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The High Price That Surveillance Costs the Press and Our Democracy | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The High Price That Surveillance Costs the Press and Our Democracy

Edward Snowden

Former National Security Agency Analyst, Edward Snowden (AP photo) 

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Alter-reviews:

1) The Allman Brothers Band: “The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings,” six cds

2) John Coltrane, “Sideman,” three cds

3) The “Legendary Count Basie Orchestra” live at the Blue Note

Together with “Eat a Peach”—much of which was recorded at the same shows, The Allman Brothers Band's double album, “Live At Fillmore East,” has long been one a handful of iconic rock albums and no collection could be considered complete without it. Drawn from four shows on March 12-13, 1971, it so impressed Bill Graham that he decided that the band—which had sold next to no records at the time—would be the ones to close the hall, which they did months later, with a long set that began at 3:00 am.

In the past, if you wanted to collect more than just the above—the performances that were played that weekend but not recorded, you would have found them scattered among the following:

Duane Allman Anthology, Volume 1, Polydor, 1972/1986
Duane Allman Anthology, Volume 2, Polydor, 1974/1987
Dreams, Polydor, 1989
The Fillmore Concerts, Polydor, 1992
The Allman Brothers Band: (Deluxe Edition), Mercury, 2003
Eat a Peach (Deluxe Edition), Mercury, 2006
Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective, Rounder, 2013

I actually did all that, but most sane people did not. Now, for the rest of you there is a lovely boxed six-cd version The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings which contains fifteen versions of the these songs—including the very first show of the weekend--that you would not have even if you did all of the above. The credits are cleaned up too, so now we know that we are listening to Rudolph ‘Juicy” Carter on saxophone and Bobby Caldwell on percussion on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” The set lists do not change much. But the playing sure does overseen by executive producer Bill Levenson, who was responsible for the Dreams  box which got the band restarted on its current-about-to-end journey, it comes with an essay by band historian John Lynskey. Tom Dowd’s original mixes have been redone but not so much that you would notice—even if like me—you’ve been listening to the SACD for the past few years. People who do not appreciate the band, including those with whom I happen to live with, may mock you for wanting so many versions of “Statesboro” and “You Don’t Love Me.” (I could actually use a few more of “One Way Out.” But you must ignore them. Music has rarely been played better than this and history demands that we respect it, as this terrific box set does.)

Less ambitious but still most definitely of note this week is the release of “Sideman: Trane's Blue Note Sessions,” which is a three cd collection of Coltrane’s sessions for Blue Note Records from 1956-1957. He was member of the Miles Davis Quintet and also regularly played with Thelonious Monk at the time and combined self-discipline and creativity in a fashion that few have before or since. This set, conceived by former Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall, collects Trane’s work-for-hire sessions for Blue Note in one place for the first time. The albums in question are given over to Paul Chambers (Chambers' Music, a.k.a. High Step, and Whims of Chambers), Johnny Griffin (A Blowing Session) and Sonny Clark (Sonny's Crib). It’s all in mono, and this will be the first time you can find the Clark cd so mixed. The book-style package –which will fit in your cd case, includes a 34-page booklet with an essay by Ashley Kahn.

When I squeezed into a sold-out Count Basie show at the Blue Note on Sunday just before the band came on, I was feeling pretty crowded space-wise. Then I looked up on stage and I could hardly believe how many people were up on stage. I saw the actual Count Basie at Carnegie Hall about thirty years ago, not long before he died in 1984 joined by Ella Fitzgerald on vocals and Joe Pass on guitar. This was not as great as that. Not much is. The Basie band has traditionally been considered to be the home of the most talented of players and the material they play is a kind of urb-jazz that may have stopped with time a long time ago, but sounds as great as ever today. Now directed by Scotty Barnhart, this band has any number of great players—too many to mention, really and the point is not the individuals, whoever they may actually may be, but the machine they turn into together. Add them all up and they have about a thousand years of  experience and chops and emotional and musical intelligence. The repertoire is actually surprising too. It all drew on Basie history but with compositions and arrangements by people who have by and large gone unsung in jazz history; that’s what was on display last weekend at the Blue Note last week. You should hope you get the chance to see them in your town soon, too.

John Stewart and Stephen Colbert may take a lot of vacation time every August, but I take my reporting responsibilities seriously, and so I plan to head out to Guild Hall, the jewel of East Hampton, at least twice in the next few weeks. First is this weekend when they’ve put together an awesome bill of sax man Josh Redman with The Bad Plus. Then, on August 22, there’s the return of the good/bad fun of  “Celebrity Autobiography” reading with unofficial Mayor of the Hamptons, Alec Baldwin, and its no less unofficial Queen, Christie Brinkley, among many others, attempting to do justice to the literary talents of Vanna, Sly, Burt and Loni, some Jonases, and a bunch of other people who could have afforded to hire better ghost-writers—or ghost-writers at all. The Guild Hall asked is here should you be in the area.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

The High Price that Surveillance Costs the Press and Our Democracy
by Reed Richardson

It is a truism of covering Washington: each White House is more closed off and antagonistic toward the media than the last one. Press secretaries say less and less of value, while “senior administration officials” spin more and more. And perhaps nowhere is this trend more amplified than in the national security and intelligence arena, where every subsequent administration ups the ante at both keeping and creating more and more secrets, making the job of the press reporting on these critical issues ever tougher. But these are the waters journalists wade into knowingly, so it can be tempting to dismiss any of their complaints about how hard their job is now as routine bellyaching. Perhaps a frustrated press corps would just be wise to heed the advice of Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men, “…rest up 15 minutes, then get your asses back in gear.”

If only it were that easy. Indeed, consider how much really has changed for journalism since that ominous scene on Bradlee’s front lawn, where Woodward and Bernstein had moved the conversation to avoid possible White House-directed bugging inside their boss’s house. Behavior that was probably overwrought paranoia 40 years ago has increasingly become de rigueur for national security reporters today in light of government surveillance capabilities that can easily draw connections between journalists and their sources using phone metadata and email history, as well as track their respective movements through the cellphones in their pockets.

Tellingly, two of the biggest whistleblowers in U.S. history, one from that era and one from this one, have had radically different experiences when it came to maintaining their anonymity. Deep Throat—the high-ranking FBI official Mark Felt—successfully escaped public identification for 32 years before voluntarily revealing his key role in guiding the Washington Post ’s blockbuster Watergate coverage; Edward Snowden, on the other hand, was so confident that our nation’s global spy network would figure him out he followed an irreversible path that involved outing himself less than a week after the first stories about NSA spying broke. (No doubt the vastly different scale of their leaks played a big role in their respective ability/inability to keep their identities hidden as well.)

We’ve arrived at an age where our nation’s spy agencies not only want to “collect it all” but can and do. Such an omniscient surveillance state, coupled with the Obama administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistleblowers, poses a uniquely difficult dilemma for national security and intelligence reporters. In effect, they are forced to operate in a kind of through-the-looking-glass reality where both nothing and everything is a secret. In such an environment, one might expect fewer and fewer sources inside the government to be willing to risk talking to the press, meaning more and more of what our government does in our name becomes shrouded from public view. And, in fact, a new joint study from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch released last week, entitled “With Liberty to Monitor All”   finds this to be exactly the case.

“Whether reporting valuable information to the public, representing another’s legal interests, or voluntarily associating with others in order to advocate for changes in policy, it is often crucial to keep certain information private from the government. In the face of a massively powerful surveillance apparatus maintained by the US government, however, that privacy is becoming increasingly scarce and difficult to ensure. As a result, journalists and their sources, as well as lawyers and their clients, are changing their behavior in ways that undermine basic rights and corrode democratic processes.”

The report, which is worth reading in its entirety, offers a broad, ambitious analysis of electronic surveillance’s impact on the press, on due process and the law, and our democracy in general. Based on interviews from 92 individuals—including dozens of veteran journalists and lawyers, as well as several current and former U.S. government officials—the report lays out a strong case that our nation’s overzealous surveillance state has become increasingly counterproductive and has compromised the rights and principles it purportedly protects.

Its section on the journalism is especially alarming. It reveals a natsec press corps mired in a kind of journalistic torpor, suffering from a drought of sources and struggling to implement a raft of new digital privacy countermeasures (many of which still have little to no ability to prevent government monitoring). Numerous national security reporters talk of the surveillance state’s chilling effect on their reporting and there’s clearly large opportunity costs to all the extra work involved. After all, it takes a lot of time to find and recruit new sources as well as to learn and master the use of encrypted communications; time that could be better spent uncovering government misconduct and informing the public.

This last point is a crucial one. Though journalists adopt (correctly) an adversarial role when reporting on the government—particularly important when sniffing out the many hidden corners of the national security apparatus—it’s important to remember that this is in our government and our country’s best interests. As Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest puts it in the report: “What makes government better is our work exposing information.” And this need for the press to act as a check against government misconduct or abuse of power becomes even more critical when the White House and Congress routinely fail to exercise any real oversight .

One of the most common arguments made in defense of the country’s current surveillance system is that critics can’t name one person who has really been harmed by it, even when it frequently oversteps its already feeble constraints. And it a strict sense they’re right; it’s very difficult to identify specific individual Americans whose lives have been damaged by it. (Although I’d say these Muslim American leaders clearly pass the test.) This report, however, stands as a clear rebuke to the “I’ve got nothing to hide, so who cares?” crowd because it demonstrates that it’s not merely individuals, but whole systems within our democracy itself that are collectively suffering. Freedom of the press, the right to privacy, due process, political accountability: more than any one person, it’s these bedrock principles of our nation that are being eroded away by an all-seeing, all-knowing national security posture.

Of course, spy agencies are supposed to spy. Accordingly, the report offers up numerous, common-sense recommendations for re-ordering secrecy and surveillance policy. Coincidentally, there was actually some encouraging news on this front out of Capitol Hill this week. The latest iteration of the USA FREEDOM Act put forward, if passed, would take real, substantive steps toward rolling back onerous bulk collection of records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the egregiously prejudicial National Security Letters. (Troublingly, the bill would exempt the FBI from oversight on so-called “back door searches,” a controversial surveillance tactic that the agency could employ to track whistleblowers who are in contact with journalists without obtaining a warrant.)

Arriving roughly one year after the first Snowden leaks, the ACLU/Human Rights Watch report offers a vital reminder of how much we’ve learned about our government’s surveillance programs since last summer. But it also highlights how far we have to go to strike the right balance between government secrecy, press freedom, and individual privacy, since many other flawed areas of overreach highlighted by the report—in particular, surveillance conducted under Section 702 and Executive Order 12333 authority—still have no proposed solution on the horizon. While the knowledge we’ve gained over the past year has undoubtedly made it tougher for journalists, lawyers, and lawmakers to do their job, having the scales lifted from our eyes is unquestionably better for all of us. Now that we know the high price our democracy is paying to accommodate this vast surveillance state, it’s up to us to do something about it. For, as the Bradlee character also pointed out in that same scene in All the President’s Men: “Nothing’s riding on this…except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail
Marlowe Hood

Just read your piece on climate change reporting (“Blinded Me With Balance…”), and thought you might be interested (or at least entertained) by my own reflection (u.afp.com/Godzilla) after five years as a Paris-based science-&-environment reporter for Agence France Presse.

As an international news agency, we of course confronted all the questions you raise. While we never laid down specific agency-wide guidelines on how to deal with global warming ‘sceptics’, AFP has long had a firm policy of evaluating climate change stories on the basis of scientific merit. As a result, we never gave much oxygen to what were—for anyone who bothered to look closely—attention-seeking charlatans and/or& industry-fed flacks. I’m American, but looking at the U.S. from afar on this issue during the last eight years, I kept asking myself: when will mainstream media in the U.S. wake up? It took far too long, but the sleep-inducing spell seems finally to have broken (except, of course, chez Fox News). At a personal level, I struggled as a beat reporter with a different quandary: whether I could do my job with integrity having rather quickly come to the conclusion that climate change was a monumental—the monumental—threat of our times. Indeed, in mid-2009 I nearly cashed in my chips as a journalist, thinking that I might be able to communicate that reality more effectively in another guise. But long exchanges with colleagues, scientists and activists finally convinced me that honest, conscientious reporting on the science and policy—including, of course, foibles and failures—was the best way forward.

Martina Rippon
Madison, WI

I'm blown over by the crystal clarity of your article (“From Hobby Lobby to Climate Change…”) exposing the incompetence, even the complicit deception, of the media regarding birth control* decisions passed on by men who have no conception (pun intended) of what a woman goes through in carrying a fetus as well as nurturing that child for the rest of its life.  It truly is an attack on women, probably on "uppity" women who threaten their incompetence at their jobs. Nowhere have I seen it written (might be, but I haven't seen it) the simple fact that prohibiting contraception makes abortion even more likely.

*I refer to it as "pregnancy control" because that's what it is.

Somewhere in medical school I heard an instructor refer to pregnancy as a "parasitic infestation," because, technically, the implanted fetus is a parasite.

All that aside, you've inspired me to subscribe to The Nation again.

I look forward to further developments in your expose of the media's dereliction of duty.  Free press should not include false press; right-wing fallacies (phallusies?) are too quick to deny women's experience or even existence—thanks for pointing out the few mentions in Alito's opinion.

SCROTUS's—Supreme Court (Really?) of the United States needs its own bias exposed—especially that of Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Roberts. I think Thomas may be impeachable—he sure stretches anyone's notion of appropriate or "good behavior."

Please forgive my bordering-on-the-obscene commentary, but I am really pissed by these bullies dicking us around. Did I mention that I am a woman?

Hobby Lobby's hypocrisy is even more evident that most of its merchandise is made in China, where abortions are forced. Enough rant for now.

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