by Daniel Adkins
Most discussion on the National Security Agency (NSA) concerns its appetite for electronic records and its conflict with the 4th Amendment: the part of the Bill of Rights that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. Although some NSA searches are covered by warrants, other efforts just scoop up data streams worldwide.
NSA is a highly hierarchal and secretive agency. Signals intelligence has been among the most closely guarded of secrets. The breaking of the German and Japanese codes during World War II resulted in important victories. NSA culture treats opponents such as al Qaeda and Iran as existential enemies like Japan and Germany. Yet the nature of the current conflict is more complicated than World War II or the Cold War.
Al Qaeda is engaged in a conflict with much of the world that in many ways is a cultural reaction to the world’s multi-national influences. On 9-11 the U.S. military establishment was only able to oppose al Qaeda by launching two unarmed fighter planes to kamikaze the fourth hijacked plane, but it was informed passengers that brought down that last plane! So it would follow that cooperating with the public and allies rather than just scanning them would be in order. Al Qaeda is a political as much as a military opponent in that how the U.S. government respects and relates to Islam may be more important to combating al Qaeda than killing its terrorists.
Three trends are increasing in the Middle East. First, Arab Spring has started a rising appetite among the young, for a functional life and economy without graft, favoritism, and corruption. Rising education levels and expectations support that trend. Second, Islamist trends like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish government try successfully (or not) to link religious traditions with governments. In Egypt this trend failed by not paying attention to the economy and the future. This Islamist trend does not necessarily pose a security threat of the sort that the extremism of al Qaeda or the Taliban does. Thirdly, the chaos of the transitions have made an opening for al Qaeda. NSA does have a role in protecting us from the chaos, but the U.S. has a bad habit of trying to solve problems by technical means while ignoring social, cultural, and political dimensions. The technical methods worked in World War II and to some extent in the Cold War. Now the world is more connected and requires broader solutions.
Let us assess the economic consequence of this surveillance and the impact on our strongest sector. There now are economic, political, and ethical reasons not to use U.S. data centers, hardware, and communication lines passing through the U.S. Countries that do not want the U.S. government to know all their secrets have to think twice about using our services. The world may view our internet hardware and software as compromised in the way the our government now views Chinese hardware. The U.S. government forbids its agencies to use Chinese communications equipment because it may compromise our security. U.S. corporations may protest this issue to buyers, but everyone knows that the U.S. government requires secrecy of its industry agreements. NSA has just undercut our tech industry’s international trade and trustworthiness and tech companies are now protesting these actions.
Much of the world’s communications goes through the U.S., because our industry developed earlier. This infrastructure includes satellites, landlines, and undersea cables. NSA has angered Brazil, and if Brazil is serious about avoiding spying it will expand the use of undersea cables and satellites to send data through Africa and avoid the U.S. That is the only way for South Americans to secure their communications with Europe, Africa and Asia. This might have been avoided by country-to-country agreements, but protests from Germany and Brazil suggest there are no such agreements. If the goal is to fight al Qaeda, such agreements should be easy.
The result of NSA’s surveillance is an erosion of U.S. influence as our hubris prevents partners from seeing us acting with their collective interest. NSA’s military outlook toward al Qaeda is understandable, but NSA’s insularity has blocked both domestic and international cooperation. Others see that there are more options in cooperating with allies and the public by using a wider range of techniques including knowledge of cultures, languages, religious communities, and sciences beyond electronics. We could do this and at the same time protect our economy.
President Obama addressed 4 of 46 issues of a report in his January speech. His responses request further action, so details are few. Obama is looking to have private entities hold phone data of U.S. citizens and to access them only by court order (phone companies are not interested in this). A recommendation to have national security letters (subpoenas) approved by a judge’s order was not fully accepted. Discontinuing monitoring of friendly foreign leaders was mostly accepted. The FISA court reviewing surveillance is to include a public advocate. The president responded to the public issues somewhat, but did not address economic issues like our software firms being required to weaken their security to facilitate spying, or the bulk scanning of the whole world’s data outside the U.S. borders. We are left with software firms and the security service having much of our private data and it is up to us to trust them or not use them.
Obama’s choices may be limited by partisan battles and the threat of a security failure. However, his changes are superficial. The FISA court picked by Chief Justice Roberts is cognitively captured by the NSA and is now to get only “a” public defender. The continued policies crippling trust in our tech industry can result in a surge of foreign competition. As the ACLU's executive director said after the speech:
The president should end – not mend – the government's collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans' data. When the government collects and stores every American's phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an “unreasonable search” that violates the constitution.
None of this initial review would have happened without Snowden. The chain of command in NSA has sworn to protect the Constitution, but the results casts doubt on their oaths and goals.
Part of DSA’s interest in NSA’s actions comes from wanting to protect the constitutional rights of dissent and privacy. We view free speech as central to a democratic political economy, whether in our vision of democratic socialism or in our critique of our present capitalist economy. But this commitment is not just ideological, it is also necessary: the U.S. Socialist Party once had over 100 mayors in our cities, but after opposing WW I, the party was crippled by state repression. The FBI has had a history of opposing the civil rights and peace movements. It would be naive to think history cannot repeat itself.
Daniel C. Adkins is a founding member of DSA and lives in Arlington, Va. He helped organize NTEU Chapter 213, the union of the U.S. Department of Energy headquarters, and he helped create the U.S. Department of Energy Bicycle Advocates to raise support for bike commuting. Retired after 42 years as a federal employee, he publishes articles in The Washington Socialist (http://dsadc.org/).
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.