The NSA Affair: A Symptom, Not a Cause

The relationship of government to the citizen has become an insultingly patronizing game characterized by a Pavlovian call-and-response: "We're just trying to protect America!" elicits "thank God they're trying to keep us safe!"
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Any person of normal intelligence could have surmised long ago what the latest headlines about the National Security Agency purport to expose: that the government was engaged in massive surveillance involving the American public; that the surveillance far exceeded any reasonable interpretation both of the Fourth Amendment and relevant statutory authorities; that government officials may have lied about the surveillance to duly established oversight bodies before it became public knowledge; and that afterward those officials would claim their actions were beneficial for the national security, in this case for having supposedly thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks (albeit without laying out persuasive proof for that assertion). This sequence of events obeys the typical lifecycle pattern of other government scandals like torture, secret prisons, and assassinations.

There are other broad parallels as well. With a handful of exceptions, members of Congress (whose constitutional prerogatives were traduced by having been misled if not outright lied to) will adopt the demeanor of "three blind mice," contenting themselves with Potemkin Village hearings in which the relevant government officials engage in bland evasions, unverifiable claims, and irrelevant appeals to patriotism. A few members will jump the shark with asinine or horrifying statements that guarantee them the attention they crave.

Also numbingly familiar in these scandals is the role of corporate America, to whom considerable government activity has been outsourced. Whether it was the role of KBR/Halliburton in the Iraq logistics scandals, the use of 'roided-up Blackwater personnel as trigger-happy State Department security guards, or SAIC contractors involved in the Predator drone strikes, the merger of government and business into a corporate state is an inescapable fact. One wonders whether the extraordinary lenience that corporations, particularly large technology companies, receive from government with respect to antitrust law, intellectual property claims that violate the first sale doctrine (there is draconian punishment for "jailbreaking" your cellphone), and regulation in general, stems not merely from political contributions, but also from the fact that the government is utterly dependent on these corporations. It should not surprise us that the War on Terror amounts to perpetual war: traditionally, war has been considered a financial and social cost; now war is someone's shareholder value (the private equity giant Carlyle Group owns 69 percent of NSA contractor Booz Allen's shares).

It ought to be evident that the NSA affair is not just about privacy rights but is an illustration of a serious imbalance in the workings of the American state. The corrosive effect of money in politics assures a polarized and ineffectual Congress that refuses to work for the public interest; an out-of-control executive branch that has become a warming stool for previous and future executives and board members of the corporations they are supposed to regulate (the current Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, and his predecessor, Mike McConnell, are both Booz Allen alumni). The relationship of government to the citizen has become an insultingly patronizing game characterized by a Pavlovian call-and-response: "We're just trying to protect America!" elicits "thank God they're trying to keep us safe!"

Unfortunately, these distortions of governance did not fall out of the sky on an innocent American public. A Washington Post-Pew poll found a substantial majority of Americans believes the compromise of their privacy "acceptable." The poll also found a statistically significant increase since 2006 (when the same poll was conducted) in those who think such surveillance acceptable. Thus the common assumption that as 9/11 recedes further into the past, the more open the American public will be to a genuine debate about the tradeoffs between privacy and security appears not to be true. Time is on the side of those who are trying to condition the American people into a state of fearfulness.

The most depressing result of the polls, however, was the variability of the partisan response depending on which party occupies the White House: "In early 2006, 37 percent of Democrats found the [NSA's] activities acceptable; now nearly twice that number -- 64 percent -- say the use of telephone records is okay. By contrast, Republicans slumped from 75 percent acceptable to 52 percent today." A large percentage of Americans -- large enough to swing elections -- can be in favor of or opposed to a policy simply as a matter of whether "their guy" is in the Oval Office. This behavior may be incompatible with citizenship of a self-governing nation, but it would fit right in with the attitude of the mobs thronging the Coliseum in the late Roman Empire: whether the "blues" or the "greens" won the game was more important to them than their self-respect as citizens.

This infantilizing of the American people makes it unlikely that they will ever be capable of dispassionately examining the historical issues connected with terrorism, U.S. involvement in the Middle East and South Asia, and steps that might be taken to minimize terrorism without infringing on liberty. Beginning with the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, U.S. involvement in that part of the world has fostered an action-reaction cycle leading to ever-increasing levels of violence. The U.S. government now routinely exploits terrorist incidents to justify policies that assure more terrorist incidents. The most important truth about the Boston bombing of April 2013 -- the surviving alleged perpetrator clearly stated that his motivation was retaliation for armed U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries -- was also highly unlikely to cause a change of U.S. policy. As I write, the Obama administration is moving towards increased involvement in Syria -- heedless of the fact it has just come to light that its overthrow of Moamar Ghaddafi allowed surface to air missiles to get into al Qaeda's hands. Apparently for the administration and especially for its contractors who profit from war, blowback is a feature, not a flaw.

Will the American people do anything to push officials to reverse course? I lean towards pessimism. During first few years after 9/11, Washington, D.C.'s neoclassical core was defaced by checkpoints, miles of Jersey wall, and swarms of ninja-suited security squads; the city was beginning to look less like Pierre l'Enfant's architectural vision and more like cold war East Berlin. But what fascinated me most was to watch the reaction of tourists. A large number of them seemed actually impressed by the display: it was just like television, and there they were in real life, caught up in some drama out of a Tom Clancy novel or an episode of 24. It was something they could relate to via their media conditioning. One suspects their acquiescence at airports and their approval of surveillance have similar behavioral roots, as well as the fact that if one is important enough to be patted down or watched by the government, it is somehow reassuring that one really is important enough for the authorities to go to all that trouble. Like getting a tattoo, experiencing government security is a psychological safeguard against one's own cosmic insignificance.

All this security theater could subside over time if the United States changed its foreign policy. Reducing U.S. involvement in the Middle East and South Asia to ordinary commercial and diplomatic relations (comparable to international relations as practiced by, say, Finland) would not be a panacea, but it would constitute mitigation of terrorism. Regional terrorism would still exist, but political violence directed at U.S. targets would diminish to levels that could be contained by a circumspect defense sustainable at far less financial cost -- and far less cost to liberty. The need for this course of action is urgent: the United States, at all levels, simply does not possess the necessary intelligence to rule the Middle East and South Asia; and by intelligence, I do not mean the sources, methods, and technology of entities like the NSA. I mean the cognitive intelligence of government officials and the American people who tolerate them in office. It is now even becoming questionable whether we possess the wisdom to rule ourselves.

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