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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thomas Friedman, "Blowing a Whistle": The NSA Is Going to Save Us from Another 9/11

Suppose terrorists have hidden a dirty bomb in Manhattan and are threatening to detonate the bomb unless the US releases all of its Guantanamo prisoners. The bomb is timed to go off in another two hours, and there is no time to evacuate the city. Millions are expected to die slow painful deaths from radiation poisoning and cancer unless the bomb is found and defused. Then suddenly, one of the al-Qaeda conspirators is captured, but he refuses to talk. Would you waterboard him, or read him his rights and wait for his lawyer?

Me? Wait for his lawyer? I wouldn't hesitate to go far beyond waterboarding the bastard, and yet I am appalled by the revelations of NSA information gathering, which contribute very little to American security. Even with warnings from Moscow, this data didn't prevent the Boston Marathon bombing. You see, it has nothing to do with the quantity of the data accumulated, and everything to do with theory and focus.

In his latest New York Times op-ed entitled "Blowing a Whistle" (, Thomas Friedman plays on our 9/11 paranoia:

"Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.

I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: 'Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.' That is what I fear most.

That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime."

Tom wants to "prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime"? Me, too. But didn't Snowden just tell us that "I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal e-mail" (

Friedman quotes from an essay by David Simon, the creator of HBO’s "The Wire": "this kind of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon bombing before they occur." Okay, but did it stop the Boston Marathon bombing? Not a chance.

Sure, I want to prevent a future 9/11, which is more likely to arise today as the result of an Iranian cyber attack, but unlike Tom, I'm going to be politically incorrect. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey (

"Few U.S. Muslims voice support for suicide bombing or other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam; 81% say such acts are never justified, while fewer than one-in-ten say violence against civilians either is often justified (1%) or is sometimes justified (7%) to defend Islam."

Only 1% of US Muslims "say violence against civilians is often justified," and only 7% say that such violence "is sometimes justified"? These numbers are frightening. As I said earlier, everything has to do with theory and focus - here is your focus. Thanks to Pew, there is no additional need for theory.

And where is Obama in the midst of this storm? From the isolation of Rancho Mirage in California, he will soon be traveling to Tanzania. On Tuesday, Politico reporter Glenn Thrush Tuesday asked Jay Carney whether President Obama should "have a fireside chat with the American people" about the NSA’s surveillance program. Carney's answer (see:

"I’m not saying — I think I just said, Glenn, although I appreciate yours and the former Attorney General’s specific recommendations about the modalities of presidential communication, the president has and will speak about this subject."

Yup, they're already firing up the teleprompters, but in the meantime, the president is doing what he does best: He likes to watch.


  1. My grandpa always used to say, "Why worry? אבי געזונט !", Abi Gezunt - Yiddish for 'the most important thing is that we're healthy!'

    On that note, I thought I would share the lighter side of these scandals with others who read your wonderful blog and hope that they laugh as hard as I did.

    Late Show with David Letterman:
    "You know your phone is being tapped when you’re having a conversation and you hear the attorney general breathing."

    "Happy birthday to the president’s daughter Sasha, who is 12 years old. For her birthday, her father gave her Justin Bieber’s phone records."

    The Tonight Show with Jay Leno:
    "People are asking how this Snowden guy could download all this classified information and give it to a British newspaper without the NSA knowing about it. I think I know the answer. If you don’t want the NSA spying on you, get a job working at the NSA. That’s how it works."

    "Snowden said today he was going to disclose all this information earlier, but he wanted to wait until after the election. To which Mitt Romney said, “Hey, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.”

    Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:
    "He went to China to avoid government persecution. That’s like going to Ireland to avoid getting drunk."

    "This weekend, President Obama held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It went well, although it got awkward when Obama asked China to stop spying on America and Jinping said, “You first.”

    1. Many thanks for your very kind comment.

  2. Just finished re-reading Bullough's "Let Our Fame be Great", 2010.
    Very good at explaining the unintended blowback, in Chechnya in the 1990's, blowback from arming the Afghans against Russia in the 1980's.
    And, one could come to the conclusion that perhaps the sons of asylum seekers would be susceptible to Islamization on an extended visit in Dagestan in 2010-11.

    The Boston Marathon bombing has almost disappeared from the media, which is astonishing because 1)the special election for Kerry's Senate seat is June 25, and the Boston vote is critical, yet neither candidate seems to have mentioned the event, , and 2) the NSA metadata was not used or accessible?, i.e., it did not prevent the bombing.

    Tom's position is what many allegedly educated Americans agree with. Not me. Why do they need to store all that data for decades?

    Whose watching the watchers?