An Israeli 'Big Brother' as Seen Through the PRISM of Mass Surveillance

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Ever since Glenn Greenwald’s big scoop in the Guardian about massive NSA surveillance of phone logs, I have been waiting for shock, dismay and then outrage to kick in. But I’m beginning to realize that it’s just not going to happen.

I am more shocked, truth be told, by the shock expressed by others, more dismayed by the dismay of many of my colleagues, more surprised by the outrage pouring in from all over.

And if I had to sum up my own “outside observer” reaction to the reports of an American “Big Brother” following one’s every move, it would be lifted from one of my favorite columns in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (since cited by Politico): meh. So, what else is new?

Perhaps it’s because I am an Israeli: “indoctrinated”, as one columnist put it, to seeing security considerations as a sacred cow, spying establishments as supreme beings, state secrets as strictly shoo-shoo (hush-hush in Hebrew) and constitutionally-guaranteed-individual-rights as nothing more than namby-pamby pipe dreams.

Possibly I am also suffering from the kind of creeping conservatism that comes with advancing age and imminent dementia. Judging by the yardstick of that famous quote falsely attributed to Winston Churchill – if you’re not a liberal at 25 there’s something wrong with your heart but if you’re not a conservative by 35 there’s something wrong with your head – I may just be a (ridiculously) late bloomer.

Don’t get me wrong: I was as incensed as anyone, both personally and professionally, by the heavy-handed Department of Justice seizure of phone records and emails of Associated Press reporters and the even more outrageous labeling of Fox’s James Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator for having published a (rather innocuous) CIA assessment of North Korea’s nuclear designs. In both cases, the purported harm to national security did not cross the threshold that justified such a heavy handed trampling of journalistic freedom.

But while I recognize – and even envy - the journalistic merits of the two scoops achieved by the Guardian and the Washington Post about data mining of phone calls and emails - I fail to understand what the fuss is about. Or rather, I suspect that I do understand what the fuss is about, and, partially at least, that is exactly what I find so disturbing.

Like many other Israelis that I’ve spoken to, I was not surprised one bit that the NSA was monitoring millions of phone calls and email exchanges, looking for patterns, seeking out trigger words, trying to detect sinister designs before they start to unfold. That, I have always assumed, was the whole point of spending so many billions of dollars on top-secret installations, mega supercomputers, hyper-advanced algorithms and the best crypto-decoders in the business.

On the assumption that there is no misuse or abuse of these operations, this is what you would expect the NSA to do, especially after 9/11.

But now, it is claimed, there is no more justification for a massive effort such as the alleged PRISM scheme; Al-Qaida has been decimated, as the Administration itself asserts, and no serious terror plot has been carried out on U.S. soil in over 12 years. There is no “clear and present danger” that justifies a massive invasion of Americans’ right to privacy.

Well, good luck with that, most Israelis would respond, though they may be projecting their own perpetual “state of emergency” rather than objectively assessing America’s.

For some reason, it is hard for us Middle Easterners to accept the premise that Al-Qaida or its malevolent wannabes around the globe have given up on trying to recreate their hour of glory when a well-coordinated terror attack humiliated America and almost brought it to its knees.

It would be a diabolically dialectical and ironic twist of history if the massive anti-terror efforts instituted after 9/11 would become a victim of their own success - if the relative security that they have achieved would lull Americans into believing that they are no longer necessary.

One can safely assume, after all, that if 30 or 300 people had been killed in the Boston Marathon bombing in March, or if the Tsarnaev brothers had been directly linked to Al-Qaida, this whole debate would not be occurring now. The Guardian’s big scoop would have been buried under the banner headlines calling for tighter security measures, people’s privacy be damned.

It’s also not clear to me how it is all right for mega credit card conglomerates or Internet behemoths such as Facebook or Google to follow, record, analyze, memorize and then sell every click you make on your computer for crass commercial reasons, but when the U.S. government does far less for reasons that no one has yet to show are meant for anything but your own protection – it turns into the biggest scandal to ever hit anyone, anywhere, anytime.

And while politics often make strange bedfellows, the coalition that is howling against the spying outrages is truly a bizarre sight to behold. You have true protectors of the right to privacy and genuine guardians of the bill of rights, all of whom are honorable and admirable men (and women) - mixing with people who can hardly conceal their disdain for anything American and who believe that in response to terror, the Federal government should just roll over and play dead.

Then you’ve got protesters from the other end of the political spectrum who trust no government and want to dismantle it no matter what, cheered on, in a truly macabre twist, by the real targets of the surveillance programs. “News of Surveillance Draws Anger of Activists and Militants Abroad”, the New York Times reported on Saturday, with one “tribal commander” describing monitored Internet discussions as “Zionist creations to pave the way for a new world order and to keep an eye on people around the world.” And just when we were sure we’d gotten away with it.

So, at the risk of being disowned by the leftist-liberal milieu that I like to consider myself a part of, I am going to sit this one out. It’s one thing to claim that the NSA’s far reaching surveillance and monitoring programs require greater civilian supervision, Congressional oversight, judicial review or even significant restraint.

But it’s quite another to stipulate that the time has come to relegate America’s national security to the back burner, to place the right to privacy on an unassailable pedestal and to deduce that NSA should not be engaged in “metadata mining”, as the catchphrase now goes, and that it should restrict itself – to what? Attaching copper wires to the switchboard at SMERSH headquarters? Deciphering Ilya Kuriyakin’s coded notes? Listening in on Nicholas Brody’s conversations with the ghost of Abu Nazir?

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev 

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the NSA, and U.S. President Barack Obama are printed on Hong Kong newspapers in this illustrative photo June 11, 2013.Credit: Reuters
The top secret PowerPoint presentation on PRISM prepared for NSA analysts.Credit: Haaretz

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