Everybody Knows (Starting with the N.S.A.)

Everybody Knows (starting with the NSA)With all the recent news stories regarding the data that U.S. intelligence agencies are collecting, at home and worldwide, my brain has been hosting a not-entirely-unpleasant ear-worm of the old Leonard Cohen song, “Everybody Knows.” It’s from his 1988 album I’m Your Man, but some of the words sound especially timely right now.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost

What we’re experiencing is a belated “catching-up” to where it is that the technological changes of the past 10-15 years have put us. It has all happened so quickly. When it comes to conventional telephone calls, it is well known that the NSA has been snooping on those (internationally) for decades. What has changed so quickly is that so much of everyone’s ordinary life is online; it is transmitted, recorded and preserved in digital format. One’s personal communications, one’s banking and bill paying, one’s shopping habits, one’s political inclinations, one’s philosophical and religious beliefs, one’s embarrassing predilections, one’s health problems and concerns … all of this and more can be found out by crunching the data on one’s internet use. With the alleged and/or potential reach of an agency like the NSA, all kinds of sources of material could be matched up together with data filters to obtain a complete and intensely personal portrait of the individual, with information that could be “abused” either by an oppressive government authority or simply by an unscrupulous employee who happens to be able to access it.

Think back: Barely more than fifteen years ago, if the government wanted to know what you were writing to your friends, colleagues, relatives and/or co-conspirators, they had to intercept actual letters, steam open the envelopes and personally read them. Now it’s all out there in easily and even instantly-accessible form. The only question remaining is the legality of obtaining access to it. And for many in government, it seems, that is already a settled question, even though most of us don’t even recall hearing it asked.

I don’t mean to prejudge all of the ultimate answers, but there are many questions that need to be aired and debated from top to bottom, if we want to continue to believe we live in “the land of the free.” One is: What kind of state of war or non-war are we in, anyway? In a speech last month, the president of the United States said of what we used to call the war on terrorism that:

This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.

If that is so, is it not especially appropriate and indeed obligatory to end the vast level of electronic surveillance that has been put in place during this war? In times of all-out war, it has long been understood that the government might intercept and read some communications (see World War II), the very survival of the nation being on the line. If that’s not where we are—and judging by the president’s statements he certainly doesn’t think so—then isn’t this level of surveillance indefensible and far too risky in terms of the potential for abuse?

A second crucial question prompted by recent events concerns the calculus being used when deciding how to expend enormous government resources on terror-threat surveillance. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on the radar of the U.S. security apparatus, thanks to a warning from Russian intelligence, thanks to his travels to Chechnya, and thanks to “extremist” Islamic internet postings. It seems that his internet activity was being monitored by the authorities, but then, after all, isn’t everybody’s? Yet Tsarnaev, with his kid brother, was able to walk into Boston’s Copley Square in broad daylight and plant bombs that murdered and maimed helpless, innocent civilians. Didn’t Tamerlan Tsarnaev, given his background of red flags, qualify for something more, like some genuine old-fashioned person-to-person surveillance that could have stopped him much earlier along the way to executing this carnage? To what extent are the authorities leaning on this vast technological net, trolling the data of millions of ordinary people, instead of focusing more intensely and concretely on those who clearly evoke the profile of potential terrorists?


These and a lot of other good questions need to be openly debated and answered without blinders by those we’ve elected and those whose salaries we pay, if the U.S. Constitution is more than just an archaic prop.

And that—I would like to think—everybody knows.

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

…..