Obama pick for NSA review panel wanted paid, pro-government shills in chat rooms

August 23, 2013

In a 1975 hearing, Sens. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and John Tower (R-Tex.) examine a dart gun designed by the CIA to be used in assassinations. The Church Committee also investigated the infiltration of activist groups by government agents. (AP)

The Obama administration is reportedly proposing Cass Sunstein as a member of a panel to review the surveillance practices of the National Security Agency (NSA), among other former White House and intelligence staffers. Sunstein was the head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs until last year, when he returned to teaching at Harvard Law School.

As one of our intrepid commenters pointed out yesterday, while at Harvard in 2008, Sunstein co-authored a working paper that suggests government agents or their allies "cognitively infiltrate" conspiracy theorist groups by joining "chat rooms, online social networks or even real-space groups" and influencing the conversation.

Sunstein's paper defined a conspiracy theory as "an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role," and acknowledges that some conspiracy theories have turned out to be true. It also specifically notes that his plan of "cognitive infiltration" should only be used against false conspiracy theories that could be harmful to the government or society.

But even the suggestion that the government should infiltrate groups that are not actively participating in criminal acts is troubling. In fact, it recalls the abuses uncovered by the Church Committee in the 1970s, when the FBI infiltrated such subversive groups as the feminist and civil rights movements. To his credit, Sunstein's infiltration suggestion is different in nature:

By this we do not mean 1960s-style infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in future prosecutions. Rather, we mean that government efforts might succeed in weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups.

But while it's nice to assume that the government would limit that "cognitive infiltration" authority to false conspiracies, history suggests that it would be also used against activists trying to expose actual government misconduct.

The paper also suggests that the government "formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech." That sounds an awful lot like the 50 Cent Party of online commentators who are paid per comment by the Chinese communist party to sway public opinion.

A man with such a credulous view of government power might not be the best choice to review allegations of NSA privacy abuses.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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