NSA Defenders Need To Learn: Trust Is Something You Earn, Not Legislate
from the wake-up-to-reality dept
I’ve been thinking about last week’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA boss Keith Alexander, and deputy Attorney General James Cole. This was the one in which Senator (and Intelligence Committee chair) Dianne Feinstein both insisted that it’s shameful that the press and the public refer to the NSA’s surveillence program as “surveillance” while accidentally admitting that the NSA gets internet information via tapped “upstream” backbone connections. But if there was one issue that came up over and over again it was the palpable anger of the NSA’s defenders that the press and the public don’t trust them. This seemed to focus on a two key arguments:
- Everything we do is legal and is handled by “oversight from all three branches of government.”
- We’re not listening in on everyone’s calls, but trying to stop terrorist attacks.
First of all, the first claim is basically false and the second one is mostly a strawman, but also somewhat misleading to false (depending on your perspective of the continuum).
However, just for fun, let’s give the NSA and its defenders the benefit of the doubt, and explain how even if both of those points are 100% true, it still is no reason to trust them.
In response to the first point, the NSA defenders seem to think that just because the secret FISA court says this is all okay, that means the American people should agree that it’s okay. But that’s not how this works. In fact, part of the point why people are so pissed off about this is the fact that we don’t think this should be legal in the first place. Whether or not the courts decide that it’s legal doesn’t change that. And it certainly does not lead to “trust.” Quite the opposite. When the judicial system rules against what the American public believes is just and right, that hurts trust and makes us a hell of a lot less trusting of the judiciary.
As for the second point, the whole “we’re not listening to your calls with your mother” line is a total strawman. People (generally) aren’t concerned about whether or not the NSA is listening to calls like that. What they’re (quite reasonably) concerned about is the possibility that such powers can and are abused. And this type of abuse has happened many times before. This includes a few different kinds of abuse:
- Abuse for political power, such as spying on political enemies and critics.
- Abuse for personal reasons, such as spying on spouses and love interests.
- Abuse for law enforcement reasons, such as stretching the definition of the law or finding perfectly normal behavior that can be turned into a felony charge for the purpose of piling charges on people the government wants to lock up.
All of those things have happened (in some cases quite recently). The fact is that while the NSA might not be listening to calls between me and my mom, the NSA and other law enforcement agencies have long shown that they’ll come up with all sorts of excuses to spy on people they don’t like to try to twist and distort things, often out of context, to shut up people they don’t like. The NSA and its defenders response to all of this seems to be something along the lines of “sure that happened in the past, but we’re different.” Yet, they give no reason at all to show why they’re different. It just comes back to “trust us.”
But the American people (and, actually, the rest of the world) have been fooled plenty of times already. Telling people to “trust us” doesn’t cut it. At all. The only way to build trust is to earn it. If the NSA needs to do these kinds of things, prove it. Explain publicly what they do and why they do it, and let a public debate occur about whether or not this kind of effort is appropriate. That’s still missing. We’re just told to trust them, because they’re different and that the NSA doesn’t want to listen to every call. But that’s not what leads to trust. In fact, it just leads to greater distrust.