Tuesday Reads: Dreaming a Life; Obama and Putin; NSA and SnowdenPosted: June 18, 2013
I’m going to begin with an article I came across yesterday while reading the Guardian. It’s about a story from 2006 that I remembered and sometimes think about–a woman whose skeletonized body was found in her apartment three years after she died.
On 25 January 2006, officials from a north London housing association repossessing a bedsit in Wood Green owing to rent arrears made a grim discovery. Lying on the sofa was the skeleton of a 38-year-old woman who had been dead for almost three years. In a corner of the room the television set was still on, tuned to BBC1, and a small pile of unopened Christmas presents lay on the floor. Washing up was heaped in the kitchen sink and a mountain of post lay behind the front door. Food in the refrigerator was marked with 2003 expiry dates. The dead woman’s body was so badly decomposed it could only be identified by comparing dental records with an old holiday photograph of her smiling. Her name was revealed to be Joyce Carol Vincent.
How could such a thing happen? So often we hear sad stories like this and never get any answers to our questions. In this case, filmmaker Carol Morley decided to find out who Joyce Carol Vincent was, and she has made a documentary about her quest called Dreams of a Life. She writes:
In a city such as London, home to 8 million people, how could someone’s absence go unnoticed for so long? Who was Joyce Vincent? What was she like? How could she have been forgotten?
News of Joyce’s death quickly made it into the global media, which registered shock at the lack of community spirit in the UK. The story ran on in the British press, but still no photograph of Joyce appeared and little personal information.
Soon Joyce dropped out of the news. I watched as people discussed her in internet chatrooms, wondering if she was an urban myth, or talking about her as though she never mattered, calling her a couch potato, and posting comments such as: “What’s really sad is no one noticed she was missing – must have been one miserable bitch.” And then even that kind of commentary vanished.
But I couldn’t let go. I didn’t want her to be forgotten. I decided I must make a film about her.
She began by placing advertisements in newspapers asking anyone who knew Joyce to come forward. It turned out that Joyce had lots of friends over the years. She had been engaged to be married before she died, and she had also spent some time in a battered women’s shelter. Eventually, Morley was able to talk to many people who had known Joyce. She describes her journey in the Guardian article. It’s an amazing story, and I hope you’ll go read the whole thing.
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President Obama met with Russian president Vladimir Putin yesterday, and really all you need to know about their discussion about Syria can be read in their faces in this photo from the meeting. But here’s a little more from Bloomberg: Obama Joins G-8 Allies Isolating Putin Over Assad.
President Barack Obama and European allies moved to further isolate Russian president Vladimir Putin for supporting the regime in Syria even as the leaders sought a way to push both sides in that nation’s civil war into talks.
“Of course, our opinions do not coincide, but all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria,” Putin said yesterday after meeting with Obama on the sidelines of a summit in Northern Ireland.
“We do have differing perspectives,” Obama said, adding that “we share an interest in reducing the violence.”
In a public split rare at global summits, some western leaders gathered for the Group of Eight industrial nations publicly rebuked Putin for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a bloody conflict that has killed more than 93,000 people. A British official, who asked not to be identified, called the event a clarifying moment in differences over Syria.
Not that Obama seems all that thrilled about what he has agreed to do–arming the “rebels” (whoever they are) in the war-torn country.
Even as the White House’s decision last week to send small arms to Syrian rebels deepened differences with Putin, Obama stressed “a careful, calibrated” approach to U.S. involvement in the conflict during an interview aired last night on PBS’s “The Charlie Rose Show.”
“It is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments,” Obama said, defending himself against critics who have urged more aggressive action such as imposing a no-fly zone or supplying heavy arms to the Syrian opposition. “Until Assad is defeated, in this view it’s never going to be enough, right?”
In the hour-long interview with Rose, Obama also discussed the NSA spying programs that have been so much in the news over the past couple of weeks. I couldn’t help thinking of Dick Nixon’s famous quote, “I am not a crook,” when I read this headline at Politico — President Obama: I’m not Dick Cheney. Obama told Rose:
“Some people say, ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney.’ Dick Cheney sometimes says, ‘Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel,’” the president told interviewer Charlie Rose in the exchange recorded Sunday, according to excerpts of the transcript published by BuzzFeed. “My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances?”
…[T]he president acknowledged that a program which collects massive amounts of data on telephone calls made in or through the U.S. could theoretically be used to invade individuals’ privacy, even potentially yielding conclusions about callers’ health conditions.
“All of that is true. Except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that, it would be illegal. We would not be allowed to do that,” the president said, according to a transcript. “The number of requests are surprisingly small. ….Folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.”
Obama’s explanation got rather Orwellian at one point, when he insisted that the checks and balances he discussed make the program “transparent,” even though everything is done in secret. From the AP via Yahoo News:
President Barack Obama defended top secret National Security Agency spying programs as legal in a lengthy interview Monday, and called them transparent — even though they are authorized in secret.
“It is transparent,” Obama told PBS’ Charlie Rose in an interview broadcast Monday. “That’s why we set up the FISA court,” he added, referring to the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes two recently disclosed programs: one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.
He added that he’s named representatives to a privacy and civil liberties oversight board to help in the debate over just how far government data gathering should be allowed to go — a discussion that is complicated by the secrecy surrounding the FISA court, with hearings held at undisclosed locations and with only government lawyers present. The orders that result are all highly classified.
“We’re going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place … that their phone calls aren’t being listened into; their text messages aren’t being monitored, their emails are not being read by some big brother somewhere,” Obama said.
That sounds like a good idea. It’s time for politicians in Washington to understand that we aren’t their children whom they need to “protect” from the ugliness of the world. They are supposed to be public servants after all. They work for us, and we need to keep reminding them of that fact.
If we get more transparency from the government, that might be one good result from the Edward Snowden debacle. I’m no longer isolated in my bad feelings about him. Plenty of liberals are growing more and more uncomfortable and or less impressed with the kinds of “revelations” he’s been making recently–many of them from before Obama was president. When Snowden first appeared, he claimed he was revealing criminal abuses of Americans’ privacy and violations of their civil liberties. But then he began talking about the U.S. and U.K spying on Russia and China (raise your hand if you’re stunned to learn that countries spy on each other), and his claims that the NSA can tap into the servers of large tech companies like Google at will fell apart.
One blogger who started out thinking Snowden was the real thing but then changed his mind is John Aravosis of Americablog:
Famed NSA leaker Edward Snowden almost had me convinced of his sincerity. Until today, when he releaseddamaging information about US spying on Russia’s former president, and offered up no explanation for how such revelations jibe with his earlier claims to be fighting for the American people.
You don’t go and help the Russians if your goal is fighting for the American people, unless you have a darn good reason, and Snowden has so far given none for today’s new leaks.
Now, some would ask, why discuss at all whether Snowden’s motives were genuine? His justification has no bearing on the shocking nature of the information Snowden released, particularly about the NSA’s PRISM program, and about the NSA forcing Verizon to turn over call information about its 121 million customers.
And that’s true. Those revelations stand on their own merits as to whether the NSA, and the Obama administration crossed a line….
The Guardian today published a number of new classified leaks that it got from Snowden. They included the news that the US had intercepted then- Russian President Medvedev’s communications during the G20 Summit in London back in 2009. That the British were intercepting communications from foreign delegates to that summit. And that the British were planning to eavesdrop on members of their Commonwealth at an upcoming summit of those nations.
It’s not clear what any of those have to do with Snowden’s earlier justifications for his leaks. They don’t have anything to do with the NSA director lying to Congress. They don’t have anything to do with the President not closing down Gitmo. And they have nothing to do with the dangers the surveillance state pose to the privacy of Americans. They weren’t spying on Americans in today’s stories, they were spying on Russian leaders and diplomats, among others foreign officials. So Snowden’s earlier justifications for the leaks don’t seem to apply. Then why did he do it?
Please read the rest at the link.
Dear Jesus, he’s quite the dramatic fellow, isn’t he?
The second question, from The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, read as follows: “How many sets of the documents you disclosed did you make, and how many different people have them? If anything happens to you, do they still exist?” Snowden stopped short of answering the question directly. “All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me,” he wrote. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.”
He also explained that he went to Hong Kong, and not directly to Iceland, because, if I’m reading this correctly, the U.S. was more likely to drop a drone on him in Reykjavik or something.
“There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained. Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration.”
Just shut up. Now. Every time you say stuff like this, you make it easier to marginalize you as a messenger, and you cost yourself allies in the general cause for which you have risked so much. Answer no more questions from Mr. Greenwald or anyone else. Huddle with your legal advisers. (Actually, this is very good advice.) The United States government is not interested in murdering you. If you have proof to the contrary, please provide it, and all answers containing the names “al-Alwaki” or “Rand Paul” will be immediately disallowed by our judges.
Here are a few more articles on the NSA spying controversy that I found helpful.
J.M. Berger at Foreign Policy on the math of mass surveillance.
Julian Sanchez at the CATO Institute on metadata collection
Tim Shorrock at the NYT on the use of outside contractors in U.S. intelligence
Bob Cesca on the CNet controversy: CNET Reporter Posts Wildly Inaccurate Yet Totally Viral ‘Bombshell’ About NSA Eavesdropping
Milt Shook: Snowden’s No Hero, Greenwald’s No Journalist
Brendan O’Neill: Let’s call a halt to the worship of whistleblowers