5 x 8: Burning the village to save it

New to 5×8? It’s a daily series of five “themes” that may or may not be in the news, in no particular order. I welcome your contributions which you can e-mail to me at bcollins@mpr.org.


Ho. Hum. Another day of finding out just how secret the secret spying on Americans has been. The latest comes from the Washington Post which reports that the The National Security Agency (can we call them the “secret police” like we do for other countries?) and the FBI “are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.

The program “shows how fundamentally surveillance law and practice have shifted away from individual suspicion in favor of systematic, mass collection techniques,” the Post says.

The money quote? “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian’s story about the secret monitoring of phone metadata of Americans provides Wired.com’s Kevin Poulsen with a chance to do some math. And one of the things he found is how useless the public documentation of record seizure can be, unless you’re trying to mislead people:

Every year, the Justice Department gives Congress a tally of the classified wiretap orders sought and issued in terrorist and spy cases – it was 1,789 last year. At the same time, it reports the number of demands for “business records” in such cases, issued under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. And while the number of such orders has generally grown over the years, it has always managed to stay relatively low. In 2011, it was 205. There were 96 orders in 2010, and only 21 in 2009.

Thanks to the Guardian’s scoop, we now know definitively just how misleading these numbers are. You see, while the feds are required to disclose the number of orders they apply for and receive (almost always the same number, by the way), they aren’t required to say how many people are targeted in each order. So a single order issued to Verizon Business Solutions in April covered metadata for every phone call made by every customer. That’s from one order out of what will probably be about 200 reported in next year’s numbers.

The New York Times editorial board stopped short of calling for people to head for the barricades:

Mr. Obama clearly had no intention of revealing this eavesdropping, just as he would not have acknowledged the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, had it not been reported in the press. Even then, it took him more than a year and a half to acknowledge the killing, and he is still keeping secret the protocol by which he makes such decisions.

We are not questioning the legality under the Patriot Act of the court order disclosed by The Guardian. But we strongly object to using that power in this manner. It is the very sort of thing against which Mr. Obama once railed, when he said in 2007 that the Bush administration’s surveillance policy “puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.”

But the Wall St. Journal today gives the NSA — and the politicians who passed the offending program in secret — a pass:

The critics nonetheless say the NSA program is a violation of privacy, or illegal, or unconstitutional, or all of the above. But nobody’s civil liberties are violated by tech companies or banks that constantly run the same kinds of data analysis. We bow to no one in our desire to limit government power, but data-mining is less intrusive on individuals than routine airport security. The data sweep is worth it if it prevents terror attacks that would lead politicians to endorse far greater harm to civil liberties.

The program was blessed by Congress in the Patriot Act and its later amendments, with broad powers for the NSA to obtain and monitor “any tangible things” including “records, papers, documents, and other items” in order to “protect against international terrorism.” As for the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches, the Supreme Court has long held (Smith v. Maryland, 1979) that there is no legitimate expectation of privacy for phone records that are held by a third party, which can be seized without a warrant.

There have been principled reasons stated for the spying, but the heart of the frustration over the last two days has been that we the people got no say in it. The Patriot Act reauthorization was a debate in secret and the government made it illegal to talk about details of sections of the act. We either are a part of the process of the government we get or we’re not. Which should it be?

It’s significant that what little public debate there is on the issue — and there has been very little — comes only after a news organization publishes a story the government would rather you not see.

How did we get here? Let’s hit the Wayback Machine and set it for 2006.

Related: A Day In The Life Of The Relentlessly Tracked : All Tech Considered : NPR.


Maybe I was expecting too much when APM’s Marketplace started its year-long look at the Oyler School in one of the poorest sections of Cincinnati. It’s rated as one of the bottom-performing schools in that state. Only a third of the kids who start the 9th grade end up finishing high school. Bad, but not that much worse than some schools in Minnesota.

But the people there are trying to change things and the students who stuck it out until senior year all got a diploma.

Happy story, yes? Marketplace couldn’t leave it there:

Most of Raven’s classmates plan to attend at least some college. A few are headed for apprenticeships or trade school. About a third will go straight into the workforce. But a lot can happen over the summer. Just before the ceremony, Hockenberry ran into one of his most promising seniors from last year. College didn’t work out.

“I see kids that graduated from Oyler that just — they didn’t make it,” he says. “So now instead of being a dropout…they’re walking the streets and doing drugs with a diploma.”

After the ceremony, everyone pours out onto Hatmaker Street. A few families fire up some barbecues for a cookout in the parking lot. The celebration is tinged with sadness. The night before an Oyler parent — with kids in preschool and kindergarten — was shot and killed in front of his house.

Obviously I don’t blame Marketplace for telling me what reality is and reality is that a lot of kids are left on their own once they struggle through high school. College doesn’t work for them for whatever reason. And even when it does, they don’t have the money to pay for it, so they — like many other college kids — take on debt. I’d submit, though, that a kid from the poorest section of Cincinnati taking on college debt can be a much more serious problem than someone from Edina similarly burdened.

Oh, the principal who worked so hard to change things this year during the series? He had his contract renewed. At a cut in pay.

Side note: There was a caller on MPR’s Daily Circuit show yesterday during the segment with a financial planner. He said the last of his kids was graduating from school this week — St. Olaf, I think — and he’s thinking about retirement and he and his wife have a second home in Florida and he’s realizing, he said, that Minnesota takes a lot of his tax money and so he’s thinking about moving out.

Maybe his now-educated kids got some help from public financing. Maybe they didn’t. I don’t know. Nobody asked him. But he declared it’s time to take a look at how much tax money is collected in this state. Now that his kids have been educated here.

More tales: Ruben Rosario: She was homeless; now, college awaits her – TwinCities.com.

‘T’ is for ‘Thanks, teachers’ (Duluth News Tribune).

Father's death gives JM student new appreciation for school. (Rochester Post Bulletin)

When school's out for summer, many kids are at risk of going hungry – In Plain Sight. (NBC)


Jennifer Simonson of MPR took some compelling photos in Hennepin County yesterday, where marriage licenses were issued yesterday for same-sex couples.

I thought I’d see more older couples there.

Couples like this one profiled in the video released yesterday.


Somewhere in this hallowed land, the clouds have parted after the rain stopped. It’s the Northland, of course, where last night featured a first-class Northern Lights show.

In the middle of it, the space station came flying through, but the picture on the Astro Bob blog reveals the problem with the glorious photos — they’re long exposures that make the lights more dynamic than they really were.

But still: They can see stars at night in the Northland, people.


Why, yes, as a matter of fact I am about to make your day. Remember a year or so ago, when PBS remixed a Mr. Rogers presentation? They did it again and released it yesterday. You’re welcome.

Bonus I: Fifty years ago, Jim Whittaker became the first American to climb Mt. Everest.

Bonus II: Warning: Do not look at these fabulous pictures if you’re afraid of heights. Photographing on top of the world. (New York Times’ Lens blog)

What level of domestic snooping by the government is acceptable?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: A panel of food writers examine the question “what is Midwestern cuisine?”

Second hour: Lt. Col. Mark Weber discusses his book Tell My Sons, a book he wrote to his sons who will soon be without a father. Weber was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and expects to die by the end of summer.

Third hour: The battle over GMO labeling.

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): A Pen Pals Lecture by Dennis Lehane, the acclaimed Boston writer.

Science Friday (1-2 p.m.) – The future of genetic testing. If your doctor scans your genome and finds a disturbing mutation, do you have the right not to know?

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – Author Judy Blume amassed generations of fans with realistic stories about kids and their families. Now, one of those stories has been made into a movie. “Tiger Eyes” debuts on the big screen 32 years after the novel was published. NPR talks with Blume about parenting, writing and her first movie adaptation.

  • BReynolds33

    My question of the day is this: What are the chances anything actually changes? I mean, there was a time when writing your representative meant something (OK, maybe there wasn’t). Now, you just get a form letter response and a brush off. The only way to make your voice heard is to vote, and by the time that comes around again, everyone will have forgotten about this.

    It’s just so incredibly disgusting, and yet they know there isn’t a dang thing we can do about it, so they don’t care.

    • I was thinking about this yesterday and wondering what WOULD it take to get people to drop what they’re doing and react the way they are, for example, in Turkey? What sort of event or story?

      • BReynolds33

        First, they came for the communists…

        That’s a tough question. Everyone is so worried about paying their bills and getting their kids to soccer practice that we don’t even stop to think about the undermining of the entire basis of the freedom to do those things.

        I am far from a conspiracy theorist, but this terrifies me. The right hates the left, left hates the right, both sides say this is wrong, yet no one acts. They are all too busy saying how evil the other side is.

      • DavidG

        well, in the run up to the second Iraq war, there were anti-war marches across the country that drew hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Didn’t even slow it down. Maybe they were too peaceful?

        • BJ

          Hundreds of thousands? I don’t remember anything that large. Maybe one or two in the tens of thousands. Iraq war was supported by a very large percent of this country.

          • Tyler

            January 2003: In San Francisco, between 150,000 and 200,000

            people attended the demonstration. The San Francisco police had originally estimated the crowd size at 55,000, but admitted later that they had badly underestimated the number and changed their estimate to 150,000. The day started with a waterfront rally at 11 am, followed by a march down Market Street to the Civic Center.

            In Washington, “at least tens of thousands”,[29] or “several hundred thousand”[30] people demonstrated through the city, ending with a rally at The Mall. Among the speakers was Rev. Jesse Jackson who told the crowd that “We are here because we choose coexistence over coannihilation.”

            More listings on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protests_against_the_Iraq_War#Scope_and_impact_in_the_United_States

            You don’t remember them because the media hardly reported on them. I remember the loudest component of the country being the bloodthirstiest in those days.

          • I think the media did report on them. (ex. http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/01/18/sproject.irq.us.protests/) but the country was pretty much in its “if you’re not for it, you’re agin’ us” phase.

  • Tyler

    Regarding the NYT editorial:

    “But nobody’s civil liberties are violated by tech companies or banks that constantly run the same kinds of data analysis.”

    The difference between tech companies and banks, and the federal government is that companies and banks aren’t in charge of legal prosecution and my taxes. The government is the form of authority in our country, and I don’t want authority messing around with my personal info, unless strictly necessary

    “We bow to no one in our desire to limit government power, but data-mining is less intrusive on individuals than routine airport security.”

    That’s rich. We’re comparing one 4th Amendment violation to another, and making both seem acceptable?

    “The data sweep is worth it if it prevents terror attacks that would lead politicians to endorse far greater harm to civil liberties.”

    Seriously??? THIS HAS ALREADY HAPPENED. I would suggest that you go read the Patriot Act, but unfortunately the federal government’s official interpretation of that law IS SECRET. Meaning what is written down in the Patriot Act is NOT what is practiced by our government. We now live in a nation of secret laws, and know not when we break them.

    • Also, tech companies and banks also have to send you a privacy notice to tell you what they’re doing with your data and you can opt out. In the case of companies like Google, you have to hit “I accept” on Terms of Service.

      The system is rigged here as your final paragraph points out. I’m sure we’ll be hearing from our senior senator, who voted for this, any minute now.

  • Jim G

    About the “caller on MPR’s Daily Circuit show yesterday during the segment with a financial planner. He said the last of his kids was graduating from school this week — St. Olaf, I think —and he’s thinking about retirement and he and his wife have a second home in Florida and he’s realizing, he said, that Minnesota takes a lot of his tax money and so he’s thinking about moving out.”

    When I heard him spouting this… “I’ve got mine and my family has been well educated by the institutions in Minnesota and now I’m taking my resources to Florida so I can save the extra $50,000 in taxes that my business would pay over the next five years until my retirement.” … my reaction was, “Please go quickly, before the next election!” Then you won’t be polluting Minnesota politics by voting. This is the same narcissistic philosophy which has thrown our country’s leadership into paralysis. See ya…never is too soon.

    • That’s pretty much the way I heard it. It’s a pity that wasn’t the topic of the hour because it was all the right there, although the financial expert did point out that most of those who leave for Florida or wherever because of taxes at retirement, end up coming back in some capacity to reap the benefits that Minnesota offers. I’d like to see the numbers to back that up, though.