But Comey’s reaction also is instructive, and illustrates some apparent hypocrisy. People who worry about their privacy and governmental overreach are chided for not helping to catch the bad guys and told that if they’ve done nothing wrong they’ve got nothing to worry about — but then even the FBI director takes a basic step to protect his own privacy against unwanted intrusion. He thinks he hasn’t done anything wrong, and he doesn’t like the idea of somebody spying on him. He might rationalize it as protection against hacking by a terrorist cell, or a rogue foreign government, rather than concern about surveillance by his own government, but the principle is the same. If an unhackable iPhone might “hinder law enforcement” in certain circumstances, couldn’t a strip of black tape over a laptop webcam prove to be a hindrance at some point, too?
I’m with the privacy advocates on this one — and Comey’s own actions help to say why.
So why isn’t Pollard mentioned in the same breath as the Rosenbergs, or Benedict Arnold, or other notorious spies in American history? Could it be, perhaps, because he was an agent who spied for Israel, that long-time U.S. ally?
Weird, isn’t it, that Israel would spy on the United States? Not really. I’m quite confident that the United States regularly collects data on friends and foes alike — remember Angela Merkel’s cell phone? — because intelligence gathering is what intelligence agencies do. If America thought that finding out what was going on at 10 Downing Street was essential to its national security, America would figure out how to get that information out of Great Britain, by hook or by crook.
That’s not to diminish what Israel did in the Pollard case, or Pollard’s betrayal of his country. He purportedly thought the United States should give more information to Israel, and he provided Israel with huge amounts of classified data. After he was arrested in 1985, Israel initially denied that he was an agent, but they eventually ‘fessed up and began to quietly lobby for Pollard’s release to eliminate a source of tension between Israel and America.
Now, after 30 years, Pollard has been freed. His parole conditions require him to stay in America for five years, wearing a GPS bracelet, and submitting to inspections of his house. His lawyers say the conditions are onerous and oppressive. Of course, they beat being in jail for life.
Millions of American households with young children have an “elf on a shelf.” As explained to me — because the elf didn’t become popular until well after Richard and Russell were out of their childhood years — the elf is a little figure that changes its position from time to time and moves from room to room, supposedly so he can keep an eye on things and report back to Santa Claus on whether the kids of the family are being naughty or nice.
So . . . even if that questionable theory is true, what’s wrong with that? Speaking as a parent, I wanted our kids to accept the existing power structure — namely, that Kish and I got to call the tune in the Webner household — and to think that if they were doing something bad, it would be discovered and reported. Fortunately, our kids were little angels at all times.
Of course, the combination of Christmas and spying goes back to well before the “elf on a shelf” first made his appearance. Santa Claus, of course, knows if you’ve been naughty or nice — so he’s not only spying on your kids, but he’s also judging them. If we’re worried about the impact of naughty/nice spying on children’s psyches, maybe we also should ask what gives Santa the right to judge our kids? Obviously, a guy who smokes a pipe, wears real furs, and has a gut that shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs is not living a perfect, healthy, blameless lifestyle, so why should he be deciding whether a little kid is abiding by accepted societal norms?
Maybe there’s a deep, dark underbelly here — or maybe professors at the University of Toronto Institute of Technology need to relax and realize that kids trying desperately to control their inner demons for a few weeks each December in order to maximize their presents is part of the magic of the holiday season.
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.
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?
Virtually everyone I know who does not work directly for the Obama Administration has conflicting reactions about Snowden. No one wants to see someone breach their agreement to maintain the secrecy of information, and I think most of us agree that the federal government needs to maintain certain secrets — particularly as it relates to international affairs. Yet, I think most of us also appreciate the light that Mr. Snowden has shone on the sweeping domestic intelligence-gathering that has occurred, as a matter of course, in the Land of the Free. We cringe when Snowden appears to be consorting with countries and groups that may be seeking to tap into his knowledge and to use his odd predicament to the disadvantage of America. At the same time, some of us are troubled by the tactics the U.S. is using to try to restrain Snowden’s movements and, in fact, are openly rooting for him to make it to a place of asylum.
I’m as two-minded about Snowden as anyone else, and I think there is a reason for our ambiguous reactions: we feel in our gut that there is a lot about this story that we don’t quite know yet, and internally we are reserving judgment until everything comes out. How in the world did this young man get access to so much information that the federal government is now depicting as crucial intelligence and national security information? What was his job, really? And what kind of security gaps do we have if a random contract employee can tap into reservoirs of confidential data, leak it, and then skedaddle? There’s also a lot to learn about what our government was doing, covertly, within our borders. For those of us who have grown increasingly concerned about the government’s increasing footprint in our lives, Snowden’s leaks have provided some additional issues to ponder.
So, I’m going to follow this fascinating story as Snowden’s fugitive status gets finally determined, additional information gets released, and court cases and likely congressional hearings proceed — and I’m going to try to keep an open mind about what we learn. I’m not quite ready to come down on one side or the other just yet.