The Trustworthy Government Officials Delusion: Eventually Any Program Will Be Abused
from the not-everyone-is-trustworthy dept
American history is replete with examples of the dangers of unchecked power operating in secret. Richard Nixon, for instance, was twice elected president of this country. He tried to subvert law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies for political purposes, and was more than willing to violate laws in the process. Such a person could come to power again. We need a system that can withstand such challenges. That system requires public knowledge of the power the government possesses.To date, nearly every single defense of the NSA's pervasive surveillance powers, whether it comes from President Obama, James Clapper, Keith Alexander, Dianne Feinstein or Mike Rogers all seems premised on denying this basic fact. They're all focused on how hard the people working on these programs work to stay within the law and how they're designed with the best intentions in mind. In fact, the defenses seem almost entirely premised on this point: "we're the good guys, so you can trust us not to do the wrong thing here."
There's something about historical evil that makes people think that it won't happen again. I know it's a mental bias that I have all the time. We hear stories of the atrocities of Adolf Hitler, the excessive attacks of Joseph McCarthy, the pervasive surveillance of J. Edgar Hoover, and the paranoid political opportunism of Richard Nixon and we have a natural tendency and bias to think "wow, those guys were bad, but that was then -- isn't it great that we live in a time after those guys are gone?" The things that some of those people did were considered so bad, we have a hard time believing that it could happen again. After all we "learned our lesson" and we're in a new era.
But, of course, that's wrong. It's silly and naive.
These things didn't happen long ago at all.
People do bad things. And they will continue to do bad things. That doesn't mean that people are necessarily evil -- most are not. In fact, many who end up doing bad things start out with the best of intentions (and maybe believe to the end that they were following through on those intentions). But, temptation and power are strong drivers of behavior. And eventually abuse and excess are bound to happen.
Even if we assume that everyone working on these programs today is a wonderful soul with the best of intentions (a proposition that is unlikely, but let's go with it), there is simply no way that this will always be the case. This is what is leading to the miscommunication between defenders of these programs and those who fear them. Not all of us automatically assume that those in charge have nefarious intent (and, yes, I know some readers here do assume that), but we recognize that sooner or later, those with nefarious intent will have access and will abuse it. That's just the nature of the beast.
So, when President Obama, James Clapper, Keith Alexander, Dianne Feinstein or Mike Rogers argue "trust us," with these programs, that's really not the point. Even if we trust them, we have no way of knowing if we can or should trust the next guy or the guy after that. The only way -- the only way -- to make sure such programs won't be abused is to build programs that have real public and open oversight. And that's what the defenders of these programs continue to fight back against. And that's the problem.