One of NSA Director Keith Alexander’s cruelest feats? Forcing some of his fiercest critics (us) again to defend American self-interest and the role and purpose of intelligence. Neocons remain America’s malignant Id at her moment of apogee. As Nemesis follows Hubris, they ushered in her over soon decline. NSA and the Community, engorged on self-entitlement, scuttled behind as ever-present shadow.
We get no pleasure writing that. Nor seeing so much perhaps irretrievable ruin in Snowden’s aftermath. It takes a big man to bring down an epoch in American and global history, they say. So why are Alexander and Snowden perfectly, coevally so small?
The seemingly ancient preceding post here about Obama’s first NSA-focused press conference reads quaintly now. We see in stark relief the cost of this Administration’s (typical) passivity. That’s not to excuse or diminish NSA’s stunning, profoundly stupid (and so totally unnecessary) transgressive acts. But we all should be clear about one distinction – our intolerance for NSA’s transgressions is not to embrace attempts to exploit the political fallout to diminish America.
What does that mean? Snowden and NSA are part of a larger, protracted struggle to damage American moral and social authority. This campaign is many years old. Its goal? To so badly damage the entire American Brand — if you will –it’s ultimately delegitimized, from international security to Hollywood’s global impact to technology leadership. Many proponent so this campaign are abroad. Far too many aren’t.
When the tarnish is undeniable, the goal is to toss the American Brand aside like a spent can of Diet Coke. To be replaced by someone else’s hegemonic brand.
Naturally, international actors of all sorts exploit the global confusion. Can you blame them? What a chance to mainstream their American deconstruction agenda into US political discourse, cynically feigning common moral outrage and goals. Who? Start with every authoritarian country to whom Snowden pleaded for refuge. Add those in Europe, Moscow and Beijing who have long sought to hasten a post-American order (while clinging to its benefits).
America as a spent soda can is still a ways off. Still, there’s a nice consolation prize: the spectacle of Americans ripping their own political guts out. It’s not totally unlike an unthinking, wounded shark hungrily feasting on its own bloody entrails, gnashing away. Sure, that’s a jarring image. Granted. But is it totally inapt?
Just one packaged leak in the media is like chum in the water. In real life the snapping shark can’t help itself. Americans seemingly can’t either.
To stop the chum/shark cycle we should focus on the key question: “How do liberal democratic republics function in today’s digital world with intelligence?” The shift from analog to digital worlds in the 1990s adds unresolved challenges for traditional oversight approaches and legal solutions. First step must be to reject the post-9/11 exaltation of Ends trumps Means. We must reverse the Community’s arrogant assumption that they always will be the Who to our Whom (in that famous phrase).
Which brings us full circle to where we began: Keith Alexander’s truly evil conjuring trick. Here the Stiftung actually, subjectively “defends” him and NSA (writ large, only) in this extraordinarily oblique way. It’s appalling to us. We hope for you, too.
Make no mistake. We really did oppose PATRIOT *at the time* on Capitol Hill. Even in the shock of late 2001. Talk about spitting into the wind. We absolutely and categorically agree that John Ashcroft (whom we discussed when meeting in 2000s here) et al. later were right to stand up to Cheney/NSA. We conducted this skirmish since the early 1990s in one way or another from post-Clipper Chip, CALEA and so on. NSA’s willful misleading of FISC after Ashcroft’s stand (made famous in one FISC decision’s foot note) shows a long running and profound contempt for rule of law and the Constitution. Long story short.
But the solution is not wanton tearing down. We do not have to be that shark.
Liberal democratic republics have legitimate and proper foreign intelligence requirements that can co-exist with our Constitution. And the balance in law and accountability can be found in a digital world.
Still, the prognosis isn’t great. Obama and Community apologists do not understand that effective constitutional oversight can never rest on empty proceduralism. In fact, empty proceduralism is exactly what Bill Casey – and significantly, his protege David Addington – hoped from the start would destroy oversight in actual practice. The political theater of hollow pretense. Bill Casey got his way. Just 20 years later.
Oversight works when it is premised on a practical, operational system of checks and balances. We utterly reject the Federalist/Cheney/Executive Branch ‘cultists’ cant that the rigid, compartmentalized separation of powers constitutional model is legitimate or appropriate. The tatters of the actual 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act framework are inherently salvageable — provided that Congress remembers it’s a co-equal branch of government.
But we hold no illusions. Regulatory capture is inevitable regardless of subject. Anyone designing regulatory systems knows this to be true. SSCI and HPSCI long ago succumbed as say the SEC and FCC have in their respective silos. The hardest work ahead is re-imagining what effective congressional oversight should be.
SSCI recently reported out a bill that essentially enshrines the status quo as the New Legal. Committees of jurisdiction rarely seek to knock over their own rice bowl. Leahy’s Judiciary is slightly more aggressive post-Snowden.
We asked earlier “How do liberal democratic republics function in today’s digital world with intelligence?” Remember that shark we spoke of? Without a functioning Congress, asking that chomping shark to stop and think is moot.