Eugene Robinson Live

Aug 13, 2013

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welome to... the middle of August. Congress is out of town, POTUS is out of town, the First Dog is out of town. Still, the news goes on. Here at the Post, we're still pretty much in shock from last week's announcement that the Graham family is selling the paper to billionaire Jeff Bezos. Meanwhile, on Friday the president utterly failed to address civil libertarians' concerns about the massive NSA domestic surveillance (the subject of today's column). Yesterday, a judge ruled that New York's stop-and-frisk policy, as currently enforced, is unconstitutional. And today I see that Justice is suing to block the AA-USAir merger. Lots to talk about, so let's get started.

Do you believe that Mr. Snowdon is a whistleblower rather than a traitor? And if that were true, Mr, Robinson, wouldn't that apply equally to Bradley Manning? Thank you.

Yes, I believe Edward Snowden is a whistleblower. He clearly broke the law; and by going on the lam, he guaranteed that no one would ever confuse him with Gandhi. But he brought to light secret government actions that clearly needed to be made public, and he did so in a careful way. He didn't just indiscriminately put everything out there, heedless of any implications -- which is what Bradley Manning did. I have trouble thinking of Manning as a classic whistleblower, but I don't think he's a traitor, either. I do think he at least believed he was acting out of conscience.

So what you're saying is that we should violate the 4th Amendment rights of MORE people, especially white people? And doesn't it also violate white people's 14th Amendment rights by singling them out because they are white? The answer is to eliminate Stop and Frisk entirely. If reasonable suspicion is involved then I have no problem with asking a few questions. But the suspicion must be reasonable and yes, it should not be based on race alone.

I talked about stop-and-frisk on Morning Joe (at an ungodly hour). If there is an unavoidable Fourth Amendment problem with the policy -- if it mandates searches without suspicion, which is supposed to be unconstitutional (somebody tell the NSA) -- then you're right, the practice should be halted immediately. If there's a way to modify the policy so it passes Fourth Amendment muster, however, then my big problem -- the one I was talking about this morning -- is that it violates the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection. One solution would be to apply the policy to all New Yorkers, not just African Americans and Hispanics. 

A group of Tea Party supporters were complaining about government intrusiveness with a sobriety checkpoint in New Hampshire. I started to think about this type of action and how it compares to NSA phone data collection or to stop and frisk in NYC. Personally NSA and sobriety checkpoints bothered me less because everyone was impacted the same. Others I have talked to were more bothered by the NSA revelations. Does it make sense to group these together and how would you rank them?

I think you're comparing apples, oranges and kumquats. Sobriety checkpoints affect everyone equally and are designed to ascertain just one thing: whether motorists are driving drunk, which is illegal and dangerous. I gave my analysis of stop-and-frisk in the previous answer; basically, it's okay if it is done in a way to satisfy the Fourth Amendment and if it's done to everyone, not just those who happen to fall into certain racial or ethnic categories. And I've explained what I think about the NSA spying in several columns. It sweeps up huge amounts of private information about millions of people who are under no suspicion of any crime -- information that does not pertain to any investigation. It's outrageous.

I'm a white guy, and I'm against stop and frisk because it's happened to me. I went to college in a small town in Upstate, NY and if you were a young male walking down the street late at night, the cops would stop, question, and pat you down. I guarantee if that were happening to kids of middle and upper middle class parents at NYU, there would be a huge outcry.

In New York City, African Americans and Hispanics are at least four times more likely to be stopped and frisked than whites. The practical impact? Imagine two guys heading home at the end of a long workday, a black maintenance engineer in Bed-Stuy and a white stockbroker on Wall Street. Each decides to smoke a joint. The maintenance guy is four times more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested and booked; and to have a criminal record that will follow him for the rest of his life. The stockbroker is almost guaranteed to have... a mellow evening. Not fair.

Convicting Snowden of treason because some of our enemies might read newspapers defies logic. If this were the case, revealing any government secret to any journalist would be treason simply if one of our enemies happened to pick up the paper and read it. There goes a free press down the drain. The American public could never see what the government is doing. We would be blinded.

That's bsically right. There are legitimate government secrets. I've spent quite a few years as a senior editor here at the Post, and I know of instances in which reporters discovered information that genuinely would have endangered lives or harmed national security if published -- and the paper decided not to publish. I know of more instances when the government made such claims but it was clear that publication was in the national interest. In the Snowden case, as in the past, editors acted responsibly in choosing what to publish and what to withhold. That's how a free press should work.

I saw Howard Kurtz comment that the big problem that has faced the Post is that it has become a national paper, yet it's main source of income is local advertising, which has gone down in this economy. Can't this be solved by charging all readers a supscrition fee?

If I knew the answer, I'd be a billionaire consultant and newspapers would be thriving. They are not (and I include The Post) because print advertising has falled dramatically over the last decade. It may be that online paywalls, meters and subscription fees are at least part of the answer. I would be surprised if any newspaper finds that such fees alone provide enough revenue to support a first-rate newsroom.

I hardly think taking highly secret security files on a world tour of America's biggest enemies/rivals qualifies you as a "whistle blower". Unlike Manning, who backed up his convictions with action, Snowden seems more concerned with making himself an important guy. Whether or not one agrees with the surveillance in question, I don't see giving Russia and China access to it as a step in the right direction.

Giving Russia and China access to what, exactly? I've seen no evidence or allegation that Snowden has given anything to any foreign power. And I doubt there's much he could reveal to the Chinese and Russian intelligence services that they don't know or suspect already. We are the ones who had been kept in the dark.

One question nobody seems to be asking is whether the NSA's surveillance programs have produced any worthwhile results. Other than vague hand-waving, it seems all we've heard are details of small-time cases where good, old-fashioned police work was the largest factor. We're also hearing a lot of variations on "trust us." Are we just wasting untold dollars on another boondoggle, and a threat to democracy, at that?

An excellent question, one that I plan to try to address at length in a column sometime soon. I, too, have heard no claim that any terrorist plot or threat has been uncovered solely because of the NSA data, or even that any plot/threat was initially discovered by searching the data. I think the NSA is doing this basically because it can. Of course it's useful, if you have suspects, to look at their phone calls and email contacts. That's what subpoenas are for, and the NSA could compel the phone company to turn over the relevant records. I haven't been convinced -- at all -- that there is a genuine need to collect and store billions of irrelevant records that happen to contain private information about you and me.

While it seems that having Bezos as owner of The Washington Post is preferable to Rupert Murdoch or the Koch brothers, the truth of the matter will be seen if investigative reporters find problems with his company, Amazon, and whether or not he allows the story to be published, yes?

I can think of lots of upcoming tests, but that's surely one of them. Another will come when he has his first standoff with the government over publication of some story. I have no reason to believe that Bezos is unaware of what he's signing up for.

That is the problem, Mr Robinson. We the people don't know exactly what Ed Snowden has although I'm sure the NSA has done their post mortem and they're not about to admit what they lost.

I assume the NSA must know what he has, but they haven't seen fit to tell me.

" Of course it's useful, if you have suspects, to look at their phone calls and email contacts. That's what subpoenas are for, and the NSA could compel the phone company to turn over the relevant records. I haven't been convinced -- at all -- that there is a genuine need to collect and store billions of irrelevant records that happen to contain private information about you and me." Exactly. There's no legal basis for acquiring that information for people who aren't under suspicion of having committed crimes.

The Fourth Amendment seems to say quite clearly that a search has to be based on suspicion. The NSA knows with certainty that the vast majority of people whose private information is being seized are not under suspicion and never will be.

He and Julian Assange keep asserting he has many more files to divulge. When I've heard the issue discussed on NPR and other venues, it's been assumed that he has what he lifted on a hard drive of some kind. If Manning was able to burn all of his info onto CDs, how would you not assume that Snowden is relying on something more than memory?

Snowden is supposedly carrying several laptops with him, right? Presumably the information, whatever it is, is on them. One question that still hasn't been answered is how an analyst working for a contractor at a remote NSA post in Hawaii could have access to such closely guarded secrets.

I have not seen much writing about the possible effect of Rachel Maddow's program on Sean Hannity's lower viewership numbers. Do you think this is a possible link ?


I would have a lot more sympathy for Snowden if he didn't flee to Russia. What kind of free-press whilstleblower advocate gives Russia of all places that kind of publicity?

I don't think it's necessary to sympathize with Snowden to recognize that he performed a valuable service by revealing the NSA domestic surveillance. Officials who now say they "welcome" the debate should thank him. 

Mr. Robinson, I enjoy reading your columns each week and following you on Twitter. As a fellow writer, I would like to know where you find the bulk of your story/column ideas and how do you keep from repeating material? Thank you Dijon Rolle

How do I keep from repeating myself? How do I keep from repeating myself? How do I... Seriously, I write about what grabs my interest. And I try not to repeat myself, but sometimes I do. I think every columnist does.


And for this columnist, that's all for today. My time is up. Thanks, as always, for a great discussion, and I'll see you again next week.

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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