Right-sizing the security state

October 28, 2013
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (AFP PHOTO/THIERRY)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (AFP PHOTO/THIERRY)

It turns out the NSA wasn’t just spying on Angela Merkel. It was apparently spying on Angela Merkel and at least 34 other heads of state! Over the weekend the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag quoted an NSA official saying that President Obama had been briefed on at least the Merkel operation, though the story was quickly denied.

Whatever the truth is there, the real issue exposed here is how the NSA and its brother agencies are genuinely threatened by the exposure of their most controversial programs. It’s time to take this potential for outrage into account, and ditch the scandalous, low-benefit operations.

From my reading of history the American security apparatus has often acted against America’s interests. Things like: the Vietnam War, installing the Shah in Iran, arming mass-murdering guerrillas in Nicaragua, the Bay of Pigs, etc. etc., weren’t just bloody fiascoes. They actively undermined the long-term security of the nation. (And that’s not when they were just being weird, like feeding random citizens LSD, or researching “psychic” charlatans.)

But even if you take all the claims of the various NSA apologists at face value, it is unquestionably clear that the security state faces new challenges in a world where their various controversial activities can be exposed en masse, in real time, as opposed to irregularly and long after the fact, like before. Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore wrote a splendid article about this problem in Foreign Affairs (paywalled). They conceptualize it brilliantly, thinking of American hypocrisy as an essential component of American strategy, which is critically undermined by whistleblowers like Snowden:

The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government’s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington’s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own. 

Whatever one thinks of Snowden, his very presence is proof that the security state can’t be trusted to provide 100% security against leaks, and that one single disgruntled person among the hundreds of thousands of NSA employees and contractors can completely obliterate the Strategic Hypocrisy Reserve. What this suggests is that the cost-benefit analysis for particular security programs ought to be recalibrated in light of their outrage potential. Programs of dubious benefit that would be explosively controversial should they come to light — like snooping on the German Prime Minister’s cell phone — are probably not worth the benefit (which, again, is what?).

Nobody would care if the NSA confined itself to snooping on actual terrorist suspects and so forth, even if they defined such things very loosely and occasionally spied on a few hundred citizens by honest accident. By contrast, dragnet surveillance is both infuriating (witness Germany threatening to break the Internet over it) and of little use, not to mention hugely difficult and expensive.

This is a real problem, because even I will admit that some of the national security state’s public goods are worth having — the Navy providing basic security for most of the world’s shipping lanes comes to mind. One doesn’t see mass protests over that very often. It’s time we focused the NSA and its fellows back onto those kinds of programs, even if it means the nation has to bear the bitter taste of its own medicine.

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Greg Sargent | October 28, 2013