Edward Snowden, Cognitive Dissonance and Patio Umbrellas

Edward Snowden is an unusual fellow. He is a 29-year-old high school dropout who did not complete community college, yet he made more than $200,000 per year working for Booz Allen Hamilton, a major defense contractor. He has been employed by the Central Intelligence Agency and as an outside contractor for the National Security Agency. He has a Top Secret security clearance. Well, probably not anymore.

He “wanted to spark a national debate” and he stole and leaked an NSA PowerPoint presentation about gathering telephone and Internet records from pretty much everyone in America. He described it all in this video released by The Guardian on Sunday. Watch and see if he resembles other high school dropouts of your acquaintance.

He called himself “Verax,” roughly translated from Latin as truth teller. Snowden must be unusually well read for a high school dropout because the name Verax has been used at least twice before under similar circumstances. According to Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, who was not the lucky recipient of the information because he could not provide the assurances sought by Snowden, “I asked him early on, without reply, whether he intended to hint at the alternative fates that lay before him. Two British dissenters had used the pseudonym. Clement Walker, a 17th-century detractor of Parliament, died in the brutal confines of the Tower of London. Two centuries later, social critic Henry Dunckley adopted ‘Verax’ as his byline over weekly columns in the Manchester Examiner. He was showered with testimonials and an honorary degree.”

The challenge facing government officials, politicians, spin consultants, newspaper editors, Booz Allen executives and interest groups that depend on enraged contributors (to say nothing of clear thinkers who fit in none of those categories) is determining which of these fates should await the third Verax.

The convenient sheep flocks that can be reliably mobilized on one side of most questions or the other have been scattered. New sheep flocks must be assembled before reliable spinning can commence. Here are some of the potentially divisive issues and divisible groups.

Revolving Door. According to James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, “Anyone who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law.” Words to live by, but Clapper was a senior executive at Booz Allen Hamilton prior to taking his present position. The Director of National Intelligence under President George W. Bush was John McConnell who now heads Booz Allen Hamilton. In 2010, McConnell hyped the need for his company’s services on an episode of 60 Minutes. Security services of the sort provided by Snowden are a material part of Booz Allen’s business.

Trusting the Government. A CBS News/New York Times poll taken between May 31 and June 4 asked a sampling of adults in the United States, “how much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?” Here are the results:

Just about always 3%

Most of the time 17%

Only some of the time 70%

Never (volunteered response) 8%

According to the poll, almost 3 times as many people invented the “never” response as chose the “just about always” suggested by the pollster. If being trusted is important to you, this might not be good news.

Late-night talk show hosts quickly jumped on the bandwagon in their monologues.

Jay Leno: President Obama clarified the situation about the NSA collecting Verizon phone call data. He said no one is listening to your phone calls. The President said it’s not what the program is all about. You know, like the IRS is not about targeting certain political groups. That’s not what it’s about!

Jimmy Fallon: This is kind of cool. President Obama was visiting a middle school yesterday, and while he was there, he said every school in the US should have high-speed Internet. And then it got awkward when one kid said, “What, so you could read our emails faster?”

According to Jeremy Herb of The Hill “More than 20,000 people have signed a petition urging President Obama to pardon the man who revealed details about two classified National Security Agency (NSA) programs.” In the course of writing this article, the figure has risen to more than 27,000.

“The ‘Pardon Edward Snowden’ petition created on Sunday calls the former NSA employee and government contractor ‘a national hero’ who deserves a full pardon.”

“‘Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a [sic] a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs,’ the petition states.”

One wonders how much concern the petitioners have for their privacy if they are willingly giving their names and email addresses to the official White House “We the People” website.

Keeping Any Secrets At All. Five million people in this country have security clearances and 1.4 million of those are top-secret. Of the 5 million in total, 1/5 have been issued to private government contractors. Among those entrusted with top-secret information, 1/3 are in the private sector.

Unfortunately, in the world of secret keeping, anything less than a perfect record is actually not very good. Have you ever tried to get 5 million people to do the same thing? 1.4 million people? How about 14 people? Could secret keeping be a thing of the past?

Might it simply have made more sense for the President to say that the government was keeping track of calls and Internet activity [blah, blah, blah weasel words go here] without going into the secret details of how? From whom might this have been a secret? (See patio umbrellas below.)

Lefties. Those on the left of the political spectrum tend to have a higher tolerance for a “full figured” federal government. They are often responsive to the “it’s for your safety” arguments made by those whose paychecks depend on making you feel safe. On the other hand, they tend to like the little guy and dislike the big bully. Knee jerk defense of the President but “blame it on Bush” is a non-starter. Beware an outbreak of cognitive dissonance.

Righties. Those on the right of the political spectrum often worry about the intrusiveness of the federal government especially with respect to the rights of individuals, but they also tend to favor a “full figured” defense apparatus to keep enemies at bay. Heaping scorn on Obama is a doubtful plan since W had twice as many years to get the program as far as it is. By now, cognitive dissonance medication is no longer available at any drug counter.

Spinners. As always, it matters little to spinners whether an idea is good, only that it looks good. Or, better still, makes their client look good. That depends on how the sheep re-flock or how they can be made to re-flock. A heavy handed approach to a sympathetic whistleblower would look like a drone attack on a Pakistani wedding, while being more forgiving might enrage those who fear an opening of the whistleblower floodgates. The spinners might be happier if the NSA would redirect those powerful computers away from keeping track of phone calls and dirty emails and toward answering the far more important question of which way the public opinion wind is blowing.

Patio Umbrellas. Had you forgotten? A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a look at a few websites in search of a garden umbrella for the summer. There were too many options and we postponed the decision. Since then, every advertisement on every website we view is for patio umbrellas. Coincidence?

This might be the moment to provide a self-assessment of my general level of tech savvy-ness. If I were a motorist, I would be doing well in the age group category, but I would be in the middle lane driving about the speed limit in a four-door sedan. The blinker would only rarely be on. I would be incapable of designing, building or repairing the four-door sedan, but I would drive it reasonably capably as long as it was not a stick shift. My software designer son might differ with these conclusions.

The patio umbrella experience has confirmed for me that there wasn’t much privacy to begin with so how can this be much worse. Since there is nothing I can do about it, I take comfort in the idea that it will be a very full figured federal government indeed if they have enough people to read about me. If, as suggested by Moore’s Law, computing power doubles every two years, the prospects for Internet privacy don’t look very good.

There is a disquieting aspect of this analysis, however. Recently we did purchase a garden umbrella, yet the website advertisements continue. The purchase was made with a credit card, which one would have thought to be a useful signal to worldwide patio umbrella vendors to target their sales efforts elsewhere. Not so, suggesting the elaborate system may well be flawed.

Could our esteemed federal government goof up too?

Good luck to you Mr. Snowden. I doubt the coming months and years will be kind though perhaps you will enjoy the attention you sought.

Snowden expressed the “greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change.”

He expressed his concern that “this is something that is not our place to decide.”

He said, “It was more of a slow realization that presidents could openly lie to secure the office and then break promises without consequence.”

While these are fair points, I still wonder who was paying for his expensive Hong Kong hotel room.

 

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Haven Pell

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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5 comments

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  • As usual; quite good. Will miss you at BVA next week; best to Ms. Pell and the family on the occasion.

  • It’s always fun to see things from different perspectives, such as the rabbit in the hat regarding the budget negotiations.

    Some have suggested the creation of some over site agency, such as the Inspector General, for the NSA. I think our national security would suffer if we curtailed the metadata type tracking.

    Some worry that the NSA might start tracking mistresses, illicit love affairs, etc. as J. Edgar Hoover did, which he then used for political purposes. I don’t think a leader could get away with that today. Regarding tracking such things among the general public, I don’t think the NSA has the resources to track all infidelities, etc. in the US, or even the interest. There are just too many of them! Most of them have nothing to do with national security. Of course if you have a mistress that has foreign connections and you have access to sensitive information, that is something different.

    My ex boss worked for J. Edgar as a student intern. He said when J. Edgar used these files, they were put on a table in a room that was surveiled and whoever saw the files saw them on an “eyes only” basis.

    I’ve read that the secret service personnel who watched Kennedy in the white house could definitely tell the difference in his mood when he had an outside bed partner the night before and when he didn’t. The press kept that stuff under wraps. Too bad the press does not use the same discretion today.

    I don’t think Snowden served the best interests of the country. I’ll leave it that.

    Regarding the umbrella, someone told me 20 years ago that he looked up a diaper service on the internet and then for months afterward got peppered with popups advertising diaper services. It’s nothing new. Private companies harvest information from all sources. And they are creative on those sources. Trust me a bit on that one.

    It’s interesting that our focus is only on the government. Interestingly enough, the fourth amendment only applies to law enforcement.

    Stan Hatch

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comment Stan. Yesterday I heard General Michael Hayden (headed CIA and NSA) speak and I was blown away. Afterward, I thanked him for “making me feel really stupid.” He was taken aback until I said it was a reflection of how much he had taught me. The issues in question are extremely challenging.