Thursday, July 4, 2013

Letters to my Elected Representatives

I am finally writing to my senators and the President about the NSA programs I abhor.  On July 4th. It seems fitting. And since I am no doubt getting myself onto a bunch of government watch lists in the process, I will share them here too. Maybe you will find them amusing, or not.

You may disagree with me and my conclusions. That's fine.

To President Obama:

I am deeply disappointed in you and your administration. I believed your promise of a more open government after the dark years of the Bush administration. Sadly, I now see I was mislead.

Edward Snowden has shown that the NSA and the rest of the intelligence community are operating without oversight, and without concern for the civil liberties of Americans. They are building huge datasets that can easily be used to tar anyone with a crime as an excuse for shutting them up. Every repressive government on the planet now looks to the US as a shining example of how to do exactly what they have wanted to do all along.

You are making that possible. Yes these programs have been around for a long time, and we know the Bush administration supported them, but I hoped you would reign them in. Clearly not.

These programs are violating the civil liberties of Americans every day. The data being accumulated can - and will - be used against the citizens of this country in various ways. This very message is Un-American enough to put me on a watch list, I am sure, and should you or some future administration decide I am a problem, it will be used against me.

Put simply, the US has too many secrets, and doing things in the dark has become the norm. We must not have secret interpretations of US laws. We should not support programs that violate the constitution. Edward Snowden should not have felt he had to release secret documents about secret programs to draw attention to them.

Your website says: "My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government."

Grand words that you have not lived up to.

We agree on many things. I believe in health care reform, though I think the program as it stands doesn't go nearly far enough. I believe in protecting women's rights. I believe in using the government as a force for good.

Alas we disagree vehemently where the NSA is concerned.

I do not want to live in a police state, but that is what we're coming to. If that isn't the case, prove it. Show the people what these programs really do, and how they are not a threat. Put clear limits on data collection, and real safeguards on stockpiles of collected data to avoid its misuse by anyone, now or in the future. Expose the workings of the FISA court while you're at it, and create mechanisms by which it can be challenged, or dismantle it entirely.

Secrets, in short, must be avoided. If I may quote John F. Kennedy: "The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society.

It is time to change course. It is time declassify much of what the NSA is doing, and to stop treating all Americans as criminals. It is time to have an open debate about their programs, and let journalists help us determine whether or not they actually work. It can and must be done. If it is not then we are lost and George Orwell's 1984 will go down in history as the most prescient work of fiction ever written. That is, of course, if history isn't rewritten to avoid that truth.

To Senator Boxer:

Back in 2005 and 2006 you took a principled stance against the outlandish spying being done by the NSA under the direction of the Bush administration. In case you have forgotten, here are some links to refresh your memory:
With that background, I must ask why it is that nine years later your voice isn't as stridently opposed to the same - and possibly worse - offenses being committed by the NSA? Is it perhaps because you've abandoned your principles to support a Democratic administration? Have you lost sight of the difference between right and wrong?

Here's an extract from a recent article - - quoting you:
But some senators held the line on Friday, when the Obama administration continued to defend the surveillance practices as necessary to defend the nation. 
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), though emphasizing the necessary balance between privacy and security, said that Internet monitoring had helped thwart terrorist plots, as congressional intelligence leaders said Thursday of the phone monitoring practice. 
“What they were doing is trying to save lives. I know for a fact lives were saved in both these programs. The issue is finding the balance between protecting people and our freedoms and that’s what I’m always after,” Boxer said, adding again: “I know they’ve saved lives.”
So now you worry about "balance"? When the NSA has a standing order from the FISA court letting it collect metadata on millions of phone calls? When we're performing computer espionage against even our allies? Now balance matters?

And you say you know these programs have saved lives. In response I say "prove it". Declassify enough information to show at least the broad outline of what these programs do. There is no harm in that.

Bin Laden himself wasn't using cellular or satellite phones when we finally got to him. The bad guys already have a clue, so saying that data about thwarted attack X was gathered by the NSA screening calls from the US to and from country A would be a start. Letting journalists actually dig into the meat of such claims would be even better. Every time I've seen such claims in the past it has been shown that the NSA was lying. They've claimed their data was key to preventing some attack or making some arrest when it really wasn't.

And we know the head of the NSA - General Clapper - has lied to congress about these very programs. Where is your call to see him removed for doing that? How can we trust a man who outright lies to those who supposedly oversee the programs he runs?

In fact, the only other thing I have heard from you on this topic recently was the misguided assertion that these programs employ too many contractors, as if "real" government employees could be trusted more. In response I give you these simple words: Private First Class Bradley Manning. Clearly he was a government employee. I'm sure that stopped him from giving a boatload of secret documents to Wikileaks. Oh, wait.

In fact the real problem is that people cannot keep secrets, and that we have far too many secrets that need keeping. It doesn't matter who someone works for, they are still human.

So, despite the fact that a Democrat sits in the whitehouse, it is long past time to reign in the NSA, and to shine a very bright light into all of its darkened corridors. We the people - the supposed source of political power in this nation - need to know what the government is doing to and "for" us, clearly and simply. Perhaps we will decide - as a nation - that the collection of phone call metadata is fine. Maybe the implication that we are all a threat is fine with the masses. But perhaps not. Perhaps we don't want to live in a police state, where every move is watched and every communication monitored. Only an informed public can answer that, and that is what you owe the people: the chance to be informed.

It is long past time to get our house in order. We are nothing like a shining beacon of democracy when we spy on our own citizens in ways the Stasi could only dream of.

Please stop worrying about Edward Snowden himself and start worrying about what he's exposed. The NSA is running amok, with no effective oversight. It is violating our civil liberties every single day. It's at least as bad as it was nine years ago, and probably much worse. It is time for you to voice those concerns and help lead the effort to bring it under control.

If you do not, I won't be voting for you again. These liberties are key to our way of life. If you have lost sight of the need to defend them, I will vote for a candidate who will do so.

You have a choice. I hope you make the wise one.

To Senator Feinstein:

I write you in astonishment. The recent revelations about the NSA's clearly unconstitutional surveillance programs have me very upset. I know you are a supporter, and I suspect the fact that I am opposed to these programs - and anything like them that we haven't yet been told about - means that you will never personally read this message. That's a shame.

It is clear to me that the NSA - and probably most of the US Intelligence Community - needs to be reigned in. As a country, we've let ourselves become afraid of every little shadow, and the results are obvious. We've allowed ill thought out laws - like the Patriot Act - to govern far too much of our lives, and we've let terrible practices - like secret courts and secret interpretations of laws - become the norm. And I doubt I need to remind you of things like enhanced interrogation techniques, renditions, secret prisons, and other obscenities from the previous administration. Sadly, I have to hold both Presidents Bush and Obama as well as congress - and you - responsible for this. At least I am realistic enough to know there is nothing significant I can do about it beyond complaining.

I cannot convey to you the depth of my revulsion for the things the NSA and other agencies are doing (and have done) to (and "for") the people of the United States. We are being treated as though we are all criminals, suspected of crimes - and terrorism - without charge. Without evidence. We are being spied upon in ways that should never have been allowed, and we are spying on the rest of the world as if we own it. This must stop.

Even worse, from what I read, congress is not providing any meaningful oversight of any of our spying programs, and the FISA court is merely a rubber stamp, approving just about every request it gets. And there are other, obvious, structural problems with the FISA court as well, like who can possibly oppose a request presented to it? Answer: no one. There are no checks on what it can and cannot allow, and no disclosure about what it does. That's wrong, plain and simple, and creates a system rife with abuse.

The huge data sets the NSA has collected - and is still collecting - are a threat to anyone. Fishing expeditions can easily make anyone look bad. I look Un-American just for writing this message, and if someone at the NSA decides to look it up in a few years, they could use it to tar me as a traitor. And that same strategy can be used against any citizen.

Keeping so many secrets is counter to our democratic principles. We need much more sunlight on these programs, and clear safeguards to protect the people from the misuse of the data they collect. But speaking as a professional programmer, it is my opinion that the only way to keep such data truly safe is to avoid collecting it in the first place.

Remember Watergate? Remember the McCarthy hearings? The ways the Prism program could be misused will make those look like a walk in the park.

Given what I have seen from you in the press, I suspect you completely disagree with me, and are ready to throw the freedoms we cherish under the bus. And in truth it may be too late. Maybe those freedoms are already gone. Perhaps we've gone from being the land of the free to the land of a few free oligarchs and 300 million oppressed people.

But still, I implore you to see reason. Edward Snowden himself is a distraction. He's a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. What matters is what the NSA and other agencies are actually doing, and just how much is being kept from the people - the people - who are supposedly the source of political power in the US. You were elected to represent the people, but on this issue you have failed us.

Unless you change your course I am done voting for you. I'll vote for a Green party candidate instead, even if they cannot win, simply because I find your stance on these issues repugnant.

The people deserve better. They deserve knowledge of what the government is doing to and for them, real oversight of any challenging programs, and a government they can trust. Given recent events it is clear we lack all of those things. Your job should be to find a way to get them back.

Somehow I think that will never happen, but I can dream.