Hello esteemed member of America’s Intelligence Community, member of Congress, or more likely, the summer interns for some ancient Senator,
My name is Eric and I have been writing about intelligence for some years now. Given the last few weeks, I would like to address the strategic needs of the intelligence community in light of the Cirque de Soleil of Incompetence that seems to be taking place in our nation’s capital. Usually, I write essays in an attempt to make myself sound smart, or to suck up to potential clients, but I don’t have time for that today. This whole business with the NSA requires brief analysis and a few action items, so strap in.
You guys need to cut the crap.
Can we get something out in the open that is already out in the open?
We all know that you guys are spying on everybody, friends, foes, foreigners and citizens alike, so you need to stop screwing around and just talk about what you can in a mature manner. Right now, you look like idiots, and it looks like you think we are stupid, so it’s time for you to stop the standard DC horseshit and prepare everybody for the future.
NEWSFLASH: We know.
OK, listen guys, nobody wants to hear Jay Carney or James Clapper hem and haw and fall all over themselves in public anymore, because it’s just too painful to watch. (“Um, aw, gee willikers, those, um, intelligency things with the comput..I mean, it is for terrori…um, peoples of the, aw f***,)
Look, we know you have access to everything.
Fair statement? Jeebus, anybody with an internet connection and the slightest amount of curiosity started hearing about CARNIVORE and tapping the network hubs years ago, long before that kid from Hawaii got trapped at Moscow Airport. Knowledge is power, and the Internet is seriously powerful, especially now that it contains every commercial transaction, personal conversation and GPS location ever created. Whoever has control of communications worldwide has a major geopolitical advantage. Control over the Internet is a matter of national security and thus it should surprise no one that our national security institutions are heavily involved.
Ergo, even without those completely ugly-ass PowerPoints (seriously, a trillion bucks ought to afford you a couple of graphic designers) anybody with a brain could have deduced that the Agency Formerly Known as No Such Agency was tapping into networks at home as well as abroad. And now, post-Snowden, we do have the completely tacky PowerPoints that give some confirmation to what was pretty obvious. Thanks to Moore’s Law, processing power and storage are now cheap enough that you can tap into everything and store everything for a later analysis. And if you can’t, or you aren’t, then someone else is, or will – right?
We need to discuss that 4th Amendment thing
You guys have an enormous problem – you now are the proud owners of a Panopticon, and you have no legal right to use it given our Constitution.
Those wig-sporting paranoiacs from the 18th Century wrote very specific laws so that one group of Americans could not just spy on The People, because that was the kind of shit that The King used to pull. Their plan for America was such that the Government could not act like a king or his agents and just barge into people’s homes to snoop into their stuff.
Of course, many things are different today compared with 1787.
- The Government back then was a tiny part of everyday life; today, it is an enormous operation with vast powers
- Back in the powdery wig days, “illegal search and seizure” of communications was limited to breaking the wax seal on a parchment letter; today, there are billions of communications every single day
Basically, it seems like the Constitution really doesn’t cover the modern realities of intelligence collection and analysis, but that doesn’t mean that we can just ignore it. We have to have this conversation that is bound to be a giant pain in the ass, revisiting all of these concepts that we inherited from a bunch of Virginia and Massachusetts landowners who did a pretty awesome job the first time around. But let’s be adults about it – we still have to have this ass-pain of a conversation or things will be worse later.
I don’t think you set out to line your birdcages with the Bill of Rights. Here’s how I assume it has gone down with your jobs since the Internet came online: you don’t really have a legal right to be doing what you are doing, and yet you cannot ignore the changing times. National security involves technologies that the Founding Fathers could never have imagined – and you still need to leverage technology to your best abilities for U.S. security. And so 4th Amendment or not, you are headed into the future. Three trends have converged – political will post-September 11, massive adoption of mobile telephony, and a radical drop in the cost of tracking just about everything. And so you built this giant system with its global reach and unprecedented raw power.
And I’ll bet that this system, when it’s clicking on all six cylinders, is probably pretty f***ing awesome. Not when your bored analysts are listening in on American citizens having sexy talk with their spouses; obviously that stuff is not cool. I mean when those assholes the Tsarnaev brothers blew up innocent people at the Boston Marathon. Being able to combine surveillance camera imagery with cell phone metadata and link it back to FBI databases, that’s the kind of thing that get monsters like the Tsaernaevs dead or in jail within a couple of days. This is exactly what we asked you to be able to do following September 11th, after all. America’s intelligence agencies now possess very powerful tools against terrorism, and I’m sure that most people are glad that we have them.
And that still doesn’t mean that you can get away from discussing what this level of potential surveillance means to the future of our democracy.
What you guys ought to do
Here are some ideas that might make this summer stop sucking so hard for everyone between *ahem* Baltimore and Washington, not to mention the rest of us who are wondering whether you guys have a list of all the times we have clicked our ex-girlfriends’ photos on Facebook:
1. YOU take the lead on telling people where this is going
Technology is getting smaller, cheaper and more connected. Today, people talk about “The Internet of Things” where our toasters and toilets and soda machines all have connections to the Web. There is only ever going to be more surveillance. If you guys are sitting on the fat pipes, then you need to show us a vision of how this technology can be used without us becoming some creepy techno-dictatorship.
We are going to be at a point where toilets combined with labs-on-a-chip could ostensibly pee-test the whole country for drugs every day. And phone companies (along with you, let’s not be coy) will be able to put together a GPS tracking list of everywhere every citizen with a phone has been their whole lives. If people are flipped out by PRISM, imagine the stuff that’s coming. Let us know that this isn’t going to be ultracreepy, forever.
2. Assure us that there will be proper democratic oversight
Two words: Dick Cheney. As I have recently written, the Intelligence Community never recovered from the reputational damage done by the Iraq War Sales Job. The Intelligence Community does not always do the right thing, and the fact that Cheney’s gang is still rolling in prestige and money shows that the Community does not effectively police itself.
All of DC has to stop asserting that some secret panel will do a great job of deciding who to kill with a drone, or on whom to spy. Bullshit. You need checks and balances, and lots of them – just like the powder-wig guys wanted. Even if the check and/or balance is some nitwit who only got elected because his Daddy had the biggest used car dealership in Podunk County, that is still better that you sitting in a windowless room by yourself deciding how to use your multi-trillion dollar spy system without oversight.
Because even if you have the best intentions, the next guy in your seat might not. History has shown that too many times to ignore.
3. Make a clear distinction between you and the police
Lastly, make sure that posse comitatus is firmly established, now and forever. Work out all the terrorism stuff and the natural disaster response, and do not make a de facto national police force. The United States is not supposed to have a coast-to-coast policing system, as the police are supposed to be locals making local decisions based on local values. There is a big difference between national intelligence aimed at our enemies and a national intelligence infrastructure housed in a shadowy lair somewhere in Maryland/Utah, with local police agents pursuing us with secret evidence from the Panopticon. This has the potential to be very un-American. Please preempt that.
Well, that’s all I have today. I hope you guys cancel whatever awkward press conferences you were going to have, head to the Maryland shore, and pick some crabs with lots of Old Bay and Yuengling. Take some time and think this stuff through.
And remember – if it can be exposed by a single 29 year old with a crisis of conscience, maybe it wasn’t all that secret to begin with.