I continue to be fascinated by the way the NSA story is unfolding (back to poems and opera arias soon, I promise).
Some choice bits from recent reading on it:
Jill Lepore in the New Yorker has an interesting piece on the precedents to the current flap (including a suggestive, if ultimately unconvincing, effort to trace a link from sacred mysteries of faith to the secrets of kings, finally to state secrets). A nice line from Disraeli on an earlier age of interception, this time compromising of the mail in 19th century England:
In 1844, during the parliamentary debate that followed the report issued by the Committee of Secrecy, some members, believing, with Bentham, that publicity is the enemy of secrecy, suggested that it was fine for the government to open people’s mail, as long as the recipients of the mail were notified that it had been read. (Disraeli said that he would be only too happy to hand over his mail to the Home Office: “They may open all my letters, provided they answer them.”)
Sunday’s NYTimes Review section gives former executive editor Max Frankel front page space to bring up some points that I (and many others) have been wondering about:
How many thousands have access to these storage bins? Who decides to open any individual file and who then gains access to its content? Is there ever a chance to challenge the necessity of opening a file? And what happens to gleaned information that has no bearing whatsoever on terrorism?
Going on to invoke J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Presidents Johnson and Nixon, Frankel points out that they are just a few, of a long dishonor role, that made political and personal use of secrets collected for other purposes. That high level officials, or regular bureaucrats might misuse citizens’ data for such baleful personal or political reasons, or might just ineptly lose track of it seems a real risk. Private industry doesn’t have a great job of keeping people’s data secure (even companies who do this for a living). Would government really do a better job at it? Why should we think so?
Of course, as Frankel points out, government has outsourced this job:
What ought to compound our skepticism is the news that there is money to be made in the mass approach. We are learning that much of the snooping is farmed out to profit-seeking corporations that have great appetites for government contracts, secured through executives who enrich themselves by shuttling between agency jobs and the contractors’ board rooms. We have privatized what should be a most solemn government activity, guaranteeing bloat and also the inevitable and ironic employ of rebellious hackers like Mr. Snowden.
That Snowden (like Manning before him) was entrusted with access to this level of and amount of data does seem to be deeply out of whack, whatever your view of him and the merits of PRISM in the first place. Why was all of this in the hands of a private contractor? Seems an outrage at first glance. But an eye-opening piece by By Drake Bennett and Michael Riley in Bloomberg Business Week, Booz Allen, the World’s Most Profitable Spy Organization, explains that this outsourcing is business as usual and goes back to WWII. Frankel is right, there is money to be made:
In the fiscal year ended in March 2013, Booz Allen Hamilton reported $5.76 billion in revenue, 99 percent of which came from government contracts, and $219 million in net income. Almost a quarter of its revenue—$1.3 billion—was from major U.S. intelligence agencies. Along with competitors such as Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), CACI, and BAE Systems (BAESY), the McLean (Va.)-based firm is a prime beneficiary of an explosion in government spending on intelligence contractors over the past decade. About 70 percent of the 2013 U.S. intelligence budget is contracted out, according to a Bloomberg Industries analysis; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) says almost a fifth of intelligence personnel work in the private sector.
And later…the revolving door between government service and private industry (aka Help Wanted: spies with good Rolodexes):
Booz Allen and its competitors are able to keep landing contracts and keep growing, critics charge, not because their expertise is irreplaceable but because their Rolodexes are. Name a retired senior official from the NSA or the CIA or the various military intelligence branches, and there’s a good chance he works for a contractor—most likely Booz Allen. Name a senior intelligence official serving in the government, and there’s a good chance he used to work for Booz Allen. (ODNI’s Sanders, who made the case for contractors, is now a vice president at the firm, which declined to make him available for an interview.) McConnell and others at Booz Allen are quick to point out that the contracting process has safeguards and oversight built in and that it has matured since the frenzied years just after Sept. 11. At the same time, the firm’s tendency to scoop up—and lavishly pay—high-ranking intelligence officers once they retire suggests the value it places on their address books and in having their successors inside government consider Booz Allen as part of their own retirement plans.
Finally, Pelosi got a kind of bailout. An activist near the front of the room yelled about security consultants. “You’re absolutely right!” said Pelosi. “I’m with you babe, all the way! If you couldn’t hear her, the real problem, she said, is outsourcing our national security. I get criticized by this community a lot. [Former NSA director Mike] O’Connell worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, came in, worked in the federal government, exatled to the positions he was, hired consultants galore, contractors galore from Booz Allen Hamilton. And now he’s at Booz Allen again. This really is astounding.”
She was in Kilgore’s words, “surfing the boos,” and trying, perhaps successfully, to make this about the evils of privatization and of some Republicans’ anti-government stance. She also claimed that, “You should reject any notion that President Obama’s actions have anything to do with what President Bush was doing.”
Not a supportable position, as Pro Publica makes clear.
Now I see that Snowden has left for Moscow. Is this whole thing being scripted by John LaCarre and Tom Clancy on a bender or what? (Please don’t say Dan Brown…)
Finally, a neat summary what it all means to the couple on the couch, courtesy of a NYorker cartoon.