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Steve Lunetta: Trimming trees

Posted: September 23, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 23, 2013 2:00 a.m.

My Uncle Earl is probably similar to one of your relatives. You know the one I mean. That one person who is loud, annoying, opinionated, and boorish. But, occasionally, he says the things you really want to say.

Earl is like an inconvenient truth. He’s the thought that rolls around in the back of our mind that is a possibility that we really don’t want to consider. He’s the reality that we don’t want to face but need to or else we are not being honest with ourselves.

Like the other day. Earl was over at our house helping me cut a dangerous, dead, and overhanging limb off one of our trees. The MAPLE tree. Because we would never trim a dangerous, life-threatening limb off a California Oak tree no matter what. Because that would be wrong.

Earl was up in the tree, sawing away when he looked down at me. “Steven, have you ever wondered about the conflicted signals we get from our government?”

“What do you mean by that, Unk?” I was busy trying to clear the sawdust from my eyes while looking up at him.
He started, “The National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on each and every one of us. Through sophisticated technology and massive resource commitment, they are able to read emails, listen to phone calls- heck, they probably know what we had for breakfast this morning.”

“That Edward Snowden fellow was a traitor”, he went on, “but he also provided an interesting glimpse into how things work. The numerous documents he sent to the press revealed that our government has the capacity to track over a billion people with their systems.”

“A billion. That’s an awful lot, Unk. Sort-of like the number of wood ship fragments falling into my eyes.”
“My boy, let’s think further about this. After the recent shooting at the Navy yard in Washington DC that took the lives of 13 people, it was revealed that the shooter had a high-level security clearance but he also had a history of gun violence, disorderly conduct, and possible mental health conditions.”

“Hey, Unk, isn’t the limb awfully big that you are sawing on? You should be ready to move when it goes,” I observed sagely.

“Steven, the Atlantic Wire reported that there are 5 million people with security clearances. 1.4 million have ‘top secret’ security clearances. That sounds like a lot but it is very small when you compare it to the billion that the NSA is spying on.”

“Huh, I’m not sure I follow?” Earl had me confused.

“Think about it, son. The NSA has the resources to spend to track a billion potential security threats but we don’t have the resources to track just 5 million people with security clearances? After the shooting, it was revealed that the national arrest records database is incomplete because it relies upon voluntary reporting by police agencies.”
“I’m starting to see your point. Earl, that limb is starting to bend.” I astutely observed.

Earl continued, “it seems like we have a big, gaping hole that needs to be plugged. If we don’t understand who we are giving security clearances to and be able to flag when someone has a violent tendency or mental problem, that is a much bigger risk than hunting down potential terrorists by snooping on private communications.”

“And much less messy from a legal standpoint. We have a clear obligation to assure that people who get security clearances are reliable. That would easily stand up in court. Also, think about the recent impact that shooters have had on us.”

After a second, I interjected, “Yeah, I can think of two. The other was that crazy Fort Hood shooter. You would have thought that someone would be paying closer attention to people in sensitive or vital roles in our government.”

With that, we heard a large CRACK. Earl and I scrambled down the ladder and ran. The dead limb he was sawing on came down harmlessly. We came back and surveyed our work.

Earl was concluding. “Yep. This national security problem is a bit like our tree trimming. Instead of worrying about the whole tree (or billion monitored people), maybe we should be focusing on the obvious dead limb that could give us the most trouble. Like mentally-disturbed people with security clearances.”

Interesting thought. Seems like something a Congressman on an influential Armed Services Committee could work on.

Steve Lunetta is a resident of Placerita Canyon where many MAPLE trees grow. He can be reached at


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