Another article has arrived defending the poor, misunderstood intelligence agencies from the hateful actions of a single contractor. Fortunately, it's all spelled out in the headline: "What did Edward Snowden get wrong? Everything"
Missing period notwithstanding, former CIA agent Andrew Liepman dives into his defense of intelligence agencies by attempting to cast these agencies as sympathetic entities. Not a simple task considering the recent developments, but Liepman tries.
First, he points out that these agencies couldn't care less about your trivial online activities.
[T]he U.S. government truly does make strenuous efforts not to violate privacy, not just because it respects privacy (which it does), but because it simply doesn't have the time to read irrelevant emails or listen in on conversations unconnected to possible plots against American civilians.
First: trying to find something the agency deems "irrelevant" is an exercise in futility. Seemingly unconnected web detritus is swept up along with the actually relevant (as in the OED definition, not the NSA's definition
) data. The NSA may not have any interest in 99.9% of it, but it stores it anyway. Just. In. Case. Liepman even offers his admiration for the agencies' ability to stack hay, but honestly, that talking point has been exhausted.
Second: while agents may be mainly interested in "possible plots," evidence exists that they take time out of their busy schedules to listen to irrelevant phone calls
and read irrelevant emails
That's why I find the Snowden controversy so frustrating. I realize many Americans don't trust their government. I wish I could change that. I wish I could tell people the amazing things I witnessed during my 30 years in the CIA, that I've never seen people work harder or more selflessly, that for little money and long hours, people took it for granted that their flaws would be scrutinized and their successes ignored. But I've been around long enough to know that deep-rooted distrust of government is immune to stories from people like me. The conspiracy buffs are too busy howling in protest at the thought that their government could uncover how long they spent on the phone with their dear aunt.
Realizing people don't trust the government is great, I suppose, but the problem remains that the government has rarely shown interest in rebuilding this trust. I'm sure the CIA has its share of hardworking, trustworthy employees just like any other corporation. (Former NSA director Michael Hayden made the same sort of claim in his interview with CNN
-- "The people working at the NSA have the same concerns as the American people.") But like any other corporation, it's also going to have its share of less-than-stellar employees, only these under-performers have access to a hell of a lot of data. Telling the public that some people do a damn good job won't change anything, as Liepman notes. But he's still going to try.
But once he's through trying to humanize the intelligence agencies, Liepman falls right back into the same rhetorical trap so many other defenders have: belittling the public
for its concerns. Instead of making any attempt to portray American citizens' concerns about broad, non-targeted data harvesting as legitimate, Liepman downplays the opposition's credibility by referring to them as "howling conspiracy buffs" concerned about the government listening to "phone calls to their aunts."
Insulting the opposition will do very little to rebuild trust. This is how the intelligence agencies view those concerned about their privacy and constitutional rights: as social misfits prone to conspiracy theories and wild exaggerations about these agencies' capabilities. All this indicates is that those running these agencies have very little interest in addressing the public's concerns. In their minds, these people should be marginalized and mocked, rather than taken seriously.
Liepman repeatedly asserts that the CIA, NSA, etc. aren't interested in anything other than the activities of terrorists, not the activities of non-terrorist Americans, but evidence continues to mount that shows this assertion JUST ISN'T TRUE
Two stories, just from this morning, show the CIA is surveilling Americans
with no links to terrorism
. A FOIA request managed to pry loose enough info to force the CIA to admit that it spied on MIT professor Noam Chomsky for several years
. That's just from this morning.
The history of the CIA
is long and awful and includes many more instances of the agency deploying its tactics against American citizens, this despite the fact that it's supposed to limit itself entirely to foreign intelligence work. Two well-known domestic surveillance programs, Project Merrimac and Project Resistance, surveilled American citizens, keeping an eye on anti-war protestors and other "radicals." The CIA also ran a domestic mail opening program for two decades in four major American cities according to the Church Committee report.
For all of Liepman's claims that the government simply doesn't care about your aunt unless she talks to terrorists (or is one), the facts simply don't bear that out. These surveillance programs aren't strictly limited to countering terrorist activity. They're also being used to track American citizens that are either too noisy about their beliefs or are sticking their noses into places various administrations don't want them to.
After haranguing Snowden for his careless exposure of the NSA's internal workings, Liepman continues to believe the real issue is the government's inability to control the narrative, although he phrases it a bit differently.
[T]he intelligence community — always a less sympathetic protagonist than a self-styled whistle-blower — actually has a good story to tell about how seriously the government takes privacy issues. We should tell it.
Go ahead. Tell it. But stop leaving out all the parts that undercut your narrative of good, honest spies protecting the nation and respecting the privacy of Americans. Frankly, the government doesn't care about privacy issues until it's forced to
, and even then, it can barely work up the energy to address the concerns
, much less right the wrongs.