Pre-9/11 NSA Thinking

This quote is from the Spring 1997 issue of CRYPTOLOG, the internal NSA newsletter. The writer is William J. Black, Jr., the Director’s Special Assistant for Information Warfare.

Specifically, the focus is on the potential abuse of the Government’s applications of this new information technology that will result in an invasion of personal privacy. For us, this is difficult to understand. We are “the government,” and we have no interest in invading the personal privacy of U.S. citizens.

This is from a Seymour Hersh New Yorker interview with NSA Director General Michael Hayden in 1999:

When I asked Hayden about the agency’s capability for unwarranted spying on private citizens—in the unlikely event, of course, that the agency could somehow get the funding, the computer scientists, and the knowledge to begin making sense out of the Internet—his response was heated. “I’m a kid from Pittsburgh with two sons and a daughter who are closet libertarians,” he said. “I am not interested in doing anything that threatens the American people, and threatens the future of this agency. I can’t emphasize enough to you how careful we are. We have to be so careful—to make sure that America is never distrustful of the power and security we can provide.”

It’s easy to assume that both Black and Hayden were lying, but I believe them. I believe that, 15 years ago, the NSA was entirely focused on intercepting communications outside the US.

What changed? What caused the NSA to abandon its non-US charter and start spying on Americans? From what I’ve read, and from a bunch of informal conversations with NSA employees, it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That’s when everything changed, the gloves came off, and all the rules were thrown out the window. That the NSA’s interests coincided with the business model of the Internet is just a—lucky, in their view—coincidence.

Posted on June 27, 2013 at 11:49 AM46 Comments


NobodySpecial June 27, 2013 12:14 PM

For 5 decades before 9/11 they were happy to spy on (and do a lot more than just spy on) civil rights leaders, union activists, “communists” and so on.

Then add-in environmental gay rights, women rights, anti-corruption … campaigners you might as well just spy on everyone ‘just in case’

Trogdor June 27, 2013 12:32 PM

Remember: 9/11 happened, but also, Facebook “happened”. The rise of the social media and life-sharing (careful and not) phenomenon was a major change for the world.

starbuck3000 June 27, 2013 12:41 PM


Reese: “I’ve never understood why people put all their information on those sites. Used to make our job a lot easier in the C.I.A. (takes another sip from his cup)”

Finch: “Of course, that’s why I created them.”

Reese: “You’re telling me you invented online social networking, Finch? (Finch goes to his computer, setting down his doughnut)”

Finch: “The Machine needed more information. People’s social graph, their associations. The government had been trying to figure it out for years. Turns out most people were happy to volunteer! Business wound up being quite profitable, too…”

Carpe_Noctem June 27, 2013 1:01 PM

“I believe that, 15 years ago, the NSA was entirely focused on intercepting communications outside the US.”

Sorry Bruce, but the 1947 UKUSA Agreement, later joined by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Germany and Turkey, combined with 1960’s Echelon knowledge flies in the face of that belief. Those countries quietly colluded to share information in order to avoid their domestic laws, so NSA can’t spy on US citizens domestically, but they can share their Echelon station with their partners who do the spying and then hand over the data. Vice versa between all the partner countries.

Also, come on, even surface OSINT shows that NSA had started the telecom program at least 6 months before 9/11. (see: Qwest) You can’t seriously buy the line that 9/11 was the cause, can you? It was the excuse, not the cause.

I expect better analysis from you Bruce.

Figureitout June 27, 2013 1:50 PM

What changed?
–Maybe record purchases of ammunition by the gov’t have something to do with it? Plus, since America is beginning to outsource its space program and import foreign engineers/scientists. We’ll need more health care workers to wipe old people’s asses or insert enemas when there’s intestinal blockage when they’re on their deathbeds.

Or run a business on blackmail for everyone, Idk…

Combination of drugs, a police state, and too much technology in too little time.

Nick P June 27, 2013 1:53 PM

@ Bruce Schneier

Hard to say on this one. I think it’s mostly true that pre-9/11 they mostly focused on foreigners. The NSA insiders’ testimony indicates this was true, as there were many safeguards. But past insiders also taught us of Echelon and other shady spying programs in use. So, what to make of it?

Double Speak

I think he can be telling the truth and lying at the same time here. Here’s what he actually said:

“I am not interested in doing anything that threatens the American people,”

What constitutes a threat to the American people? Spying on them for “their own good” is standard practice now. We’ve also seen military and intelligence types justify all kinds of crazy stuff for the greater good over the decades. So shady NSA stuff, in his mind, might be a benefit and he could honestly say he wasn’t threatening us.

“…and threatens the future of this agency. I can’t emphasize enough to you how careful we are. to make sure that America is never distrustful of the power and security we can provide”

This can be accomplished with secrecy and avoiding getting caught doing wrong doing. (usually for evil) Also controls on spying on Americans. (the good part) Also, they can have allies watch the domestic people and merely inform them of results, repaying the favor later. (carpe_noctem mentioned this) That practice goes back to Cold War.

A Special Consideration: Secrecy Laws

One thing people forget is that the guy is cleared for Top Secret, SCI and SAP type of information. The laws on that permit people involved in deniable project to use deception to hide their existence. Some people have claimed that the laws practically “require” it because just saying “no comment” gives someone a chance to glean info from watching your body language when they say certain words or code names.

We’ve previously seen military use significant deception against their own people, Congress, and Americans for this very reason in black program developments. Of these, some we never heard of again, some were folded into public programs, and some (eg. MKULTRA) were destroyed just prior to Congressional investigation and jail time.

This level of deception was also used in the Vietnam War to totally obscure what was going on until the Pentagon Papers showed almost everyone, even with Secret clearances, were operating on lies propagated by a privileged few. Even today most Americans don’t know what really happened, showing a high level of propaganda success despite the leak. That forms my baseline when determining what government’s capabilities are when keeping big dirty deeds secret and muddying investigations. More recently, disinformation was used to justify a war in Iraq, massive domestic surveillance and “cyber commands” that will stop hackers [somehow].

Excerpt from DOD NIPSOM supplement’s Counterintelligence section: “Security
countermeasures may be required for SAPs
to protect critical information, assets, and
activities. When OPSEC countermeasures
are necessary, they will be made a part of
the contract provisions and cost
implementation may be subject to
negotiation. Countermeasures may be active
or passive techniques, measures, systems, or
procedures implemented to prevent or
reduce the timely effective collection and/or
analysis of information which would reveal
intentions or capabilities
” (emphasis added)

Throw in requirements blocking disclosure of classified information to those without a need to know, regardless of their position, and you have a solid case for plenty of lies (or “selective” admissions) being told straight faced to the public. As a matter of standard operating procedure. By law.


The NSA historically alternated between guarding the public from their apparatus and abusing our trust. People in Hayden’s position also routinely lie, as they’re required to by law, to maintain secrecy of critical (sometimes illegal/unethical) operations and programs. Military-industrial complex has decades of history (and experience) using that to abuse power w/out punishment. So, we have every reason to look at Hayden’s and NSA’s statements very critically until the laws are changed to allow more accountability for classified groups and operations. And especially until we get more men and women of good character at the top of key agencies.

Petréa Mitchell June 27, 2013 1:54 PM


“They” who spied on activists in earlier decades were the CIA, not the NSA. Same general approach, probably same thought process to wind up there, but different agency.

As to the quotes above: It doesn’t look to me like there’s anything about the specifics of whether wholesale domestic spying was going on or not, just assertions, as we’ve been hearing again recently, that they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. I’m willing to believe that the NSA officials, both then and now, really think that. And that the CIA really felt it was protecting the US by keeping tabs on rights activists.

Lucas June 27, 2013 2:10 PM

I, as a matter of fact, dont like the idea of spying non-americans, I mean I am non-american, I dont do anything wrong, dont see any good on spying on me. The juridical jargon argues that a warrant is needed to spy on someone beforehand and I dont feel good the US law treating foreigns as criminals from the start.

Jackson June 27, 2013 2:10 PM

“From what I’ve read, and from a bunch of informal conversations with NSA employees, it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That’s when everything changed, the gloves came off, and all the rules were thrown out the window.”

This has been my experience as well. Talking with those who have done work for the NSA way back when, I’m told there was a sort of creed within the organization that forbid spying on US citizens. Almost immediately after 9/11 was when those sort of values mysteriously disappeared.

Joe Average June 27, 2013 2:18 PM

I expect Hayden, were he still in charge, would make essentially the same statement today. I think he sincerely believes that the NSA has no interest in spying on “ordinary Americans.” He sincerely believes that the NSA is “so careful” not to spy on the wrong people, because he created policies and procedures to prevent it.

The trouble is, as Snowden exposed, is that the policies and procedures have exceptions that are vague enough to to allow almost anything if the analyst wants to do it, and the weak management oversight essentially makes the assumption that no one will break the rules.

I also believe the vast majority of analysts don’t want to spy on “ordinary Americans,” and that they believe that they are doing a great service to their country.

But because of the great power the NSA holds, it can quickly be turned against us by a small number of people deciding to bend the rules to further their own agenda, be it political or financial, or even with good intentions in the course of a legitimate investigation. The power that results form ability to collect such a tremendous amount of information is just too easily abused, even if the current leaders have no intention of doing so.

Hera June 27, 2013 2:22 PM

What these quotes reveal isn’t a difference in whether the NSA was eager to spy on US citizens – I think it’s clear from history that they’ve always been secretly spying on US citizens.

No, what the quotes reveal, which is interesting, is that pre-9/11 the NSA actually cared enough to try to lie convincingly.

Now, they hardly bother.

It’s more “well yes, we do, we have FISA court oversight” or “yes, we do, but it’s perfectly legal now,” or maybe, “No we [insert technically true but completely misleading denial that convinces no one].”

gregoa June 27, 2013 3:14 PM

Like probably most other non-US citizens on this planet I’m slightly annoyed by this widespread belief that spying on “foreigners” is perfectly fine.

Quoting Edward Snowden (Guardian, 2013-06-17):

Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. have also signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

(Article 17, ICCPR)

G van Grijnen June 27, 2013 3:49 PM

There is another take on the “Big Brother is watching us” story.

In George Orwell’s story, Winston Smith was essentially a helpless individual who got crushed.

Not so with Edward Snowden.

We live in the digital age.

With the push of a button low ranked Manning and Snowden laid bare an endless amount of embarrassing info.

And guess what. Big Brother is not only watching us, we are watching Big Brother.

And right now Big Brother seems to be at a loss of words.

Hydra June 27, 2013 3:58 PM

Hayden had a change of heart just around the time of 9/11. This was brought out in Bamford’s book “The Shadow Factory”.

I suspect he was threatened. Just as most of all the politicians and Generals are being threatened now by whoever is behind the curtain. President Obama was specifically under surveillance before he won the presidency according to Russ Tice (another NSA whistleblower). They have dirt on everyone. It’s like J. Edgar Hoover’s files from back in the day, but on absolutely everyone. They step out of line, and they’re destroyed one way or another… or they get the Michael Hastings treatment.

Craig June 27, 2013 4:20 PM

So, if 9/11 is the thing that changed the NSA overnight from a domestically-benign agency that only invaded the privacy of foreigners into the domestic nightmare it is today… excuse me, but doesn’t that mean that the terrorists got what they wanted? Especially if we take at face value the (ridiculous) claim that President G. W. Bush made, that “they hate us for being free”. Well, guess what…

Daniel Thomas June 27, 2013 5:38 PM

The issue that really bugs me in all of this, isn’t that the US is spying on me (although that does bug me as well), its that because I’m not a US citizen I some how how I have less rights than those who are.

If the NSA proposal said that they wanted to monitor everyone (US citizens included), they would never have been given the go ahead to develop such capabilities. (Although I acknowledge that they now probably monitor US citizens as well anyway).

Jenny Juno June 27, 2013 7:10 PM

We know from the Qwest insider trading lawsuit against the former CEO that the NSA was already gearing up for neighborhood-wide wire-tapping before 9/11:

In a separate N.S.A. project, executives at a Denver phone carrier, Qwest, refused in early 2001 to give the agency access to their most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls, according to people aware of the request, which has not been previously reported. They say the arrangement could have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order, which alarmed them.

As for the claim, We are “the government,” and we have no interest in invading the personal privacy of U.S. citizens. — I am sure they would say the same thing today. Nobody ever thinks they are the bad guy, they always think their actions have good and reasonable justification. They would say “we are only interested in catching terrorists.” All the bad things that come from massively centralized databases are not intentional, it will always be an unintended side-effect.

Dirk Praet June 27, 2013 8:11 PM

At first sight, it sounds somewhat contradictory that the NSA would suddenly start spying on Americans as a result of an attack on US soil committed by non-US citizens. It also doesn’t make much sense to me that the agency some way would have been able to expand its mission all by itself.

I personally believe that the massive trauma caused by 9/11 has been (ab)used by special interest groups both within and outside the then government to force the hand of a sockpuppet president to go along with a brand new agenda reflecting their views on a new America for the 21st century, and which included extending the NSA’s mission scope to include domestic spying under programs such as Thin Thread and Stellar Wind.

In a second phase, the “war on terror” pushed by said administration was used in Congress to pass the necessary laws and amendments, and which most representatives blindly approved of because nobody wanted to look weak.

The only mystery for me is how they got current POTUS to not only buy into the new situation but to take it even further. There can be several reasons:

1) He truely believes that these programs are necessary to secure the US from threats both foreign and domestic, even when they come at the cost of violating the US Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
2) He realised from the start that it would have been impossible to reverse the new situation sanctioned by both political parties and quietly went along with it in order not to completely jeopardize other initiatives that were more important to him, such as healthcare and since recently carbon emissions.
3) The state within the state has enough dirt on him to either make him cooperate or get him impeached.

Carpe_Noctem June 27, 2013 9:56 PM

@ Dirk Praet

NSA insider Russell Tice recently leaked that he himself had the papers in his hand to wiretap an array of numbers of a then potential senator from IL…. the one who now resides in the Whitehouse. It’s classic intelligence tactics, blackmail being the primary one. My favorite is that supposedly at a progressive dinner, not long after he started showing his true colors, some people were giving him a hard time, and he turned around and quiped “Do you remember what happened to Dr. King (MLK Jr.)?” They’ve got em by the balls, on what, we can only speculate. The question you have to ask yourself then, is, who is controlling the POTUS and to what ends?

Bob Roberts June 28, 2013 1:30 AM

I doubt they are interested in spying on “ordinary” Americans, why should they? But what about spying on not so ordinary Americans; politicians, journalists, lawyers, activists? What about using the information they glean from their communications to “influence” their future actions? To, perhaps, dissuade them from denouncing NSA policies, outing their crimes, highlighting their illegal activities, questioning their budgets.

DB June 28, 2013 1:43 AM

One thing that concerns me is that they’re trying to break (or maybe even already have broken) the world’s encryption, not just gather the world’s communication data. This kind of thing threatens world commerce nowadays. Just when should we all switch to exponentially longer keys again? Can we please use something that lasts multiple orders of magnitude longer than a decade this time, in light of the massive yottabyte storage capabilities they will have soon? It’s not like we’re all lacking in cpu power to do much stronger cryptography.

Bruce Schneier June 28, 2013 2:52 AM

“For 5 decades before 9/11 they were happy to spy on (and do a lot more than just spy on) civil rights leaders, union activists, ‘communists’ and so on.”

Is this the NSA, or the FBI? Certainly the FBI has been abusing the privacy of Americans for years.

Me June 28, 2013 6:28 AM

@Bruce: “Certainly the FBI has been abusing the privacy of Americans for years.”

So why should we believe that the NSA, which is almost totally opaque compared to the FBI, is any different?

Layer 8 June 28, 2013 9:53 AM

@ Bob Roberts

I doubt they are interested in spying on “ordinary” Americans, why should they?

You ask why they should spy on ordinary Americans … why not? Maybe they make a difference in the quantity of their efforts to spy on normal Americans and the rest, but especially agencies know that anyone is able to lie.

So in my opinion they don’t differentiate whose communication they analyze because the scanning filters reveal the enemy on data-level regardless of its origin or position.

If you spy on any information you are able to get, you will find anyone doing something (or even thinking, e.g. if they use google glass to capture the eye movements) you can surmise as a form of aggression … (that’s what they possibly think). In this situation they don’t need to believe or trust anyone … nobody is perfect (even the bad guys) and so it’s only a question of time the surveillance systems detect them … and breaking laws is no real problem if they are successful or do you think they stop spying on Americans;-)

In this world of thinking false positive alarms will never happen again, so ordinary American can’t trigger alarms because ordinary people doesn’t exist on the data-level. You only have the people the system hasn’t yet identified as enemy (of what they think is right) and the proved villains.

Maybe they can’t take away the right of wearing weapons, but if an ordinary person uses a piece of software to communicate more secure (in order to protect its privacy) and the surveillance system can’t trace/analyze it transparently, the person is self-inflicted suspicious and then no weapon will be big enough to live on as usual.

Hydra June 28, 2013 11:05 AM


“Is this the NSA, or the FBI? Certainly the FBI has been abusing the privacy of Americans for years.”


All the intelligence agencies have been building little tyrant fiefdoms for decades. Americans seem to be under some illusion that FBI spying on judges, politicians, civil rights leaders and everyone else stopped with J. Edgar Hoover. It didn’t.

I highly recommend you watch the video. “Sibel Edmonds Blows the whistle on government blackmailing”. Sibel Edmonds, formerly of the FBI has some interesting insight. They have dirt on everybody. It’s worse than most people think and spying is just the tip of it.

The US government has been completely corrupted top to bottom. There is no democracy or republic left except in name only.

Eisenhower warned of the military, industrial congressional complex, but nobody listened. Now we’re really in a pickle. I really don’t know how we get out of this. Sunlight is good, but the corruption and illegality is much much worse than most understand.

David Battanbong June 28, 2013 11:17 AM

I note that the non-US posters here express extreme annoyance/disgust at being considered throwaway spy fodder for the US spy machine. The American posters here all find that point inconsequential, up to and including comments like “[the NSA has gone] from a domestically-benign agency that only invaded the privacy of foreigners into the domestic nightmare it is today”.

I’m no security expert, but I do have some empathy. That the Americans here make a fine moral distinction between spying on Them and spying on Us — the former being, well, OK (yawn), while the latter is mightily important, well, it sounds pretty arrogant and pathetic. Do you really find yourselves wishing for the good old days of the domestically-benign?

Maverick June 28, 2013 12:23 PM


I would argue that domestic surveillance is considered far more disturbing than foreign spying is because it is expected/tolerated for a democratic government acting on behalf of its people to do dirty deeds. Yet when these deeds are perpetrated against its own citizens that indicates the government is favoring its own interests or the interests of only a subset of its population. In other words, spying on foreigners is a democracy being bastards, spying on citizens is a potentially totalitarian state masquerading as a democracy. When that state is as powerful as the US, that is a very frightening possibility (particularly when you live there).

Name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons June 28, 2013 1:25 PM

What do the NSA and your proctologist have in common?

They both know what your ass has been up to.

Figureitout June 28, 2013 1:55 PM

Is this the NSA, or the FBI?
–Practically every agency in the federal gov’t has “special” agents. More likely than not, it’s the FBI. But it could be DHS, DOJ, ATF, USSS, CIA (they say they don’t spy domestically, BULL), IRS, DEA, and on and on. Police state. And since most everyone doesn’t know the laws or their rights, b/c even the gov’t doesn’t, when they need to throw someone in jail to justify their existence, it’s easy b/c they overwhelm from target to target. So when you’re targeted, play dead and write down some identifying info….

David Battanbong
–I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again; stop making blank assumptions about Americans. A lot of smart ones don’t say shit b/c they have a decent life they don’t want to fuck up. And that’s just merely “speech”, something I thought we had the freedom of. I went through my “hippie days” when there was social media, so I have no chance at a real job w/ the gov’t (I hope maybe NASA someday but not likely). If you do speak up and say that foreign surveillance is wrong, guess what, you’re a terrorist and now this tyrannical gov’t gave itself legal justification to kill you with a drone. I’m waiting for the first official strike on U.S. soil.

DanMingo June 28, 2013 4:36 PM

Please, could someone explain to me how 9/11 is frequently used as the justification for the domestic spying program, when it has been repeatedly documented that the program began just one month into Bush’s term?

A former employee of one company told of the special room set up by NSA at a telecom facility that diverted (or copied) the total flow through that room.
This is well known. So if the motivation wasn’t to counteract terrorism, then what?

Jenny Juno June 28, 2013 6:29 PM

“Do you remember what happened to Dr. King (MLK Jr.)?”

That is an extraordinary claim, do you have some proof that Obama actually said that?

Figureitout June 28, 2013 8:22 PM

Jenny Juno
–B/c at a formal political dinner one who has their phone out recording everything, doesn’t arouse suspicion by the Secret Service. Plus it’s possible to cobble together false evidence, at some point you have to trust or dismiss.

It’s in the “mainstream”, that’s he’s joking how he “doesn’t scramble jets for a 29-year old hacker”. He doesn’t even need jets to take care of it.

Hydra June 28, 2013 11:16 PM


The information that has come out leads many to believe that, best case, the .gov knew 9/11 was going to happen before it did.

It’s the end of empire. Everybody knows it. It’s the whispered conversation in every hall in fedgov.

My opinion: The people in power know that if and when the public finally comes to realize how bad they’ve been screwed, they’re going to be a little upset. The only way to maintain themselves in power, and avoid prison is to bring out the iron fist.

konst June 29, 2013 12:30 AM

Hard to believe that people still think those officials weren’t lying but sociopaths are good at lying convincingly.

I’m surprised that many people here don’t have the sense to see that when various capabilities become feasible they can be combined in ways that risk the liberties of the general public and that they will certainly be abused. I guess people’s cognitive dissonance prevents them from thinking outside the box and to falsely believe that laws, regulations, and alleged oversight will prevent abuses.

khms July 1, 2013 5:55 AM


I would argue that domestic surveillance is considered far more disturbing than foreign spying is because it is expected/tolerated for a democratic government acting on behalf of its people to do dirty deeds.

It is expected?

Not in my experience.

Of course, over here we seem to be the primary target of US/UK spying-on-friends. I’m pretty certain our services haven’t done anything remotely comparable, even to more legitimate targets. (For one, they don’t get similar amounts of money to play with.)

As the saying goes, we’re not amused.

Ralph Hitchens July 1, 2013 8:20 AM

What changed after 9/11 was the realization that we had allowed terrorists into the country, where they stayed and prepared for long periods of time. It’s well-known by now that the CIA had identified two of the future hijackers in early 2000 & knew that they had multiple-entry US visas. This information was not shared with the FBI, thanks to the pernicious policy of “need to know,” and nearly 3,000 Americans died as a result. Had this information been given to the FBI they might have tracked them once they came to the USA later in 2000, obtained proper warrants to track their phone activity — they contacted many of the other future hijackers — and probably the entire operation would have been aborted before 9/11. So today we need to assume that there could easily be a similar procedural failure involving the 3-letter agencies, and therefore it’s hard to argue against the need to lower the bar on domestic eavesdropping.

Alex July 1, 2013 12:13 PM

Bruce: This is one of the very rare times I’d disagree with you.

Who was behind the Clipper chip back in 1993? NSA. Who pushed hard for CALEA? NSA. What about Total Information Awareness? That’d be DARPA but I’m sure the NSA is involved.

Why would they want/need such easy/unlocked type of access when they could get a court order/warrant and go the traditional route of having the telcos provide the taps for them?

“To know everything” is often incorrectly quoted as the Stasi’s motto. Instead, the Stasi’s was “Schild und Schwert der Partei”, or the Shield and Sword of the Party. Indeed, NSA/DHS are all claiming that they’re here to keep us safe. Same thing the Stasi claimed. However, “To Know Everything” is the aim of TIA and multiple NSA programs.

Maverick July 1, 2013 7:42 PM


True, “expected” spying is on other governments, not their peoples. The latter is a bit…unamusing. Even the former, particularly if it is an ally, should be much more ear-to-the-ground than the really invasive stuff the US is doing now.

But again, the reason many are focussing on the spying at home rather than abroad is that you have a wolf clawing at your door, and we have to live in its den.

Jack July 2, 2013 8:08 AM

Mysteries about an agency aside… many Americans not in government are okay with the government spying on them. This is what the polls say. So, what do Americans in government think. From the polls, I think there is a clue. Republicans were more okay with spying on Americans when a Republican was in the white house, and Democrats are more okay with spying on Americans when a Democrat is in the White House.

A government worker is always in the White House. That is, in a sense, their party. Would Democrats be so okay with spying if they thought the White House was against them? I do not think so. There are other “party” or social clique factors there. They are invested in The Party. They are defensive about The Party. Obvious mindset to see from anyone outside of national politics. Not as obvious to take that filter and put it on government workers. But do it, and there you go, understanding.

As for the people behind this… there was a large influx of new workers. So, like the British powerpoint was saying, “you are in a privileged position, have fun”. These guys have no resume outside of government. They are nobodies. Dead end jobs. All of a sudden, they can have a reality television show as their daily job. All they need is justifications.

Corruption is rarely a “it happens all at once” sort of flood. It creeps, like iron rusts.

They are true patriots. They are fighting a good cause. These people are evil, trying to destroy their way of life. And all that righteousness plus they get to have mystery, suspense, adventures — even better then fiction, it is a reality show.

All these arguments, however, is revolving around the idea that people are rational and that the forces that propel them are easily understood. This is not the case. They are in the grips of forces beyond their comprehension.

People are cunning, but not rational. They are interested in obeying their mortal appetites. They have no concern that their nobility is false. Give them a Stalin, a Hitler, they wouldn’t care. Torture was the norm of society, and still is in much of the world. They do not bother a shrug bringing it back in. If they use terms like calling others Nazis (and not their own selves), it is just a word for effect for them. Effectively meaningless.

Not everyone, but the majority.

Jerry Evans July 4, 2013 6:49 PM

I find people’s reaction to “leaks” like this confusing. Everyone is subject, but not everyone is the intended target.

  1. Everyone is subject to surveillance at any given time by news reporters, business establishments, stalkers, local police, and even tourists. No one seems to care – unless it is the Federal government. Then it is a “crime.”
  2. Surveillance recordings are retained for a set period then destroyed/overwritten without ever being reviewed. They’re only reviewed if something out of the ordinary happens. Even they are just scanned to find the particular activity.
  3. If an authority asks for information about a specific individual or group, the holder of the information immediately assumes that person/group is guilty of something. That’s just human nature. So, to protect the innocent, the authority asks for much more information than it needs. Then scans the data looking only for specific items or possible connections. That’s also normal crime investigation procedure when the suspect is unknown.
  4. Not all threats come from outside the country. It wasn’t “them” that blew up the Oklahoma courthouse, amassed weapons in Waco, or that are running training camps in some states preparing citizens for the next American Revolution. There are other activist groups whose agenda warrants their surveillance.
  5. Surveillance is like many other activities. For net fishing the net is thrown in the water and pulled in. The fishermen then sort through the catch; keeping what they want and throwing back the rest. In panning for gold the person scoops up a bunch of dirt, then sorts through it, keeping the gold nuggets and casting aside the dirt. In a road block every vehicle is stopped and checked. If the vehicle doesn’t meet the criteria, it is let through. No one keeps information on those vehicles. Same with NSA and other security agencies. They gather a lot of data, sort through it, and only keep what is suspicious. The rest is discarded.

  6. Most people just aren’t very interesting. That’s why news reporters don’t bother them. Who would read an article describing one of your normal days; or would read such an article about someone else? Think about when you overhear someone’s cell phone conversation. Are you paying attention or just annoyed?
    If you drive through a radar trap, as long as you’re driving safely and at the speed limit, you are just ignored. People who don’t do anything out of the ordinary just become “background noise” to everyone else – even the Federal government.

Just about everything we do is being recorded – and ignored. So, why do people get upset over things like the NSA leak? The only thing I can think of is the size of the “Big Brother” whose watching them.

Nick P July 5, 2013 7:01 AM

@ Jerry Evans re Why It Matters

“Just about everything we do is being recorded – and ignored. So, why do people get upset over things like the NSA leak? The only thing I can think of is the size of the “Big Brother” whose watching them.”

You must look at things in the right context, government selfishness, to understand the answer. They’ve spied on citizens, robbed people, started wars with massive death, passed laws to benefit corporations/interestgroups at people’s expense, used LEO’s against unfavorable reporters, used IRS against unfavorable interest groups, infiltrated religious organizations, subverted the press and so on. That was just the past ten years. Go 100 years back and you’ll see the trend is baked into their very nature.

So, the question is do we want to give those people Omniscience (surveillance machines) and Omnipotence (Patriot Act-backed authority)? Will that god we put our trust in continually provide for our safety and do only that? Or will those men/women harm the innocent via false positives or malicious intent? So far, we’ve seen little to no evidence of successful mitigation of inside threats even with these huge amounts of power. However, government power is regularly used to quash the little people for the benefit of the government and the country’s wealthier entities.

A democracy requires requires checks on government. If the government has a ton of [poorly/un]checked power, then real democracy is undermined. Such a design has never worked. It’s not working now as evidenced by how much courts and Feds trample on people’s constitutional protections, whether ignoring them or watering them down over time. Even the voting process isn’t trustworthy. Given no previous or current success, I say the current design will never work for a democracy. The only answer is to trade the “temporary safety” back for liberty, roll back these programs, get tough on accountability for classified operations, and then act like the democracy we claim we are.

Jerry Evans July 8, 2013 5:44 PM

Actually the crux of my comment had very little to do with the government – other than that not all threats are foreign. My point is simply that people are constantly being tracked. Phone companies, ISPs, utilities, credit card companies, banks, retail outlets, the street/parking lots, just about everywhere we go and everything we do is being recorded somewhere. What’s really scary is that credit rating companies, legitimate advertisers, hackers, spammers and private investigators have full access to much of that information. So my question was; what makes the government any different from all the others who can access just about anything on anybody. The only thing I can guess is that government and law enforcement agencies are supposed to get permission first, while the others don’t.

I’m not in favor of any form of spying – government or otherwise – but I’m not worried about it either. I have nothing to hide. If the government wants to delve into that portion of my personal life that is readily available to others, I just suggest they stock up on strong coffee or super-charged colas. I follow my own recommendation – don’t do anything to draw attention to myself and no one will pay any attention to me. I’m just background noise to spies. (Unless they read my various posts.)

Bob July 15, 2013 2:33 PM

Hayden’s comment to Hersh wasn’t a denial of spying; it was a statement that they go to great lengths to make sure people trust them. You can’t spy as easily when nobody trusts you. They might start being careful.

John Jones April 15, 2016 2:09 AM

Agreed, Hayden is most likely sincere, and I believe him, too. Trouble is, Hayden thinks that he, or people like him, will ultimately decide what happens with the surveillance systems they set up. What if there are people or organizations much more powerful and organized and long-lasting than Hayden or his children, and they are the ones who have made the critical decisions and will continue to do so in the future? What if, as history indicates, there are people who relish the thought of torture, mass murder, and the enslavement of others, who will not only crucify truth tellers with pleasure, but think that they do God a service in doing so?

What matters are not the good intents that we may have, or think we have, but what the actual consequences will be if our resolves are acted upon.

Fact is, our Constitution has been massively violated and those in power lied about it and got away with it unscathed, while innocent people were harassed and threatened with trumped up charges, etc., and some went to jail. The checks and balances, separation of powers, habeas corpus, our traditional aversion and prohibition of torture, etc., were severely vitiated, and if history is any indicator, there will be hell to pay.

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