By A. G. Moore 1/20/2013
The thrust of Obama’s NSA speech was, essentially, “I’m doing this for your own good; trust me and you won’t get hurt”. There may be cultures in which this kind of over-arching paternalism would be acceptable, but, increasingly, that is not the case in the U. S. As the sweep of government surveillance becomes evident, the number of Americans who take exception to the practice has grown. A Pew Research poll taken in June of 2013 showed 47% of Americans opposed the NSA surveillance program. The results of a Pew poll released today show 53 % disapproving.
The President’s call for trust reminds me of something that happened many years ago, when I was quite young. It was late at night and a man followed me into an elevator. I thought little of this until the man stalled the elevator and blocked my exit. He ordered me to turn around so that my back would face him and he assured me,”You won’t get hurt”. Nothing in the context of the man’s promise gave me confidence in its sincerity–as nothing in the context of the President’s speech gave me confidence in its sincerity.
Obama’s NSA speech was one that never would have been made had Edward Snowden not pulled back the curtain on the NSA spy apparatus. Even with Snowden’s revelations, months passed and public outrage grew as the President resisted the opportunity to come clean. Finally, when the unavoidable was accomplished, when he made a speech about NSA surveillance, he offered–nothing.
This speech had so little meat in it that even a customarily somnambulant populace noted the emptiness of the President’s words. “Trust me” didn’t cut it. Not when we learn that cameras planted on our computers have been spying on us. Not when we realize that every phone call we’ve made, email we’ve sent, has been recorded somewhere and may be recalled for whatever use the government may determine.
To be sure, there are bad actors in the world. There are people who would love to inflict catastrophic harm on the US. This sobering truth hit home dramatically on September 11, 2001. But what’s been obfuscated in recent years is the fact that 9/11 was not a failure of data collection. There was plenty of data that indicated an attack was imminent before the attack occurred.
9/11 was a failure of intelligence alright, of human intelligence.
The curative for the intelligence failure that led to 9/11 is not data collection; it’s to get smart about the data collected. One irrefutable fact about 9/11 is this: if the president who occupied the office on 9/10 had been smarter and more attentive, the terrorist plot would not have been successful. Another fact is: agents responsible for coordinating information before 9/11 did not connect dots that were plainly visible. Making more dots for them to analyze will not increase the chance that danger will be more evident to them when it is present.
According to William Binney, creator of some of the computer code used by the National Security Agency to snoop on Internet traffic around the world, the NSA is “… making themselves dysfunctional by taking all this data.”
Spying on everyone in every way technology has made possible is more than a power grab–though that it surely is. Massive surveillance is an insurance policy; it anticipates the day when another 9/11, or even more disastrous terrorist attack, occurs. Lacking faith in their ability to avert the event, those responsible for defending decide to put in place procedures that scream “Everything in our power was done.” It’s a little like slapping warning labels on stoves to warn, “Surface hot when in use”. Neither the warning labels nor the spy apparatus are intended to enhance safety: both exist to insure against liability in case something bad does happen.
If the government wants to do “Everything” to protect against a terrorist attack, then it should begin by recruiting the smartest minds for the task of intelligence collection and interpretation. Public service would have to out-compete private industry. Top dollar would have to be offered, not the measly compensation provided by civil service pay scales. The best and the brightest would have to be identified early, before leaving school. They’d have to be groomed for this most important job. It would mean granting these select individuals places of respect and honor in the culture, as is now granted to Wall Street moguls. And recruitment would not only be for top-tier positions. It would be for every level in intelligence work.
Most of all there would need to be an emphasis on Constitutional protections, on ethics and oversight. Domestic surveillance of U. S. citizens always should occur within the framework of 4th Amendment protections. These protections are to be enforced by domestic civilian courts, not military tribunals. There is no role for the NSA in domestic surveillance. There is no role for letters of exception. If one U.S. resident is exempt from 4th Amendment protections then every resident is potentially exempt. Once the rule of law is suspended, there is no rule of law.
As for oversight of the NSA, to prevent future abuses, this needs to be a civilian responsibility. “Civilian” does not mean a member of Congress, because Congress is part of the government power structure.
Many years ago Ronald Reagan said, “Trust but verify”. I’ve never been a Reagan admirer, but that phrase does have a common sense appeal. I think we should let one president’s words inform another president’s policy. If you want trust, Mr. Obama, then stop conducting secret, extrajudicial operations against your own citizens. And if you want the people of the United States to trust the NSA, then give the people oversight, let them see that the NSA is no longer violating civil liberties. Absent these reforms, there can be no trust.