Taking an oath

Between trying to complete a move halfway across the country and trying to shake an apparently unshakeable virus, posting around here has been light and will continue to be light for a few days to come. To the extent that this impacts anybody’s well-being other than mine, I apologize. I managed to at least get this written, so that’s nice.

There’s a quote attributed to the Athenian statesman Solon (d. 558 BCE) that goes, “Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath.” This seems like good advice, but we still seem to place a lot of trust in oaths, don’t we? We make government officials, both elected and appointed, take them. Juries and witnesses in court have to take them. Anybody who enlists to serve in the military has to take one, and if they are later commissioned as an officer we make them take a second, slightly different, oath. It reads:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

I watched General Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA, on This Week with Gorbulas Brandybuck George Stephanopoulos this morning, and one bit in particular stuck out at me. Stephanopoulos led off asking the general why the system didn’t catch Snowden before he fled to Hong Kong, but Gen. Alexander went right in to defending the NSA’s activities with this:

And when you think about what our mission is, I want to jump into that, because I think it reflect on the question you’re asking.

You know, my first responsibility to the American people is to defend this nation. And when you think about it, defending the nation, let’s look back at 9/11 and what happened.

As it so happens, unless he took a different oath when he became NSA director, General Alexander’s first responsibility is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It’s not to “defend the United States” or to “defend the nation.” His first responsibility is to the Constitution. Now you could easily think these are one and the same, and General Alexander probably thinks that himself, but even if you think the current surveillance system is constitutional, you could probably easily imagine a surveillance system so invasive as to unquestionably violate the constitution, right? Such a system would probably make the country “safer,” in the sense that it would increase the likelihood of nabbing would-be terrorists before they could carry out their plans. I wonder, if such a system were proposed, whether General Alexander would act to uphold his oath, or if he’d act to uphold this new “first responsibility” he’s invented for himself. I worry about how much “protect[ing] the nation” has replaced “support[ing] and defend[ing] the Constitution” as the “first responsibility” in the minds of our elected and appointed leaders since 9/11.

We ought to expect our leaders to uphold their oaths, and to understand what those oaths mean.

LONGISH DIGRESSION: I go back and forth on this NSA/Snowden story. It seems to me that the bias in a free and open society has to be for transparency at the risk of insecurity; obviously a balance needs to be struck between the two, and every government has to keep secrets, but if we aren’t vigilant about minimizing government secrecy then it becomes very easy to lose transparency altogether. When members of Congress or officials in the administration complain that these leaks are going to make it harder to provide security for the public, my reaction is “too bad.” It should be hard to provide security to the public in a free society; to the extent that “providing security” means “we’re going to monitor everybody’s movements and communications just in case some of you constitute threats,” it should be very hard to provide security in a free society. If that’s a bummer for our elected officials and their appointees, well, nobody forced them to take jobs governing a modern democratic nation.

I think the information that Snowden has leaked in terms of the extent to which our government and its vast array of private contractors monitors (or is able to monitor, if they want) our “private” communications is important. People ought to know when their government is spying on them, or has developed the potential to easily spy on them, even if knowing might somehow increase the potential for harm to come to them. That said, this particular case keeps getting mired in back-and-forth arguments about what exactly is being collected and what the government’s technical capabilities are, and, hey, I barely passed an introductory programming course in college. What doesn’t help Snowden is when he decides to “reveal” that we’re spying on China, because a) of course we are, and 2) good. What doesn’t help Snowden’s critics is their incessant and silly obsession with making this story all about Snowden himself (“he should have stayed and faced prosecution!” as though that changes the substance of the leaks), or about Glenn Greenwald (“he’s arrogant!” which, come on), instead of about what the government is doing in the name of “protecting us.” I agree with this post by DarkSyde over at DailyKos:

It seems a bit over the top. Snowden and Greenwald appear subject to a standard of accuracy and at times vitriol quite different than the one facing high ranking NSA and contractor personnel. There is reason to be skeptical of spies in general, but why the high ranking spooks who have been caught splitting semantic hairs, evading, and glossing over key details are not much part of the story, while every last thing Snowden says is scrutinized for the slightest inconsistency, is puzzling. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a secret version of something many reading this would identify with: the difference in the treatment, perception and motive for corporate bigwigs vs the observations of rank and file worker.

When an NSA honcho says government or private spooks are not trolling through the private conversations of U.S. citizens at will, assuming they’re being truthful, they’re talking about policy. When Snowden says someone in his position could review emails or phone records of any conversation of any U.S. citizen, he’s talking about technology. Honchos are thinking about what they have decreed as permissible, Snowden is talking about what is actually possible.

To sum it up, corporate honchos enjoy the benefit of the doubt from the fellow media honchos, worker bees do not. For profit private NSA contractor honchos like Mike McConnell, people who presumably earn seven figures a year, are deeply motivated to perceive and portray their employer and their industry in the best light possible, worker bees are not. Not to mention that up to now, this has all been so secret, even members of the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate may not always get the full story or hear about problems and abuses. Especially as long as their only source of info is honcho approved and delivered.

It’s really important that we know about what’s possible, because what’s permissible is determined by our intelligence community working in complete secrecy; when people like Keith Alexander talk about what they are and aren’t allowed to do, they’re talking about arbitrary decisions that have been made, and can be changed, at the drop of a hat without anyone knowing about it. We ought to know the potential for abuse even if that potential isn’t being exercised just now.

Also, too, on a Sunday when George Stephanopoulos accepts, without challenge, the NSA Director’s framing of this story as a betrayal of confidence by Snowden against his employer, nothing said about the potential betrayal of confidence by our government against the rights of its citizens, while David Gregory demands that Glenn Greenwald explain why he (Greenwald) should not be carted off in irons for doing journalism (no, Fluffy, we don’t arrest people for being reporters in this country), it’s hard not to see the corporate media double-standard at work in this story.

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