Snowden, the NSA, Heroism and China

Everyone seems to have a post up today about whether Edward Snowden, the high-school dropout who became a contractor for the NSA and leaked a copious amount of secret data this week, is a saint or sinner. I say we still can’t say for sure, but, knowing it will cost me some friends, I lean toward the latter. But before I explain why I am suspicious and wary of Snowden, let me say that I’ve found the whole dust-up in the media the past few days to be somewhat head-scratching. I mean, how many of us really had no idea the NSA was chronicling our online and telecom data? That’s what they are there for, for better or worse — to accumulate vast amounts of data and comb through it. Do I like that? No, and it opens the door to abuse. But did America sign off on it and give it its blessing? Of course we did. It’s all permitted under the vile Patriot Act, it’s all legal. Watch movies like the 1998 Enemy of the State or the Jason Bourne series or read Ron Suskind’s books like The One Percent Solution and it’s all spelled out, it is no secret: the NSA knows everything you’re saying, emailing, surfing, etc. How can anyone actually be surprised? Americans went hysterical after 911 and accepted — no, celebrated — a new lack of privacy. I remember the polls that came out after Bush decided to circumvent the FISA court and allow authorities to listen in on any phone conversations. The overwhelming number of Americans were in favor of it. Bush said, “If someone’s calling Al Qaeda I want to know about it,” and the public lapped it up. We accepted it. Today’s NSA and all its power to watch over us is a product of our own making.

Let me make another point before I get to Snowden. One of the most appallingly irresponsible acts performed by the media as this story broke was the Washington Post’s reporting that the big Internet companies like Google and Facebook had agreed to give the NSA “direct access” to their servers, allowing them to pore over the personal data of millions of users. Only problem was that it was false — soon the WaPo backpedaled on the story and took back the line about “direct access.” You can read all about this bad journalism here — one of the best analysis of how the media screwed up this story. Snip:

Has our collective attention span become so ridiculously short that we’re suddenly shocked by news of the NSA attaining data about Americans as a means of fighting evildoers? Has everyone been asleep for the last 12 years?

To summarize, yes, the NSA routinely requests information from the tech giants. But the NSA doesn’t have “direct access” to servers nor is it randomly collecting information about you personally. Yet rending of garments and general apoplexy has ruled the day, complete with predictable invective about the president being “worse than Bush” and that anyone who reported on the new information debunking the initial report was and is an Obamabot apologist.

Speaking for myself on that front, I’m not apologizing for anyone. I’m merely noting that Greenwald and the Washington Post reported inaccurate information.

The Daily Beast adds:

But even in the past few days, some aspects of the program originally reported as terrifying and incontrovertible fact have changed. For instance, the Post claimed that the NSA was “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies” with the express consent of the companies involved. The Guardian made similar claims. But as one intelligence source told CNET, the program is “not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian. None of it’s true. It’s a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do.” The Post updated its story, no longer claiming that major tech companies such as Google and Facebook provided the NSA with direct access to their servers. As tech journalist Ed Bott wrote, “Almost no one who reacted to the story initially did so with any skepticism about the Post’s sources or its conclusions.”

This was one of the worst rushes to judgment I’d ever seen. The rush to canonize Snowden by the likes of Ron Paul, Glenn Beck and, of course, Glenn Greenwald and others on both the left and right seems to me altogether misguided. I urge you all to see Jeffrey Toobin’s piece in The New Yorker, maybe the most sensible piece I’ve seen on Snowden yet.

[S]ome, including my colleague John Cassidy, are hailing him as a hero and a whistle-blower. He is neither. He is, rather, a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison….And what of his decision to leak the documents? Doing so was, as he more or less acknowledges, a crime. Any government employee or contractor is warned repeatedly that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime. But Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling. “When you see everything you realize that some of these things are abusive,” he said. “The awareness of wrongdoing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up. It was a natural process.” These were legally authorized programs; in the case of Verizon Business’s phone records, Snowden certainly knew this, because he leaked the very court order that approved the continuation of the project. So he wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety. The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done.

So, finally, how is this all being received over in China? I predicted in an earlier thread that the story would have little to no resonance there, and so far that seems to be the case. From the Atlantic:

And if you head over to Xinhua, a state-run paper, you’ll notice that there’s no mention of Snowden in the top 10 stories on the site’s front page. There’s not even really a Xinhua report to be had on Snowden — there’s something on the NSA as a “spy agency” categorized as a video report. In that category, which isn’t advertised on Xinhua’s front page, it’s at least the top story (pictured at right). Whether that’s a conscious news/propaganda decision to order to avoid sparking a conversation that might come back to China — well, it’s hard to tell, and it’s still a bit early in the news cycle. But remember this is the United States and digital intelligence and, the Chinese government has accused the U.S. of hacking its sites, and this Snowden thing is the biggest hacking leak story in U.S. history, apparently, so you’d think China’s papers wouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to make this a bigger deal.

The hand-wringing will continue and self-righteous blowhards like Greenwald (who I used to love and used to link to until he became so cloyingly moralistic) will continue to leak out more bad stories about the NSA — he’s already promised, “More to come!” — and Snowden will continue to be consecrated by the likes of Michael Moore and Ron Paul, but I say let’s take a step back and look at what he’s really all about, and whether this was an act of selfless defiance of an evil authority or an act of narcissism, and a criminal one at that. I mean, as much as I may sympathize with the message that the NSA has too much power and control, we remain a nation of laws, and should every contractor who has agreed to keep the data they deal with confidential split his gut and reveal the nation’s secrets? I’m a big supporter of Daniel Ellsberg and believed what he did was a pure act of conscience, and whose revelations — and this is important — caused no harm to anyone but instead awakened the nation to the bright shining lie that was Vietnam. I don’t put Snowden in that category. He is relishing the publicity, and has done no one any service except those who want to see America in turmoil.

Update: My former nemesis Charles Johnson is doing a remarkable job chronicling this story and revealing how shaky Snowden’s foundation is. Just keep scrolling.

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Back in the motherland

I arrived in Beijing last night and will be in China for 17 days, if anyone wants to gt together. The itinerary will be Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. If my VPN keeps working I’ll try to make periodic updates. Nice to be here, pollution and traffic and all.

Update: Forgot to add, Fuck the firewall. Nastier than ever.

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Life among the farmers

Two days ago I reviewed this book, and now I see its author has written a splendid piece about his experience living deep in the countryside in southeast China and his thoughts on the role of the agrarian classes in China’s future, and their plight throughout history.

Just one snip:

Not unlike the country’s own 260-million-strong “floating population” of itinerant laborers, I myself am also a nongmingong (migrant worker), presently dividing my time between our village and neighboring Shanghai, where I work. But the “simple life” I lead back in Jiangsu is not something I have been entirely inclined to share with other foreigners here. There seems to be an unspoken but prevalent attitude amongst more colonial-minded expats in China that leaving the luxury of the big city for the countryside is not becoming of us as westerners.

No, Western imperialism is not dead, and ironically it is found more frequently today among the Chinese themselves, especially the well-heeled, urban second-generation, whom harbor a deep-seated disdain for their agrarian countrymen. The derision is palpable, as if anyone with sun-kissed skin and a provincial hukou (identification card) is a shameful, sepia-toned reminder that China was not always an economic powerhouse.

Lest we forget, it is they — not the government who steals their land, nor the second-generation snobs residing in the skyscrapers built by them — who are the true People of this eponymous republic. And if the China watchers are correct in their prediction that the country’s profound social divisions may culminate into outright revolution within the next decade, my forecast is that the numbers are in favor of the farmers.

It’s very moving to see an expatriate championing China’s farmers. It is certainly not something you see very often. Please read the whole article.

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Whale watching on the Pacific

Well, I said the blog was closed but I can’t resist putting up these images, which you need to click to enlarge.

These are humpback whales, as seen from a boat several miles off the coast of Mazatlan. At one point, as they burst skyward as if out of nowhere, they seemed so close we could touch them. They are fiendishly difficult to photograph as they appear so suddenly and then disappear even faster into the deep.

After they’ve leapt up, the two whales plunge back downwards in perfect synchronicity, their huge tails hitting the water like spatulas. (Again, click to enlarge.)

A wonderful trip so far.

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Blog closed for a week

Tomorrow I’ll be at a beach resort in Mazatlan, Mexico, and the last thing I want to do is bring Tibet and Xi Jinping and Chinese politics with me. No new posts for at least eight or nine days. You can use this as an open thread if you so choose. (I’ll ask my hall monitors to watch out for thread hijackers.) Thanks, and enjoy the week ahead.

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Away

I’ll be in Los Angeles the next few days and won’t be posting. Please leave any comments or links in the thread below. (If anyone wants to meet up in LA send me an email.) See you next week.

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Sickness, Harassment and Suicide

Few stories in the news recently have disturbed me as much as that of the young Internet pioneer and activist, Aaron Swartz, who hanged himself in his apartment two days ago. Aaron was the type of geek and free thinker who you’d just know would be a multimillionaire, and indeed he became rich from the sale of the business he co-founded, Reddit. The money made no difference; Aaron was a tortured soul, even before a US prosecutor disgracefully got Aaron in his sites and all but decided to ruin his life, forever. The story frightens me, it sickens me, it reminds me of how Kafkaesque the US legal system can be and of how corporate interests get away with murder (almost literally) while the little guy, especially the kind like Aaron who challenge the system, can be pulverized. No, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The media have been saturated with this story; if you have no background you can read this or this. The government helped to hound Aaron to death. I can’t say their harassment actually killed him, but it was surely a very major factor behind his decision to take his life.

Aaron had a long history of depression, so perhaps the harassment was just a co-factor. He wrote a heartbreaking blog post about his illness nearly six years ago. His pain — depression, migraines, severe stomach illness — colonized his body and often made his life miserable.

Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.

At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.

He was clearly not well, and his friends in various articles posted yesterday noted how he could turn on them, almost violently. But they all loved him, and saw him as a noble person determined to do what he thought was right.

But then something happened that put him over the top and magnified his depression exponentially. It is a complicated story, but this is it in a nutshell:

He was facing multiple felony charges; if convicted he could have gone to jail for thirty-five years, and owed over a million dollars in fines. His “crime” was that he downloaded too many articles from JSTOR, an online service providing access to academic articles. He downloaded more articles than JSTOR’s terms of service allowed, therefore he was in violation of their terms of service, therefore (according to the prosecution’s interpretation) he violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. JSTOR themselves were not interested in pressing charges — this was federal prosecutors deciding to make an example. Now they have unintentionally succeeded, tragically and in a way that I hope, for the sake of their own souls, they never anticipated. Stubbornly, and characteristically, Aaron was unwilling to take a plea deal and be labeled a “felon” when he had done nothing wrong; he insisted on pleading not guilty.

It may be a little more complicated. He downloaded millions of documents because he felt academic articles that JSTOR stored should be available for free to the public. Their authors made no money from the fees JSTOR charged readers, only JSTOR did. It was a quixotic, foolish thing to do. It was not well thought through. But it absolutely did not justify the prosecutor throwing at him multiple felony charges that would have landed him in jail for as much as 50 years, with fines above $1 million, let alone his legal fees.

Something is so wrong about this. JSTOR, the defendant, wanted to drop the whole case. But the prosecutor was adamant and found multiple counts with which to charge Aaron for a wholly victimless “crime.” Just a few weeks ago, HSBC was forced to pay a $1.9 billion fine for laundering money from murderous Mexican drug cartels. They did this knowingly, breaking the law and greedily accepting the blood money. The fine was the equivalent to “about five weeks of income for the bank.” Think about that. Those who are powerful and politically connected get away almost literally with murder, breaking serious laws and committing serious crimes. (I strongly recommend you read the article to see just how depraved our justice system is.) Here, a kid (and at my age anyone under 30 is a kid) did something foolish but hurt absolutely no one. He had to live for nearly two years under the specter of knowing he could go to jail for decades. And be bankrupted. While those who commit heinous crimes are given what amounts to even less than a slap on the wrist. I believe it is safe to say he was bullied to death, and I wonder how the prosecutor is feeling as he goes to bed each night.

Aaron will probably be forgotten by most in a few days, overshadowed by other stories. But I wanted to memorialize him on my blog because his story encompasses so much of what I hate and fear: people in government abusing their power, the hopelessness and helplessness of those who fall into our legal web, and the needless death of a young and brilliant life by his own hand.

With this post I just want to keep his memory alive a little longer. I realize it’s not China-related and won’t draw comments, but I can’t just be silent about a story that’s consumed me for the past two days. This is an outrage, a tragedy, and a crime.

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Merry Christmas

I don’t think there’ll be many readers sitting around reading blogs today (I won’t be), but just in case, this is an open thread. Anything goes.

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Mao’s cheerleader

Han Suyin, who died last week, was a successful novelist I never heard of until I read this intriguing article on her role as an evangelist for Mao and the Cultural revolution. She denied the horrors of the Great Leap Forward’s famines and later admitted she “lied through her teeth” about it. Although she later turned against the Cultural Revolution as Jiang Qing fanned the flames that led to mass murder and hysteria, in the early years she never met a Red Guard she didn’t love.

In Han’s telling, the Red Guards—the paramilitary social movement of young fanatics—were “clean, well behaved and polite” youngsters who “learn democracy by applying democratic methods of reason and debate.” The army’s assumption of control over the government was “the continuation of the revolutionary tradition” and “the reassertion of ideological primacy over purely military ambitions.” The societal ferment also lent “an enormous spurt to production, to the development of productive forces along socialist lines.”

Still, even as she lavished praise on the Cultural Revolution she fully understood its dark side. She epitomized the concept of “useful idiot” but was in a class by herself; useful idiots often don’t know the truth and don’t look for it, lapping up the lies of the government. But she knew, and still she evangelized.

The closing lines of the article ring true:

Don’t imagine that there could never be another Han Suyin. Ambitious apologists for authoritarianism will certainly vie to take up her mantle. And who could blame them? Her works might appear odious to us now, but she had a very successful run.

Imagine that, ambitious shills for the party who enjoy personal gains for their sucking up to a government they know is doing terrible things. Do they really still exist?

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Paranoia

This is already two days old but I wanted to record it on my site. For all the CCP’s efforts to portray itself as Tibet’s liberators and benefactors, many Tibetans are still treated as second-class citizens, and the party remains deathly afraid of those who would speak out about it. This is a shocking story, and if you read the whole thing it gets worse.

I don’t belong to a political party and have never felt that Communist Party meetings are any of my business. But my home is in Beijing. I am a writer, and Han Chinese. My wife, Woeser, is also a writer, and Tibetan. The other member of our household is my mother, who is 90.

A few weeks ago, China’s political police asked my wife to leave Beijing because “18th Major,” a once-in-a-decade coronation of new party leaders, was on the way. The Communist Party views Tibetans and Uighur Muslims from western China as noxious. They are constantly under suspicion as troublemakers, if not terrorists. My wife, as it happens, is petite, as lacking in guile as a window pane, and about as far from a terrorist as one could get.

She has, however, written some words in protest of the fate of her fellow Tibetans. And for this, the party has put her on a blacklist, barred her from publishing, deprived her of her job, and denied her a passport. When she obeyed the recent order and headed home to Tibet, police officers along the way stopped and searched her at nearly every juncture. While Chinese people — on airplanes, trains, buses and motorcycles — are streaming into and out of Tibet by the thousands, Tibetans themselves have become outsiders in their own land, blocked at every turn.

Shortly afterward, the author himself was visited by the PBS and was told he should leave Beijing with no explanation. Guards were posted at his door.

Just imagine being told you had to separate from your spouse due to the irrational fears of the government. Just imagine the government stationing “state security” guards in front of your home. All for no logical reason, just illogical fear of…of what? For all the reform and improvements, it remains the same insecure government at heart. Blocking websites, silencing Tibetans and Uyghurs and exiling those who threaten harmony remain business as usual, and all you can do is wonder what they’re so afraid of. Is it a surprise there remains so much unrest in Tibet?

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