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Vocal NSA Critic Has Dinner With NSA Boss, Explains To Him That Abuses Are Inevitable

from the good-people-sometimes-do-bad-things dept

Jennifer Granick, a well known (and brilliant) civil liberties fighter (currently at Stanford) recently co-wrote an article with Chris Sprigman about why the NSA's surveillance efforts were almost certainly both illegal and unconstitutional. Just a few weeks later, she got to have dinner with NSA boss Keith Alexander, which she's now written about. As you might imagine, it appears that they didn't agree on very much about the NSA's surveillance efforts. Basically, Alexander more or less argues that the NSA has to do what it does to "protect Americans" and that the agency is filled with good people who don't want to invade the privacy of Americans.
I have no doubt that Gen. Alexander loves this country as much as I do, or that his primary motivation is to protect our nation from terrorist attacks. “Never again,” he said over dinner. But it may be that our deep differences stem from a fundamental disagreement about human nature. I think Gen. Alexander believes that history is made by great individuals standing against evil. I believe that brave people can make a difference, but that larger inexorable forces are often more important: history, economics, political and social systems, the environment. So I believe that power corrupts and that good people will do bad things when a system is poorly designed, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. More than once, my dinner companions felt the need to reassure the DIRNSA that none of us thought he was a bad man, but that we thought the surveillance policies and practices were bad, and that eventually, inevitably, those policies and practices would lead to abuse.
She goes on to note that the NSA's (and the administration's) further defense of the efforts have only made her point even stronger (contrary to General Alexander's promise to Granick that the upcoming revelations would show that the NSA's actions were perfectly reasonable). As she notes later in the piece, the history of abuses is well known, even if Alexander likes to ignore it:

Of course, we see mission creep – once you build the mousetrap of surveillance infrastructure, they will come for the data.  First it was counterterrorism, then it was drug investigations, then it was IRS audits. Next it will be for copyright infringement.

And of course, there also will be both “inadvertent” and intentional abuse, inevitable but difficult to discover.  Bored analysts do things like spy on women using surveillance cameras and listen to American GIs overseas having phone sex with their loved ones back home.  Or an FBI agent may investigate strange but not unlawful emails on behalf of a family friend, leading to a sex scandal that brings down the Director of the CIA.  These surveillance tools and information databases may one day end up in the hands of a J. Edgar Hoover and a President demanding embarrassing information about her political opponents, information that, in an age of mass surveillance, the government most assuredly will have somewhere in its treasure trove.

There's a reason we make it hard for the government to spy on people. We know that the temptation to abuse such powers will be strong and abuse will inevitably occur. That's the nature of a free society. And it's a problem when people like General Alexander think that the best way to "protect" a free society is to take away the very factors that make it one.

Filed Under: abuse of power, jennifer granick, keith alexander, nsa, nsa surveillance


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  1. identicon
    out_of_the_blue, 22 Aug 2013 @ 3:22pm

    Merely a version of "it's okay if people I think are okay do it".

    Lawful gov't must have clear bright moral lines and follow them rigidly. That's why the US was designed as a gov't of laws, not of men. You can't just naively trust people who claim their motives are good and pure, because that inevitably leads to mission creep: any minorly facile mind can make up plausible excuses.

    Grannick, whatever her own motives, whatever her own level of goodness and wish to see the country free, has clearly fallen for the excuses of a self-proclaimed "good" man who routinely breaks the law and does evil.

    The gov't we have is the absolutely predictable result of cultural trends as worsened by intentional manipulation. And it's not going to get better by having dinner with corrupt people in power and trying to persuade them that they're going wrong: they're WAY past reasonable. You don't get put in charge of NSA because your intentions are good.

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