Friday, August 09, 2013

If Biogenesis Had a Contract With NSA - Headlines Would Be About Stolen Data, Not Baseball Players' Drug Use - Obama Responds

The information which led to the suspension of a dozen major league baseball players this week, was stolen from the company.  A disgruntled client/employee/investor took boxes of data and released the information to the press.

From the Anchorage Daily News:
"Porter Fischer, a former employee of the now-infamous Biogenesis clinic in Miami, told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that there are at least a dozen more athletes across numerous professional sports leagues that have yet to be exposed.
Fischer turned the Biogenesis clinic investigation into a national scandal when he turned boxes of documents over to the Miami New Times last year."

But the reaction of the nation led by the media is in stark contrast to the reaction to the whistle blowers who released information to the world, at great personal risk, because they thought the public needed to be aware of what was being done by the government.  I'm not necessarily endorsing the actions of the whistle-blowers, but I'm sympathetic to their motivation.

Propublica has a timeline of people prosecuted under the Espionage Act.   Here are the key people on it:
  • 1971: Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo indicted
  • 1985: Samuel Morison convicted
  • January 2006: Lawrence Franklin convicted
  • May 2010: Shamai Leibowitz convicted
  • August 2010: Stephen Kim indicted
  • December 2010: Jeffrey Sterling indicted
  • Jun. 2011: Case against Thomas Drake dropped
  • October 2012: John Kiriakou convicted
  • June 14, 2013: Edward Snowden Charged  
  • July 30, 2013: Bradley Manning Convicted 

John Kiriakou, one of the men on the list, recently wrote:
"President Obama has been unprecedented in his use of the Espionage Act to prosecute those whose whistleblowing he wants to curtail. The purpose of an Espionage Act prosecution, however, is not to punish a person for spying for the enemy, selling secrets for personal gain, or trying to undermine our way of life. It is to ruin the whistleblower personally, professionally and financially. It is meant to send a message to anybody else considering speaking truth to power: challenge us and we will destroy you.

Only ten people in American history have been charged with espionage for leaking classified information, seven of them under Barack Obama."
The leaks of classified documents by people working for government raises many questions, about the leakers and about the government and its reaction to the leakers. However, there is a great difference between whistle blowers and spies.

Spies sell information to foreign governments for profit, because they are being blackmailed, because of ideology, or a combination of more than one of these.  A report on the motivation of spies on this US Department of Agriculture site by By Dr. Mike Gelles Naval Criminal Investigative Service says that most spies have personal issues that the organization should be looking for.  But this report is about spies, not about whistle blowers. 

True whistle blowers believe that the government is doing something that is in serious violation of the law and poses a danger to the public if the information is not released.  They can be right or wrong about this.  And its possible that the information they release causes some danger as well as needed information.  This has some similarity to when a dangerous prisoner is released because the technical rules of justice were violated.  We balance two different important values.

Reporters prosecuted for espionage raise even greater issues.  John Kiriakou writes:
Two of my espionage charges were the result of a conversation I had with a New York Times reporter about torture. I gave him no classified information – only the business card of a former CIA colleague who had never been undercover. The other espionage charge was for giving the same unclassified business card to a reporter for ABC News. All three espionage charges were eventually dropped.

People in power have always tried to keep information from the public.  Some of it is legitimately withheld - the Freedom of Information Act outlines the kinds of information that is exempted from release.  But often, information that the people should know is hidden by those exemptions.

The film  Dirty Wars  which we saw Monday night is one more account of the serious abuse of secrecy in the federal government.  The film raises many questions, I don't have time to pursue now.

Knowledge of what our government is doing is critical to citizens of a democracy making good choices when they vote.   One can't help wonder how much the government is hiding simply because it is embarrassing.  The Municipality of Anchorage, for example, when it settles with someone who has sued the Municipality, includes language which requires the person to not disclose the details of the settlement.  When asked by the media (if they are paying attention at all) about the settlement, the Muni officials say the conditions of the settlement prevent them from saying anything.  Even though this is a condition they insist on and require.  Basically, this is to keep the public from knowing what the Muni did wrong and how much they paid to make it go away.

And yesterday I read that the encrypted email service David Snowden used has shut down:
"The statement posted online by Lavabit owner Ladar Levison hinted that the Dallas-based company had been forbidden from revealing what was going on."

The release of millions of classified documents by Bradley Manning and David Snowden raises huge questions about [the culpability of the government's handling of this sort of data such as:]
  • how these folks had access to all this information
  • how they  could download and store this information without detection, without the computer programs alerting officials to what was happening
  • why private contractors are doing this work 
  • how contracting out this work sets up an interest group with motivation to lobby Congress to increase the amount of secrecy and spying
[The government has pushed the danger of terrorism, it seems, in part to keep the focus off questions on their lax security procedures.]

The amount of media attention on these issues has been tiny.

Yet, when Porter Fisher walks off with Biogenesis files and makes them public, the attention is on the drug use of the subjects of the files, not on the breach of the confidentiality of their medical records or on the theft of the files.

How we handle whistleblowers, whether government employees, private contractors, or the journalists who publish the information the leak, is a problem which may be evolving into the biggest danger to democracy in the US today as the NSA, FBI, CIA, the White House and their many corporate contractors, ruthlessly work to silence anyone who dares to reveal their actions.  

Obama came on the radio as I'm finishing this, responding to some of these issues.  Does that means he's monitoring my computer and reading my posts before I even publish them?  I'm sure they don't even know this blog exists.  Here are the four points Obama made:

  1. Reforms to Sec. 215 of the Patriot Act
  2. Oversight  over the FISA Court - they only hear one side of the issue, they can have adversarial procedures with civil liberty groups expressing their concerns act  in the courts
  3. We can be more transparent - instructed inteeligence agency to be as transparent as possible and a website of intelligency agencies to be more transparent and explain what it's doing
  4. High level group of outside experts to review and recommend - interim report in 60 days and final report by the end of the year
Now he's answering questions.  You can listen live here.


  1. Strangely unfocused and blasé post by someone whose views on and attainments surrounding public policy are usually direct and to the point.
    Hopefully, you are just gathering your thoughts on this incredibly important set of subjects.

  2. Phil, I am meandering here, as I am wont to do. It's a huge topic that has lots of parts. Much of the discussion I've seen has been either focused on the need for secrecy/national security/patriotism or on Constitutional rights of free speech and privacy/whistleblowing/government misdeeds.

    I think it's much bigger than that. At its core it's about the gathering up of power by corporations and very rich individuals, their belief in their right to that power and their own rightness about how the world works (if we weren't so smart, how come we're so rich and powerful?). It's about transferring that sense of superiority to their right to do whatever they want to anyone anywhere in the world and using the federal government as one of their tools to do it.

    But I'm only just trying to think all this through. My focus was on how in the Biogenesis situation one guy walked off with boxes of company data and used it to blow the expose more baseball drug abuse. And the media focused on the baseball drug abuse. But in the Snowden, Manning, and other Espionage Act cases, the focus was on the whistleblowers and every attempt was made to shut them up, hide the information that was released and the problems it raised, and send a warning to others who might think about following in their footsteps. Starting with that limited scope was something I thought I might be able to handle, while bringing in some related context. Obviously, I didn't do that good a job. But meandering has been my style all along - trying to synthesize disparate points rather than echo the simplistic good v bad dichotomy a lot of the media push.

    I'm not sure what you meant with the word 'blasé.' I rarely take a strong stance one way or the other. I try to let the facts I lay out do that for me. And at this point there is still so much I don't know, it would seem presumptuous.

    I do appreciate the feedback, it made me think about this further.


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