Moscow On The Potomac


Or, To Russia With Love

It’s been hard for me to really feel much outrage about the data-gathering and surveillance programs brought to light by Edward Snowden, the NSA-contracted intelligence analyst-turned-international fugitive recently granted a year’s asylum in Russia — probably because, like everyone who ever had this conversation on the phone…

“…yeah, so, do you still have that book about, ah, Sacajawea…? Could I stop by later and get that from you? It’s just, ’cause I have this paper due… on the EIGHTH…”

..I’ve always operated under the assumption that these things were at least maybe already happening.

As I understand it (and it’s entirely possible that I have this wrong), the PRISM data-collection program that Snowden exposed gathers and stores metadata from telecom companies — who called who, how long they talked, and when — but that it’s such a massive amount of information that it can only be practically useful in hindsight. As in, “Looks like Arturo was behind this bombing. So let’s tap his phone going forward, and while we’re at it, pull up his records for the last six weeks and lets see if we can figure out who helped him.” That doesn’t really bother me.

And, let’s face it: thanks to social media, privacy is quickly going out of style:

But you know why I really don’t care about the government listening to my phone calls? Because I hardly ever make any. My phone rings maybe once a week, tops, and it’s always my wife with some kind of parenting or housekeeping issue. Does anyone actually talk on the phone anymore? It’s gotten ridiculous how people prefer to spend an hour sending 15 text messages back and forth when a two-minute phone conversation would accomplish the same thing.

ANYWAY, none of this has really bothered me much, or been very surprising — until recently.

Yesterday’s story about the Boston couple who got a visit from an armed “joint terrorism task force” after the wife Google-searched pressure cookers and the husband shopped online for a backpack in roughly the same time period is a little more chilling, though — people’s homes being searched and being subjected to lengthy interviews based on innocent searches for what, until a couple of months ago, were innocuous items is true Orwell territory.

That story went viral the same day that Russia, after months of dithering, decided to give Snowden a year’s asylum, shielding him from the U.S.’ ardor to prosecute him for revealing the existence of PRISM and XKeyscore, another covert surveillance program which is apparently tracking everyone’s movements online.

I don’t really have a position on whether Snowden is a traitor or needs to be prosecuted — obviously, under the letter of the law he revealed government secrets (although there is a far too facile argument to be made there that what’s good for the goose ought to good for the gander) and is subject to punishment. But it’s not clear to me how what he did endangers U.S. interests. Are terrorists and other evildoers now going to stay away from any mode of communication other than face-to-face contact and/or carrier pigeon? Once again, I’d be shocked if they weren’t doing that long before anyone ever heard of Edward Snowden. But, it’s entirely possible that (as is too often the case) I have no idea what I’m talking about — as I said, I haven’t followed this story all that closely because so far its BIG SHOCKING REVELATIONS have been so completely unsurprising.

But, imagine a movie about a guy who’s hiding out in another country because his increasingly invasive government considers him a threat, even though his actions are being applauded by civil libertarians the world over. His home country is desperate to bring him back and put him on trial, but presumably not before keeping him in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for several years — the punishment it’s put to others for similar crimes. But, the country where he’s hiding rides to his rescue and grants him asylum, so he can continue to expose his home country’s ever-broadening surveillance tactics (most likely with the aid of a comely local girl he meets in the second act).

Am I nuts, or does this sound like a movie Hollywood would have made in like 1982, only the hero — we can agree that the fugitive would be the hero of the movie, right — would be Russian and hiding in America from the KGB?

This is not to suggest that Russia and the U.S. have changed places, like Russia is somehow now the more transparent, libertarian nation. That is clearly not the case, Russia’s horrible. I’m just saying, in 1982 the idea that a fugitive civil libertarian would feel the safest place for him was RUSSIA (!!!!), or that America’s statement of moral high ground on civil liberties would one day be “We’re still not as bad as Russia” would be the stuff of a pulp sci-fi movie, and seeing it happen now throws the direction we’re headed into sharp relief– which is ironically not much relief at all.

For real though, can I get those books about Sacajawea?

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