Member Of Intelligence Review Group Tells NSA: You Guys Have Done Amazing Work Protecting America… And Should Never, Ever Be Trusted

from the quite-a-speech dept

Geoffrey Stone was a member of the Presidential panel tasked with reviewing the NSA’s surveillance efforts — the one that urged significant changes to the program, some of which may actually happen. He was one of the more outspoken members of the panel concerning the importance of civil liberties, and after the panel’s report came out he was vocal about how “shocked” he was that the NSA’s phone record collection program was basically useless.

Apparently he was recently asked to go speak to NSA staffers at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade about the work he did for the panel, and he’s released his entire speech. It’s an interesting read. It opens with him explaining his long-standing and strong commitment to civil liberties, noting his connection to the ACLU and that he’s been a long-term skeptic of the NSA. He then goes on for most of the speech to talk about how the investigation by the review panel opened his eyes to recognizing that the NSA actually had done some really amazing and important work in stopping terrorists, and similarly that it really did seem committed to protecting Americans — including their civil liberties.

Instead, he pointed out that the real issue was not the people of the NSA, but the Executive Branch and Congress expanding what the NSA was able to do:

The Review Group found that many of the programs undertaken by the NSA were highly problematic and much in need of reform. But the responsibility for directing the NSA to carry out those programs rests not with the NSA, but with the Executive Branch, the Congress, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorized those programs — sometimes without sufficient attention to the dangers they posed to privacy and civil liberties. The NSA did its job — it implemented the authorities it was given.

But, he now has changed his opinion on the NSA, saying that it has been unfairly demonized:

It gradually became apparent to me that in the months after Edward Snowden began releasing information about the government’s foreign intelligence surveillance activities, the NSA was being severely — and unfairly — demonized by its critics. Rather than being a rogue agency that was running amok in disregard of the Constitution and laws of the United States, the NSA was doing its job.

It pained me to realize that the hard-working, dedicated, patriotic employees of the NSA, who were often working for far less pay than they could have earned in the private sector because they were determined to help protect their nation from attack, were being castigated in the press for the serious mistakes made, not by them, but by Presidents, the Congress, and the courts.

In the end, however, Stone points out that even as he was impressed with the professionalism and the values that the employees of the NSA held, they should not be trusted:

To be clear, I am not saying that citizens should trust the NSA. They should not. Distrust is essential to effective democratic governance. The NSA should be subject to constant and rigorous review, oversight, scrutiny, and checks and balances. The work it does, however important to the safety of the nation, necessarily poses grave dangers to fundamental American values, particularly if its work is abused by persons in positions of authority. If anything, oversight of the NSA — especially by Congress — should be strengthened. The future of our nation depends not only on the NSA doing its job, but also on the existence of clear, definitive, and carefully enforced rules and restrictions governing its activities.

In short, I found, to my surprise, that the NSA deserves the respect and appreciation of the American people. But it should never, ever, be trusted.

This is a really good point in many ways. One can argue over the various efforts and authorities, and whether or not they’re legal. But, the issue is definitely targeted at the top — and that includes not just the White House but the leadership of the NSA, as well as the FISA Courts and Congress. However, in following this debate since it began (even before that), I’ve seen little evidence that the public has been demonizing everyday NSA employees. Of course, some of the leaks suggest something that appears to be less than professional behavior by NSA folks, but nearly all of the criticism I’ve seen has been directed at those actually responsible at the top of the chain — not the day to day staffers.

Either way, Stone’s final point is a good one. Even if the NSA employed the most morally upstanding people ever alive, we should not trust them. An agency like the NSA should never be merely trusted, not because anyone questions the morals of the people who work there, but because a democracy cannot function when an organization like that is allowed to function solely on trust. It needs real, vigorous and comprehensive oversight. At this time, it’s not clear it has any of that.

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Comments on “Member Of Intelligence Review Group Tells NSA: You Guys Have Done Amazing Work Protecting America… And Should Never, Ever Be Trusted”

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silverscarcat (profile) says:

Even if you do trust them...

The mere fact that people like J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Joe McCarthy, among others, who have had positions of power in the United States in the 20th Century should be enough reason to clamp down on these agencies.

That tells me that we’ll have another one of those guys in power within my lifetime easily.

After all, history repeats itself, and those who do not learn from history will inevitably repeat it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Talk about a bunch of ass-kissing and smoke blowing. I’ve seen little to no eveidence they’ve done anything to substantially curb terrorism, outside of “foiling” their very own plots (and that’s more the FBI).

Secondly, “just doing their jobs”?? WTFH? A certain amount of dedication and obedeince is necessary, but people who would so blindly perform any and all task given no matter how questionable they seem are NOT people I want in such important positions.

I do agree that a larger chuck of the blame rest squarely on the opper levels, but I don’t hold the grunt workers entirely without some measure of responsibilty (for that matter I hold a large chuck of the American public to blame too, for being to lazy and weak to be willing oversee their government and hold them properly accountable. Oversight starts with the PEOPLE, and if their not willing to do the work, thy shouldn’t expect the government to it either).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If the world you live in has a history of crucifying whistleblowers and using them for target practise fear may be a big part of the problem. They have the ability to quit, but even that may be hard to do unless they get good credentials for a civil carreer.

Oversight of these types of issues has traditionally rested at the politicians where the people only have oversight over the politicians (i.e. you had to trust the politicians more than today where performance review is made by think-tanks and other opinion shapers). The people having a more direct oversight responsibility is a modern invention the old systems have not yet been tuned towards and the oversight is therefore still largely at the shoulders of the politicians with more access than the people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Those at the top are there to take the blame. That’s where they want you to direct the blame and any criticism. They then appeal to you that they will fix things, or change their ways, or whatever is necessary to appease the masses. The masses being trusting wait and see, and those at the top, stay at the top.

The truth of the matter is, those at the bottom allow it to happen. Those at the bottom do all the work, those at the bottom make it reality.

Stop waiting for those at the top to listen to you. They won’t. Instead appeal to those at the bottom, if they stop making it reality the top comes crumbling down.

decrement (profile) says:

Results vs. splitting hairs

There is a bit of genius behind Geoffrey Stone’s approach.

It is far too easy when being blasted by public and press opinion to simply circle the wagons and ignore the criticism. To simply resist the opposing viewpoint. To trivialize it.

What is the ideal result one can hope for going forward? In my opinion that result looks like opening doors to tighten privacy laws and ending some of these unfettered metadata collection activities.

By reinforcing to the employees at the NSA that they are doing a good job, and protecting the country, then placing blame outside the NSA George diffuses the personal nature of the argument. This allows employees to be more receptive to the message, and plants the seed that accepting change is not equated with a defeat.

In terms of realizing a true significant modification of these programs, planting this seed is brilliant move. Continuing to water it may grow additional support for these ideas from within. Splitting hairs by demonizing the entire organization, as reprehensible as past actions might be, is a certain way to maximize resistance.

I like the focus on “what is the desired outcome?” rather than reactionary outrage.

jimb (profile) says:

I’m on board with this. The NSA is a tool, one that has been abused and misused by its ‘owners’ – the executive leadership of the intelligence community, starting with Clapper and Alexander, and the shadowy people we don’t know in the White House and intelligence bureaucracy at the executive/manager level. The technical end of the NSA is excellent; if they were controlled in a way that respected the Constitution and the rights and privacy of the American people it would be a government agency to be respected. Being used and directed the way it has been is unfair to the workers at the agency, and to the American people. The willful evasion of meaningful oversight by Congress masterminded by the executive leadership of the agency and the two recent Administrations which have coopted the core mission of the NSA in the service of politically expedient “fighting terrorism” to spy on Americans almost without restraint or bounds is the biggest threat to American democracy. That the government is now for sale, wholesale, just about insures this won’t change anytime soon.

Anonymous Coward says:

No there is still something wrong below the top level...

I would almost agree that the problem is at the top of the chain, but there are a bunch of corrupt links in the middle as well.

It’s clear that even within the agency, there are management types who believe that treading on the constitution is OK – and punishing people who speak out against it, even within the agency, is also obvious.

Even if the problem is at the top, the agency has been infected with the same problems, and needs to be fixed.

Sometimes the only way to fix this is from the bottom – and we should be encouraging the hard working people in the NSA to challenge their bosses when they feel constitutional rights are being tread upon. The “shut up and do what you’re told” attitude cannot be the standard within the government if it is going to be working for the people by the people.

Vanye (profile) says:

Re: No there is still something wrong below the top level...

I would almost agree that the problem is at the top of the chain, but there are a bunch of corrupt links in the middle as well

Of course there is. Where do you think that the new “top of the chain” comes from? It doesn’t form from a vacuum. People with the “right” character flaws get drawn to the top.

The problem would be lessened with more effective oversight, however.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Historically, not the strongest defense

Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

Saying that they were just doing their jobs, and it’s all the fault of their bosses for ordering them to do unethical, illegal, or quasi-legal actions… yeah, the ‘my boss/superior made me do it’ excuse hasn’t flown in the past, and it shouldn’t here. The bosses may have given the orders, but the grunts in the NSA are the ones who decided to carry them out, they are just as responsible.

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