Belmont Club

The Age of Faith

Barack Obama to Charlie Rose

So point number one, if you’re a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it’s not targeting your emails unless it’s getting an individualized court order. That’s the existing rule.

The Atlantic

3 Former NSA Employees Praise Edward Snowden, Corroborate Key Claims … Thomas Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirk Wiebe each protested the NSA in their own rights. “For years, the three whistle-blowers had told anyone who would listen that the NSA collects huge swaths of communications data from U.S. citizens” …

Congressional overseers “have no real way of seeing into what these agencies are doing. They are totally dependent on the agencies briefing them on programs, telling them what they are doing.”…

Asked what Edward Snowden should expect to happen to him, one of the men, William Binney, answered, “first tortured, then maybe even rendered and tortured and then incarcerated and then tried and incarcerated or even executed.”


The National Security Agency has acknowledged in a new classified briefing that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls, a participant said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed on Thursday that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding that.”

If the NSA wants “to listen to the phone,” an analyst’s decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. “I was rather startled,” said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee. …

Because the same legal standards that apply to phone calls also apply to e-mail messages, text messages, and instant messages, being able to listen to phone calls would mean the NSA analysts could also access the contents of Internet communications without going before a court and seeking approval.

Washington Post, emphasis mine

Two of the four collection programs, one each for telephony and the Internet, process trillions of “metadata” records for storage and analysis in systems called MAINWAY and MARINA, respectively. Metadata includes highly revealing information about the times, places, devices and participants in electronic communication, but not its contents. The bulk collection of telephone call records from Verizon Business Services, disclosed this month by the British newspaper the Guardian, is one source of raw intelligence for MAINWAY.

The other two types of collection, which operate on a much smaller scale, are aimed at content. One of them intercepts telephone calls and routes the spoken words to a system called ­NUCLEON….

Current NSA director Keith B. Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. have resolutely refused to offer an estimate of the number of Americans whose calls or e-mails have thus made their way into content databases such as ­NUCLEON.

The agency and its advocates maintain that its protection of that data is subject to rigorous controls and oversight by Congress and courts. For the public, it comes down to a question of unverifiable trust.

As the earlier posts Flow of Mistrust and the Destroyer of Worlds argued, a world dependent on information requires trust to work. How can we deal with the quantity called unverifiable trust? Well what is it in the first place? It’s an unavoidable part of the trust process.

One of the properties of a trust relationship is that the trustor cannot always know whether the trustee is telling him the truth. If trustor actually knew, then no trust would be involved since the facts would be evident to both. Trust involves the trustor not knowing everything about the trustee’s actions.

One party (trustor) is willing to rely on the actions of another party (trustee); the situation is directed to the future. In addition, the trustor (voluntarily or forcedly) abandons control over the actions performed by the trustee. As a consequence, the trustor is uncertain about the outcome of the other’s actions; he can only develop and evaluate expectations. The uncertainty involves the risk of failure or harm to the trustor if the trustee will not behave as desired.

In an age when the media routinely mocks notions of ‘faith’ it amusing to realize that the world actually operates on something very much like it. The Obama administration — and the every administration before it — is saying: “you don’t know that I’m telling you the truth. And I can’t show you the facts. But take my word that if you walk over that cliff you will not fall.” Trust involves uncertainty. It involves the “risk of failure or harm to the trustor if the trustee will not behave as desired”.

So to those who say: “‘you are a fool to believe in a God you can’t see’ you can quite legitimately respond: ‘you are fool to believe in a President whose words you can’t verify'”. How do we verify what we are not allowed to see? The verificationists would argue that we can’t. Asking questions to which there are no empirical answers or worse,  for which no answers will ever be forthcoming is a exercise that is often dismissed as ‘unscientific’ or metaphysical.

Here’s a song title for Madonna: “we are living in a metaphysical world and I’m a metaphysical girl.”

Fortunately, mathematics has come to our rescue. Although we cannot verify what we are not allowed to know, we can verify the statistical reliability of the trustee. This is called “evidence of trustworthiness”. We can infer the probability of what we do not know from what we  know. Thus, if a person has a track record of truthfulness, of being a faithful agent or trustee in the past then our confidence in a grant of unverified trust is relatively high. On the other hand, if a person has habitually lied to us then the claim to unverifiable trust is weak.

Another alternative approach is to pose challenges to the trustee and from it infer his reliability. “The idea is to intersperse questions (“challenges”) for which the correct answers are known. By evaluating the answers to these challenges, probabilistic conclusions about the correctness of the unverifiable information can be drawn. Less challenges need to be used if an information provider has shown to be trustworthy.”

With this framework in hand the crisis of confidence that President Obama is facing is easily understood. Since the public will never be told enough about the NSA to compare the statements against the facts, the public will in the end be asked to extend unverifiable trust to the administration. The reason the trust crisis exists is because the administration has lied voluminously in the past. Benghazi, IRS, EPA, Syria etc etc etc.

There comes a point in the life cycle of the administration when the voters begin to withdraw their trust in it. It is sometimes called the ‘loss of legitimacy’ and  is usually the cumulative effect of past betrayals, disappointments and contempt for public intelligence.  The process of massaging the narrative and spinning the truth exacts an eventual price, what might be termed the Wolf Problem. That is the problem the administration is facing and there is no easy solution.

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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