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August 17, 2013 3:18 PM NSA “Nothing to see here, people” types thoroughly embarrassed again

By Samuel Knight

Remember when Jeffrey Toobin ho-hummed over Edward Snowden’s disclosures, and called him a “grandiose narcissist”?

What, one wonders, did Snowden think the N.S.A. did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn’t been paying very close attention.

What utter nonsense — transparent discourse policing. As if a cable news pundit calling anyone a narcissist wasn’t absurd enough, Toobin seems to think that the state of democracy is fine devoid of some pretty significant information. That the mere knowledge of secret surveillance programs, secret courts, secret legal interpretations, and secret legal opinions (even ones that reportedly find the NSA to be engaged in unconstitutional behavior) should be enough for Americans — one needn’t know the details. “Nothing to see here, people.” The problem with this painfully incurious and profoundly anti-journalistic outlook is that one cannot actually attempt to hold the government - or any self-interested defensive institution - accountable without information. As either a constituent, a journalist, or any other stakeholder, try grilling an official about suspected government practices without any actual knowledge or evidence. See how that goes.

Fortunately, common sense is winning. There definitely isn’t “nothing to see here.” Just as public opinion on the war in Afghanistan soured not long after WikiLeaks’ Afghan War Logs and the late great Michael Hastings’ profile of Gen. McChrystal were published in the summer of 2010, public opinion is turning against this dragnet surveillance, which our leaders see as an indispensable component of an eternal war. The results of a Washington Post-ABC News poll published yesterday found that almost 6 in 10 respondents — Democrats and Republicans alike — believe the government can’t justify its privacy intrusions. A few weeks after Snowden’s first disclosure, a separate inquiry by the news organizations found that concerns for privacy were at “the highest point in any Post-ABC News poll dating back to summer 2002.” It’s little wonder this is the case, given the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers, Holder v. Humanitarian Law, the case against WikiLeaks, and the feds’ reaction to the Occupy Movement (to say nothing of all the imagined persecutions of the Tea Party).

And earlier today, Virginia Republican and NSA critic Morgan Griffith said a recent House vote to starve funding for the agency’s fishing expedition surveillance would have passed instead of being narrowly defeated, had the Washington Post’s most recent revelation come to light ex ante facto.

“We only needed seven votes to switch and I think there were at least seven, probably more like 20-30, who had their concerns about the program but were prepared to give the intelligence agencies the benefit of the doubt,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican, told The Washington Times after the NSA rules violations came to light.
The House in late July voted 217-205 to defeat an amendment that would have cut funds for domestic data gathering by the NSA except where based on individualized suspicion.
“We were being told there were ‘some’ errors, like a few,” Mr. Griffith said, referring to sworn congressional testimony about the domestic programs from senior intelligence, FBI and Justice Department officials. “They gave everyone the impression these [errors] were very rare. If [my colleagues] had realized how many [violations of privacy protection or legal rules] there were, I think more than seven of them would have switched.”
On Thursday night The Washington Post published another set of data it said it was given earlier in the summer from Mr. Snowden, which revealed that in the 12 months prior to May 2012, there were 2,776 incidents of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected data or communications — typically those between Americans or foreigners legally in the United States.

New information causes people to change their mind. Who knew? Perhaps Toobin and his colleagues in the “Nothing to See Here” crowd may have just been projecting their own ornery stubbornness in light of the revelations.

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.

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