A guy sits at a bank of computer screens at the NSA. On one screen is a list of the target’s contacts. Who placed the call, which calls got returned, the date the calls were made, the time and duration of each call. He doesn’t know who his target is? Of course he does. He has the phone number, which he cleverly enough matched up to a name he found in a phone book. (Lets just assume for the sake of argument that the NSA’s phone books are both a lot more comprehensive and more up to date than something you or I might buy on Amazon.) Both the target’s and the party (or parties – this could be a conference call) on the other end of the line(s) appear on another screen.
Which brings up a good point.
Just because the only FISA court order we know about is supposedly restrictive (just phone call meta data) doesn’t mean that the NSA doesn’t already have all the data they need to fill in the blanks, including content. After all, there’s always the much rumored, but never confirmed ECHELON Program. As far as I know, nobody has yet asked what the phone call meta data is being matched up with.
So this NSA analyst gets a request to keep tabs on the target, and being sufficiently “sound” to pass the clearance hurdles necessary to actually sit at this desk, he’s not only more prone than just about everybody else to follow orders that he knows are wrong, but he’s far more likely to embrace a world view in which the threat is routinely exaggerated. So he got his orders, and now he’s found what he’s looking for. His target has repeatedly made contact with an “anti-American” element.
This needs to be reported!
Which he does. He also feels gratified that his supervisor will be happy, and that he has helped fulfill the mission his group has embraced—because he is a true believer. Again, he would have never reached such a sensitive position had he not been. This is more then common, though, it is endemic to all of us. From William H. Whyte’s 1956 classic, The Organization Man:
I am going to call it a Social Ethic. With reason it could be called an organizational ethic, or a bureaucratic ethic; more than anything else it rationalizes the organization’s demand for fealty and gives those who offer it wholeheartedly a sense of dedication in doing so—in extremis, you might say, it converts what would seem in other times a bill of no rights into a restatement of individualism.
But there is a real moral imperative behind it, and whether one inclines to its beliefs or not he must acknowledge that this moral basis, not mere expediency, is the source of its power. Nor is it simply an opiate for those who must work in big organizations. The search for a secular faith that it represents can be found throughout our society—and among those who swear they would never set foot in a corporation or a government bureau. Though it has its greatest applicability to the organization man, its ideological underpinnings have been provided not by the organization man, but by intellectuals he knows little of and toward whom, indeed, he tends to be rather suspicious.
This has been noted before, indeed, specifically in respect to the intelligence community. From the Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect To Intelligence Activities (more commonly known as the Church Commission) Final Report:
The fact that government intelligence agencies resist any examination of their secret activities even by another part of the same government should not be minimized. The intelligence agencies are a sector of American government set apart. Employees’ loyalties to their organizations have been conditioned by the closed, compartmented [sic] and secretive circumstances of their agencies’ formation and operation. In some respects, the intelligence profession resembles monastic life with some of the disciplines and personal sacrifices reminiscent of medieval orders. Intelligence work is a life of service, but one in which the norms of American national life are sometimes distressingly distorted.
In my hypothetical, the willing drones operating the machinery of organized surveillance have churned the data and some real information has emerged: our target has been revealed to be less than the Perfect Patriot. “Patriot” in the organization man’s view, which is shared by his supervisor, who wouldn’t have reached his position either without wholeheartedly tendering his moral proxy to the organization. One might claim that the organization is just protecting America, but in my scenario, that definition has morphed to include Americans legally protesting (an offense to order is different in kind to any existential threat) real grievances thrust upon them by, say, vested American interests:
So the organization, geared to “protect America,” has fulfilled its mission. It has even sentenced to a 17 year jail term one American whose “crime” was no more than translating documents. Can we depend on the organization men to protect the rights of Americans? What can history teach us? Bernard Barker, E Howard Hunt and James Accord were all ex-CIA by the time they joined Nixon’s White House plumbers squad. Others with military and intelligence backgrounds included Frank Sturgis and Chuck Colson. Well, you may say, they were all rogue operatives—the proverbial bad apples—which would ignore the fact that the CIA itself may well have been involved, with which the plumbers allegedly maintained liaison through John Paisley.
Ultimately, the human element throughout all this is decisive. We perceive the threat differently. We are highly prone to confirmation bias and slippery-slope arguments. We cannot even agree among ourselves on a common definition of what America is supposed to be, and far too many Amerikans have amply demonstrated their willingness to demonstrate a blanket hostility towards American Muslims, immigrants, Black Americans, Southerners, Eastern Establishment, media figures, government officials . . . it’s a long, long list. Under these circumstances, giving a few people, having gone through a very rigorous process to cull out those might retain a fraction of their own moral center is highly problematic. More then ripe for abuse, it tends to ensure abuse is inevitable. Are select businessmen, especially those with close government, or even intelligence community contacts getting briefs about what their competitors are up to? (Strictly in the national interest, of course – think Lockheed. Or for that matter, Exxon/Mobil, BP and Shell) Is the party in the Oval Office getting a discrete helping hand politically from the total surveillance of American communications? Are people with no propensity for terrorist acts (Occupy Wall Street’s biggest crime? Blocking traffic) targeted simply because of acts of dissent? Are some dissenters being targeted while those individuals and groups ostensibly more sympathetic to the organization’s aims getting a pass? Think IRS here. Indeed, it’s not like this isn’t happening now. How reassured can we be that Americans are protected when clearly, the Obama administration is intent on facilitating surveillance, the Congress is pliant enough to yield to it and the judiciary content to rubber stamp it? After all, when it was revealed that the NSA had installed a facility to illegally monitor all internet traffic, what did Congress do?
They made it legal.
UPDATE: One point I should have remembered to include here, courtesy of Conor Friedersdorf writing for The Atlantic: All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama:
Even if you think Bush and Obama exercised those extraordinary powers responsibly, what makes you think every president would? How can anyone fail to see the huge potential for abuses?
UPDATE: Two videos show 1) the “moral” force organizations try to assume and 2) how compliance is enforced on a daily basis.
DNI James Clapper invokes religious language in what he does. At about 3:30, Clapper describes his work as a “sacred trust”:
Edward Snowden, who admits leaking NSA documents, describes working in an organizational culture which resists self-examination. At about 1:30:
Note: If we are going to address this issue seriously, one of the things which must happen is that we must discard this mystical “keeper of the flame” language and begin by getting some facts out into the open about what, exactly, the threat level generally is. If we cannot, if this entire process is undertaken behind closed doors, nothing will change. As I said above, Congress is prone to give national security apparat pretty much any capacity it asks for, the President seems unwilling to impose restraint or close oversight on these branches under his control, and the Judiciary is acting in a rubber-stamp fashion (be it noted here that the FISA “court” is not a legal proceeding as we understand it. Apparently, no finding of fact is required, no evidence presented nor is anybody present to argue for restraint in the name of civil liberties.