May 6, 2014–Not a lot of time today but I did want to put something out to chew on. The truth is that we need to proceed very carefully about how we reform the National Security Agency. An ill-considered effort can easily result in an eavesdropping regime even more sinister than the one that already exists. As always the devil is in the details.
When President Obama made his reform speech back in January, he issued a directive to the NSA and Justice Department to rein in their activities while attempting to preserve their capabilities. They appear to have succeeded. Last week there were indications the spooks like the reform regime even better, because in leaving the metadata content with the corporations along with the other data the companies already have, a new-system court order will actually afford NSA access to a wider range of the content its analysts want to get.
NSA “reform” is still a work in progress. But this got me to thinking about what is happening in Turkey, where the current political scandal bears a certain functional similarity to what is happening here. Superficially, of course, the shoe is on the other foot. That is, hackers, sharp political observers, and individuals unknown have in effect done the NSA trick and recorded the phone conversations and other insider info from the country’s prime minister, Recep Erdogan, his family, government ministers’ Turkey’s spy chief, and others. With great embarrassment to the Erdogan government, conversations have been replayed on YouTube exposing corruption, malfeasance, and other chicanery. The government’s response of closing certain newspapers and the internet has proven largely unsuccessful. Political opponents are demanding an investigation of the graft.
This kind of Family Jewels crisis is similar to the Snowden leaks in the United States. Like the Obama administration the Erdogan government promises new law to deal with the abuses. But in Turkey much of the new law actually frees the hand of the security services–the law aims to broaden the authority for government wiretaps (in the name of uncovering the source of the leaks) while also making government agents immune from criminal prosecution. Thus does an uncomfortable political scandal lead to the opposite of reform. Let us take care that America avoids the path taken in Turkey.