“The Only Way to Restore Trust in the NSA”
Bruce Schneier, writing in the Atlantic:
I’ve recently seen two articles speculating on the NSA’s capability, and practice, of spying on members of Congress and other elected officials. The evidence is all circumstantial and smacks of conspiracy thinking — and I have no idea whether any of it is true or not — but it’s a good illustration of what happens when trust in a public institution fails.
The NSA has repeatedly lied about the extent of its spying program. James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has lied about it to Congress. Top-secret documents provided by Edward Snowden, and reported on by the Guardian and other newspapers, repeatedly show that the NSA’s surveillance systems are monitoring the communications of American citizens. The DEA has used this information to apprehend drug smugglers, then lied about it in court. The IRS has used this information to find tax cheats, then lied about it. It’s even been used to arrest a copyright violator. It seems that every time there is an allegation against the NSA, no matter how outlandish, it turns out to be true.
All of this denying and lying results in us not trusting anything the NSA says, anything the president says about the NSA, or anything companies say about their involvement with the NSA. We know secrecy corrupts, and we see that corruption. There’s simply no credibility, and — the real problem — no way for us to verify anything these people might say.
It’s a perfect environment for conspiracy theories to take root: no trust, assuming the worst, no way to verify the facts. Think JFK assassination theories. Think 9/11 conspiracies. Think UFOs. For all we know, the NSA might be spying on elected officials. Edward Snowden said that he had the ability to spy on anyone in the U.S., in real time, from his desk. His remarks were belittled, but it turns out he was right.
It’s time to start cleaning up this mess. We need a special prosecutor, one not tied to the military, the corporations complicit in these programs, or the current political leadership, whether Democrat or Republican. This prosecutor needs free rein to go through the NSA’s files and discover the full extent of what the agency is doing, as well as enough technical staff who have the capability to understand it. He needs the power to subpoena government officials and take their sworn testimony. He needs the ability to bring criminal indictments where appropriate. And, of course, he needs the requisite security clearance to see it all.
We also need something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where both government and corporate employees can come forward and tell their stories about NSA eavesdropping without fear of reprisal.
Yes, this will overturn the paradigm of keeping everything the NSA does secret, but Snowden and the reporters he’s shared documents with have already done that. The secrets are going to come out, and the journalists doing the outing are not going to be sympathetic to the NSA. If the agency were smart, it’d realize that the best thing it could do would be to get ahead of the leaks.
The result needs to be a public report about the NSA’s abuses, detailed enough that public watchdog groups can be convinced that everything is known. Only then can our country go about cleaning up the mess: shutting down programs, reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act system, and reforming surveillance law to make it absolutely clear that even the NSA cannot eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant.
Comparisons are springing up between today’s NSA and the FBI of the 1950s and 1960s, and between NSA Director Keith Alexander and J. Edgar Hoover. We never managed to rein in Hoover’s FBI — it took his death for change to occur. I don’t think we’ll get so lucky with the NSA. While Alexander has enormous personal power, much of his power comes from the institution he leads. When he is replaced, that institution will remain.
Trust is essential for society to function. Without it, conspiracy theories naturally take hold. Even worse, without it we fail as a country and as a culture. It’s time to reinstitute the ideals of democracy: The government works for the people, open government is the best way to protect against government abuse, and a government keeping secrets from is people is a rare exception, not the norm.
I think Schneier ends a bit overbroad — there are certainly state secrets that can legitimately be kept from the public as a function of protecting the integrity of our security and the union itself; which is why it is so easy for abuses to take place to begin with, finding cover alongside the legitimate secrets governments kept and protect.
But Schneier is absolutely correct that a government that we can’t trust — a federal behemoth that time and again flouts our wishes, sues the various states to force compliance, and acts against the popular will of citizens who have the right as a free people to push for laws they find legitimate, and resist those they find are not — produces a dsyfunctional system in need of institutional change.
Regaining a semblance of institutional control by way of a special prosecutor is a good start, but we’d have to find one whose life has been that of a saint, or else the catch 22 of going after a spy agency will surely come to the fore by way of leaks meant to impugn her or his character, etc.
But it is a start, and a kind of dropping of the gauntlet. And it would provide a nice distraction of resources while we push the second prong of our agenda, which is to reduce the size, scope, and influence of the federal government, either through state defiance or Levin’s freedom amendments agenda (which, sadly, some “conservative” still pretend is unworkable and unnecessarily provocative, rather than merely difficult and a direct assault on those who have for years been turning us into subjects).
The truth is, we need the NSA. But — as with every other aspect of a paradigm of representative government and self-rule — virtue is key to maintaining the proper functioning of governance, and to keeping the trust of we, the people, who own the government.
Pragmatism is often an intellectual rationalization to bypass virtue and eschew principle. Making politics the end all/be all.
That’s a corrupt tack, both ethically and intellectually bankrupt — and yet it is heralded as nuanced and scribbled on white boards by self-interested elites.
And it has gotten us where we are today.
Time to give the “Puristy Hobbits” and “Visigoths” another go at things, I’d say. “Conservative” commentator Jennifer Rubin wants to bury the Reagan legacy and counsels the GOP to move away from the principled conservatism that actually brought us back from the Carter malaise.
And the very fact that an erstwhile Democrat is cited and carries and influence among the GOP elite is emblematic of why we are where we are: living in a one party system pretending to be a republic.
But like with the naked emperor, I can see its balls sagging and blowing with the political winds.
(h/t Darth Levin)