The Untruth Shall Keep You Free

Gen. Clapper lies to Congress under oath

On March 12th, during an open congressional hearing, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore) took some time to spell out a precise question to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:

“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

The question, apparently because it was so difficult to understand, had been forwarded to Clapper the day before, to give him time to memorize the “yes” or “no” answer that Wyden expected.

Clapper’s reaction was not unlike that of an unprepared student called on by the teacher. He squirmed and barely looked up. “No sir”, he answered, poking at his forehead and immediately looking down again, hoping to signal he was too busy switching his mike off and on to be bothered with such trivial questions.

“It does not?” insisted Wyden.

You see, Wyden is on the Intelligence Committee, he’s one of the handful of Senators in the know, but is sworn to secrecy.  His question was a set up, an attempt to reveal to the American people things he cannot not reveal himself. Only two years ago Wyden had clearly attempted to warn us, telling us in a speech that, had we known what he knew, we would have been “appalled”. But of course we went like “what? who? CSPAN? Wyden? Who is this guy, and most importantly, where the heck is the remote!?”

So he’d been trying to tell us something for a while, and Clapper’s response signaled another failed attempt. “It does not?”, insisted Wyden, maybe hoping that the other would change his answer to: “actually, come to think of it, yes! I’m sorry Ron, I had forgotten all about it!”

But the look on Clapper’s face was telling an altogether different story: “You bastard! You know very well what we do! You’ll pay for this!”

  As his index finger continued to scratch a hole in his forehead, Clapper with tremendous effort glanced up again and said : “No, not wittingly”.

  I feel pretty confident that had we been presented with two betting options,  “truth” or “lie”, most of us humans would have dropped money on the “lie” without waiting for Snowden’s revelations which in fact confirmed that the National Security Agency is taking it’s job of spying maybe a tad too far.

So that’s that. Clapper lied to congress. He didn’t say “I can’t reveal that”, or “we gather only certain information”, etc. – he just went ahead and said “no”.

He even had one day to prepare to evade the question, and the question was so generic (any information at all) that answering with an “of course we collect some information! We’re the NSA for crying out loud!” would not have surprised nor particularly incensed anyone.

John Oliver: no spy should have that big a tell!

Gen. Clapper lies again, but this time no one understands him

  Why did he simply lie, with only a minor pathetic attempt at a straight face, will forever be a mystery. Or will it? Because, according to Clapper, he did not lie, his was just the “least untruthful” answer to the famously unanswerable question… “when are you going stop beating your wife”. Yes, that is indeed what an ever more confused Clapper revealed to NBC on June 9th.

  What??

  Ok, he’s an old man, think of him as your aging grandpa, except not retired in front of the tv watching the lives of the rich and famous but actively watching the lives of billions of people, and please try to understanding his ramblings. Clapper was referring to the fallacy of asking a yes or no answer on a behavior that’s assumed to be true, like “have you stopped beating your wife?”, which, no matter whether you answer yes or no, makes you into a wife beater.  “When are you going to stop…” does not require a yes or no answer of course, so it’s just something he said, part of his spy bag-o-tricks: just say stuff that sounds profound but doesn’t make any sense, and people will eventually give up trying to understand you.

  So, what he was actually saying to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell was: I was asked a question that assumed the NSA collects any kind of information, which is not true, we don’t collect any kind of information.  Hence, I gave the least untruthful answer on a question that was wrong to start with. Here’s exactly what he said:

  “I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked — ‘When are you going to start — stop beating your wife’ kind of question, which is meaning not — answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no, so I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying ‘no’.”

  Effectively, in justifying his answer, once you sort through the spy mind-screwing that makes you think he’s a senile old man and clarify what he actually implied, Clapper lied again to NBC by saying: the NSA does not collect any kind of information on anyone, and any question based on the assumption that it  does  is unanswerable.

Gen. Clapper goes all the way

   Emboldened by what can only have been a blank, stunned stare on his interviewer’s face,  James Clapper felt like adding wood to the confusion fire, and said: “And again, to go back to my metaphor. What I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers— of those books in that metaphorical library– to me, collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.”

  Ah! that explains it all. When we say “collect”, they say “read”, as in “do you open up and read butterflies?”.  The intelligence community simply uses a different vocabulary, possibly secret.

  Let’s humor grandpa. Let’s then rephrase Ron Wyden’s question:

  “Gen. Clapper, does the NSA read any of the information it may happen to have gathered pertaining to millions or hundred of millions of Americans”?

  “No, not wittingly”

  They never read things that they collect, er, gather, er, run into. So either the General is lying even under this new interpretation, or the NSA just likes to build new storage facilities  where to store their Zettabytes of information, never to read any of them, all a big and costly joke at our expenses. They must be having a lot of fun anticipating the day in which they’ll reveal that inside their new massive storage facilities they’ve  only been running NSA tournaments of beer pong.

When secrecy runs amock

  As I hope you can see from the above, not only Clapper has committed perjury and lied to the United State Congress, a crime for which he will probably never be prosecuted, but he has done so – I dare say – for no good reason. I seriously think that at that very moment grandpa lost the ability to discern the context, the possible consequences of his answers. He found “no” to be easily the safest answer to avoid further scrutiny, and dished it out, giving us a good insight into what happens when you get into the habit of using secrecy and lies to get rid of people asking too many questions: you loose track of whether or not it is necessary – or even more importantly, legal – to tell the truth or to be transparent.

  Like many, many intelligent individuals pointed out, the terrorists know very well that all emails, tweets, Facebook posts and phone calls are monitored, and revealing it will not surprise them. As far as the others, those whose plots have supposedly been foiled just by spying on their emails, don’t worry, they don’t know better anyhow, you’ll still catch those people. Why, there have been many credible leaks about the surveillance state before, most Americans and non-Americans knew about it, and they – like me – are not even particularly interested in keeping their opinions and conversations private, if it wasn’t for the kind of authoritarian world lack of privacy can, and will if unchecked, bring about.

  I am confident that people whose “careers” depend on secrecy do read the news, at least those about discovery of secret NSA spy rooms, NSA spy programs affecting tens of thousands of Americans, and so on, and out of what we may naively call an abundance of caution, may decide to use alternative methods of communication other than the traditionally bugged telephone or newly bugged social media.

Plug the narrative holes

No, the real reason for most of the secrecy is that the NSA does not want us to know. The story we’re being sold is that there’s this wall between us and the others, which by the way includes about 7 billion non Americans, with resident aliens being in or out depending on whim. This wall guarantees  – so we are told – that inside the prison, er, the happy room, we can frolic and enjoy free speech, privacy, fair competition, a shot at the healthy version of the American Dream. They are protecting us from them – the non Americans. You will be told that your rights, unlike the others’, are protected. They will tell you that with a straight face, quoting 51 percent accuracy in the surveillance system’s ability of telling whether or not the surveillance target is an American or not, as if it was some big deal technological achievement and not, as John Oliver smartly put it, simply “a coin toss, plus 1 percent“.

It is when cracks appear, when suddenly we find ourselves outside of the room and as we peer through the windows we notice there’s less and less people in there, with less and less rights, that we may ask ourselves exactly what and who is being protected.

The American Dream play space is only existing in stories and glossy magazines. The reality is all around us, from weekly banking crimes to wanton arrests, secret prosecutions, torture, economic disaster, environmental destruction, falling wages, loss of skills, decrepit infrastructure and a corrupt, inept, squabbling government.

It is the American story that’s being protected through secrecy. The narrative that says we are free and fulfilling our nation’s mission statement, and that we should therefore keep plugging along, without asking for substantial, systemic change because the story is still intact, honesty is still an American virtue, and law and order are the pillars of our civilized society.

And so while we may find comfort in the oft repeated slogan “The truth shall set you free” we are now asked to accept another, infinitely more sinister add-on: “only the untruth can keep you free”. Keep believing that you are free, and for all subjective intent and purposes, you will be.

Related:

NSA admits listening to U.S. phone calls without warrants

NSA Prism is motivated in part by fears that environmentally-linked disasters could spur anti-government activism

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