PHILADELPHIA - President Obama's speech Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention devoted much time to a basic defense of democracy over authoritarianism. It was a finely crafted and delivered address — but as my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty points out, does not mesh that well with Obama's actual record of due-process-free assassination of American citizens, whitewashing of Bush-era illegal torture, and dragnet surveillance.
Given Hillary Clinton's more hawkish and aggressive politics, one would think the prospects of reining in the security state during an upcoming Clinton 2.0 administration would be slim to none. So you may be surprised to hear that Ron Wyden, Democratic senator from Oregon and the second most senior member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the NSA and CIA, expects Hillary to crack down on CIA and NSA abuses.
You might think this sounds crazy. Of course Hillary the hawk will ramp up the American security state! But maybe not. After all, as Donald Trump recently demonstrated with his invitation for Russian intelligence to hack Clinton's emails, an unrestrained security apparatus means less security and less privacy in some important ways.
"If we look at the last several administrations, there is a vigorous internal battle" between advocates of security and advocates of privacy, Wyden told The Week. But very often, this is a false dichotomy. Policies that would sacrifice liberty for security mean we inevitably "get less of both," he said.
Wyden pointed to a bill proposed by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman and vice-chair of SSCI, respectively. The bill would mandate that people and companies must comply with any court order to provide data — and if it is not "intelligible," it must be made so.
As technology and mathematics experts immediately explained, this would basically outlaw strong encryption altogether. The point of encryption is to enable the transmission of data between two parties such that anyone reading the intercepted transmission cannot figure out what it says, and it basically works by putting an insanely difficult math problem between a hacker and the protected information. You can't make a math problem that is easy for the NSA to solve but hard for everyone else. Either encryption is strong and no one can break it, or it is weak, and everyone can break it. Making an encryption "back door" simply means creating an exploit that potentially anyone could take advantage of.
Consider Trump's bizarre call for Russian hackers to break into Clinton's email accounts, which has to be a first for a presidential candidate. If one were to defend the (notoriously crappy and insecure) federal government and Democratic Party databases from foreign hacking, the very first and most important item on the agenda would be encryption. "Strong encryption is the go-to security tool," said Wyden — but this would be outlawed by the Burr-Feinstein bill, at least as written.
Something similar holds for dragnet surveillance, because there are no terrorist-detection methods accurate enough to avoid creating a slew of false positive reports out of the sea of data. Dragnet surveillance has not been proven to stop a single major terrorist attack.
Then there is the ongoing debate over the CIA torture report, which Burr is trying to suppress permanently. Wyden recently had a heated confrontation with CIA director John Brennan over the fact that, according to an internal CIA investigation, the CIA improperly spied on Senate staffers while they were working on the report. Brennan is "rewriting the separation of powers," said Wyden. "He doesn't seem to feel the committee is entitled to conduct oversight."
But, Wyden insisted, Clinton would not allow such shenanigans like hacking the SSCI. As a former senator, she understands the importance of the separation of powers. So if she won, she would re-establish the principle of congressional oversight, he said.
Ultimately, I am rather skeptical that Clinton will behave in the way that Wyden predicts, particularly regarding CIA abuses. The foundation of the hawkish perspective is to deny the possibility that aggressive use of government spying and military force can backfire. If I had to guess, I would say that President Hillary Clinton will embrace and defend the Bush-era security apparatus to an even greater extent than President Obama has.
However, it's at least conceivable that the threat of Trump-enabled Russian penetration of U.S. data networks could be the thing that forces the intelligence community to take a hard look at its constant demands for more access to Americans' private data. It's about the only thing that could make them realize that national security and the privacy of American citizens are inextricably intertwined.