What Do NSA Violations Tell Us About The Nature of Government?


A part of the NSA’s interior that it apparently doesn’t mind you seeing.

The Washington Post has been filled with revelations recently about an internal audit at the NSA which revealed thousands of violations of its privacy rules.  The linked article says the May 2012 report “counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications”.  Post author Barton Gellman added that, “Most were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure.”

The newspaper also draws attention to an October 2011 ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which found that the NSA was using illegal methods to track and store internet communications of U.S. citizens and legal residents.  Only one page is made available for public viewing, with the author’s name redacted by the Post.  A Freedom of Information Act request for more details of the case is currently pending.

First of all, I congratulate the Post on staying true to its history of investigative journalism.  It’s good to see some members of the media checking into government claims on the public’s behalf.  If only they had all been so thorough when it came to Iraq, we would have been spared some egg on our faces, but what’s done is done.

Second, in light of these new revelations about the NSA’s all too common non-adherence to its own guidelines, I think it’s fair to say that we as a country need to take another look at how this program is being run.  If the NSA is to be believed, most of the privacy lapses were cases of simple error by computers or humans involved.

My guess is that many of the violations were not malicious, but I would also expect that some of them were intentional.  I’ve seen 24, the Bourne trilogy, and Homeland: I suspect that their portrayal of occasional overreach by our intelligence services is accurate, though their glamorization of agents’ personal lives is surely the stuff of fiction.  (Jack Bauer never needs to use the bathroom?!  Jason Bourne can back his car off the top of a parking garage and then walk away?!  Carrie Mathison is sleeping with a known terrorist and doesn’t get immediately fired?!)

Whether the violations of privacy were intentional or not, it does raise some important questions about how the U.S. government, or any government, functions.  As was the case with the IRS scandal a few months back, I am forced to decide if I would prefer a government agency that is corrupt or one that is incompetent.  Should I favor a lack of due diligence or a lack of due process?

It is exactly this kind of news item that is spurring the anti-government movement in this country.  This would be either the Tea Party or perhaps the most determined elements within that group.  Their answer to problems in the federal government is simply to do away within many of its powers and reduce it to the point where it has little power over our daily lives.  Presumably, state governments will pick up the slack and behave in a much more beneficent matter.

Personally, I’ve never understood why we should think that state governments would do a much better job than the federal government.  Sure, state governments are currently coming up with some of the country’s best ideas, and there are many problems that can be solved more easily at the state level than the national one.

However, we must also keep in mind that state governments are capable of tremendous abuses of individual rights just like the federal government.  It was the federal government, through cases like Brown vs. Board of Education and legislation such as the Voting Rights Act, that helped to break the racist monopoly in southern states which were more than happy to disenfranchise their black residents. (Should we be surprised that ethnic minority groups aren’t as bothered by a powerful federal government?)

The NSA situation is certainly concerning, and we ought to be asking if the powers of the federal government need to be curtailed in this area.  Still, this does not mean that we should shutter our national intelligence gathering services.  Fifty state government services could not coordinate as effectively as one national service, and even the preamble of our Constitution tells us that part of the role of the federal government is to “provide for the common defence”. (Yes, the Constitution spells “defense” the British way.)

All too often, Americans are presented with a false choice by politicians on both sides of the aisle: either 1) we have an enormous, suffocating, corrupt government, or 2) we have a small, toothless, ineffective government.  Wouldn’t the best option be to try as hard as possible to fix problems in the federal government and make it work better, limiting its powers where necessary and strengthening them in areas outlined by the Constitution?

It is easy to see why someone would be hesitant to trust our federal government.  The lack of courage among members of both parties allows for the bureaucracy to go on without reform.  In the case of the NSA, neither the president nor Congress has announced a formal, public inquiry into the future of its monitoring programs.  I suspect that President Obama can’t admit that illegal acts occurred on his watch, Democrats in Congress don’t want to cross the president, and the majority of non-Tea Party Republicans can’t say boo since they supported such intelligence gathering programs over the past decade.

The inherent flaws in human nature ensure that there will always be problems in government, that those with power will always abuse it, and that we cannot create our own heaven here on earth.  There is no question that we need government reform, and there are a lot of bums in Congress that need to be thrown out by the voters and replaced with people who have enough courage to both do the right thing and free themselves from the bonds of overly restrictive ideology.  Yet, Simply taking an ax (or an “axe”) to the whole thing isn’t going to do the job.  We tried confederation twice (once with the Articles of Confederation and once with the Confederate States of America), and neither time was a smashing success.

Let’s wait and see if anything more comes out about these NSA violations.  My guess is that they fade away without much fanfare as soon as something new happens in Egypt, or there are more royal baby pictures, or Ted Cruz flips the bird to Canada to prove how American he is.  Such is life, and such is the state of our government.