Tag Archives: National Security Agency

The political issues that dare not speak their names

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They were, until recently, sleeper issues – incipient tempests snoozing away until their moments in prime time arrived which, as it happens, was just the other day.

Greet the two cri de coeur of the common era: income inequality in one protest line and privacy rights in the other. Both are getting a lot of ink – both figurative and literal – these days.

Google “income” and “wage” and “inequality” and “gap” in any combination you like and 144 million references become available within a fraction of a second. Most recently from the mosh pit of opinion on the subject is a USA Today piece about Americans who “grapple with income inequality” even as they debate the “government’s role in the economy.”

There’s Bloomberg’s Income Inequality News, replete with “Income Inequality Photos” and “Income Inequality Videos” and a piece that chastises President Barack Obama for supporting fairer income distribution while pushing for international trade deals, such as NAFTA, that many economists blame for the wage gap.

And there’s this of local interest from the web pages of Statistics Canada , courtesy of the Huffington Post last week:

“StatsCan’s data shows some large differences in the degree of income inequality between provinces, with the Maritime provinces registering the lowest concentrations of income among high earners, while the country’s economic powerhouses – Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia – registered the highest. . .The share of income going to the top one per cent in Alberta was nearly 17 per cent, compared to around 12 per cent in Ontario and around five per cent in the Maritime provinces.”

Meanwhile, Canada’s Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier has added her voice to the roaring multitude’s on the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly unaccountable, cohorts of spies, spooks and creeps who are steadily eroding any

reasonable expectation of privacy among the world’s citizenry.

“Revelations surfacing over the past months have raised questions among many Canadians about privacy in the context of national security,” she wrote in her report to Parliament last week. “While a certain level of secrecy is necessary within intelligence activities, so is accountability within a democracy. Given our mission to protect and promote privacy, and our responsibility to provide advice to Parliament, we are putting forward some recommendations and ideas for Parliamentarians to consider on these important issues.”

One of these ideas is to require Communication Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) to “make public more detailed, current, statistical information about its operations regarding privacy protection, and submit an annual report on its work to Parliament, as does the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).”

Of course, to hardcore conspiracists, that’s like taking a convicted fraud’s unaudited financial statements at face value.

Still, Ms. Bernier remained undeterred. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, she insisted her report was a rallying cry for clarity and accountability. What’s more, she said, “When you look at our recommendations, quite a few are low-hanging fruit. Quite a few could be implemented immediately.”

Which is why quite a few of them probably won’t. The same goes for any meaningful government response on income inequality.

The respective issues are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Each boils down to rough conceptions of fairness and justice. Each posits villains and victims. Each’s mythology depends on the noble travails of the plucky little guy who must endure the hob-nailed boots of the powerful elite’s henchmen.

Those are marvelous messages for governments with pretensions of  progressivism to exploit. Indeed, Barack Obama and his quasi-crusading band of faint-hearted social democrats are all over the income-disparity and big-brother issues in the U.S., alternately making the former the subject of the 2014 state of the union address and the latter the handmaiden for stinging rebukes of the National Security Agency.

Not so for the Government of Canada. Late last year, one of its committees quietly shelved an extensive report that measured income inequality across the country. At the same time, Ottawa continued to support the work of its spy agencies despite a gathering lobby of both expert and public opinion against many of their practices.

True reform, of course, is a messy business. And few governments, despite their pretensions to high-minded purpose, are temperamentally inclined and logistically equipped to render the society they temporarily govern any fairer or more just than it was before they rode into power.

Still, the sleepers have awoken, and soon political leaders may have no other choice than to share the spotlight with them in the prime time of the world’s attention.

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All our spies have come in from the cold

The light of democracy is dimming

The light of democracy is dimming

Former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden’s suggestion that this country’s espionage establishment colluded, perhaps illegally, with its U.S. counterpart to spy on allied nations – in peace time, away from the mayhem of battle, during the G20 summit in Toronto – is troubling.

But no more than what appears to be a growing consensus of reaction in Canada, as we trip over the shards of our democracy to pat ourselves on the back for our newfound swagger: good, old guts and glory to the rescue.

“If it wasn’t for our laws, and police forces and military employed to enforce those laws, the world as we know it would implode on itself,” a letter writer to a recent edition of The Globe and Mail observes. “To be able to monitor and catch the bad guys, we have to know what they’re doing and thinking. Of course we are going to spy. The bad guys are spying on us.”

Against which, this corner of the peanut gallery offers no argument. Only a complete naif would suggest otherwise. The distressing bit comes in the next sentence: “The media should be praising Canada for allowing the U.S. to spy. How else can we keep the world sane and without violence?”

Once upon a time in this country and in others, polite company considered spying on one’s friends to be. . .well, impolite, especially if such surveillance was also explicitly illegal. (The Government of Canada, it should be noted, denies any of this sort of wrongdoing). The whole cloak-and-dagger business, while a necessary evil, wasn’t something about which to crow like a cockerel in heat.

We were proud of our diplomats who helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We were proud of our prime ministers, such as Lester Pearson who was instrumental in creating United Nation Peacekeeping. We were proud of our scientists, engineers, teachers, and environmentalists; of our clergy, philosophers and writers. From time to time, we were even proud of our politicians – those who were able to muster the courage to shatter the status quo in the interests of a more civil society.

We certainly weren’t proud of the means by which our clandestine operatives obtained the ends of their shadowy missions either abroad or at home.

Times, however, have changed. They have become more discernibly black and white, as the once vast grey zone of dialogue, discourse, negotiation and conciliation in politics has vanished as utterly as has the middle class in society.

Today, we we are forced to choose between good and evil, rich and poor, criminals and victims, strength and weakness, resistance and compliance, national pride and wobbly thinking in the loathsome salons of the liberal elite.

Today, in this country, loose, unapproved talk about defending the environment from the depredations of a careless commercial sector – once a splendid exercise in participatory democracy – is tantamount to treason, punishable by several lashes of a government official’s tongue.

The oil must flow as surely as the pipelines must be built. As for the safety and security of the communities through which we send our dirty crude, leave that to the men in charge. They know best.

Today, from this country, international affairs gets bundled and exported to the world as a byproduct of something called “economic diplomacy”.

Gone is the emphasis on poverty reduction, human rights, child welfare and disease control. Welcome a new, golden age of liberalized trade for Canadian companies seeking to plant their corporate staffs in emerging markets, including those of China and India, Russia and Brazil.

Through these adventurous small and medium-sized businesses, Canada will achieve the greatness it so richly deserves and could never hope to acquire under any other sort of government than one that truly understands the prideful heart that beats strong and true in the breast of all “real” Canadians – those who, let’s just say, do not vote for Hollywood-handsome, marijuana-smoking mop-tops.

In this fresh impression of the cosmos, Canada’s spy agencies are not cabals of itinerant villains; they are chambers of patriots and heroes, as long as the information they obtain about our “friends” continues to elevates the nation’s interest.

And, apparently, by any means necessary.

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Tinker, tailor, techie, spy

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Amidst the swirl of revelations this summer about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) prying eyes and ears, a quote stands out to neatly summarize the hoi polloi’s rising sense of panic and paranoia.

The NSA’s intelligence “capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

In the wrong hands, this might even “enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

This sounds like the sort of thing a civil liberties advocate, an apologist for the Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdons of the world, or even a Tea-Party Republican might utter in these nervous tween years of the 21st century. But the words aren’t theirs. They belong to a Democratic senator from Idaho by the name of Frank Church, who issued them in 1975 after he had concluded an investigation of the agency.

I came across them in a 2005 New York Times story whose author made his own observations about the NSA. “At the time (of Sen. Church’s scrutiny), the agency had the ability to listen to only what people said over the telephone or wrote in an occasional telegram; they had no access to private letters,” wrote James Bamford. “But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet, and chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency virtually has the ability to get inside a person’s mind. . .Originally created to spy on foreign adversaries. . .The NSA s original target had been the Communist bloc. . .(it) was never supposed to be turned inward.”

All of which proves, if nothing else, that people’s memories truly are short. Experts and activists have been broadcasting warnings about the NSA and other supposedly super-secret spy masters for decades. Apart from a few Internet-enabled advances in the field of information gathering, the abuses – or potential for abuses – they worried about then are the ones they worry about today. That’s because while technology may change, human nature does not.

Still, technology can stack the deck and up the ante. Somebody writing on wiki.answers.com once ruminated that the Internet might contain one yottabyte of data. That’s roughly 1,208,925,819,614,629,174,706,176 bytes of increasingly worthless chum and chatter. But unlike an old-school telegram or piece of reel-to-reel audio tape, it never decays, never goes away. It just sits there in mines located around the world waiting for some government-empowered slob to make some other slob’s life sheer hell.

Technology is also an irresistible force for mischief. The NSA, for example, is prohibited by law from spying on the UN. And yet, according to Reuters this week, “The (agency) has bugged the United Nations’ New York headquarters, Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly said on Sunday in a report on American spying that could further strain relations between Washington and its allies. . .Der Spiegel said the files showed how the United States systematically spied on other states and institutions. . .Der Spiegel said the European Union and the UN’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, were among those targeted by U.S. intelligence agents.”

History demonstrates time and again that the tools we craft to make our lives easier or more interesting inevitably lead many of us into some kind of moral turpitude. Privacy may be a basic right. But if it’s easy to curtail and no one gets hurt (that we know of), then what’s the harm?

About the only recourse we who do not belong to the ironically termed “intelligence community” have is to bang our drums loudly. Consider U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson who intends to introduce his “Mind Your Own Business Act” in short order. The legislation, part tongue-in-cheek and part serious, demands that “none of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2014 or any succeeding fiscal year may be used to collect any information generated by a citizen of the United States while located in the United States.”

He and his Bill may be doomed. But, at least, he’s not going quietly.

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