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.