting good intelligence in a hostile land if not so easy, but still, it’s staggering to think we couldn’t figure out that the leader of a foe for which we sacrificed all that treasure and life was defunct.

It raises serious questions, like, are there some other fundamental realities we’re missing? Are there, along with the unsung heroes in our spy corps, too many unexposed incompetents? We seem to have gotten pretty good at spying on leaders of allied nations, not to mention ordinary Americans, but maybe not so great at learning about our declared adversaries. Here’s an idea: why not take the NSA’s mass domestic surveillance division and repurpose it towards actual threats from our enemies?
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Although our enemies keep changing. According to the papers, ISIS is now our main enemy, though I’d note that it has not attacked the United States. They’re definitely fighting against Iraq, our former enemy and now a quasi-client that mostly hates us. They’re also fighting our current enemy Syria, which does not seem entirely a bad thing. Attacking the US is not on ISIS’s priority list. Could they ever be a threat to our physical safety? Sure, just as is possible from any number of countries, but it isn’t now. So why are spending billions fighting them? What are our objectives?

The FBI acknowledged this week that ISIS “has shown no ability to stage significant attacks inside the United States.” But, per a NY Times story, the Bureau is devoting massive resources to detecting and arresting “sympathizers” who express “a willingness to undertake small-scale attacks, such as stabbings and shootings that require little planning.” That is, the FBI has taken on the mission of stopping “shootings and stabbings . . . on a scale that is common in major American cities.” What makes these so important? Why, they’re inspired by ISIS, don’t you see.
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This is part of continuing fallout from our post-9/11 moral panic about terrorism. Those who are victims of mass violence motivated by old-fashioned racism feel slighted that those criminals aren’t usually called terrorists, and they have kind of a point. A mass shooting has come to seem more serious if we call it terrorism. And I would agree that we need to deplore and work to prevent all mass shootings. Footnote: can we talk about better gun control laws?
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On final word about terrorism, and then I’ll stop. Glen Greenwald wrote this week about the prosecution of animal rights activists on charges of “domestic terrorism.” The crime in issue was releasing minks from fur farms. The point of the activity was political protest – nonviolent, mind you – against the cruelty of fur farming. The protesters are facing 10 years in federal prison. Prosecutions of political protesters as terrorists are apparently on the rise. This is ironic, but also frightening. If the actual terrorists, like bin Laden, ultimately make so fearful and obsessed with terrorism that we sacrifice our most cherished civil liberties, they will have succeeded in their destructiveness beyond their wildest dreams.

A word about the pictures: these were taken at Raulston Arboretum on Saturday, August 1, at about 8:30 a.m. It smelled a bit like a barnyard this Saturday, which I’m guessing had to do with application of fresh animal-based fertilizer. There were many small butterflies, most of which did not care to be photographed.
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Our old friend Stuart, rainy Duke Gardens, N.C. Opera, and Snowden reconsidered

Stuart Tiller, April 26, 2015

Stuart Tiller, April 26, 2015

This week I was particularly aware that our sweet Stuart is getting grayer and slower. He’s almost thirteen, so this is no great surprise. But I had a sudden pang when I realized he will not be with us too much longer. He still likes eating and going for walks, and from time to time wants to play with the tennis ball, but only for a bit. He still really likes being petted, as I like petting him. It’s a good thing now and again to pause to note how precious this short time together with a good friend is.
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Azalea at Duke Gardens, April 25, 2015

Azelea at Duke Gardens, April 25, 2015

Duke Gardens. On Saturday morning I drove over to Durham to visit Duke Gardens. It started to rain just after I arrived, so I took along an umbrella and tried to keep my Nikon from getting too wet. The rain fell gently, and the gardens were very peaceful and beautiful. This is a place I would love to live if I were a plant. The azaleas were spectacular. In the terrace garden, the tulips were gone, replaced by a wild profusion of white irises, orange poppies, and many colorful spiky and flowing flowers I could not name.
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N.C. Opera. On Sunday we saw and heard the final performance of N.C. Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni. It was excellent! It really is hard to believe that we’ve got opera of this quality right here in the Piedmont. The singers were all young, but they all were well-trained musicians with depth and maturity.

I was particularly struck that all three sopranos had gorgeous and powerful voices, and big personalities. Hailey Clark (Donna Elvira) was probably my favorite for the beauty of her tone, but Alexandra Loutsion (Donna Anna) was also a wonderful singer, and Jennifer Cherest (Zerlina) was quite charming. Adam Lau (Leporello) had a fine bass-baritone and good sense of humor. Jeongchelo Cha was Don Giovanni, and ultimately delivered a convincing performance of this deeply flawed but fascinating character.
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Snowden reconsidered. I finished reading No Place to Hide, by Glen Greenwald, about breaking the Edward Snowden story. Parts of it read like a Le Carre thriller, but the main points are highly thought-provoking. As the real events began unfolding almost two years ago, it was unclear to me whether Snowden was a kook or fanatic, and whether his disclosures had done more harm to America than good. Greenwald’s book makes clear that Snowden was careful, thoughtful, and idealistic, and his revelations were considered ones that showed that our security apparatus has pushed aside and undermined some of our most important constitutional values. He makes a strong argument for viewing Snowden as a patriot.

It may well be that the NSA folks looking at our personal electronic information mean well, supposing that they might find hidden terrorist threats and suchlike. But even if their work was productive and effective (which it hasn’t been), it is corrosive.

The consciousness that we might be being watched is very close to the consciousness that we are being watched. In either case we lose an important component of personal freedom. Consciously or not, as we come to understand our electronic lives may be constantly monitored, we modify our thoughts and behaviors. We become more passive and compliant. Both our inner lives and our social lives are deprived of oxygen. This is a psychological force that is hard to resist, though of course we need to try.

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