« Smart Power Alert | Main | Friday Inflammatory Debate Topic »

August 02, 2013

Connecting the Wrong Dots

This is going to be a cranky post and it may well make some of you angry, but we've often thought that the Internet wasn't really made for p0rn. It was made for outrage and speculation.

Yesterday whilst the Editorial Staff were laboring in the hot sun that we might single-handedly stop inequality before it destroys the planet selfishly cram our mouth with distressful bread, the Police State was ruthlessly terrorizing innocent citizens for absolutely no reason:

I was at work when it happened. My husband called me as soon as it was over, almost laughing about it but I wasn’t joining in the laughter. His call left me shaken and anxious.

What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.

Six gentleman in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.

A million things went through my husband’s head. None of which were right. He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.

Michele Catalano, a onetime warblogger, published the story of an inquiry by local police into suspicious Internet searches that matched the profile of the recent Boston bombing attack.

Profiling is an interesting practice, n'est pas? Progressives think it's totally Racist and Freedom-Harshing. Unless of course we're talking about IRS profiling of right leaning 501c4 applicants, in which case it's the only thing standing between Amerikkka the beautiful and a return to the days when women were chained to tiny, heteronormative Easy Bake Ovens and blacks were only 3/5ths as tall as they are nowadays. Conservatives, on the other hand, think profiling is a practical and efficient use of scare public resources. Let's face it: if you're in a black neighborhood where 90% of the violent crime is black-on-black and the victim just described her rapist as "a young black man", it doesn't make much sense to issue a BOLO for 80 year old black ladies or elderly Hasidic Jews, does it?

On the otter heiny if a private citizen, searching a computer he owns, finds searches matching the profile of a recent terrorist attack that killed three people and injured over 260 others...

...and the searches were made by a recently discharged employee (after all, it's not as though recently discharged employees have ever been known to go, umm... postal) ...

...and the employer tips off the police...

Presumably, the police should have done what? Ignore the tip? Not contact other agencies? Treat the whole thing casually? Not take precautions just in case the tip turned out to be well grounded?

Don't they know that law enforcement and the Police State Industrial Complex have never, ever stopped a single terrorist attack before it happened? As all well informed people already know, the only attacks that have been foiled to date were prevented by ordinary citizens who alerted the authorities to looming threats unfolding right under their unsuspecting noses. Which is a bit inconvenient here, since it turns out the local police were tipped off by an ordinary citizen, and ordinary citizens can do no wrong (unlike the police, who are clearly morons).

Apparently, it was beyond ridiculous for the police to take the tip about Michele's husband - who has a completely different last name - seriously. I mean, like, duh - she's on Twitter:

You know, it would only have taken a single Google search of her name to know that Michele Catalano is no terrorist. She has nearly a million followers on Twitter, including me, in awe of her delightfully shameless sense of humor. Michele is one of the good guys, as any simpleton with an internet connection could have figured out in half a minute. But the people in charge of our security rarely rise to the level of simpleton.

The timing is clearly suspicious here. The news is full of stories about the NSA voraciously reading our Tweets; monitoring Facebook, Instagram, and presumably Pinterest (God help them); intercepting our text messages and emails and snooping through the lingerie drawers of every.single.American. Because they totally have time for that, even with the sequester furloughs. They probably have copies of every video you've uploaded to YouPorn, too. Government employees really are That Industrious and Clever. And just to connect the last dot, Radly Balko's got a new book out. As if we needed more proof.

This is a story about things going right: ordinary citizens doing precisely what Grim wants them to do - taking responsibility for their own safety and security. Police following up on tips and sharing information with other law enforcement groups when that's indicated. Intelligent, civic minded citizens who are questioned seeing the larger picture and not getting their asses on their shoulders because they've read one too many stories about puppies being shot when 6 "gentlemen" come to their door without a warrant and ask questions in a nonthreatening manner.

Bloggers sharing what they know on the Internet - yes, even that went right. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Ms. Catalano doing what she did. That's how we put the pieces together. Some stories turn out to be very different once all the facts come out, and this is one of those times.

And that's just the point, isn't it? Ms. Catalano shared what she knew. She's being roundly criticized for not knowing some things (like the fact that it wasn't the FBI or Homeland Security who came to her door, and NSA surveillance had nothing to do with it). But it's a rare case when we know all the facts about complex situations involving several people. She relayed what she knew, and it's hard to fault her for not knowing what she didn't know. The police, we are told, are clearly "simpletons" for not knowing how many Twitter followers the wife of the man they questioned has, or having read her blog. Hard to think of a more damning indictment of law enforcement incompetence than that.

It's hard to escape the obvious conclusions in all of this:

1. Because Homeland Security didn't take tipoffs about the Tsarneav brothers seriously, OBVIOUSLY local police should follow their sterling example. What could possibly go wrong?

2. Everyone hates the TSA. And they're completely ineffective, which we know because the attacks they haven't prevented/deterred never happened. Which meant we were safe all along! Therefore, it logically follows that law enforcement should just stay out of the anti-terrorism business and let ordinary people (such as, perhaps, the employer in this story who tipped off the police) handle things:

On a broader note, I’d like to add that the first successful American counterattack in the Terror War was a passenger revolt led by Todd Beamer aboard United Airlines Flight 93. The Shoe Bomber was stopped by passengers, too. Meanwhile, the TSA sticks its fists up our collective rectums on a continuing basis and has yet to stop a single terrorist. And now we have some task force idiots showing up at Michele Catalano’s door because of some Google searches the Feds somehow got a hold of.

It’s undeniably clear now that the best defense against terror is an aroused and alert citizenry, and that the surest route to dumbassery is to give the Feds the power to spy on its own people.

Watching the way a whole bunch of "ordinary citizens", armed with less than complete information, reacted to this story we can't help but agree. The Internet is full of Awesome. Because of the Internet, we know that people in uniforms (unlike other human beings) make a LOT of mistakes. Some of them are even bad people, which pretty much means that unlike ordinary citizens, the police should be disarmed before they kill us all. There's an awful lot of anecdotal evidence out there that the simple act of donning a uniform decreases the IQ by at least 250 points.

People who don't wear uniforms, on the other hand, don't ever rush to conclusions, overreact, or get things wrong. And we should trust them, totally. Even the ones who vote for Obama.

It's good that we live in a country where, when something like this happens, citizens feel free to share their concerns. It's a good thing that so many people are following the news and paying attention to stories about NSA surveillance, IRS targeting of conservative groups, and executive branch overreach. And when a story like this comes out, it is not silly for us to wonder how it fits into the larger pattern of current events.

What is silly, and wrong, is the wholesale jumping to conclusions; the swift passing of rumors and unverified speculation; and most of all the vilification of public servants who - at least from what we know now - appeared to have handled this about as well as it could have been handled. It is silly and wrong to attack the very people and policies the anti-war crowd was viciously attacking (and most conservatives were defending) during the Evil Bu$Hitler years. Most of these folks are careerists. They didn't turn evil/stupid en masse when Barack Obama was elected.

There ought to be much for conservatives to like about this story. Local, not federal law enforcement responding to a local matter; police behaving as they're supposed to; free speech and debate ensuing. Surely we can ask questions or express concern without venturing into Black Helicopter country?

Let's not go there, at least not yet. Like Camelot, 'tis a silly place.

Posted by Cassandra at August 2, 2013 04:54 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


The only problematic aspect to the story is the question of how the government got records of what s/he had been doing on the internet. In other words, if this turns out to be a story about normal policing associated with a conscientious (former) employer, that's fine.

As I just pointed out at the Hall, where Tex was separately raising the issue, there remains a significant discrepancy between the official police story and the details proposed by the author. One of them, or both of them, is saying something that isn't true, either accidentally or on purpose. Until we sort that out, we don't know if this is indeed a case of "everything working as it should," or something else. It could just be the author making some mistakes, or it could be something much more. It's worth following it to the ground, because these issues of government spying on American citizens are very much worth our attention.

Posted by: Grim at August 2, 2013 09:08 AM

...there remains a significant discrepancy between the official police story and the details proposed by the author. One of them, or both of them, is saying something that isn't true, either accidentally or on purpose.

I didn't have a problem with Tex's post because she didn't do any of the things I specifically called out in this post.

I don't see any evidence (lots of speculation, but no evidence) of anything "not working as it should". Which is not to say that people can't run the story to the ground if they're interested. We don't know that there's any "government spying" involved here. I very much doubt Ms. Catalano knows what was in the search history of the employer's computer - how could she?

So her statement that she conducted one search on her computer and her spouse conducted the other are essentially speculation.

The point here is that an awful lot of people took the first report (and not an eyewitness one, at that, as it didn't even come from the person who was there at the time) as fact and proceeded to shoehorn it into a popular narrative.

Posted by: Cass at August 2, 2013 09:24 AM

Well, this issue of what level of information we're prepared to let the government glean from our everyday lives -- of how much spying we're ready to tolerate in return for what security we think can be provided this way -- is a critical political issue. We really should be debating this.

So it's actually helpful to have an example of what you think right would look like. If that's what this is, then we can work out exactly why it's all right, and apply those principles toward a future solution.

Still, I want to be sure of how things really happened before we say that this is the example of "right." If this was just the SPD's own detectives from its own intelligence section responding, then the author was wrong about some significant details (e.g., this being a 'joint terrorism task force,' which is how they supposedly identified themselves). And if the SPD was acting alone, it's hard to imagine they really do this 100 times a week. I mean, it may be a big town, but that would be a lot of independent tips coming from employers concerned about their workers' internet habits.

So let's keep looking into it. If it turns out that it's all good from top to bottom, that's helpful in itself. If there's something else going on here, we need to bring it to light.

Posted by: Grim at August 2, 2013 09:31 AM

Once again, if the facts currently out there are correct this was not a case of government spying.

I think we need to follow our own advice here. Conservatives got quite annoyed at the repeated (and factually wrong) mischaracterization of the Zimmerman case as being about stand your ground laws.

This isn't about *spying*, at least according to what we know now. The owner of a computer, voluntarily tipped authorities off using information from HIS computer.

There is no reasonable expectation of privacy on a work computer. A large number of employers now have monitoring software installed to prevent unauthorized use of their computers during working hours. There's no secrecy and no coercion on offer.

If this was just the SPD's own detectives from its own intelligence section responding, then the author was wrong about some significant details (e.g., this being a 'joint terrorism task force,' which is how they supposedly identified themselves). And if the SPD was acting alone, it's hard to imagine they really do this 100 times a week.

Yes, it IS difficult to believe. That would be very expensive. It sounds like a throwaway comment to me.

Question: just how much time/taxpayer money should be devoted to "looking into it"? What if the citizens of Long Island don't think this is a good use of their tax dollars?

Posted by: Cass at August 2, 2013 09:39 AM

I don't think the citizens of Long Island should devote taxpayer dollars to an official inquiry. If it were a case of government coverup, that would just result in a further coverup.

It has to be done independently, like the investigation into Dan Rather's faked typewriter documents during the 2004 elections. It's on us to figure out if the government or the author is the one who is providing inaccurate details. But we need to keep asking questions and analyzing the answers until we've got a good sense that we've sorted out the answer with high probability.

Posted by: Grim at August 2, 2013 10:03 AM

I don't agree that we "need" to do anything at all about this, but it's a free country :p

Posted by: Cass at August 2, 2013 10:11 AM

And since you put it in bold, let me respond to what you said about 'the facts currently out there.' The facts currently out there can't be correct. It can't be both a joint terrorism task force and an internal sub-section of a local PD.

So we need to know which one is right. We can't assume that the police department answer is true simply because it came printed on government letterhead. We see official government statements almost every day now that are demonstrably untrue.

Posted by: Grim at August 2, 2013 10:11 AM

I don't think the citizens of Long Island should devote taxpayer dollars to an official inquiry. If it were a case of government coverup, that would just result in a further coverup.

I wonder: would you say that if we were talking about the military? Certainly they have had their share of cover ups, but also quite a few instances of investigations uncovering wrongdoing that was then corrected.

Why assume the worst, Grim?

Posted by: Cass at August 2, 2013 10:13 AM

I'm not assuming anything (except the possibility). I just want to know why this discrepancy exists. It could be her husband was wrong, or she mis-remembered what he told her; or it could be that the detectives identified themselves as a JTTF at the time (and indeed that section of the SPD may be a subset of a JTTF), and the discrepancy simply comes from the fact that the PR section used the internal designation instead.

Or it could be something else.

Posted by: Grim at August 2, 2013 10:22 AM

"Surely we can ask questions or express concern without venturing into Black Helicopter country?"

One would think so but I am not disposed to believe it. There are secondary, even tertiary considerations that may not be considered and are verboten, publicly and officially. Six local officials in SUV's, and packing, might have made the elder Tsarnaev a person of interest on the local matter of murder and drug running but did not. What could have stayed them, in Massachusetts, from an ongoing inquiry – too many leads?

What's at work here, generally, throughout the Police State Industrial Complex, is akin to anarcho-tyranny. The selective enforcement of selected laws does not inspire trust. When the State tip-toes around muslims, dispenses with inquiries about legal residency, and offers sanctuary to lawbreakers, the State becomes a suspect. Podunk requires a SWAT team and purchases military surplus armored vehicles. Holy crap! But it turns out Podunk has a local chapter of a Mexican drug cartel, none of whom may be questioned about felony ingress. This constitutes the secondary consideration.

"Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without." - Edmund Burke

Your point is well made, well taken, but it does not go far enough and remains as almost a relic of another time, another nation. Absent the controlling power within we will have more of it without. Absent a nation of shared values, kin and kind, we will have more of it without. Absent a government representative of kin and kind we will have more of it without. Already the State has, in addition to having erected the Complex, solicited complicity – we are hereby requested to become active snitches. This was known in another place not long ago as Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter unofficial employee – of the STASI. And this constitutes the tertiary consideration.

Posted by: George Pal at August 2, 2013 10:51 AM

Well, there seems to be quite a bit of good points on all sides.

An employer finding something wonky on an ex-employee and following up is good.

At the same time, I bet there were a lot of searches (and on employer computers) about the Boston attacks afterwards. In that light, maybe the searches ought not have been alarming. Who knows.

In an era where agents conduct a weapons drawn raid on a guitar factory over shipping law, these guys showing up in daytime, flashing badges while keeping their weapons holstered shows professionalism on the agent's part.

At the same time, sending six of them is a bit of an overkill for a non-warrant based "non threatening" questioning. 6 on 1 can be quite intimidating. Especially when the police typically only send two to a domestic violence call. It's also really expensive at a time of reduced budgets. Taking a couple of those man hours and spending some time doing background research first does not strike me as unreasonable.

Given the recent history of government abuse of right leaning people and entities by the IRS, BATFE, DoL, DoJ, EPA, OSHA, etc, any government agent needs to realize that a certain level of paranoia is justified. Legitimate questions must be followed up on, but a certain level of, for lack of a better term, bed-side manner is also appropriate.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at August 2, 2013 10:54 AM

It sounds to me (and this is simply speculation on my part) as though there were something "joint" about this, but I don't think that's at all ominous.

Your statement (2nd sentence quoted in my last comment) sounded a good deal more positive than a simple acknowledgment of a possibility. Which is an important point - though I think we both generally try to be careful in our wording, the nature of communication is that we're not always precise as to our meaning. Things get shaded on the speaker's side, and also on the hearer's side.

We may never know why these discrepancies exist. It's fine with me if some people want to continue to ask questions, so long as they acknowledge that there are limits to the duty of the people involved to respond to those questions.

I have a larger point here. We talk a lot about the need to hold govt. accountable, and about how hard it is to do so. On the otter heiny, I talked to a city official last Fall and he told me how many lawsuits are filed against the city EACH DAY and it was mind boggling.

You should read this:


Over 2000 lawsuits filed every year. And over 1000 settled. So clearly, some people really are holding government accountable to the tune of $29 million annually.

Local tax dollars at work :p

It's kind of shocking, really.

Posted by: Cass at August 2, 2013 10:58 AM

One small niggle here. The phrase "and blacks were only 3/5ths as tall as they are nowadays" is presumably referent to the pre WAR (yes THAT War) method of counting population for congressional representational purposes. It is usually deployed as a slap at those awful southerners who only valued blacks as 3/5 of a person. That is nonsense--the provision was insisted upon by Yankees so that the southern slave population would not count (as much) for determining how congressional seats were allocated. Sorry-couldn't resist.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at August 2, 2013 11:04 AM


Posted by: Randy Newman's Bratty Little Sister at August 2, 2013 01:04 PM

That is nonsense--the provision was insisted upon by Yankees so that the southern slave population would not count (as much) for determining how congressional seats were allocated. Sorry-couldn't resist.

Hmmm... you mean, it's kind of like those racially discriminatory crack cocaine sentences Charles Rangel pushed so hard for (that are now racist)? :p

Say it isn't so!

Posted by: Cass at August 2, 2013 01:05 PM