Friday, August 23, 2013

Jeffrey Toobin Went to Harvard!

I see Jeffrey Toobin on T.V. sometimes, but I don't think I've ever read his stuff in print.  He looks smart, but I'm starting to think he isn't really all that smart.  He's been doubling down on the confusing notion that whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden, do more harm than good and should go to prison even if they spark debates that are good, important or whatever.  His attempts to justify his position are kind of embarrassing.

In this column here, he leads with, LEADS WITH, this gem:
The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy led directly to the passage of a historic law, the Gun Control Act of 1968. Does that change your view of the assassinations? Should we be grateful for the deaths of these two men? 

Of course not. That’s lunatic logic. But the same reasoning is now being applied to the actions of Edward Snowden. Yes, the thinking goes, Snowden may have violated the law, but the outcome has been so worthwhile.
THAT'S lunatic logic.   It was the act of murdering MLK and RFK that upset people and led to new laws.  Snowden revealed information about wrongdoing, and it was the wrongdoing he revealed that has upset so many people, not the act of revealing the information.  If the CIA had poisoned MLK, Snowden would be the equivalent of the insider who revealed the plot, not the poisoner.  Snowden did a service by revealing information and, now that we are aware of what he uncovered, we are demanding change.

It's not surprising that Toobin gets this wrong, though.  If you believe what Snowden did is so very wrong, you might connect it to other very wrong acts, like, say, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  Toobin seems to acknowledge that there is some benefit to having this debate about surveillance, but it is greatly outweighed, he thinks, by the bad stuff.

Like what?
What if Snowden’s wrong? What if there is no pervasive illegality in the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs?
I don't think that illegality is Snowden's main reason for doing what he's doing.  The point is that what the U.S. is doing is wrong and even shocking.  That's why people are upset - even people in Congress.  If we're appalled about the powers the NSA has and how much data they've been collecting, but it is all technically legal, then maybe the law should be changed and reforms are in order.  Yeah, sometimes that happens.  It was the basis of Toobin's problematic analogy at the beginning of his article - something bad happens or is revealed and we demand changes to the law.  I think there are plenty of people who argue that there has been illegality, even pervasive illegality, revealed by Snowden, including one of the architects of the Patriot Act; but even if not technically illegal, that would not negate the significant importance of Snowden's revelations.
What are the actual dollar costs of Snowden’s disclosures?
You see, now the government is going to have to spend billions of dollars to rework its surveillance programs, maybe coming up with even more shocking and invasive programs that we'll never know about unless someone like Snowden comes along.  But anyway, that's a hell of a lot of money.

Well why shouldn't we know that the government is reading our emails, or at least has the power to?  If knowing that kind of information causes the government to spend billions to change things up, then that's the government's problem.  As taxpayers, we should demand that they act transparently - that would be a hell of a lot cheaper.  

Surveillance may be necessary but we ought to know the powers the government has and the scope of that surveillance (which is all that has really been revealed).  No one has published the phone numbers of those being monitored, and no one has revealed the details of an active plot that the government is about to bust.
What did China and Russia learn about American surveillance operations from Snowden—and what will they do with this information?
Surely they tried to snoop, even if Snowden didn't turn anything over to them knowingly, so can you imagine what those evil empires might do with such sensitive information?!

He then goes on to wonder, ominously, if there might be consequences for the dissidents and political prisoners in those countries because of Snowden's information.  Yes, one wonders how they might deal with their own "enemy combatants" or their own Bradley Mannings.  Maybe lock them up for years without a trial or something crazy like that.

But come on.  China and Russia?  Since when did they join the "Axis of Evil"?  Both countries have plenty of human rights problems, but last I heard we were doing lots and lots of business with both.  And, as I allude to above, the U.S. has plenty of human rights problems of its own: we incarcerate more of our population than either China or Russia, we have Guantanamo Bay, political prisoners, we occupy other countries, we (I mean our leaders in Washington) are responsible for the deaths of (conservatively) hundreds of thousands of innocent people over just the past dozen years (probably a million +) - in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  And, oh right, we have a government that spies on its own citizens and collects voluminous amounts of information about us that we assume to be private.  

But this is a nice way for Toobin to set this up - harkening back to the fears of decades ago, perhaps appealing to senior citizens who vote Republican: the U.S. = good; Russia/China = evil; Snowden hurt the good U.S. and may have helped the evil Communists.  Sure, if he had traveled through most other countries he would probably be facing the same fate as Bradley Manning, or worse, perhaps he would have been taken out with a drone by now.  But, but...Russia, China, billions of dollars, and all to uncover completely legal activities!

This is a huge stretch, particularly for someone who plays in the world of liberty and journalism.  But this is a big deal and people don't like what they've learned.  So, people like Toobin have to rationalize, demonize, and defend.  Sad, because he looks like such a smart guy.