Some people were struck by the fact that Paul, a conservative whose political inclinations have a distinct Libertarian flavor, would give a speech on a campus that has long been regarded as one of the nation’s most liberal, Democratic enclaves. In this case, he was addressing a topic — personal privacy, and domestic surveillance and intelligence-gathering activities that often seem to be unsupervised and uncontrolled — on which he was likely to find sympathetic ears. On some issues, the American political spectrum seems to be less a straight line than a circle, where the interests of the left and the right can meet. The concern about the growing intrusions of our spy agencies seem to be one of those issues.
Paul said that he also thought it would be useful to speak at places where Republicans don’t often go. I disagree with a huge array of his political positions, but I agree with him on that basic concept. One of the polarizing influences in modern America is the fact that people tend to speak to, listen to, read, and follow only opinions that they already agree with, and often those opinions are strident and demonize people who hold opposing viewpoints. It takes an effort to try to understand what those opposing viewpoints are and why others have adopted them — but often if you make that effort, you come away with a better appreciation of competing views and ideas about potential points of agreement. And, when a speaker is talking to an audience of skeptics, he or she is more likely to skip the cheap, home audience applause lines and instead try to really explain the rationale for their position. Both sides to the communication are likely to benefit as a result.
I wish more of our politicians would seek opportunities to talk to those who hold opposing views, and I wish more people were willing to listen to different perspectives. Free speech can only have an impact if people listen to it. I commend Senator Paul and the Berkeley students who came to hear him.
The interaction between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has grown increasingly bizarre — even by the standards of the weird, symbiotic world of Washington, D.C.
California Senator Diane Feinstein, normally a stout defender of intelligence-gathering programs, has accused the CIA of spying on the SSCI as it performs its “watchdog” function and attempts to exercise oversight over America’s intelligence-gathering agencies. The CIA denies that charge, but says the SSCI improperly obtained access to documents the CIA did not intend to share. Indeed, the CIA has referred the matter to the Justice Department to consider whether a criminal investigation should occur. Yesterday’s Washington Post has a good recap of the issues and competing versions of events.
I don’t know who is telling the truth. I do know, however, that this dispute perfectly captures the “down the rabbit hole” nature of the relationship between our increasingly powerful administrative agencies and their purported congressional watchdogs. So, the CIA gets to decide exactly what the “watchdogs” can see? And if the “watchdogs” get hold of documents the CIA doesn’t like, the watchdogs might be subject to criminal prosecution — even though the documents clearly are being used in furtherance of the oversight function that is a key part of Congress’ job?
Doesn’t all of this suggest that the fox is controlling access to the henhouse? Does anyone believe we’ll ever truly get to the bottom of all of these surveillance programs and understand who is spying on whom? This kind of story strikes at the core of the credibility — or lack of credibility — of congressional fact-finding reports and raises serious questions about whether anything, or anyone, is keeping our intelligence-gathering agencies in check.
My work winter coat is a navy blue cloth greatcoat that extends down to about knee level. It’s sturdy and warm and reasonably professional looking — and also seems to magically attract every strand of white dog hair in our household.
When you live in a house with two dogs, dealing with dog hair is just part of life. When we’re gone our dogs jump up on chairs, flop down on rugs, and leave their fur behind. You can brush their coats regularly, sweep and vacuum repeatedly, and flap out rugs until you can flap no more, but dog hairs are always going to be there, ready to leap onto any item of dark clothing and make you look like a vagabond who’s been sleeping with a pack of strays in a downtown alley.
In our household, we deal with the dog-fur-on-clothing issue by owning approximately two dozen adhesive rollers designed specifically to remove hair from garments. (Of course, the plastic handles of the rollers have all been chewed to smithereens by our dogs, which is just another fun thing about life with dogs.) Although the rollers are designed to remove hairs and pick up most random items, they don’t do an especially good job on dog hairs. The only real way to remove dog hairs from your coat is to exercise your fine motor skills and individually remove them, hair by stinking hair.
That is because dog hairs are clingier than your two-year-old at his first terrifyingly large family reunion. Dog hairs have a special bonding property that makes them stick — well, doggedly — to any dark item of clothing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NSA is attempting to build listening devices into strands of dog fur to assist in its surveillance programs. Because the NSA apparently monitors just about everything, and dog hairs can be found just about anywhere, it seems like a match made in heaven.
An interesting and important effort is underway in Washington, D.C. to address the delicate balance between data-gathering by the National Security Agency and other federal agencies and the privacy concerns of American citizens. President Obama is set to explain his views in a speech on Friday. In the meantime, Congress is holding hearings on the issue and is getting some meaningful feedback on its reform proposals — which is precisely what congressional hearings are supposed to accomplish.
A key issue with reform of intelligence-gathering efforts is the lack of information about such efforts. Clandestine programs by definition are not transparent; knowledge is limited to a small group that is sworn to secrecy. When information about the programs leaks — as happened with Edward Snowden’s disclosures last year — people react with astonishment and concern. But how do you achieve reform, and have a full airing of competing views, if the programs remain inside a black box?
Bates also opposed a proposal to require the court to pass on every “national security letter” the government sends in an effort to obtain information from third parties. Bates noted that there are 20,000 such letters each year and argues that requiring court approval of each one would bury the court. It’s hard to dispute that conclusion; 20,000 letters amounts to about 55 letters each day of the year. How are the judges on the court supposed to give meaningful consideration to each such letter along with their other workload?
It’s difficult to stake out a position on these issues because the secrecy of the programs means the general public may not have all of the pertinent information. No one wants to undercut national security concerns, but the Snowden revelations have given rise to legitimate concerns that the NSA’s enormous appetite for data collection that touches upon the lives (and phone calls, and internet uses) of Americans isn’t justified by realistic objectives or by results. I’m glad to see that Congress is taking testimony and receiving competing views, and I hope that it and the President make a thoughtful and legitimate effort to tackle the privacy concerns raised by the NSA’s programs.
It’s not clear how often NSA employees cross the line and engage in this kind of conduct. The Inspector General letter was in response to a request from Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who sought information on “intentional and willful” abuse of NSA surveillance authority, and the letter reports on “substantial instances” where employees were caught engaging in “intentional misuse” of NSA data-gathering capabilities. Who knows how often such spying goes undetected, or is covered up by a phony excuse for the surveillance, or is deemed not sufficiently “substantial” to warrant disclosure?
People are people, whether they work for the NSA or the local Starbucks. Give them a chance to listen in on conversations or read private emails that might mention their name, and at least some of them are going to do it. With the lack of meaningful oversight of the NSA, due to its super-secret status, the temptation to dip into forbidden territory must be even greater.
We really need to revisit what we are doing with our surveillance programs and figure out a way to address the routine gathering of huge amounts of information — and the inevitable abuses that follow. In the meantime, people who are dating NSA employees should be on guard.
Spending on intelligence has skyrocketed since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and you get the sense that the intelligence community saw the attacks as an opportunity to expand their manpower, their budgets, and their influence. They were hugely successful. There are now 16 federal agencies involved in intelligence gathering, and they collectively employ more than 107,000 people.
The Post story focused on areas where the intelligence community apparently is unable to provide much meaningful information — like North Korea — but I think the real story is the size of our spy operations. From the President on down, I’m skeptical that there is much in the way of meaningful oversight of what those 16 different agencies are doing — to say nothing of coordination of their activities. How much assurance can we have that the agencies are complying with laws and directives, including those that prevent routine intelligence gathering about Americans engaged in domestic activities?
Size and money may allow you to buy neat spy gizmos and establish operations in faraway lands, but they also have a disadvantage. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying: “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The more people involved in secret activities, the less likely it is that they will remain secret for long. With 107,000 people involved in intelligence gathering, is it any wonder that our government leaks like a sieve and people like Edward Snowden can collect and disclose reams of classified information?
According to the Post article, the NSA “audit” indicates that there were 2776 such incidents in the 12 months preceding May 2012. That number, however, is just the tip of the iceberg because the “audit” counts only incidents at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other facilities in the Washington area, and does not examine other NSA operating units and regional collection centers.
I’m not going to try to summarize the Post article here; it includes a lot of detail and a lot of attempted explanation and should be read by anyone who cares about privacy issues and how our government deals with them. It appears, however, that the NSA is a world unto itself. The special court, and the congressional committees that are supposed to provide oversight, don’t have either the resources, the access, or the interest to really police and control the NSA’s activities. The Obama Administration’s willingness to immediately disclaim knowledge of the improper activities of government agencies that are supposed to be under its control also doesn’t give any comfort that the executive branch will vigorously protect the privacy rights of Americans.
If the NSA really is the proverbial black box, with its activities wholly hidden from view in the name of national security and governmental secrecy, why should we trust a so-called “audit” that the NSA itself has prepared? Why should we believe its count of breaches, or its categorization of breaches, or its depiction of breaches as inadvertent? More fundamentally, why should we believe that the NSA would hesitate to collect information about Americans if it thought it might be useful to do so? When no one is guarding the hen house, the fox doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the niceties of its conduct.