Jun 092013

At a two fifty-five on Friday afternoon, as I concluded a lengthy consultation with a Slovenian economist on ways to avoid his country becoming the next Cyprus, Gretchen rang my extension.
“Mr. Collins,” she primly stated, “your brother-in-law Hank and his sister-in-law, Shannon, have arrived and wish to meet with you at your earliest opportunity.”
“Tell them to come back at six-thirty,” I directed.  A moment ensued.
“They say they’ll wait,” Gretchen sighed.
And so they did – adorning my office reception area like post-apocalyptic gargoyles, and, according to Gretchen, engendering the most extremely curious looks from every remaining visitor in my schedule.  Of course, while none of my clients would be so indiscreet as to inquire into the identities of the two weirdos in flannel shirts, jeans, hiking boots, Gore-tex jackets, black baseball caps and enormous grasshopper shades lurking out there, clearly to the extreme annoyance of my private secretary, their raised eyebrows and repeated glances toward the heavy oak doors leading to the reception area spoke volumes.  At last, the designated time arrived, and Gretchen showed Hank and Shannon in. 
They both froze for a moment, gazing out the picture window behind the couch, with its vista of Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House.  A shaft of sunset light illuminated the two of them, glinting off their matching oversized big game hunter / aircraft pilot / long-haul trucker style sunglasses, and suffusing their faces, hands and clothing with a golden glow, turning them into a vision of latter-day Grant Wood American Gothic, plucked from their survival bunker and dropped onto the hand-woven antique silk Persian rug of a bookcase-lined Washington office.  “The Belly of the Beast,” Shannon proclaimed in the manner of an Old Testament prophetess.
“I’ll be leaving now, Mr. Collins,” Gretchen declared as she rolled her eyes heavenward and closed the door without waiting for a response.
“Why don’t you two take a seat,” I suggested, gesturing to the couch and various well-upholstered chairs, “and tell me what’s on your minds?”
“Rose told me you have a… special room?” Hank responded, pointing to the wall behind me and the door in it to the left of my desk.
Indeed I do – that door leads to a complex of rooms and corridors, including, among others, a one-bedroom apartment with kitchen and full bath, which I use when I have to work late, an anteroom with supply racks and one of several safes, a server and telecommunications room, a library, an audiovisual screening room and yes, a TS/Q secure room.  It was to that last one which Hank referred.
Needless to say, I was a bit miffed at my sister Rose for telling Hank about The Cube, even if Hank is her husband.  But I figured I had only myself to blame for letting Rose in on it in the first place.
“Sure,” I shrugged as I opened the door behind my desk, “if that’s what you want.”
The TS/Q Cube is furnished rather sparely with a rectangular teak conference table having a central pillar, surrounded by four Aeron chairs.  The floor is raised – two steps up bring you to the gate of the internal Faraday cage, which is constructed from a perforated metal grill material similar to that found in the windows of microwave ovens.  No electromagnetic radiation outside of a narrow range of visible frequencies can escape the Faraday cage.  An no visible light can escape the Cube, of course, since the cage itself is encased inside four walls, a ceiling and a raised floor behind a mechanically locking outer door leading to the corridor.   The walls, ceiling and the raised floor outside the Faraday cage are covered with anechoic, sound absorbing material capable of reducing a 140 decibel gun blast to five micro-Pascals.  Not even the wiring for the lights inside the Cube goes outside the Faraday cage – there’s a pack of rechargeable batteries built into the conference table pillar.  They’re good for eight hours of continuous operation, after which I have to switch them out with another pack from a recharger located outside the Cube.  In short, it’s the perfect place for a complete paranoid to have a nice, private conversation.  Once the three of us were there, I could see Hank and Shannon finally relax, if only slightly.
“Rose and Arthur,” I reminded them, “are really worried about you two, not to mention Rose being mad as a scalded chicken, Hank.  And without you, Shannon, Arthur just mopes around all the time like a lost puppy; it’s pathetic.  They’re barely scraping by, taking care of your kids while you both run around West Virginia preparing for the Invasion of the UN Black Helicopters or whatever.  So come on now, it’s high time you returned to Fairfax and started looking for jobs again, okay?  The economy is improving and things are…”
“The economy?” Shannon exploded.  “How can you talk about the economy at a time like this?”
“At time like what?” I asked.
“The federal government has been tapping our phones!” Hank shouted.
“The NSA has been peeking through back doors at Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Apple, Skype, YouTube… you name it, they’re spying on us with it!” Shannon shrieked.
“Yeah!” Hank bellowed, “They have PRISM looking straight up all our [expletive] and you want to talk about the [expletive] economy?”
“President Obama…” I began.
“You mean the Antichrist?” Shannon spat.  “What about him?”
“With respect to Section 215 of the Patriot Act,” I insisted, “the President has clearly stated and assured that nobody is listening in on anyone’s telephone conversations.  The FISA court only authorized the federal government to track telephone transactions – what number called which other numbers, when, and for how long.  Furthermore, such tracking has been restricted to individuals who are not United States citizens.  Both of you are citizens, so therefore, the feds have no access to records of your telephone transactions, much less any recordings of what you’ve been saying.  And as far as Section 704 is concerned, PRISM is an internal NSA computer system the agency uses to facilitate collection of foreign intelligence data from the Internet.  Since this whole PRISM thing broke earlier this week, I’ve been in touch with people at the NSA and with most of the companies you mentioned, and they all deny that PRISM has anything to do with spying on who looks up what on Google, who says what to who on Skype, who leers at which skanky porn on AOL, who’s friends with who on Facebook, who downloads which Apple apps or who watches Grumpy Cat on YouTube.”
“And you believe them?” Shannon demanded in an astounded tone.
“The NSA, FBI, DHS and other agencies,” I explained, “are prohibited from indiscriminate searches for data among various instant messages, e-mails, on-line conferences, chats, photos, videos or other information on the Internet.”
“And who,” Hank challenged, “is going to do anything about it if they go ahead an do that anyhow?  You?”
“All of these activities you are describing,” I pointed out, “are subject to review and renewal by FISA court judges every ninety days.”
“So,” Shannon snorted, “every three months some Obama Socialist federal judge rubber stamps the continued erosion of our Constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment!”
“FISA court judges,” I retorted, “have been reviewing surveillance programs like these since 2001.  What sort of rubber-stamping Obama Socialists were those judges when they were working for George W. Bush?  In most cases, it’s the same judges, you know.”
“The answer is obvious!” Hank roared, “it doesn’t matter who the President is, those FISA guys will rubber-stamp anything the Executive Branch sends them!”
“Access to all telephone transaction and Internet information,” I maintained, “is governed by very strict protocols.  It can only be examined when there is ‘a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization’ – that’s what the law says.  The Justice Department and the FISA courts exercise stringent oversight of all information so acquired, how it’s handled, who sees it, and what is done with it.  Moreover, less than one percent of the available information is ever accessed at all.  So what are the odds that anybody from the federal government has ever examined any significant amount of either of your telephone or Internet information?  I’d say it’s more likely you’d pick the twin trifecta at Pimlico five days in a row.”
“You – you of all people!” Shannon wailed, “I would have thought with that huge intellect of yours and all the insider dope you’ve got on everything in this town, that the telephone surveillance and PRISM, both coming out in the same week, would be a wake-up call!   What’s the matter with you?  Isn’t the situation obvious to you now?”
“Yeah,” Hank nodded, “we sure thought it would be.  That’s why we came down here to Washington.  We figured that now, with all this stuff, you’d see we were right all along and come on up to West Virginia to join us.”
“They swore a general warrant,” Shannon argued.  “You know that – the feds swore a general warrant for this [expletive], just like King George did to let British troops plunder Americans’ homes!  Why the hell did we fight the Revolutionary War in the first place, Tom?  Wasn’t it to stop tyranny like that?”
“You can’t really believe,” Hank yelled, “that when Obama says the NSA, FBI and DHS don’t ‘target’ Americans, that means those agencies don’t collect information about them, do you?”
“They’ve got a one million square foot data center near Salt Lake City!” Shannon screamed.  “It cost two billion dollars to build, and it’s got the fastest supercomputers in the world in it!  They handle so much data, they measure it in yottabytes, Tom!  You know how much a yottabyte is?”
“It’s ten to the twenty-fourth power bytes,” I said.
“Right,” Hank confirmed, “and that’s more data than moves through the whole [expletive] Internet in an entire [expletive] year, Tom!  And you’re telling me they don’t have every single telephone conversation, every e-mail, every IM, every photo, and every video that Shannon and I – and you – have ever created or sent to anyone, anywhere?  Of course they do!  They have everything everybody’s ever done on the telephone or the Internet out there in that data center!”
“Okay then,” I replied, “let’s say you two are right, and the federal government has complete digital dossiers on all three of us.  What do they know?  They know that I make a very good living providing advice to them, as well as foreign diplomats, politicians, lobbyists, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions, and various domestic governmental entities at the state and local levels.”
“Yeah, okay,” Shannon acknowledged, “that’s probably what they see when they look at your data.  The wonk’s wonk; some kind of Beltway brainiac making a bundle being the geekiest nerd in Washington.”
“But on the other hand,” I continued, “what do they know about you two?  They know that you’re unemployed conservative conspiracy enthusiasts who have spent the last several years creating and disseminating increasingly strident polemics against the federal government and everything it does.  They know that you figured Armageddon became imminent the day Barack Obama was elected to a second term, and that in reaction to that conclusion, you made off with the contents of your respective spouses’ joint bank accounts and one of the family SUVs and since then you’ve been consorting with other like-minded individuals in the West Virginia mountains, preparing for the collapse of civil order and a United Nations invasion.”
“That’s kind of a harsh way to put it, Tom,” Hank complained.
“But not necessarily inaccurate,” I pressed.  “You and Shannon aren’t going to deny any of what I just said, are you?”
“Uh, no,” Hank blushed.  “I guess we can’t do that.”
“Deny it?” Shannon yelped as she threw a reproving glance at Hank.  “Why should we?  We’re proud to be what we are!  We’re proud to be the some of the few true patriots left who realize what’s really going on in this country!”
“Right,” I agreed.  “And so, if the feds know all that about me and all that about you two, I’m sure you can see I would have to be completely out of my over-educated mind to run off to West Virginia and join you and your compatriots, and furthermore, you two are absolutely crazy to ask me to do it!  If I did, then you, me, and all your buddies up in West Virginia might as well just go down to FBI headquarters and turn ourselves in and save everybody a lot of trouble!”
Silence inside a TS/Q cube is an interesting experience – breathing and heartbeats are audible.  In reaction to my comments, Shannon held her breath, while Hank panted like an exhausted marathon runner.  Their hearts, meanwhile, pounded in a weird syncopation that reminded me of a Max Roach drum solo.
“Fine, if that’s what you want,” Shannon finally exhaled with an obvious tone of mocking contempt, turning to address Hank.  “Evidently, we overestimated his intelligence.”
“Um… ah…” Hank stammered.  “I guess we better go now.  But please think about it Tom, okay?  When more of this stuff comes out, you’re going to realize what needs to be done.”
“I’ll make sure to keep an open mind,” I promised.
“And uh… Tom,” Hank beseeched, “you know, we spent two hundred bucks for gas to drive down here to DC in the Explorer, and I was hoping that maybe you could… um… help out?”
Being the sort of person who always keeps between five hundred and a thousand dollars cash in their wallet, it was no problem for me to take it out and give Hank what I had in there at the moment, some eight hundred and twenty-two bucks.  “Here you go,” I told him with a smile, “no problem.  I’ll just hit the ATM downstairs in the lobby on my way home.”
We rose.  Shannon and Hank followed me out of the TS/Q cube, down the corridor, through my office and out into the empty reception area.
“Just one thing about that money…” I began.
“I know, I know,” Shannon growled.  “Don’t let anybody in West Virginia know we got it from you.”
“Well, no,” I explained, “I’m not particularly worried about the feds listening in on your communications and finding out that I gave Hank eight hundred and twenty-two bucks.  What I was saying was, whatever you do, don’t tell Rose.”
“You mean,” Shannon sneered, “you’re more afraid of your older sister than you are of the jackbooted legions of the United States government?”
“Shannon,” Hank vouched, “take it from me – Tom has his priorities exactly right.”