‘A Nation of Sullen Paranoids’

Three items on the continuing National Security Agency controversy: the information that came out this week, a prescient warning from a veteran British intelligence hand, and a prophecy from an interesting source.

Siobhan Gorman and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries reported in this newspaper that the NSA, which is supposed to have only limited authority to spy on U.S. citizens, has built a surveillance network that covers substantially more communications than had been disclosed. The system is able to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic: “In some cases it retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone call made with Internet technology.” Sources on the story were current and former intelligence and government officials.

Also this week, a finding was revealed that the NSA violated the Constitution for three years running by collecting as many as 56,000 purely domestic communications without appropriate privacy protections. The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court slammed the agency for “misrepresenting” its practices to the court, and noted it was the third time in less than three years the government misrepresented the scope of a collection program.

All this in just the past few days. Makes you wonder what might be coming in a Labor Day weekend document dump, doesn’t it?

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Readers of my columns and blog posts see an NSA theme: There are too many built-in dynamics that make the national-security state want to grow, from legitimate fears of terrorism, to bureaucratic pride, to the flaws in human nature. And there are too many dynamics that will allow it to grow. The aftermath of 9/11 happened to coincide with a new burst in American technological innovation and discovery: The government has the ways and means to do pretty much anything now, and if they can do it they will do it.

Sullen ParanoiaIf the citizens of the United States don’t put up a halting hand, the government can’t be expected to: It is in the nature of security professionals to always want more, and since their mission is worthy they’re less likely to have constitutional qualms, to dwell on such abstractions as abuse of the Fourth Amendment and the impact of that abuse on the First. If you assume all the information that can and will be gleaned will be confined to NSA and national security purposes, you are not sufficiently imaginative or informed. If you believe the information will never be used wrongly or recklessly, you are touchingly innocent. If you assume you can trust the administration on this issue you are not following the bouncing ball, from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who told Congress under oath the NSA didn’t gather “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” (he later had to apologize) to President Obama, who told Jay Leno: “We don’t have a domestic program.” What we do have, the president said, is “some mechanism that can track a phone number or an email address that is connected to a terrorist attack.”

Oh, we have more than that.

Almost every politician in America lives in fear of one big thing: a terrorist attack they can later be accused of not having done everything to stop. And so they’ll do anything. They are looking to preserve their political viability and historical standing. We, as citizens, must keep other things in mind, such as the rights we are born with as Americans, one of which is privacy.

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I happened to pick up “Open Secret,” the memoir of Stella Rimington, who in the early 1990s served as director-general of MI5, the British domestic spy agency. I knew a little of her. She was the agency’s first female chief, she fell into spy work by accident, and she didn’t come from a fancy English family, meaning she didn’t proceed professionally with an air of entitlement or a crouch of guilt. So I thought she might have her head screwed on right regarding the surveillance state. She does.

In the preface of the 2002 edition she is already concerned about a loss of civil liberties. Terrorism didn’t begin on 9/11, she says, it has been with the modern world since at least the late 1960s, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. We must commit ourselves to do everything we can, within the law and within our most valued traditions, to oppose and thwart it. But, she suggests, you don’t want to lose your country—the thing you are so anxious to defend—in your effort to save your country.

In a career in what she calls “the secret state,” she learned that at the heart of countering terrorism is intelligence, and the most valuable sources against terrorism are human beings—long-term penetration efforts. This must be heavily supplemented by technical intelligence—phones, the Internet—and the more expert the better.

But democratic nations must always balance “the citizens’ right to live their lives in freedom, with minimum interference with their privacy from the security agencies” against the governments’ responsibility “to protect their citizens from harm.” That balance, she warned, had already begun to swing toward “more emphasis to our safety than our civil liberties.” It has become more acceptable “for the government . . . to take more powers.” She laments this. Pointedly: There is a danger, she observes, that “security can become an industry in itself and will not be protecting what is truly at risk.”

Terrorism will continue to appeal to extremists, to “weak minded” individuals drawn by passionate causes. But lack of attentiveness to our liberties will not help us succeed against them, and it can damage us. I wrote in the margins: “She’s saying we can’t become suicide bombers of our own rights.”

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Finally, I heard this week from a respected former U.S. senator, a many-termed moderate conservative who was never known as the excitable type. He wrote in reaction to Nat Hentoff’s warnings regarding the potentially corrosive effect of extreme surveillance on free speech. “All this scares me to death,” the former senator wrote. “How many times do we have to watch government, with the best of intentions, I am sure (or almost so), do things ‘for us’? Now ‘security’ and ‘terrorism’ argue for and justify the case for ever more intrusions—all in the name of protecting us. The truly frightening thing is that we are told we have to depend on government to police itself. Not a comforting thought, for we already have far too much evidence of the lack of such self-supervision. These actions, as Nat Hentoff said, will sooner than later curtail free speech. If so, I am fearful that this will ultimately lead a nation of sullen paranoids, ever more dependent upon government, ever more fearful of it. A free society, it will not be.”

“A nation of sullen paranoids.” Boy, is that it. This picks up on a point a friend, a veteran of Republican White Houses, said near the time the controversies were beginning. He told me of a sophisticated person he knew, experienced in journalism and the ways of government, who thought the U.S. government might have had the reporter Michael Hastings killed.

He said, musingly, “The future is paranoia.”

Unless, of course, we stop it.