What happens when the NSA head has dinner with a critic?

Again, via TechDirt, we find this story about NSA critic Jennifer Granick’s dinner with Keith Alexander. You really ought to read the whole thing (which is full of links not reproduced in quotes here).

In general, Granick’s argument isn’t particularly novel, but it’s devastating to Alexander’s “we really have to do these things to keep you safe” line. (“The General seemed convinced that if only I knew what he knew, I would agree with him.” That reasoning is rhetorically and logically bankrupt, but it doesn’t stop intel types from spouting it whenever challenged.)

I have no doubt that Gen. Alexander loves this country as much as I do, or that his primary motivation is to protect our nation from terrorist attacks. “Never again,” he said over dinner. But it may be that our deep differences stem from a fundamental disagreement about human nature. I think Gen. Alexander believes that history is made by great individuals standing against evil. I believe that brave people can make a difference, but that larger inexorable forces are often more important: history, economics, political and social systems, the environment. So I believe that power corrupts and that good people will do bad things when a system is poorly designed, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. More than once, my dinner companions felt the need to reassure the DIRNSA that none of us thought he was a bad man, but that we thought the surveillance policies and practices were bad, and that eventually, inevitably, those policies and practices would lead to abuse.

It’s utterly unsurprising that Alexander is sure the abuses will be minor, and that these awesome powers are required, but men are not angels, and abuses are rampant.

How does a good man sit across from you at the dinner table and assure you the government is properly constrained, when in reality it lies and disregards even the most anemic purported safeguards? The easy answer is that he’s not a good man after all. Some people will call me naïve, but I disagree with that conclusion. In any case, it’s a simplistic view that masks the truth about systems of power, a truth we must understand and respect if we are to fix this surveillance nightmare we are just beginning to uncover.

Of course, we see mission creep – once you build the mousetrap of surveillance infrastructure, they will come for the data. First it was counterterrorism, then it was drug investigations, then it was IRS audits. Next it will be for copyright infringement.

And of course, there also will be both “inadvertent” and intentional abuse, inevitable but difficult to discover. Bored analysts do things like spy on women using surveillance cameras and listen to American GIs overseas having phone sex with their loved ones back home.

Granick concludes:

Liberty and security are the hard-won results of democratic process and limited government power. A system of mass surveillance puts innocent people at risk, and is, in itself, an abuse of liberty. Inevitably, it leads to further abuses. When the justification is counter-terrorism, and that’s your only concern, there is no countervailing interest that justifies slowing you down or stopping you. We are only beginning to learn all the ways in which good men are nevertheless failing to withstand the corrupting force of vast spying abilities. Indeed, the FISA court noted in that 2011 opinion that the government’s collection of tens of thousands of purely domestic communications, hidden from the court for years, could be a crime. (Footnote 15) The good people at NSA have literally pulverized the Fourth Amendment, government accountability, freedom of expression, rule of law, and so many other equally critical components of the American system.

Comments are closed.