When It's A Bad Idea To Mistrust The Government

Today my Twitter feed is alive with concerns about H.R. 6393, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. 

This is the bill that authorizes a year of spending by U.S. intelligence agencies, including The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI); the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); the Department of Defense; the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); the National Security Agency (NSA); the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force; the U.S. Coast Guard; the Departments of State, the Treasury, Energy, and Justice; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO); the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA); and the Department of Homeland Security.

A couple of examples: "If Senate Passes H.R. 6393 it will Declare Alternative Media Illegal! No more Infowars, Drudge, many Others!" Another: "WAPO is the symptom, H.R. 6393: Intelligence Authorization is the problem - get ready for the McCarthy committees." See screenshot.

The actual bill, however, doesn't say anything about shutting down alternative media. It does however authorize three things, all of which make sense from an intelligence point of view:
  • "Submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on the counter-messaging activities of the Department of Homeland Security with respect to the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
  • "Counter active measures by Russia to exert covert influence."
  • "Publish on a publicly available Internet website a list of all logos, symbols, insignia, and other markings commonly associated with, or adopted by, an organization designated by the Secretary of State as a foreign terrorist organization under section 219(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1189(a))."
While it is true that there was a political attempt to insert Russia into the U.S. elections as a messaging agent, it is also true that all countries use political messaging as a tool for exerting international influence. The intelligence bill explicitly sets forth the expectation that we will do so, and will of course counter others who are trying to use such messaging against us.

Another example of misplaced mistrust is opposition to the DOJ's Rule 41, which is intended to secure a court venue for remote computer searches.  This is a rule that enables law enforcement to more efficiently find and stop child predators and criminal hackers who hide behind the Internet, as explained by Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, writing at the DOJ.gov blog:
If agents are investigating criminals who are sexually exploiting children and uploading videos of that exploitation for others to see—but concealing their locations through anonymizing technology—agents will be able to apply for a search warrant to discover where they are located. 
And second, where the crime involves criminals hacking computers located in five or more different judicial districts, the changes to Rule 41 would ensure that federal agents may identify one judge to review an application for a search warrant rather than be required to submit separate warrant applications in each district—up to 94—where a computer is affected.
The Congressional Research Service offers several examples where Rule 41 searches have already helped law enforcement. At least one case (the first one mentioned below) shows that limited scope provided limited results for investigators:
"The first publicly reported court case which relied on a NIT [network investigative technique - law enforcement jargon for remote searches - DB] was in 2007, where the government obtained a Rule 41 search warrant to identify a Myspace user who had made bomb threats to a high school. The warrant...explicitly did not permit access to the content of any electronic messages."
"In 2012...the government initiated Operation Torpedo, which involved the
take down of a large-scale online child pornography network....Ultimately, based on this information, 14 individuals were brought to trial on child pornography charges."
Again, there is opposition to an expanded Rule 41, with some civil rights advocates arguing that the DOJ is unnecessarily trying to expand its powers and infringe on the rights of ordinary citizens. As Techdirt.com put it,
"This expansion is supposedly justified by the technological arms race law enforcement agencies (like the DOJ and FBI) continuing to claim they're somehow losing, despite billions of tax dollars and years of perfecting their skills. Rather than work within the confines of the Fourth Amendment and other related considerations, the government is looking to create a broad and permanent downhill slope to ease its investigative burden."
Unfortunately, the level of mistrust in--and, I would argue, the outright fear of--the government has risen to such levels that literally every action it takes is suspect. This is not to argue that every law, rule, regulation and policy is right--far from it--but rather that mistrust and fear make it impossible for people to consider its actions objectively.

In terms of fear of the government, perhaps the best example I can think of right now is the very low number of people who have signed the "Investigate the PizzaGate Claims" petition right now on Petitions.WhiteHouse.gov. (This is a petition that law enforcement investigate claims of a pedophile ring operating in Washington, D.C., a story that emerged from Election 2016 Wikileaks.) The level of interest on social media is obviously very high -- a Google Search of the term "Pizzagate" yields 2,340,000 results--but only 173 people have signed so far.

The response, when I asked about this, was essentially that "you'll get a lot more signatures on January 20," e.g. when President-elect Trump is inaugurated.

But as Congressman Trey Gowdy has pointed out, repeatedly, the wheels of justice do not operate on a timetable. And, obviously, they should not depend on who is in power.

In matters of holding the government accountable, we cannot lose our balance, either this way or that. We should insist on pointing out what seems wrong or misguided, but this should not mean that we dissolve our capacity to think rationally, and fall into paranoia.


All opinions my own.