Conspiracy Theories and the NSA
I’ve recently seen two articles speculating on the NSA’s capability, and practice, of spying on members of Congress and other elected officials. The evidence is all circumstantial and smacks of conspiracy thinking—and I have no idea whether any of it is true or not—but it’s a good illustration of what happens when trust in a public institution fails.
The NSA has repeatedly lied about the extent of its spying program. James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has lied about it to Congress. Top-secret documents provided by Edward Snowden, and reported on by the Guardian and other newspapers, repeatedly show that the NSA’s surveillance systems are monitoring the communications of American citizens. The DEA has used this information to apprehend drug smugglers, then lied about it in court. The IRS has used this information to find tax cheats, then lied about it. It’s even been used to arrest a copyright violator. It seems that every time there is an allegation against the NSA, no matter how outlandish, it turns out to be true.
Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald has been playing this well, dribbling the information out one scandal at a time. It’s looking more and more as if the NSA doesn’t know what Snowden took. It’s hard for someone to lie convincingly if he doesn’t know what the opposition actually knows.
All of this denying and lying results in us not trusting anything the NSA says, anything the president says about the NSA, or anything companies say about their involvement with the NSA. We know secrecy corrupts, and we see that corruption. There’s simply no credibility, and—the real problem—no way for us to verify anything these people might say.
It’s a perfect environment for conspiracy theories to take root: no trust, assuming the worst, no way to verify the facts. Think JFK assassination theories. Think 9/11 conspiracies. Think UFOs. For all we know, the NSA might be spying on elected officials. Edward Snowden said that he had the ability to spy on anyone in the U.S., in real time, from his desk. His remarks were belittled, but it turns out he was right.
This is not going to improve anytime soon. Greenwald and other reporters are still poring over Snowden’s documents, and will continue to report stories about NSA overreach, lawbreaking, abuses, and privacy violations well into next year. The “independent” review that Obama promised of these surveillance programs will not help, because it will lack both the power to discover everything the NSA is doing and the ability to relay that information to the public.
It’s time to start cleaning up this mess. We need a special prosecutor, one not tied to the military, the corporations complicit in these programs, or the current political leadership, whether Democrat or Republican. This prosecutor needs free rein to go through the NSA’s files and discover the full extent of what the agency is doing, as well as enough technical staff who have the capability to understand it. He needs the power to subpoena government officials and take their sworn testimony. He needs the ability to bring criminal indictments where appropriate. And, of course, he needs the requisite security clearance to see it all.
We also need something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where both government and corporate employees can come forward and tell their stories about NSA eavesdropping without fear of reprisal.
Yes, this will overturn the paradigm of keeping everything the NSA does secret, but Snowden and the reporters he’s shared documents with have already done that. The secrets are going to come out, and the journalists doing the outing are not going to be sympathetic to the NSA. If the agency were smart, it’d realize that the best thing it could do would be to get ahead of the leaks.
The result needs to be a public report about the NSA’s abuses, detailed enough that public watchdog groups can be convinced that everything is known. Only then can our country go about cleaning up the mess: shutting down programs, reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act system, and reforming surveillance law to make it absolutely clear that even the NSA cannot eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant.
Comparisons are springing up between today’s NSA and the FBI of the 1950s and 1960s, and between NSA Director Keith Alexander and J. Edgar Hoover. We never managed to rein in Hoover’s FBI—it took his death for change to occur. I don’t think we’ll get so lucky with the NSA. While Alexander has enormous personal power, much of his power comes from the institution he leads. When he is replaced, that institution will remain.
Trust is essential for society to function. Without it, conspiracy theories naturally take hold. Even worse, without it we fail as a country and as a culture. It’s time to reinstitute the ideals of democracy: The government works for the people, open government is the best way to protect against government abuse, and a government keeping secrets from its people is a rare exception, not the norm.
This essay originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com.