Eugene Robinson Live

Dec 17, 2013

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

Hi, everyone, and welcome to our weekly discussion. I would extend a special welcome to our friends at the NSA, but I assume they already know what we're going to say for the next hour. Not a great day for the NSA yesterday -- a federal judge ruled that the bulk collection of phone data, revealed by Edward Snowden, is almost surely unconstitutional. Another federal judge, in a separate case, seems to be heading in the same direction. Today's column is about that issue, and it says we'd better demand our privacy back or lose it forever. Let's get started.

Each day, as more news of the NSA's intrusiveness leaks out in the news, Edward Snowden is looking less like an evil spy and more like someone concerned with our civil rights. Do you think the scale of the surveillance is starting to turn a significant share of decision makers against the program?

I agree that Snowden looks more and more like a classic whistleblower who is revealing information that is clearly in the public interest. Clearly, there are quite a few decision makers who are aghast at the extent of the domestic surveillance. But the decision makers who matter -- President Obama and the heads of the intelligence committees in the House and Senate -- still don't get why everyone is so upset. The courts may ultimately weigh in on the side of truth, justice and freedom.

Its becoming laughably obvious that politicians and pundits have very very little clue about technology. You all view everything a couple of lines of code here and a means to end there. Ted Stevens once called the internet a series of tubes, but are most politicans and pundits really that much more advanced? There is a disdain for those in the tech world from the poltical one. Often called geeks and looked down upon. The reality however is that your failure to understand how technology works and is developed leads to insane ideas (lets fix Obamacare in a month -ha) or ideas that we can only tap foreign traffic via the NSA. The Internet is a globally routed protocol. What you send on gmail and other services is instantly replicated on servers around the world, and often sent unencrypted. Do you propose we just set an evil bit (or a USA bit) so we know what traffic to monitor and what to avoid. Since traffic is globally routed and works off one worldwide standard its impossible to do an effective job and NOT monitor Internet traffic of US Citizens. Until politicians and writers like yourself actually take time to understand the underlying technology, events like or the NSA spying "scandal" will be greatly misunderstood.

It seems to me that your premise about geeks being underappreciated and looked down upon is completely wrong. Geeks are the masters of the universe. The most successful and admired executives in the business world -- Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, the late Steve Jobs -- are, or were, pretty geekish. As for the rest of your post, I think you're conflating a bunch of separate issues. My column complains specifically about the bulk collection and storage of metadata about all our phone calls. I may not be a technical expert, but I know for sure that this is not something the NSA is compelled to do because of the way technology works. This is a vast, deliberate undertaking that violates our privacy -- for no good reason.

Did you watch Sunday night's supposed "investigation" of NSA? I didn't because I figured it would be inaccurate or fawning or both. Foreign Policy magazine has several good analyses of this "coverage."

I confess that I missed the 60 Minutes piece on the NSA, but I've read lots about it. The idea, according to CBS, was to give the agency a chance to state its case. Nothing wrong with that, in principle. In practice, it can look as if a news organization has put aside its mission of holding government accountable in exchange for total access.

Nonsense. The judge in yesterday's case obviously understood it perfectly well when he pointed out that the case used as a precedent for monitoring cell phones actually predates the existence of cell phones.

True. It really does look as if the government is on shaky ground, because that one case seems to underlie the whole legal rationale for the program. The secret FISA court seems to have bought it, but other judges are doubtful.

See, if all his disclosures were about NSA spying on US citizens, that's a whistleblower. Telling China, and other countries that we're listening in on them? That's causing damage to US goodwill, so not heroic whistle-blowing (just because everyone knows we're spying on China (China included) doesn't mean that proof should be shared). Add that to at least some reports that he said he took the job to collect and distribute information? No hero in my book.

Snowden clearly believes that some U.S. spying on foreign citizens and institutions is also out of line. He has made clear, however, that he is not against all spying by the NSA. It's clear that he knows much that he hasn't revealed because he believes doing so would damage our national security. I don't think that anything he has disclosed so far disqualifies him as a whistleblower.

I've been watching the Intelligence Community outsource more and more inherently governmental functions (there is a legal definition of that term) for years now and despairing. We are basically fighting wars with mercenaries and giving contractors access to highly classified information, yet people are surprised when this does not have good results. Do you hold out any hope for the future of IGFs, Gene? (And yes, I'm a retired fed.)

Our political leaders don't seem to want to tackle this subject, but I think it's an important one. Is it wise to outsource functions like war-fighting and intelligence-gathering? I think the evidence strongly suggests that it is not.

"Either we demand our privacy--loudly--or we kiss it goodbye." Sadly, that ship has already sailed, Gene. We quietly and without much reflection traded our privacy for notoriety and celebrity some time ago. We freely give away our privacy every time we buy something on-line, post something to a social network, or even use a web browser. Yes, there's a huge difference between commercial enterprises such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft collecting information we provide them and the state taking information we do not provide them. But sadly, the Bush White who began the NSA mess and the Obama White House who have continued it correctly predicted that the public wouldn't object very much, since, after all, we're fighting an alleged war on terror. It troubles me even more, however, that we have already abandoned privacy as something to be cherished. And we are not likely to get it back without another cultural shift in the opposite direction. I wish I could be more optimistic that voices such as yours could help create such a transformation, because without a cultural shift to take back and safeguard privacy, we're never going to get a policy change.

It's an uphill battle, for sure. It begins with bringing abuses into the light, as Snowden and his journalistic partners have done. It's encouraging that some conservatives are as appalled by the NSA's domestic surveillance as I am.

Shouldn't the NSA have been wise to keep a close eye on pro-gun nut and anti-Obama demonstrator Larry Klayman? Just because he won this case doesn't make him any sort of hero in my book, and I'm not so sure I want to make common cause with him.

There's that old line about strange bedfellows... It happens that Klayman took a righteous position on this issue and is winning. If you (and I) find it uncomfortable to man the barricades with this nutcase, there's a similar federal lawsuit being pursued by the ACLU in which the judge seems to be headed in the same direction.

Mr. Robinson, reports show that healthcosts are rising BUT at a slow pace than recent past. With that being said, President Obama is being blamed for this. In your opinion, what is it going to take to get the American public to realize that the president isn't the one that's jacking up the prices. If anything, he should be given some sort of praise for the trickling rise in healthcare. We all know how rapid costs were going up when "W" was at 1600..... Your thoughts?

Long before the ACA was conceived, let alone passed, this was the situation: Health care costs rose every year, health insurance premiums rose every year, millions of people had their policies cancelled every year at the whim of the insurance companies. Now that the ACA -- a sweeping piece of legislation -- is in effect, it gets blamed for every bad thing that happens in the health care universe, including the bad things that were regularly happening all along. I think this may be inevitable. The effect should wear off as the newness of the ACA wears off.

Why such poisonous hatred of Snowden?

I think a lot of it stems from the fact that he fled the country -- and also the fact that he seems (I've never met him) pretty pompous and self-righteous. But any journalist will tell you that whistleblowers tend to be difficult and scratchy. They shouldn't be judged by their warmth and cuddliness, but by their deeds: Is the information they revealed in the public interest? In Snowden's case, I think the clear answer is yes.

Very good news to hear that a main stream columist has changed his position on Edward Snowden. Prior to this discussion I believe that Mr. Robinson was "on the fence" on whether Mr. Snowden was in fact a whistleblower. What is it going to take to have the DC press corp. to actually adopt a understanding of crimes against the state and those exposing said offenses?

Actually, I've been off the fence for quite some time now, as my previous columns on the subject will attest. I can't speak for the entire press corps, but I will say that the revelations about how the AP's phones were tapped and Fox reporter James Rosen was put under surveillance made a lot of my colleagues take notice.

Gene, long time chat lurker, first tim question asker. I wanted to ask you a question that I keep struggling with. I see the argument about cutting spending now hurting the economy. But the qustion I have is, do you believe that the federal debt is a problem? If yes, when and how do you reduce the debt in a changing demographic country? If not, why do you not believe that the debt, and not the deficit, is a problem?

Welcome to the fray. I believe the debt is a problem but not a crisis. And it's clearly not the biggest economic problem we face right now. In the long run, we need to bring down the debt as a percentage of GDP. But the more urgent task right now is to grow the economy, because the more growth we have, the easier the debt problem is to solve. The fact that we're having fairly decent growth this year and the slowest rise in health costs in decades means that the debt looks much less menacing than it did even 12 months ago. Given these trends, it would be foolish -- and cruel -- to make draconian cuts in Medicare and Social Security now, when it may well turn out that a bit of minor tinkering eventually does the job.

I think it's more the countries that he fled to: those bastions of free speech and openness, China and Russia.

Could be. Looking at it from Snowden's point of view, he chose countries where there was no chance he would be extradicted or snatched. 

If he's so concerned about national security perhaps he shouldn't traipse across America's biggest enemies/rivals with the data. Do you really think Russia and China are letting Snowden keep his data to himself? I'm not thrilled OUR government has all this data but I sure don't want it in foreign hands.

Snowden says he is certain that neither China nor Russia has accessed his data. Obviously, I have no way of knowing whether this is true. But speaking of data in foreign hands, this is what I think the NSA's mission ought to be: protecting our privacy from the cyberspooks in Russia, China and elsewhere who want to hack into our data. Don't we want the government to defend us from unwarranted snooping, rather than commit such snooping?

Wouldn't Ecuador be freer than China or Russia?

I'd worry a lot more about being rendered by the CIA in Quito than in Moscow. I'm just saying.


And that's all the saying for today, folks. My time is up. Thanks for a fun and informative hour!

In This Chat
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.
Archive of Eugene Robinson's columns
Recent Chats
  • Next: