November 14, 2014–Neglect, even if benign, has never been a good thing. In the intelligence business that’s even more true because the picture changes with such rapidity. But I’ve been focused on other issues of late and I’m sorry. I realized while writing about Fearful Leader Clapper the other day (“Mr. Clapper Goes to Pyongyang,” November 10, 2014) that several hot subjects have gone untreated for some time. Let’s catch up.
NSA Blanket Eavesdropping: Our electronic spooks made a lot of noise about how this form of spying was of no importance (at least that no one ought to be concerned about it) and was fully overseen by Congress and the Courts, then they talked President Obama into a set of cosmetic “reforms” that carry little weight. Then the fresh face at NSA, Admiral Michael Rogers, patiently explained to all and sundry that the issue of the day is cybersecurity–which it is, to judge from the most recent indications of companies and governments hacked and so forth. The legislation that underpins the NSA eavesdropping is up for a vote in this lame duck session of Congress, and the authority may disappear altogether.
But the more tangible development is quite direct, and it is the product of the inevitable market forces the NSA unleashed by its extravagant spying. The tech companies are suing to win the right to protect themselves by informing the public more amply. But more than that, under intense pressure from their international customers and all the rest of us, the producers of all that technology are moving swiftly to demonstrate they are faithful guardians of customer privacy by designing equipment endowed with deep encryption programs. All of a sudden we have a parade of officials–to include Clapper, the FBI director, James B. Comey, and even the head of the British GCHQ, its electronic spy service; horrified that the new-generation devices will prevent spy service access altogether. What did they expect? By far the preferable strategy was to have kept their spying sufficiently within bounds that citizens–and whistleblowers–would have acquiesced on patriotic grounds.
Upheaval on Capitol Hill: Now the spooks are desperate. The next great hope is that the mid-term election result will save their acorns. With the Republican Party taking over the Senate, plus an improved majority in the House of Representatives, maybe the NSA can get the Patriot Act passed after all. Certainly the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee will change, with Diane Feinstein out and a Republican (possibly Saxby Chambliss) to replace her. Chambliss seems never to have met an intelligence operation he did not like, so that augurs well for the spooks.
The Torture Report: Hopes are especially high on suppressing the CIA torture report done by the Senate intelligence committee. The agency has been pretty good at its stalling so far (notice that we are verging on eighteen months since the CIA was supposed to be reviewing this document for release–and that the scope of release has diminished from the full report to just a fractional portion of it). And, of course, the Republicans were against this Senate investigation in the first place. John Brennan or Jim Clapper might be able to persuade the Senate committee to stop pressing for release of the report.
Denizens of Langley–not to mention Fort Meade– seem to have a hard time learning the lesson that what you do is more important than what you say, or permit to be said about it. Or put differently, that the big, embarrassing things come out no matter what. To stay in front of the story you need to be ready–to explain, justify, demonstrate effectiveness–to the public not to some chief executive in the White House.
It no longer matters whether the CIA can succeed in suppressing the release of the Senate intelligence committee report. Government officials in Poland are now under criminal indictment for cooperating with the CIA in the “black prisons” affair. A United States delegation, at an international forum in Geneva, has acknowledged to an authoritative United Nations panel that the U.S. tortured individuals in the wake of 9/11. Under international law the responsible party (the U.S.) is required to investigate and provide accountability in such instances. American diplomats have described the Senate intelligence committee report as a document that meets this requirement. Presumably such a document cannot then be suppressed. Equally to the point, the American Psychological Association has now approved an internal investigation into how its own mores and responsibilities were observed by psychologists in the CIA torture program. Long story short, these developments guarantee the CIA torture issue will not go away. The secret warriors cannot have their way.
The same thing applies to the NSA eavesdropping. The spooks may succeed in getting Congress to approve the spying, but the market forces that oblige the corporations to spite the spooks function without regard to the politics. If the spooks get Congress to force the corporations to provide watered-down security systems, the American economy will take a worse beating than it already has. Republicans are supposed to be interested in corporations. There is no good way to crack that acorn. Let’s hope for an end to wishful thinking.