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Can Americans ever trust their spies?

August 12, 2013, at 9:29 PM

If capital-C Change comes to the NSA, it will take two forms.

The first is this: What it does will be more transparent to the courts and to Congress, as well as to interested Americans. The second is that the agency's definition of accountability will be gutted, replaced by one that more closely approximates a legitimate accounting and reckoning of mistakes, both deliberate and unavoidable. What won't change: what the NSA actually does.

That's why, as Shane Harris, one of the best reporters on the NSA beat observed Friday, President Obama wants Americans to be "comfortable" with the NSA at it is.

As much as the intelligence community complains about the quality of the public debate about the NSA revelations, victory will be theirs, in the end. The reformers, like the ACLU and the Electronic Freedom Foundation, have one significant power. They get to define the terms of the what constitutes reform. And they will use this weapon like a bludgeon, and appropriately so, for the tension between public advocacy groups and the secret state is a necessary feature of the government.

I predict that bulk collection of U.S. persons data will continue. For one thing, the phone companies themselves cannot not collect it. Maybe Congress will find a way to allow the phone companies to "hold" it, and maybe the "reasonable articulable" standard for searching it will be toughened, and maybe a public advocate will succeed in narrowing the bands of data that do get sent to Ft. Meade. Americans will be more aware. These are all important reforms, but they are minor, and I doubt that the NSA will find them inexcusable.

Bulk collection of U.S. persons' data is, of course, one of two real scandals. The other is the inability of NSA officials to credibly interact with Congress and the public. I say inability, because a "we know better" attitude seems to be built in to their defenses of the programs, and in their history of refusing to at least attempt to respond meaningfully to Congress. I don't think the NSA lies, willfully. I think they think they tell the truth just enough to protect their equities: the core intelligence mission (extremely important), their sense of pride (important), their guilt at the scope of the collection (not very important), and their relative importance within the structure of the U.S. intelligence community (slightly important). NSAers have developed an argot that allows them to mislead even when there is no compelling reason to do so. I blame the secrecy culture more than anything else.

If this scandal succeeds in forcing NSA to be more transparent and less patronizing, more committed to a full accounting, and more humble, then and only then can they possibly expect Americans to become "comfortable" with their mission. The NSA is not evil; it is no longer the organization that once collected dossiers on 70,000 Americans on behalf of the executive branch; modern SIGINT collection is not immoral; your average NSA employee has as much fear of the leviathan as you do; the agency's meaningful contributions to national security are numerous and remain so. I believe that, but I don't expect Americans to believe it, or to feel better, until the leadership of the agency recognizes how their own public words and their caustic relationship with those members of Congress (Wyden, Udall) who found their ambit too large created the trust gap that Edward Snowden forced out into the open.

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