Slippery Slopes, Mission Creep, and NSA, Part 1

On the one hand, I agree with Robert Graham about NSA. I worked with NSA people off and on for twenty years. They aren’t evil. While they’re not all “Ph.D.’s with military experience”, they are some of the smartest people you will find in any organization, now that Bell Labs is closed. Read the stories about Bletchley Park, and then think of NSA as Bletchley on an industrial scale. Among other things I can attest to is that they are scrupulous about obeying the law. The problem is with the law itself.

The arguments in favor of that law (when I say that law, I mean all the surveillance laws, from Patriot Act to CISPA) are that what is allowed isn’t that much different from what was allowed back in the wiretap days, see Simon, and that their vacuum cleaner approach is totally unbiased (reading all Americans metadata is better than discriminatorially targeting some, see also Simon). The truth is, the overwhelming majority of that data will never, ever be looked at. Some small percentage of it will be looked at in near-real-time, and could provoke a court order to allow deeper delving. A somewhat larger chunk will be called up for analysis after the fact (say, once a terrorist act has occurred and we’re chasing down the culprits) and could lead to further court orders.

Knowing what I do of kinds of people who work in Intelligence, I’m comfortable with that.


The people at NSA are, of course, part of DoD, which means part of the Executive Branch, which means subject to ultimate civilian control. This is usually seen as a Good Thing. Unless, of course, you have the Attorney General (and the President’s brother) calling you every other day, asking if you have offed Castro yet. Unless, of course, you have the Vice President coming to your cubicle in Langley, demanding that you prove that Saddam Hussein has no WMD. Unless you are the FBI under Hoover.

Did you know that FBI requests for an improved “tie everything together” computer system were regularly turned down by Congress, back in the day? They did it because they didn’t want to give the FBI, and its handlers, any more power over Americans, no matter what the Soviet (remember them?) spy threat, and no matter how big the mafia (remember them? Small scale gunsels when compared to Wall Street and B of A) organized crime threat.

The problem is, to quote that left-wing tyrant Abraham Lincoln, “the first job of a politician is to get elected”. That means defeating your political opponents, and if you are in the bottom part of the political ethics spectrum, that means defeating your opponents by whatever means possible. No American is immune from this threat. The only requirement is that they oppose the current incumbents, and it doesn’t matter if they are political opponents or dissidents.

As we found with lead in the environment, and with CFCs in the atmosphere, the only way to control it is to ban it completely.

This is turning into a multi-parter. Next time, I’ll talk about the implications.


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