Americans are pissed off, and don’t trust their government. Congress is unpopular, Obama has been written-off by the left and demonized by the right, and the Supreme Court (with the exception of the recent wise ruling against patenting the natural products of genetic evolution) has made a number of short-sighted decisions that favor corporations over people.
Snowden has confirmed what most of us already suspected; the tendrils of the national security apparatus go deep into many databases of what we consider to be private information, and the corporations that own the servers are for the most part happy to oblige the backdoor access.
How serious is the problem? Who is responsible? How do we fix it?
David Simon (creator of “The Wire”) thinks the problem isn’t that serious. He equates phone call databases being turned over to the NSA with payphone wiretaps in Baltimore. Since content isn’t being recorded (just who is calling who), the invasion of privacy isn’t that big.
But who believes content isn’t being recorded? Check out this clip from Shia LaBeouf from back in 2008, in which the actor describes an FBI consultant playing back a phone conversation recorded two years earlier.
Clay Shirky also has a good rebuttal to Simon’s post that is worth reading, one that focuses on computational power.
The problem is serious. Americans should have a right to private speech and private expression. We should be able to discuss things, research things, and buy things without having to explain ourselves to the national security apparatus.
Is some spying on U.S. citizens necessary and acceptable, in order to achieve a reasonable level of collective security? Maybe. But who are the spies accountable to? Who watches the watchers?
The United States is not a fascist country. Not yet, at least. But the latest revelations regarding the reach and ambitions of the security apparatus are chilling. In case you aren’t worried yet, here’s a first-hand account of what it’s like to live in a fully authoritarian state (read the comment highlighted in yellow).
Sociopaths (people who don’t feel empathy and have no “conscience” as most of us would understand the word) make up 1-3% of the population. This report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed that in 2010, 130,000 government employees and half a million contractors held Top Secret security clearance. Do the math. That’s at least 6000 sociopathic individuals who have access to your email and phone calls. Some mental health experts estimate the percentage of sociopaths in the general population is closer to 4%. It’s also conceivable that the intelligence “community” attracts more than its fair share of conscience-free cold-blooded analysts. So we could be talking thirty to fifty thousand sociopaths with Top Secret access. The number of people with a vanilla security clearance is about ten times that number, but I’m assuming not every intelligence analyst can “wiretap at will” like Edward Snowden claims he could. But what do I know?
My point is that even if the vast majority of intelligence analysts have never abused their power, there are still going to be abuses like the reddit commenter described (if the intelligence community/secret police get too powerful).
The Issue Is Power and Oversight
The U.S. intelligence apparatus is vast. It includes the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security, and hundreds of private consulting companies that work for these agencies.
Who does this vast intelligence apparatus report to? Who reins in their power, when it needs reining in?
The Director of the CIA reports to the President of the United States. The NSA reports to the Secretary of Defense, who reports to the POTUS. The Department of Homeland Security reports to the Secretary of Homeland Security, also a member of the President’s Cabinet.
So is national security overreach a simple case of presidential overreach? Does the executive branch have too much power?
Who has the power to curtail actions by the security apparatus? This wikipedia article provides a good overview of the various organizations and committees that should be providing oversight. In practice, much of this so called “oversight” consists of overworked representatives receiving minimally informative briefings, as described in this article.
What I see is an out-of-control security apparatus, in essence a fourth branch of government that is not only unelected, but is so lightly regulated that abuses of power are almost impossible to discover and curtail.
How Do We Fix It?
I don’t see this problem as easily fixable. The security apparatus is immensely powerful, and doesn’t want to give up any power. But the problem isn’t impossible to fix either. As a concerned citizen, here are my common sense suggestions:
- Shrink them. Do we really need the Department of Homeland Security? I’m going to agree with the libertarians on this one and say no.
- Trim the budgets. Congress holds the purse strings. Trim 5% across the board for all the intelligence agencies. That will definitely get their attention and maybe the Intelligence Oversight Committee will find that information flows a bit more freely in their direction.
- Tighten up and enforce the missions. The NSA can legally only monitor foreign communications, but they consistently violate this edict. Budgets should be tightened until missions are tightened and strictly observed.
- Make security and defense subcontracting illegal. Private security and private military companies are some of the scariest people around (think Blackwater), and they consistently cause trouble for their governmental employers.
And what can we do as citizens? Through our own technological choices, we can make some of our day-to-day activities less vulnerable to the prying eyes and ears of domestic spooks. We can use private search engines. We can use encrypted email. We can not trust companies like Facebook and Google with our private data; remember that corporations are beholden to shareholders (not end users). And we can vote for representatives who will fight to rein in the abuses of the national security apparatus.