The New X-Files

The X-Files is back for a brief run on prime time television.  I’m glad it’s here, because once I watched a new episode I realized that I had really missed my heady, weekly dose of sprawling, remotely plausible governmental conspiracy theories.

They’ve consciously set up the new X-Files episodes to connect as much as possible to the old series.  So we’ve got the same famously eerie whistling opening, with Mulder’s and Scully’s old ID badges, and the old characters like by-the-book-except-when-he-isn’t Skinner and, at the end of the premier episode . . . the Cigarette Smoking Man, who now needs to puff on those cancer sticks through a disgusting hole his esophagus.

xf_sc7_0067rjw_hires2And Mulder and Scully really haven’t changed much, either.  They still call each other “Mulder” and “Scully,” for one, even though they’ve had a romance and had a child they put up for adoption and wistfully dream about.  (There’s a plot line for you!)  Mulder still is willing to check out just about any speculation about any far-fetched plot, and for all of her doctor-trained skepticism and demands for proof, Scully will inevitably be drawn into Mulder’s weird, dark, but ultimately hopeful world.

The first episode allowed us to catch up on our two heroes, learn that they’ve lost touch and gone their separate ways, and see how the ever-present UFO conspiracy can bring them back together and return them to their highest and best use of investigating the X-files.  And as Mulder rattled off some rapid-fire conspiracy theory about how the Roswell crash is still being kept secret after all these years by shadowy government figures and greedy corporate types who want to hide the news that there is free energy for all, you couldn’t help but be struck about how our current world — with its drones and ever-present surveillance cameras, routine monitoring of everyday activities, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, government bailouts of huge corporations, secret collection of data about world leader cell phones, and allegations of conspiracies and cover ups about virtually everything — fits neatly and seamlessly into the paranoid X-Files world view.

By the time of the second episode, with Mulder and Scully investigating a creepy doctor who experimented on his own kids and used alien DNA to give them supernatural powers, the show was back in full stride, as if it never left.  (I haven’t watched the third episode yet, so don’t spoil it for me.)  These days, who doesn’t want watch to a suspenseful TV show that features soulless evildoers dying horrible deaths because sound vibrations caused by their own kids have caused them to bleed out from their ears and their eyes?

Welcome back, guys!  Now, get to work, will you?

 

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The CDC And The Mass Breakdown Of Governmental Competence

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability.  Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.

That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling.  In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria.  In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab.  The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards.  The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.

Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic.  But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue:  a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies.  In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country.  And those are just a few of the stories.

For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties.  The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation:  is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do?  In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question. 

Black Budget, Black Box

Edward Snowden’s leaked information continues to gradually make its way into the public eye.  Yesterday the Washington Post ran a carefully worded story discussing the “black budget” for U.S. intelligence agencies for fiscal year 2013.  It’s called the “black budget” because very little light is shed on what the intelligence agencies are actually doing with the money they are receiving.  And it’s a lot of money.  According to the Post story, the “black budget” for fiscal year 2013 was an eye-popping $52.6 billion.

Spending on intelligence has skyrocketed since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and you get the sense that the intelligence community saw the attacks as an opportunity to expand their manpower, their budgets, and their influence.  They were hugely successful.  There are now 16 federal agencies involved in intelligence gathering, and they collectively employ more than 107,000 people.

The Post story focused on areas where the intelligence community apparently is unable to provide much meaningful information — like North Korea — but I think the real story is the size of our spy operations.  From the President on down, I’m skeptical that there is much in the way of meaningful oversight of what those 16 different agencies are doing — to say nothing of coordination of their activities.  How much assurance can we have that the agencies are complying with laws and directives, including those that prevent routine intelligence gathering about Americans engaged in domestic activities?

Size and money may allow you to buy neat spy gizmos and establish operations in faraway lands, but they also have a disadvantage.  Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying:  “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”  The more people involved in secret activities, the less likely it is that they will remain secret for long.  With 107,000 people involved in intelligence gathering, is it any wonder that our government leaks like a sieve and people like Edward Snowden can collect and disclose reams of classified information?

Our Law-Breaking Government

An “internal audit” by the National Security Agency — one of the documents leaked to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden — shows many breaches of legal authority or privacy rules by the agency and reveals that the agency engaged in unauthorized surveillance of Americans and activities within America.

According to the Post article, the NSA “audit” indicates that there were 2776 such incidents in the 12 months preceding May 2012.  That number, however, is just the tip of the iceberg because the “audit” counts only incidents at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other ­facilities in the Washington area, and does not examine other NSA operating units and regional collection centers.

I’m not going to try to summarize the Post article here; it includes a lot of detail and a lot of attempted explanation and should be read by anyone who cares about privacy issues and how our government deals with them.  It appears, however, that the NSA is a world unto itself.  The special court, and the congressional committees that are supposed to provide oversight, don’t have either the resources, the access, or the interest to really police and control the NSA’s activities.  The Obama Administration’s willingness to immediately disclaim knowledge of the improper activities of government agencies that are supposed to be under its control also doesn’t give any comfort that the executive branch will vigorously protect the privacy rights of Americans.

If the NSA really is the proverbial black box, with its activities wholly hidden from view in the name of national security and governmental secrecy, why should we trust a so-called “audit” that the NSA itself has prepared?  Why should we believe its count of breaches, or its categorization of breaches, or its depiction of breaches as inadvertent?  More fundamentally, why should we believe that the NSA would hesitate to collect information about Americans if it thought it might be useful to do so?  When no one is guarding the hen house, the fox doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the niceties of its conduct.

Snowden Storm

What to make of Edward Snowden, his leaks of intelligence information, and his curious relocation to the transit area of a Moscow airport, where he seems to be trapped in limbo like a character in a Kafkaesque play?

Virtually everyone I know who does not work directly for the Obama Administration has conflicting reactions about Snowden.  No one wants to see someone breach their agreement to maintain the secrecy of information, and I think most of us agree that the federal government needs to maintain certain secrets — particularly as it relates to international affairs.  Yet, I think most of us also appreciate the light that Mr. Snowden has shone on the sweeping domestic intelligence-gathering that has occurred, as a matter of course, in the Land of the Free.  We cringe when Snowden appears to be consorting with countries and groups that may be seeking to tap into his knowledge and to use his odd predicament to the disadvantage of America.  At the same time, some of us are troubled by the tactics the U.S. is using to try to restrain Snowden’s movements and, in fact, are openly rooting for him to make it to a place of asylum.

I’m as two-minded about Snowden as anyone else, and I think there is a reason for our ambiguous reactions:  we feel in our gut that there is a lot about this story that we don’t quite know yet, and internally we are reserving judgment until everything comes out.  How in the world did this young man get access to so much information that the federal government is now depicting as crucial intelligence and national security information?  What was his job, really?  And what kind of security gaps do we have if a random contract employee can tap into reservoirs of confidential data, leak it, and then skedaddle?  There’s also a lot to learn about what our government was doing, covertly, within our borders.  For those of us who have grown increasingly concerned about the government’s increasing footprint in our lives, Snowden’s leaks have provided some additional issues to ponder.

So, I’m going to follow this fascinating story as Snowden’s fugitive status gets finally determined, additional information gets released, and court cases and likely congressional hearings proceed — and I’m going to try to keep an open mind about what we learn.  I’m not quite ready to come down on one side or the other just yet.