Secret laws

I think it was from Solzhenitsyn, somewhere in The Gulag Archipelago (though I can’t find the quote right now, so maybe it was some other source) that Stalin was supposed to have ordered that the Soviet criminal code of the 1930s not be published, with a declaration something like “The only people who want to know what the law says are those intending to break it.”

This seemed to me like merely a good example of the Looking-Glass logic of totalitarianism until I read in Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side about the secret legal opinions that undergirded the Bush torture regime. It’s true that you can’t have secret laws in the US — at least, I think it is — but reinterpreting the law, and making the reinterpretation itself and the underlying reasoning secret, comes pretty close. It’s hard to say you’re still living under the rule of law — in a Rechtsstaat, as the German word says pithily — when the government is constrained only by its own secret interpretation of the law.

And now we have, in the blossoming scandal of US government surveillance of private citizens, the main documents demonstrating government malfeasance are secret court orders justified by secret executive-branch legal opinions.

I am reminded of when my 10th grade history teacher told us that the US Constitution was so inspiring that even the Soviet Union and other totalitarian states had mimicked some of its language in framing their own constitutions, even if their practice was very far from the true meaning of those words. This was supposed to give us a lesson about the perfidy of the Soviets, I suppose, but I asked then — snotty kid that I was — whether that didn’t just mean that a constitution is useless for protecting individual rights.

Metadata

Is there anyone who feels reassured by Diane Feinstein’s comments that we shouldn’t be worrying our pretty little heads over NSA storing records of ALL telephone calls (only by Verizon Business, but presumably that just happens to be the one that’s come out) over a three month period (and one might surmise that this is just three months of a rolling renewed program), both within the US and between the US and foreign addresses. She said

It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress. This is just meta data. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards.

Through her Newspeak interpreter she added, “It’s called protecting America.”

In this case, I’m hopeful that the average person’s inability to understand technical language will lead to positive conclusions. Feinstein (who, I am proud to say, I have voted against every time she’s been on the ballot since I’ve been a California voter). Anyone who understands what “meta data” are, and how data-mining works, will be chilled by this: The FBI has a complete map of who was talking to whom when and for how long, and presumably where they were when they made the call. This is now going to be run through an algorithm sniffing out patterns similar to an already suspicious person’s phone calls or travel. And then they’ll use this as a basis for putting people on no-fly lists and other non-judicial punishments. Won’t they? Certainly the Obama administration has shown no compunction about misusing the machinery of the War on Terror (TM) — in particular the No-Fly List — including  for political ends.

But here, ignorance may help. Will the average American feel reassured at being told these are “only meda data”? What the fuck are meta data? It sure sounds like they’re tapping our phones…

I thought the IRS scandal was ridiculous — I still do — but getting the right-wing riled up about civil liberties may be the last chance to save some remaining shreds of constitutional rights in the US.

Exile, ctd.

I wrote before about US citizens being sent into exile. In looking for information about how the No Fly List works, I found this story reported by Glenn Greenwald:

In April of this year, Saadiq Long, a 43-year-old African-American Muslim who now lives in Qatar, purchased a ticket on KLM Airlines to travel to Oklahoma, the state where he grew up. Long, a 10-year veteran of the US Air Force, had learned that the congestive heart failure from which his mother suffers had worsened, and she was eager to see her son…

The day before he was to travel, a KLM representative called Long and informed him that the airlines could not allow him to board the flight. That, she explained, was because the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had placed Long on its “no-fly list”, which bars him from flying into his own country.

Long has now spent the last six months trying to find out why he was placed on this list and what he can do to get off of it. He has had no success, unable to obtain even the most basic information about what caused his own government to deprive him of this right to travel.

Given that there is really no other way to get from Qatar to the US than by flying, this is equivalent to exile. Without even a trial, or even any official notification. And no procedure for redress. (Supposedly there is a procedure, but it seems to consist only of his being assigned a “redress control number”. No other response was forthcoming from the government in 6 months, and the US embassy has offered no assistance.) Greenwald cites several other comparable cases, and says there are 21,000 names on the list, including 500 Americans. And things aren’t getting better:

The Obama administration “lowered the bar for being added to the list”. As a result, reported AP, “now a person doesn’t have to be considered only a threat to aviation to be placed on the no-fly list” but can be included if they “are considered a broader threat to domestic or international security”, a vague status determined in the sole and unchecked discretion of unseen DHS bureaucrats.

“Legal reasons”

The British press is legally somewhat more hemmed in than the US press, both by law (for instance, the and various arbitrary gag orders) and the threat of libel suits. (Fun fact: The truth defence against libel charges was eliminated in 1606 — at least as regards the sovereign, unpleasant claims are likely to be more damaging if they are true than if they are lies. An exception was made for “good motives” in 1792, but for the public interest in 1843. A more general substantial truth defence was reinstated last month.)

This leads us to this weekend’s blockbuster news. The Guardian has reported that the Mail on Sunday has reported

David Cameron has held crisis talks at Downing Street after being told of allegations of a sensational love affair which has potentially significant political implications for him.

For legal reasons, the Mail on Sunday cannot disclose the identities of the people involved or any details of the relationship – even its duration – other than that they are middle-aged figures. The affair has now concluded.

Hilarious! Like a Mad-Lib sketch for a political sex scandal. Details presumably to follow soon on Twitter.

Continue reading ““Legal reasons””

Audiobook Turing test

I downloaded and listened to the audiobook This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American CultureThe author is Iain Anderson, and the language and structure seem like those of a slightly rewritten doctoral dissertation. It’s pretty interesting as a source for the politics — particularly racial politics — of jazz in the late 50s and early 60s, and it held my interest for the 5 hours I needed to listen to it at double speed. But what really fascinated me was the reader’s voice. The reader is listed as Paul Steven Forrest, but I can hardly believe that this is a human voice. (Indeed, this is the only book that this name has been assigned to as reader.) The sentence intonations are much too regular, and seem to ignore any cues related to the meanings of words. Some reasonably common English words — at least, common enough in academic jargon — such as “diaspora” are systematically mispronounced, but without any hesitation such as you might expect from a human reader stumbling over an unfamiliar word. Similarly, non-English words were completely botched, but without apparent self-consciousness.

On the other hand, if Paul Steven Forrest is in truth the pseudonym for a computer-generated voice, it’s remarkably good, at least to someone who has not been following progress in speech generation over the past decade. It took me an hour of listening before it struck me that something was off about the voice, and while it started to bug me, it never became unbearable.