Belmont Club

The Attack of the Golem

Before he went to the Guardian, Edward Snowden went to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post with 41 slides and a “demand that the Post publish all 41 slides within 72 hours of receipt”. Calling himself “Verax”, Snowden approached the Washington Post through an implied intermediary. Gellman writes:

A series of indirect contacts preceded our first direct exchange May 16. Snowden was not yet ready to tell me his name, but he said he was certain to be exposed — by his own hand or somebody else’s. Until then, he asked that I not quote him at length. He said semantic analysis, another of the NSA’s capabilities, would identify him by his patterns of language.

The Post dithered and the Guardian got the scoop. In the event, not even the Guardian published all the slides. “The Guardian also refused to publish the complete set. Why? If you saw them, you’d know, Gellman told the New York Times’ Charlie Savage.”

The slides remain in the possession of both the Washington Post and the Guardian, not to mention Snowden himself. Perhaps they’ve been glimpsed by the Chinese in whose territory the Snowden was last seen and  may possibly come into the hands of Vladimir Putin, who announced he’d consider granting Snowden asylum if asked. Twitchy rhetorically wonders who decides whether the other 36 slides will be published:

The Post, together with the Guardian, published five PowerPoint slides regarding the government’s PRISM program. However, both papers chose to withhold 36 more slides leaked to them by Snowden. That puts both papers, rather than the government, in the position of deciding what the public needs to know, and what it shouldn’t know about the government’s Internet surveillance infrastructure. Is everyone comfortable with that?

The answer is obvious: Snowden, Russia and/or China get to decide if the 36 slides get released. Nor is it to be discounted that Snowden has more in his possession than just the slides. A little noted detail in Politico hints there may be more: “additionally, according to Gellman, Snowden requested that the Post publish online a ‘cryptographic key’ so he could prove to a foreign embassy he was the source of the document leak.”

This strongly suggests that Snowden was going to post the material online together with a key allowing its decryption — so it could be read – and a digital signature proving that he alone encrypted it — so they would know it came from him.  He might have posted it anyway as a form of insurance.

There may exist a trove of unreadable NSA classified material already in the hands of a number of people simply awaiting a key and signature. Snowden may have arranged for the key to be released on a schedule unless he resets the timer at intervals through some instrumentality. This would be insurance against “disappearing” because if he vanishes, then who resets the timer?

The size of that potential bomb is difficult to estimate. What’s in the 36 slides? Now imagine that you are Google or Microsoft trying to estimate your possible exposure to a class action suit, the kind of which nearly sank AT&T in the Hepting vs AT&T case,  whose amounts were potentially “ruinous”.

What is Google’s liability?  It may not in fact know,  not only because it is uncertain what liabilities arise  from the current exposure, there is no way of estimating what liabilities may arise from a future exposure. What else is in the trove? Have health records been accessed? What about financial records? How big can this hit be? Google has tried to get out in front of the issue by “asking the Obama administration for permission to disclose more information about requests it gets from national intelligence agencies for its users’ emails and other online communications.”

It needs daylight between itself and the administration. This is the first step in pointing fingers.

The technology giant made the request in a letter to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Tuesday.

Google is trying to counteract damaging media reports that the company allows the National Security Agency access to users’ online communications.

The BBC is now reporting that Facebook and Microsoft have joined Google in requesting the government explain things. “Microsoft added that “permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues”. Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, said the social networking leader wants to provide “a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond”.

They are unlikely to be completely successful, however. Some kind of court is in the cards. And any litigation is likely to involve trade secrets, patents, etc of tech companies. This could cost a lot of money.

For the NSA, things are only slightly better. Unless they can put a lid on this, or somehow restore public confidence in the broad intelligence gathering effort, then they may be the object of Church Committee-style hearings, which in the 1970s severely clipped the wings of the CIA. The lawyers and the budgets rivals to the NSA are probably orbiting like vultures right now, waiting for it to die or get downsized.

Putin probably believes that offering asylum to Snowden is a good investment. Because he can sell Snowden back to Obama in exchange for a whole lot more than he can screw out of Snowden on his own.  But not before he gets Snowden’s stash, and not before he gets stuff to hold US tech over a barrel.

The enormity of the potential catastrophe facing US intelligence and US tech can hardly be overstated because we don’t even know what it is. It’s not just a ‘known unknown’. It’s an ‘unknown unknown’. The only way out is for everyone who stands to down the tubes  to be held harmless. The political system has to absolve the citizens who just went along. “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine gubernatio, et populorum, et lex.”

Do you think “in nomine Obama” will be enough?

Most problems in human history, but politics in especial, have been solved through human sacrifice.  We just call it something different now.   To restore legitimacy to the system, the system needs a human sacrifice. Someone or something has to take the rap, accept responsibility, take a bullet for the team so we can all agree to move on.

Who’s going to take the rap?

Sometimes that person is a US President. For example Lyndon Johnson resigned after his Vietnam policy failed. Richard Nixon, who had just won a landslide election shortly before, resigned after Watergate. They did this because they were in the way of keeping the system going;  while they remained things were paralyzed. In the end Johnson and Nixon went because hanging on to the Oval Office was bad for politics, bad for business, bad for everybody.

A political crisis is usually about the establishment coming to a consensus decision of who has to go. But somebody has to go. The NSA’s intelligence collection system is too valuable to lose. And so are the banks and tech companies and whatever else might be caught up in this. Somehow the governance system has to be purged of what is paralyzing it so life can go on. One blogger writes to say that the “Golem of Government” is running rampage through the system.

You see, for generations now you have collectively built and nurtured a massive, living, metabolizing creature. From the inanimate, intellectual detritus of “progressivism” and your unending and increasingly all-consuming narcissism you have kneaded it into a shapeless husk, pouring in rank mud like “Save the Planet,” “Global Warming,” “The American Dream of Home Ownership,” “The War on Drugs”, “Mothers Against Drunk Driving”, “The War On Terror”, “Speculators”, “Too Big To Fail”, “The 1%”, and of course the essence and spark of its life, “…if it saves just one child.” In conjunction with (but far more so than the other buckets of intellectual mud) “…if it saves just one child” has created the Golem of Government.

And it grew, and grew, and grew until it blew a fuse. Nobody knows how to turn it off any more. It ain’t just the Tea Party guys any more. Now it’s after Google! So it’s serious. Something has to stop it or slow it down before it smashes everything in its agony. Now let’s see whether the political system is up to the task.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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