Why NSA Boss Believes His Agency Is All Good: Intentions vs. Actions

from the getting-real dept

Tim Lee, over at The Switch, has a really good post explaining why it might be that NSA boss General Keith Alexander might legitimately believe some of the ridiculous propaganda his organization has been throwing around to try to justify the massive NSA dragnet surveillance programs and its widespread abuses. His argument is basically that people in powerful positions are in something of a bubble that limits their knowledge of how bad things are:
The tendency to promote team players and marginalize dissenters creates a danger of groupthink at the highest levels of the organization. The problem is exacerbated by people’s reluctance to tell their bosses bad news. Each level of the bureaucracy gives its bosses a sugar-coated version of the information it receives from subordinates. By the time information reaches the top, it can be dramatically skewed.

This filtering process distorts the information powerful organizations receive from the outside, too. Powerful people are more likely to attend parties and give speeches with friendly audiences than hostile ones. An organization’s press office will naturally give preferential access to reporters who write positive stories about them. As a result, a man in Alexander’s position may rarely encounter well-informed critics who feel free to give him candid feedback on his performance.
It's a good theory, and I'm sure there's some truth to it -- though I'm not sure it really explains everything. It does appear that Alexander was certainly aware of the audits, the IG report and the FISC ruling that all showed massive abuses and problems with the NSA's actions. So I'll posit an alternative theory as to why Alexander legitimately believes the propaganda.

There's a saying that I've heard many times with slight variations:


We judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions

That is, when we do "bad" things, we often have good intentions, and so it's more difficult for us to view our own actions as being "bad." We meant well. Things just went bad. But when we look at others, we just see their actions, and don't fully understand their intentions -- and thus it's easier for people to assign "bad" intentions to bad actions.

A similar thing may be happening here with the NSA's surveillance. People like General Alexander (and James Clapper and Michael Hayden, and even President Obama) likely look at the things the NSA have done, and believe that they were being done with the best of intentions. That's why they immediately fall back on the defense that none of the abuses were intentional (even if some clearly were).

That's why they seem so exasperated that everyone's so upset with them for the massive spying and the abuses. They keep insisting that if we only were in their shoes, we'd be absolutely fine with how the NSA is acting, and they keep saying that no one at the NSA wants to abuse your civil liberties or to spy on your communications unless you're "bad." Some have assumed that they were implying that they really believe they've stopped potential attacks, but it might just also be that they really do believe that they intend to do "good" things, even if their actions are highly questionable.

Unfortunately, of course, the other famous saying is that the "road to hell is paved with good intentions." Good intentions only take you so far. When you have such a massive, highly questionable program with a very high number of abuses, it no longer matters that their intentions are good, because their actions are simply bad.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Todd Knarr (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:56am

    Summed up in:

    http://railean.net/index.php/2008/04/14/how_shit_happens_1

    although that's not the original source for the story. Cf. the game of "Telephone".

     

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  2.  
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    Ninja (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:09am

    I'm going to emphasize that.

    iWe judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions


    In fact even the ones on the polar opposite of this story tend to do the same. I see that on copyright discussions all the time and I try to be careful not to fall into this trap. It's easy to talk about abolishing copyright but there may be benefits and more important there is the need for protection. Lets not forget that Edison took the ideas of other inventors at the time, patented and made a whole world of money on them. This is the type of thing patents, copyright should be avoiding in the first place so instead of being extreme why not debate how these tools can be effective instead of being used by individuals and corporations to screw the legitimate creators?

    What I said may seem off-topic but there is the need of some level of intelligence. Narrowly focused, in accordance to constitutional rights and with respect for the privacy of the ones not involved. How do we achieve that?

    There's no doubt that the surveillance has gone too far. But we need a sane, reasonable debate. Raging and swearing at each other will just lead to yet another "Republicans vs Democrats" stupidity. Don't be fooled or put that "you hypocrite face", I fall for this trap regularly, I'm as human as Keith or the really conservative Republican (aha, stereotype detected!) and I will make mistakes. We all are, we all will. But accepting your weakness is the first step to recognize your err, accept it and overcome the weakness. Easier said than done though...

    Another emphasis is needed here:

    road to hell is paved with good intentions

    Considering some in this privacy debate firmly believe in the intentions and are not corrupted by interests: how do we reason with them without putting them in a defensive stance thus closing their minds to any reason? Being hostile is not the answer when the other party is open to listen.

     

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  3.  
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    Alt0, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:12am

    Here...
    )
    That belongs up there somewhere.

     

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  4.  
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    Applesauce, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:16am

    Intentions are meaningless

    And nobody thinks they are the bad guys. Pol Pot, Mao, Milosovic, etc., they all committed war crimes and atrocities on a vast scale, but they believed with their whole hearts that what they were doing was GOOD. As far as we know, Kieth Alexander's Q-branch hasn't been murdering lots of people yet, but the principle remains. What you think about yourself doesn't matter even a tiny bit: it only matters what you do. Godwin notwithstanding, just because Hitler was convinced he was the saviour of Europe, that didn't make him the Messiah.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:26am

    Loaded Guns

    You Americans have a very bad habit of leaving loaded guns about, and NSA is the biggest loaded gun you have. A NSA boss cooperating with a political party could easily set up a room with a few party helpers to misuse the database.

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:30am

    People out of power are gullible saps.

    This is the usual major mistake, witlessly repeated by Mike just in allowing that they MIGHT have good intentions, consistent with the accustoming/excuse phase of a limited hangout: "Cut 'em some slack! They mean well." -- No, they're evil and know exactly what they're doing. People in power aren't stupid, that's just another dodge.

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:40am

    Re: Loaded Guns

    @ "You Americans have a very bad habit of leaving loaded guns about," -- And you furriners have a far worse blindness in disarming citizens and leaving guns only in the hands of gov't and The Rich. You're worse that no help implying that The People should be disarmed; gun control is the foremost agenda item for any dictatorship -- it's underway in the former US of A. Free people have guns; slaves are disarmed. -- And no, a "utility" argument is wrong because the numbers of disaremed people deliberately killed by gov'ts is far higher than chance of being shot by some nut.

    The 2nd Amendment is the only one that can at all guarantee the rest.

     

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  8.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:43am

    "We judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions"

    I have an alternate theory ...

    they are just plain evil

     

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  9.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:44am

    Re:

    and stop rationalizing, they know exactly what they are doing.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:45am

    Alexander must be a charisma king

    I don't get it. Almost every reporter who interviews him comes away thinking he's this well intentioned guy.

    Yes, he talks in a calm soothing way. And yes, he has facial expression that's reminiscent of Droopy from the Woody Woodpecker show.

    But, come on people. Let's get past his disarming demeanor and look at what he does.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:47am

    Re: Re: Loaded Guns

    He wasn't talking about gun control.

     

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  12.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:48am

    Re:

    they are just plain evil


    I think demonizing people in such a manner is a really, really bad idea. It makes it much harder to fix problems.

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:53am

    Summary:
    NSA/other government agencies think that the ends justify the means.

    which unfortunately isn't the best way of going about things

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:56am

    Institutions should always be judged by objective measures (outcomes). Talking about intentions is a trap.

     

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  15.  
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    Internet Zen Master (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 10:59am

    In a bubble

    Wouldn't be too surprising, honestly. I mean, who wants to be the guy to deliver bad news to the boss? That goes for just about any kind of employment. Messengers with bad news have a high tendency to get shot (figuratively and sometimes literally). It's not a surprise that no one would want to be the messenger in the NSA.

    This article pretty much sums up what I've been saying about the NSA recently: they're intentions might be good, but their actions are disturbingly efficient at paving the road to hell.

     

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  16.  
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    Mike Raffety (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:14am

    "The problem is exacerbated by people’s reluctance to tell their bosses bad news."

    Anyone remember why NASA's Challenger space shuttle blew up?

    "The Rogers Commission found NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident. NASA managers had known contractor Morton Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed in adequately reporting these technical concerns to their superiors."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Challenger_disaster

     

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  17.  
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    HappyBlogFriend (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:14am

    This is spot on. The NSA is in its own bubble, and oversight is failing because the watchers are in the same bubble. They believe the same garbage that the NSA believes and no one in their bubble is questioning it. The only way to achieve real oversight is to involve the public.

    Basically, life is a Choose Your Own Adventure and the NSA is being evil without realizing it. It's about time someone told them.

     

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  18.  
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    Internet Zen Master (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:15am

    Re: Re:

    I second Mike on this. It's never a good idea to instantly jump to the worst possible conclusion for motivations when it comes to something like this.

    What that phrase again? "Never confuse malice with what could be simple ignorance", or something along those lines?

    That being said, it's becoming extremely hard for me not to demonize the NSA at this point, especially with each new damning leak about their actions. And it's a pretty safe bet that the worst has yet to come.

    As the Zen Master says, "We'll see."

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 11:52am

    Its like letting teenage boys oversee teenage boys
    No one is going to get checked unless the angry lesbian shows up.

     

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  20.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 12:02pm

    Re: Re:

    So what should I have said, these people don't see the distinction between right and wrong, they are vicious, vindictive, vengeful to anyone who upsets the apple cart, and conforming to accepted standards of morality is something they are incapable of.

    oh wait that translates as ... evil, nevermind.

    e·vil
    1. profoundly immoral and malevolent.

    im·mor·al
    1.not conforming to accepted standards of morality.

    mo·ral·i·ty
    1. principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.

    ma·lev·o·lent
    1.having or showing a wish to do evil to others
    synonyms - baleful, vicious, vindictive, vengeful

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 12:51pm

    Re: Re:

    The optimism is great, but seriously, are you expecting to "fix" decades of institutionalized incompetence?

    Read the Wired: How to Fix the Army: Sack All the Generals and change generals for president, directors, managers, congress people and so forth and you get the picture.

    That culture is not going away on its own, that is why we have institutions to keep things going after people leave, to serve as a compass to guide the others that come into it, when that compass is broken, you don't fix it, you get a new one, unfortunately there will be no changes at that level anywhere soon.

     

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  22.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 12:54pm

    Re: Re:

    "It makes it much harder to fix problems"

    Perhaps a little demonization and anger is what is necessary. We have a secret court that is reminiscent of the star chamber, where misdeeds and illegalities are hidden from public view, one that uses the threat of incarceration to maintain its secrecy. Our politicians are sworn to uphold the constitution and the law of the land, yet they do neither. Their refusal to do their jobs and hold people accountable for criminal actions they witness is appalling. And in a political system that has no consequences for misdeeds, and most often the exact opposite, they will continue to run roughshod over the constitution and the laws of this nation.


    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Chamber

     

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  23.  
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    Simple Mind (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 12:55pm

    Re: Alexander must be a charisma king

    You must be joking. The first thing I thought when I saw him was Gollum. And NSA spying programs are his "precious".

     

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  24.  
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    Simple Mind (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 12:58pm

    Re:

    Is this a roundabout way of saying we should vote for Hillary?

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 2:11pm

    Lying VS spying

    If only they could lie as well as they can spy. How can you tell an honest Gov. official? I recall a movie scene where a mourner sticks a pin into the deceased to confirm that he is really dead. Thats how.

     

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  26.  
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    synapticpolarization (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:54pm

    The NSA Is Just People

    Those who work for the NSA are like any other collection of people: some are good, some are bad, the majority are a little of both. If the sample is very large, as in the 500,000+ employees and contractors who’ve had access to NSA data, a very few might even be saintly and a few more purely evil. Given the bad, given the evil, given that power corrupts all but saints, this is yet another predictable case of the cure being worse than the disease. Witness the good intentions with which tens of thousands of Americans were lobotomized. Witness the good intentions with which millions of innocent, unwitting Americans are now surveilled. There’s nothing new here … other than the unprecedented scale of these well-meaning intrusions and of their chilling effect on free and open expression

     

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  27.  
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    synapticpolarization (profile), Aug 26th, 2013 @ 9:54pm

    The NSA Is Just People

    Those who work for the NSA are like any other collection of people: some are good, some are bad, the majority are a little of both. If the sample is very large, as in the 500,000+ employees and contractors who’ve had access to NSA data, a very few might even be saintly and a few more purely evil. Given the bad, given the evil, given that power corrupts all but saints, this is yet another predictable case of the cure being worse than the disease. Witness the good intentions with which tens of thousands of Americans were lobotomized. Witness the good intentions with which millions of innocent, unwitting Americans are now surveilled. There’s nothing new here … other than the unprecedented scale of these well-meaning intrusions and of their chilling effect on free and open expression

     

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  28.  
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    Postulator (profile), Aug 27th, 2013 @ 2:57am

    So how do you explain the intentions involved in shutting up whistleblowers and prosecuting dissent?

     

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  29.  
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    David, Aug 27th, 2013 @ 6:46am

    One might have argued 'good intentions gone bad' back in June, but with all the lies and obfuscation since then I don't see how anything but 'purposeful deceit' can now be believed.

    Nope, when you look at the facts:

    - Spying on the UN: illegal
    - Spying on friendly governments and all their citizens: immoral at least
    - Spying on Kim Dot Com: against their mandate at least
    - Feeding information to DEA and IRS to use against US citizens: illegal
    - Spying on love interests: illegal
    - Stopped one 'terrorist action' (actually someone donating to a Mosque that passed money to a terrorist organization): The only actual legitimate use we've learned of so far, and pretty minor in the whole scheme of things.

    The record clearly shows more criminal and immoral actions than anything resembling actual legitimate use within the organizations legal mandate.

    Add to that the fact that elected officials are all caught up in the lies; from the Senate and House security committees lying to the public and holding back legitimate details from other members of congress, to the president himself out right lying to the people, the NSA is nothing more than a cancer eating away at democracy and freedom ... a terrorist bomb is not what's killing democracy and freedom, we are all being fooled into believing that the 1 in hundreds of million chance of being harmed by a terrorist is the real threat while being lied to about the metastasizing mass of privacy killing NSA cancer that is really eating away at our very way of life.

     

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  30.  
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    teka, Aug 27th, 2013 @ 9:18am

    Re: Re: Loaded Guns

    let me try..

    You (political entity) sure have a bad habit of leaving (legos on the floor in the dark) and the NSA is a (very pinty pile of legos indeed.

     

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  31.  
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    Pragmatic, Sep 3rd, 2013 @ 5:33am

    Re: Re: Re: Loaded Guns

     

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