Participatory Democracy: Start With a False Premise
The false premise in question, these days, seems to be that anyone other than "the decider" get a say in things. May 14, 2006, in Tautology and Royalty, there was an extensive survey of the speciousness of the idea that when it comes to decisions about what we do as a nation has much to do with laws the congress enacts, the courts that rule on the application of those laws, what we vote for and public opinion in general. The executive branch says what the president decides is what counts, telling us that we've all really misunderstood the constitution all these years. He alone has the final say.
Thus the now famous signing statements -
And on it goes. The Attorney General on national television suggests locking up journalists who report what they're told (video here) - and, yes, they do report what seems to be quite illegal and troubling, but much of it is, after all, classified. You don't reveal what's classified.
The amount of classified information, much of it previously available, has probably tripled now, but then, you have to trust them that it all should now be classified, as they have our best interests in mind (our safety) and say no one should question their good intentions. What other motive for shutting down access to even the most innocuous information could they have? They're not evil, power-mad people, just making sure we're all safe. If you think differently you must be one of those tin-foil hate conspiracy nuts. Everyone knows they're just doing their best to keep us safe.
That telephone business? The president himself said in a speech in Buffalo last year that no one's phone would be tapped without a FISA warrant. Then they said the FISA law really didn't apply if you thought about things carefully, then told us they only checked in on al Qaeda calls to and from the United States without warrants. If you're not al Qaeda no one is checking. So relax. Then they said, well, they did track other purely domestic calls without warrants, but they were all "terrorism related" somehow, but they couldn't explain how they knew as that was classified. Then there was no denial that they've collected most all phone records of everyone for the last four years and they've got banks of computers scanning them all for suspicious patterns. Just about all phone calls are included. And there is no oversight of any of that, and certainly no warrants. But no one is listening in on any particular call, unless the algorithm makes the big computers beep and gurgle, so what's the problem? Well, it's one "not quite what we said" after another. You can see why the Attorney General might want to lock up journalists. They undermine the trust we should have that this is all just fine.
In that tautology and royalty item there was, in the middle of all the little details, this - the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility said that it couldn't investigate the role Justice Department lawyers played in the NSA's warrantless spying program because the Bush administration refused to give investigators the necessary security clearances. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility just up and quit the effort. What would be the point?
Tuesday, May 23, 2006, it happened again, but this time it was the FCC -
The FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin, used to be one of the Bush-Cheney campaign lawyers (think Florida recount, 2000), before he got this plum appointment. He says members of the FCC "take very seriously our charge to faithfully implement the nation's laws, including our authority to investigate potential violations of the Communications Act." But what can you do? The decider got his advice and classified it all at such a high level that even his own FCC just has to trust him. This is curious.
A logical reaction here - "So if the NSA won't allow the Justice Department to investigate, and the FCC won't even try, where does that leave us? Who polices the police?"
It seems to be a matter of trust, doesn't it? It's not just congress and the courts who must back off. The administration's own subordinate agencies have to back off.
The White House runs a tight ship. The circle of those who know and those who decide is very small indeed, just a few people. The idea seems to be that we chose this way of doing business in the last election (and maybe the one before it), so if you have a problem with any of it, in 2008 you get a chance to try something else, if more than half of the nation agrees with you and you can trick the new electronic voting machines into recording the vote you cast. Until then? Back off.
But people do persist in thinking they have some say in any of this, as is this from Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly - a challenge to those who seem to have problems with the warrantless telephone scans. It's a bit of a thought experiment -
Well, the meta-problem is in this - "Americans need to come to grips with whether they approve of this." What Americans approve or disapprove doesn't really matter much, does it? If they disapprove, what are they going to do about it? There's not a thing possible now.
But say that was not so (or say that were not so, if you're one of those hopeful people who prefer the subjunctive mode). Grant the premise is that identifying criminals by statistical analysis is possible. Then what? Take care of them? How? As in Spielberg's silly Tom Cruise film Minority Report, is there something fundamentally wrong in the state removing people, one way or another, for crimes they are likely to commit, or statistically almost certain to commit, without having committed any crime? The blurb from the film - "In the future, criminals are caught before the crimes they commit, but one of the officers in the special unit is accused of one such crime and sets out to prove his innocence."
This is a science fiction scenario - Spielberg's film is based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, and Asimov was in the very same territory in his Foundation trilogy. What do the folks at the White House read these days? They took that stuff seriously?
Well, the president himself turned to the author of Jurassic Park once, as noted here - "Fred Barnes recalls a visit to the White House last year by Michael Crichton, whose 2004 best-selling novel, 'State of Fear,' suggests that global warming is an unproven theory and an overstated threat."
The president may not be much of a reader, but he does read interesting stuff.
Grant the premise though, and ask yourself if you'd vote to change hundreds of years of legal precedent - the law only comes for you for what you do, not what you might do - because statistical analysis has become really good now. What's wrong with preventing a crime like a murder, as in the movie, or terrorist attack, as with the NSA pattern analysis of those billion or more phone records? You say there was no crime? The statistics say it's pretty much certain there would have been a crime.
Of course you see the real issue - who wrote the algorithms that drive the statistical analyses? Were they competent? Were they biased in any way, or careless, or unstable, or high on Twinkies, or jumpy from too much caffeine? Who cross-checked their work? Was the testing thorough at the code level and systems level? What about quality control and all the security stuff from version control to access control? Those of us who spent too many years in the systems industry may be more wary than the president and the president's men. But then, none of us is "the decider."
Drum follows up here saying that it may be too late to worry about all that, as he notes this from Noah Shachtman in Defense Tech -
Science fiction becomes science fact, or possible fact. No one is checking on flurries of calls to domestic numbers from Jakarta or Addis Ababa, or Munich? Who developed this template? He or she doesn't know narrowly fixing the geography masses things up, or at least opens big holes? Effective systems don't "think small." Any coder knows what you design will not account for what you don't expect, and the trick is, always, do your best not to limit yourself, on purpose, by your assumptions about what the users will do, or what data are churned out in the results. It can get tricky. Something you don't expect always bites you in the ass.
And Drum also digs up a quote from First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, here, on the real problem, or the overarching one. Abrams advises the feds -
Yeah, but they said the FISA court, and any law like that, doesn't matter.
The news from Germany, the same day, was that they went the other way, with this from Germany's highest court -
No, no, no - the Germans gave us the fascist police state, perfected in the former East Germany. What's this role-reversal crap, with us sifting though everybody's everything, looking to get the goods on someone - we don't know who, but we'll get them before they do bad things? The irony is just sad.
Drum's thoughts -
Like that matters now?