The Washington Post revelations on the so-called project Muscular show the NSA has collected data from hundreds of millions of individuals using Google and Yahoo as well as other major internet companies. In turn, Google and its employees have responded angrily. Given that Google takes great pride in its ability to automate key functions of its services, such personal reactions are expected. It would also be no surprise if an over reliance on automation helped prevent Google from catching the NSA in the act.
Considering the fact that a multitude of other major firms were unable to detect the NSA breach of security, it is understandable that Google did not detect the intrusion; however, Google is the one company users would expect to able to detect such intrusions. In many respects, Google fosters a culture of arrogance when it comes to its ability to automate and the sophistication of its products. Consequently, Google and the rest of the information technology community should use these revelations as a learning experience.
There are, at least, two major lessons to be learned. First, one should never assume a technology is imperious to an attack, ever. This means Google needs to approach issues with greater humility. Second, there is always someone looking to steal information. Quite frankly, the NSA is not the worst possible entity that could have hijacked this data; the NSA must, at least, answer somewhat to public outcry. Consequently, the NSA hacking is a serious problem that cannot be allowed to continue, but companies like Google must also play a more proactive role in preventing and detecting these types of intrusions.
You can treat a friendly wolf like a pet dog, but it will eventually rip your throat out. If you fail to comprehend and compensate for the nature of the beast, you are certain to get hurt. Since the Edward Snowden leaking of NSA secrets began, the world has been learning more and more about America’s top-secret organizations and their doings. Causing the most controversy is the agency’s massive effort to collect and store personal electronic data from all over the world, including inside the US. Meanwhile, the CIA has been making headlines once again with the use of its drone program. Although spying on potential terrorists and targeting known terrorists is thoroughly justified, the outrage stems from the targeting of innocent Americans and the citizens of our allied countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Organizations like the NSA and CIA are tasked with ensuring national security interests through the gathering and securing of information. Unfortunately, the need for secrecy makes these organizations a magnet for individuals who view national security as a national interest that must be pursued by any means necessary. Although the spokespersons of these organizations have learned over the last few years to express a need to balance national security with civil liberties, such as privacy rights, hardliners view rights more as privileges to be waived whenever national security interests are at stake.
Under this mode of thinking, any potential threat to US security is a valid reason to ignore someone’s civil liberties. Under such a perspective, the US Constitution has value, because it provides structure to society, i.e. people adhere to the Law when they feel it protects their rights and their lives. On the other hand, an individual sharing such a view does not necessarily see the broader value of the principles behind the Constitution, thus they believe their conduct out of US Law does not have to adhere to the values set forth in the US Constitution. In other words, hardliners in the NSA and CIA do not view civil liberties as their concern whenever they are operating outside of the jurisdiction of the US Constitution.
It might be said that hardliners within the NSA and CIA continue to operate under well-entrenched Cold War thinking. On the other hand, it is probably more correct to say hardliners used the Cold War to entrench themselves into organizations like the NSA and CIA then expanded their ability to operate freely by taking advantage of events like the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. In essence, the singular motivation of these individuals is to suppress any potential threat to our national security and secure the power to do that. This can make them very effective protectors; however, it also makes them very dangerous.
The United States of America was founded less as a Nation of borders and more as a set of principles based on the idea that all People should be free of government oppression and enjoy the same basic freedoms. When hardliners ignore the civil liberties of US Citizens to monitor for potential threats, which is largely what our spies are doing outside of a relatively few cases where they actually do avert terrorist attacks, these government employees are undermining the US Constitution and the principles our Country was founded on. When they dismiss the civil liberties of foreign citizens, they also undermine the American value system we have been trying to outsource for over the last hundred years. This means organizations like the CIA and the NSA are ignoring our broader national interests, which depend greatly upon an International Community built on cooperative partnerships.
In practice, the Cold War ear was a time when it was more acceptable to spy on everyone, but the current era demands partnerships build on trust and respect that can be used to address global issues like globalized terrorism. Therefore, it is one thing to try to identify targets with links to terrorists groups; it is another to target the leaders and vast numbers of random citizens of our allies. Truthfully, the leaders of other nations probably did, or should have, expected the US of spying on them; however, I am certain no wants us to do that and this incident gives them the political leverage needed to curtail the spying. Meanwhile, it is also important to recognize the world is shifting away from an American centered global community where we dictate the global agenda, thus we must step carefully if we wish to avoid frightening our global partners into running away from us. Hypocrisy may be the privilege of the powerful, but that does not mean it is a good idea to exercise that privilege. After all, the world is realizing it can gang up against us without worrying too much about an even worse Russian or Chinese threat.
That said, the real challenge is suppressing the hardliner influence in our super secret spy organizations. Aside from seeking legal justification for completely ignoring the human and civil rights of anyone they suspect to be a threat, hardliners do not seem to be answerable to the Executive Branch, which is understandable given their nature and the nature of the bureaucracy overseeing their operations. Politically, Democrats will not take on our national security apparatus, because doing so makes them look weak, while Republicans will not because they have little to gain by doing so. As such, meaningful reforms to Congressional and Executive oversight of these organizations need to be put in place as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, the best option at this point for wrangling in our spies is to create official private and public channels for insiders to anonymously, securely, and responsibly submit material for review. People like Edward Snowden and Former CIA Agent John Kiriakou, who was targeted for publicly criticizing the Agency and prosecuted based on an uneven application of the Espionage Act in violation of his Equal Protection rights under the Fourteen Amendment for a simple mistake, are the only effective tool we when it comes to oversight of organizations like the NSA and CIA . Quite frankly, these individuals and others are the only means of stopping the larger problems at the NSA and CIA at this time, yet we are prosecuting them instead of helping them leak information in a more responsible manner.
On Thursday, October 24th, 2014, President Obama felt it necessary to hold a press briefing on his renewed push for immigration reform. A more pessimistic interpretation would be that the President is trying to divert attention away from the critical faults in the new Obamacare Marketplace website. A more optimistic interpretation would be that the President is trying to get someone done. Either way, President Obama’s main focus should be on fiscal issues, not a major immigration reform initiative. Despite what the President said in his news conference, the government shutdown and default threats are not behind us. The doomsday threat has simply been delayed by a few months. This means there are only a few months to draft, debate, and pass a bipartisan Budget, debt ceiling increase with a Debt reduction plan of some sort, and potential tax reform legislation.
Clearly, our Nation cannot simply pay attention to one set of issues at a time; however, issues like immigration reform are best addressed at this time as secondary issues that can be passed along the way or after the heaviest lifting is done. As such, the President of the United States should not be giving a press conference at this point on an effort that diverts attention away from what should be our main focus. Instead of the President elevating the immigration reform issue in such a public manner, he should have delegated the task until he was certain the House was on the verge of a vote that would result in the passage of the stalled Senate plan, or another. That said, it seems House Speaker Boehner might be willing to accept the current legislative effort while the votes might actually be there, thus this effort could be a confidence building exercise.
What President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Leader Harry Reid cannot do is allow immigration reform to become the main issue our government is trying to solve at this time. While the Right and the Press are doing the American People a disservice by diverting our main focus back onto Obamacare, their efforts, at the very least, highlight emerging issues that need addressed immediately, before they cause harm to a large portion of the American People. Healthcare.gov needs fixed, along with other Obamacare related issues, but the excess attention will do very little to accelerate the mending of the website while further legislative reform efforts will only drive division. (The day’s House hearing on the Marketplace website should have been held after fixes have been completed as House hearings are essentially fact-finding commissions, thus they are mainly useful when trying to undertake future endeavors).
Moreover, President Obama has done himself a disservice by pushing immigration reform in the manner he did, because it reinforces the impression that the President is unresponsive to the shortcomings of Obamacare and out-of-touch with what the County needs.
The Press helps distract America
The one-week anniversary of the near Default and the end of the Federal government shutdown has arrived, but it seems professional media outlets and commentators, especially the more conservative ones, have redoubled their efforts to bash Obamacare into the ground through unrelenting criticism. The opponents of the Affordable Care Act and the Obama Administration are positively thrilled by every news story that highlights the problems associated with healthcare.gov, as await another opportunity to further undermine the efforts of the President. Quite frankly, this is the reason people hate politics. Politics is supposed to be about recognizing and addressing the interests of a People, not gleefully cheering for the failure of someone who is trying to deal with a serious national issue and needs help address the hurdles that come with such endeavors.
Criticism is useful when it helps drive improvement. It is, however, harmful when it is used to undermine the efforts of others. At their best, so-called Conservatives are using the failings of the Obamacare website to push their ideological agenda for our long-standing healthcare issues, even though the vast majority of their solutions have already been eliminated as being even more faulted, have been integrated into the Affordable Care Act, or cannot be considered because the GOP will not seek honest reform efforts and the Democrats fear they are Trojan Horses. At their worst, those on the Right are simply using the faults of the Marketplace website to stir up support, so they can be win elections and force their political agenda onto the majority of the American People.
Furthermore, the professional media outlets need to stop reinforcing this type of political infighting. Instead of trying to help inform viewers of solutions and encourage our political leaders to work to solve problems, the headlines focus on what the government is doing wrong without an effort to highlight efforts to solve the problems. There is too much negative spin instead of positive spin when it comes to criticism. Looking at the present example, there is little the intensifying coverage of the Obamacare website debacle does that could help improve the situation; the problems with the website must be worked out over the next few weeks and continually calling it a disaster does nothing to help.
The only thing valuable that might come of this coverage would require a broader focus on how our contractors continually fail to deliver on goods and services. In the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, there were massive failings on behalf of contractors that cost the American People hundreds of billions of dollars. While this upset the American People and Congressional leaders, it received far too little, far too temporary coverage. Healthcare.gov just happens to be a website that a huge chunk of the American People need or want to use; otherwise, the controversy would quickly die out with only spotty media coverage at best.
Meanwhile, the Press should help focus the attention of the American People and our elected officials onto the National Budget and the National Debt. We need to discuss options like those outlined in the Gang of Six compromise and the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s report. Given the ADD of our Legislators, Obamacare is clearly taking over the conversations and the polarizing nature of the ongoing battle is certain to undermine Budget negotiations. The News once informed the populous and fostered civil discourse, but it has become far too much about entertainment. Obamacare may provide the drama the professional media outlets need to hold the attention of viewers, but focusing too much effort on such a narrow topic when the world is filled with critical issues, especially when the reporting and commenting offers no solutions, is driving bad politics.
Last Friday, October 18th, 2013, Saudi Arabia refused its seat on the UN Security Council as an apparent form of protest against the UN and the US for the International Community’s failure to adequately address the Syrian Civil War. Most analysts seem to believe America’s unwillingness to take unilateral military action in Syria, our support of the democratic process in Egypt, specifically when it happened to yield a Muslim Brotherhood President, reductions in Egyptian military aid, our willingness to speak with Iran, renewed controversy over the CIA drone program, and so on, inspired this unexpected gesture.
We live in a multiple polar world where regional powers must emerge to address regional issues and world powers share the main stage instead of one or two superpowers shaping world affairs, thus it is not necessarily a bad thing for Saudi Arabia to distance itself from the US. Healthy relationships are built on the ability of partners to seek their own interests while working to address each others’ mutual interests. As the United States has long been the world’s superpower, it is easy for a nation like Saudi Arabia to be overshadowed by America’s will. Meanwhile, the United States has a tendency of trying to display a unified front, thus American interests, as well as relationships, have been thoroughly neglected at times when our partners split from what should be our position. Henceforth, a little distance between the US and Saudi Arabia, even in terms of military dependency, gives the two longstanding allies a chance to recalibrate their stances in a world that is constantly in flux and varying interests take priority. Just as the US seeks energy independence and democratic interests, even when it goes against the interests of the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia has legitimate reasons to seek military and diplomatic independence.
That said, there is a danger in how Saudi Arabia distances itself from the American People. There is a tendency of Middle Eastern governments to demonize the United States in order to channel civil discontent inspired by their failings toward the ill-will their People often hold against America. If the head of OPEC simply goes on an anti-American campaign, it will undermine our relationships in the Middle East, especially considering the frustrations the American People feel toward the world that looks to us to solve problems. It will also make future American interventions and investments in the Middle East far more difficult as increased anti-Americanism creates resistance and conflict. Above all, it will certainly divert attention away from problem solving toward problem creation.
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