Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “Of Slippery Slopes” Mr. Blow says government monitoring of the communications of Americans is not a left-right thing. It is a right-wrong thing.  Mr. Nocera tells us “How to Monetize Plagiarism:”  So Jonah Lehrer has a book deal. This is a column about second chances. Earned or not.  Ms. Collins, in “Intelligence For Dummies,” says all this news about how the government is keeping the records about our phone calls has raised some serious questions.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Maybe I’m a bit pessimistic when it comes to governmental paternalism and the unrelenting erosion of civil liberties, but I’ve always assumed that someone or something — including the government — is tracking, or could track, everything I do in an increasing virtual reality.

This is not to say I believe that doing so is right or just or benefits a democracy as Americans imagine it. But a kind of Murphy’s Law ethos abides in me, convincing me that what can be done eventually will be done, for good or ill, because information is power and human beings bend toward power the way weeds bend toward the sun.

And power is just as blinding. Anything can be, and often is, justified in the glare of it. The threat of terrorism has become the broad rationale for the invasion of our privacy.

That’s why I wasn’t as surprised as many this week when it was revealed that the National Security Agency used secret warrants to get Verizon phone records and was, as The Washington Post put it, “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading United States Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets.”

In the wake of the increasing digitizing of our lives — much of it with our consent — and with the overreactive national security hysteria that has followed the attacks of 9/11 (namely, the Patriot Act), this kind of thing seemed inevitable.

Some of that hysteria has been quelled, although the law and law enforcement tactics it gave birth to are still in effect.

For instance, in January 2002 Gallup found that the percentage of people who said that “the government should take steps to prevent additional acts of terrorism but not if those steps would violate your basic civil liberties” (49 percent) was nearly the same as those who said that “the government should take all steps necessary to prevent additional acts of terrorism in the United States even if it means your basic civil liberties would be violated” (47 percent).

By 2011, only 25 percent of those polled were willing to have their civil liberties violated while 71 percent were not.

More recently, following the Boston bombings, there was bit of a relapse; a CNN/Time/ORC International survey found that 40 percent of respondents were willing to give up civil liberties to fight terrorism.

Still, people were more sensitive about the monitoring of cellphone activity and e-mails.

CNN’s polling director, Keating Holland, said this week that after 9/11, “54 percent of Americans favored expanded government monitoring of cellphones and e-mail. Now, the message is ‘hands off.’ ” He continued, “Only 38 percent said they favor expanding government monitoring of those forms of communication.”

And yet, that appears to be exactly what the government is doing.

Furthermore, the fact that this administration has continued or even expanded the practices began under the Bush administration is beyond unsettling and so far down the slippery slope that I can see the darkness of the valley.

Look at it this way: this administration is taking unprecedented steps to make sure that the government’s secrets remain private while simultaneously invading the privacy of its citizens.

This is a “Papa knows best” approach to security policy.

We are told that this has helped to keep us safe, and that any loss of civil liberties and sense of privacy is but collateral damage, inconsequential in the grand sweep of things. Many innocents must be violated so that a few guilty people can be stopped. It’s a digital stop-and-frisk, using data trends and a few successes to do huge damage.

Even if you trust these “papas” — and I fully trust no politicians — what happens when they are replaced by new ones, ones you do not trust, ones with whom you do not agree?

That’s the problem: beyond the present potential for abuse, these policies establish a dangerous, bipartisan precedent — spanning all branches of government — that are easily misused.

Not only can power be blinding; it can be corruptive.

Imagine what damage the power to indiscriminately collect endless amounts of private data on innocent citizens could do in the hands of men and women of ill intent. The world is no stranger to that kind of abuse.

This is not a right-left thing. This is a right-wrong thing. This is not about short-term damage to political prospects but about long-term damage to democratic ideals. This is not about any particular person or president or party but about principles and limits.

This is one of those rare moments where the left edge and the right one can meet: this government overreach is a threat to liberty.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

This is a column about Jonah Lehrer, the 31-year-old disgraced former New Yorker writer who recently — sigh — landed a contract for a book about love. (Yes, love.) But I want to start by recalling another disgraced former magazine writer: Stephen Glass.

Glass was once a Washington wunderkind, who wrote remarkable articles filled with fabulous scenes and quotes. It turned out, of course, that many of the scenes and quotes were figments of Glass’s imagination, and that 42 of his articles, spanning two-and-a-half years, were either partially or entirely fabricated.

The New Republic, his primary employer, fired him. Other magazines that had published his work announced investigations. And, to complete his humiliation, a movie was made about how Glass’s fabrications had been exposed by The New Republic’s editor at the time, Charles Lane.

In the decade and a half since he was quite properly drummed out of journalism, Glass has led an exemplary life. After his disgrace, he vowed to live honorably and honestly, and he has. He underwent years of psychotherapy to come to terms with what he did. He asked for forgiveness from those whom he had betrayed.

And, in 2004, he went to work as a paralegal for a lawyer in Los Angeles who often represents the homeless. For years, Glass has been trying to get admitted to the California bar, but the bar association has been fighting him, saying that he lacks the appropriate character to be a lawyer. Yet I can’t think of anyone more deserving of a second chance than Stephen Glass.

And I can’t think of anyone less deserving of one than Jonah Lehrer.

It hasn’t even been a year since the first of Lehrer’s journalistic sins was uncovered: He was routinely recycling previously published work for a pop science blog he had begun at The New Yorker. (His works seems consciously modeled on Malcolm Gladwell’s.) Then, Michael Moynihan, writing in The Tablet magazine, dropped a bombshell: In his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Lehrer had made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. Moynihan followed up with examples of good old-fashioned plagiarism in an earlier Lehrer book. Several people who had been quoted by Lehrer said that they had never uttered the words he attributed to them. Inevitably, The New Yorker and Wired, where Lehrer also wrote, cut their ties with him. At which point Lehrer was left to … well, what exactly?

He certainly didn’t spend his time atoning. After he was exposed, he issued a statement saying that “the lies are over now,” and that he was sorry for what he had done. Then he went dark. I tried to reach him several times; I was intensely interested in why someone with his talent and future would risk it all by doing things that could so easily be found out. He never responded.

In February, he popped up at the Knight Foundation — “the nation’s leading journalism funder” — where he gave a speech entitled “My Apology.” (Knight paid him $20,000, for which it later had to apologize itself.) The speech was anything but an apology. Rather, it was structured like one of his typical mini-Malcolm articles, with discursions into a big forensic mistake made by the F.B.I., the research of a cognitive neuroscientist and the work of a behavior economist. His central point was that for whatever reason, he couldn’t trust himself to do the right thing, so he needed a structure — a “standard operating procedure” — that would force him to do the right thing. As apologies go, it was both arrogant and pathetic.

Now comes his book on love, which was revealed earlier this week by Julie Bosman of The New York Times, who got ahold of his 65-page proposal. It is more of the same. Although the first seven paragraphs are about “my fall,” (“I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry.”), the book is no memoir. Like his previous books, it is intended to be a work of pop science, an exploration into why and how we love. His chapter outline includes catchy phrases intended to move product. His attempts at sincerity come across as precious and phony. There is not much doubt about what is really going on here: Instead of atoning for the disgrace he brought on himself, Lehrer is trying to monetize it.

Although I was unable to speak to Lehrer, I did reach his editor at Simon & Schuster, Jonathan Karp, whom I’ve known and respected for years. “He knows he can’t screw up again,” Karp told me. “I’m not defending what he did, but I think we ought to have a little compassion here. He’s not a journalist. He’s a writer, and an unusually talented one. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Actually, they don’t. People who make a big mistake and want a second chance need to earn it. That’s the difference between Stephen Glass and Jonah Lehrer.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Question for the day: Do you feel more secure or less secure, now that you know the government is keeping a gargantuan pile of information about everybody’s telephone calls in the name of national security?

You have heard, I’m sure, that the National Security Agency has been mining Verizon’s records for information, such as numbers called and the location where the call was made. This is known as “telephony metadata,” and the very fact that we now have a term like “telephony metadata” is perhaps reason enough to be against the entire concept.

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” President Obama assured the American people on Friday. Well, probably nobody. And, if they are, it’s under an entirely different part of the program.

We’ve had a passel of these stories this week. (It also appears that the N.S.A. is sucking personal e-mails and other data from the servers of the giant Internet companies.) Security issues are very tough to figure out. One side is always saying, as Obama did on Friday, that whatever is going on will “help us prevent terrorist attacks.”

The phrase “help us prevent terrorist attacks” is sort of a conversation-stopper.

The other side is worried about privacy, but the public is resigned to the idea that some Big Brother is monitoring their communications. After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.

Let’s start with the real basics. Does the N.S.A. really need all the stuff it’s collecting? Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, the agency has been exploding. It has an enormous operation outside of Washington, and it is building another million-square-foot complex in the Utah desert. It collects an estimated 1.7 billion pieces of communication a day.

“When you have the ability to get more and more data, the natural inclination is to get as much as possible,” said Representative Henry Waxman, the former chairman of the House oversight committee.

Those of us who have seen the show “Hoarders” know that more is not always better, and “as much as possible” is sometimes covering up a pile of dead cats. After all, the government didn’t fail to stop the attack on the World Trade Center because of a lack of data. It had lots of information about Al Qaeda and its plan to stage an attack on America. The problem was with follow-up.

And the N.S.A. has been known to go overboard. During the administration of George W. Bush, it decided to drop a modest in-house plan for data analysis in favor of a gargantuan program called Trailblazer, which funneled more than $1 billion to private consultants and turned out to have the additional liability of not working. The official who fought most vigorously against it was rewarded in 2010 by being charged with violating the Espionage Act when he released information to a reporter.

That was only one incident, but we do seem to have an ominous combination: an agency with a bad record on thriftiness, and practically everything it spends money on is secret. “It’s a tough balancing act,” an Obama administration official told me. “It’s incumbent on us and Congress to do the job of scrutinizing the budget, both in terms of cost and efficacy.”

Yeah, what about Congress? The president keeps saying that “Congress is continually briefed” about security issues. In reality, the briefing is pretty much confined to the members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who are sworn to secrecy. Many of them also have a longstanding record of being in the pocket of the intelligence community. A few of the others had been desperately trying to warn their colleagues about the telephone-call program without breaking their vow of silence. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon did everything but tap dance the information in Morse code.

“Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” he asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, at a public hearing.

“No sir,” said Clapper.

I wouldn’t rely on Congress to keep things under control. It’s really up to the president. As a candidate, Obama looked as if he would be great at riding herd on the N.S.A.’s excesses. But if he has ever seriously pushed back on the spy set, it’s been kept a secret. Meanwhile, the administration scarfs up reporters’ e-mails and phone records in its obsessive war against leaks.

And without the leaks to reporters, we would never be having discussions about whether it’s a good idea for the government to collect piles of records about our telephone calls every day.

“I welcome this debate,” Obama said Friday. “I think it’s healthy for our democracy.” Under further questioning, he said that he definitely didn’t welcome the leaks. Without which, of course, there would be no debate.

Do you remember how enthusiastic people were about having a president who once taught constitutional law? I guess we’ve learned a lesson.


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