NSA and the Universality of the Nature of Humanity

One particular seminal idea that the American political heritage contributed to world civilization, (although it can also be found less convincingly in the British heritage) is the application of Calvinist pessimism about the nature of humanity to political theory. That pessimism was a cornerstone in the construct of checks and balances within government, between governments (federal and state) and between government and the larger society. The concept of checks and balances predated the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution in the varying colonial governments that had evolved in the prior centuries. That pessimism was a key to minimalist government (unlike the French Revolution) and constitutional limits to the potential scope of public power over private individuals and entities, noted in the Bill of Rights. Calvinistic pessimism differentiated the Enlightenment’s effects on American minds from those of continental Europe.

The Calvinist thesis differs from the underlying assumptions of Scholastic (originally Hellenist) thought; which held that certain categories of humanity, in whom reason prevailed, could be trusted. This latter belief, strong amongst secular liberal descendents, perceives evil as primarily a facet of ignorance and irrationality (i.e. Jefferson, Camus), to which credentialed education could largely ameliorate. Snowden’s lack of educational credentials constitutes a considerable element of the attempted denigration of Edward Snowden. These insults are not merely a result of credential and class snobbery. There prevails a belief that knowledge and intellect, or at least the credentialed proxy for having obtained knowledge and intellect, equals virtue and wisdom.

Radical Calvinist pessimism about the nature of humanity holds little sway in modern America; even amongst Evangelical/Protestants who largely see their ‘depravity’, as more one of mere isolated flaws rather than as radical and profound systemic evil in the person. Consequently, the ideological foundations and impetus for a true limited, minimalist and checks and balances government flounders. The secular liberal faction largely judges the Constitution to be an obsolete anachronism, which they seek to furtively circumvent. But even the conservative faction nowadays has reverted back to that ancient Hellenist perspective; in which an educated and credentialed elite can escape the baseness, vice, ignorance and irrationality that is all too evident amongst common rabble.

Because of their higher credentialed and class status, these elites are willing to give benefit of the doubt to their peers. Thereby, the so-called checks and balances that the elite class places upon itself is none too rigorous. They will admit that the constitution and its protections are violated with justification under the present or some other circumstances. However, so certain of their virtue, by virtue of their credentials, these elites believe and declare ‘trust us’ as the foundation by which they will not abuse these constitutional violations. Or they erect a Potemkin façade of checks and balances to ensure that these constitutional violations are violated without abuse.

A secretive FISA kangaroo court, which permits only one side (NSA) to present their applications without standard scrutiny provided by an adversarial system, executes these requests at a rate that rape, murder or assault victims could only salivate over (might not be applicable to the murdered). Consider this statistical evidence of a rubber stamp court.

Year

Applications

Withdrawn

Modified

Rejected

2010

1,511

5

14

0

2011

1,676

2

30

0

2012

1,789

1

40

0

In light of the optics, one would have thought that some bright and bushy-tailed operative in the intelligence department would suggest presenting a number of so-ridiculous-an-application that such would have to be refused. In these motions, which were rejected; it would it appear that the FISA court was acting as true safeguard. So much for the psychological intelligence, insight and wit of Intelligence Departments! But it could be worse. Perhaps the NSA did present a number of these so-ridiculous-an-application applications. However, FISA judges just kept on approving them.

Alas, the country is supposed to depend on federal judges, who by virtue of their very credentials, must have “integrity” and would not approve something “that they feel is wrong”1. Their credentialed overlords, such as Eric Holder, might engage in mendacity. But these judges; they are supposedly immune to the common vices, folly and disingenuity of mankind.

As demonstrated in the Wall Street banker duplicity leading up to the financial panic of 2008/9 and again in the current corruption and mendacity of Washington bureaucrats and politicos, there is no genuine disciplinary action and punishment for those sufficiently high enough in the elite echelons. NSA Director Keith Alexander, Director of National Intelligence “least untruthful” James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder blatantly lie to Congress and the public without procedures for their indictment or termination. The elites are protecting the scoundrels within their incestuous ranks. So what type of check is one which promotes mendacity and corruption without legal, employment or social consequence?

Thus the politicos and bureaucrats pay Orwellian paean to check and balances government. A dissonance exists between purported claims and true reality. But the whole idea behind genuine checks and balances governance (and also peer review, which has also proven profoundly flawed) is that the political system does not depend wholeheartedly on the hope of individual integrity. Rather, as Ronald Reagan stated: “trust, but verify”.

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One of the reasons that I resented the mindset of my native country in my youth is this justification for excessive and unchecked power in the hands of authority. The mantra was that if one has nothing to hide, hasn’t done anything wrong; one has nothing to fear. I heard this drivel repeated in histrionic condescension by British Foreign Secretary William Hague to the BBC. It brought to mind some camp commander reassuring naked Jews as they were entering the showers at Auschwitz.

If you are a law abiding citizen of this country, going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear, nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies, listening to the contents of your phone calls or anything like that.2

The repudiation of the presumption of virtue in authority in historical American political thought was a primary entry point to the appeal of the American civil religion for me. (I knew nothing of its Calvinist roots, having been reared in a nominally Christian home.)

But this repudiation has been largely lost in the mindset of most Americans. Excessive authority is being given to the coercive powers of the state on the basis of “trust me” or a fascistic naïveté in the virtue of those in authority. Insufficient and ersatz checks are being placed on this authority. The psychiatric system, for instance, is being used, to circumvent due process procedures and civic protections. And police organizations are alerted and eager to exploit this loophole, as in the case of Marine Brandon Baub.

And the protagorean arrogance (“I/we are the measure of all things”) of this clique of sociopolitical elites are myopically blind to their folly and vice; as they self-deal themselves undue and unchecked authority. Or their checks and balances, constituted amongst themselves, based on the myopia of their groupthink; is out of touch and scrutiny of the commoners or even the rest of the world.

“Measuring themselves by themselves and comparing themselves with themselves”3, these self-regarding elites do not particularly demonstrate themselves to be all that superior in intellect, knowledge, wisdom or virtue. There is the delicious irony of Edward Snowden; this so-called “grandiose narcissist” high school drop out, “who deserves to be in prison”, who ought to know his place.4 Well; this uneducated commoner, this 20-something slacker who came in from the cold5, plays a mean chess game; outwitting to date, the propaganda war set against him from the sociopolitical elite and their courtiers.

William F. Buckley Jr. retort “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University” (or variants thereof), still retains its resonance. And while it is true that the dumbing down of the mind and culture and the coarsening of the heart has occurred amongst the commons, it is no less true amongst the elite. The substantive difference and danger is that the elites have unmitigated arrogance to impose their folly and vice upon all the rest.

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It was originally claimed that the omniscient surveillance state stopped about a dozen terrorist attacks in the last decade or so. Like a game of Chinese Whispers or the retelling of all Tall Tales, that number inflates. As of June 18, 2013, it has become 50 potential incidents in 12 or so years. And the evidence of these assertions by “least untruthful answer” Intelligence Bosses are beyond rational and empirical scrutiny by outsiders. The government declares it so. And thus it must be so. Legitimate doubts are raised as to the extent that the all-encompassing amassing of yesteryears phone calls and internet traffic were instrumental in thwarting such threats, in isolation and apart from other counter-espionage strategies, or even in initially alerting these agencies to potential threats.

As Conor Friedersdorf of Atlantic Monthly noted; the NSA might have better served the safety of Americans by guarding against a conspiracy of nefarious bathtubs. 6 One need ask whether the monies expended in creating this “architecture of oppression” is rationally cost-effective. Indeed, overdependence on empirical signal patterns of voice calls, emails and internet traffic, if that is all that these agencies actually investigated, is not likely to obscure psychological insight. Overwrought concentration on the mechanical can misdirect attention from the psychological. The Boston Marathon bombers seem case in point.

Furthermore, how effective is this signal pattern technology when it cannot even detect anomalies and potential threats by employees and contractors (“connect the dots”) within its own organization?

The marginal benefit of this omniscient surveillance “architecture of oppression” seems relatively minor. Indeed, I would argue and it has been intimated by civic officials themselves that voice and electronic surveillance may only be useful in protecting against the less savvy would-be terrorist; attacks which would not cause inordinate numbers of deaths (beyond the typical serial killer rampage) or cause psychological social scarring of the 9/11 sort. I used to be a point man for my corporate clients in monitoring the private CCTV cameras within their offices etc. However, even my clients admitted that such devices only served as deterrents for low-grade and none-too-intelligent intruders.

There is significant economic cost expended, probably not well spent. But we have genuine cause for alarm in the potential abuse of such ‘omniscient’ electronic information in an increasingly polarized society and an increasingly de facto authoritarian political structure.

The very hunt for salacious material on Edward Snowden by the Establishment and its courtiers in order to discredit him; by combing through the 800 comments by Snowden scattered across the Ars Technica forums since he was 17 (2001) for instance; furnishes the very evidence of the dangers that Snowden is alerting and declaiming. For good cause or for ill, it is human nature to seek dirt on one’s adversaries. And that pursuit will defy and circumvent static regulatory systems that are put in place. Does anyone think that Intelligence Agencies’ investigations about Snowden are not partially motivated by concerns for their own personal self-interests or the interests of the agencies from which they derive a livelihood? Even if there was not a justified reason to open a NSA file on an individual who is rustling up social or political trouble for these agencies; does anyone honestly think that the rules and regulations could not be bent and circumvented in order to acquire knowledge from the accumulation of electronic information to discredit that individual? Could not some of that knowledge be furtively leaked in a selective and disingenuous manner?

If zealous Democrats or Republicans are stationed, particularly in bulk, at one of the agencies’ stations or its contractors, are they any more immune from deprecating their political adversaries through the use and leakage of salacious, scandalous or even criminal phone call and internet records than they are at the IRS? Are the Intelligence Agencies, unlike all other government bureaucracies, only hiring angels? Evidently, they are not: attested by the very persons who justify the existence of massive accumulation of phone and data records at the NSA and then complain about the NSA hiring weirdos, slackers, drifters and drop-outs.

Is America immune from possible autocracy or the tyranny of one polarized sociopolitical faction utilizing electronic omniscience to discredit, harass, extort, silence and/or persecute their adversaries?

Yes. A society needs to protect against internal and external terrorist threats posed from without the government. But a society also needs to protect against internal threats posed from within the government. Who guards against the guardians? That was the unique contribution of the American political heritage that seems to have been lost.7 It is not only a choice between security and privacy. It is also a balancing act between security threats from outside government and from within government.

 

 

 

 


NOTES

1.       Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), “Comments in House Intelligence Committee hearing with NSA Director Keith Alexander”, June 18, 2013.

2.       William Hague, “Interview on The Andrew Marr Show”, BBC One, June 9, 2013, Accessed http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/william-hague/10108560/Nothing-to-fear-from-GCHQ-says-William-Hague.html on June 19, 2013.

3.       2 Corinthians 10:12

4.       Jeffrey Toobin, “Edward Snowden Is No Hero”, The New Yorker, June 10, 2013.

5.       Roger Simon, “The slacker who came in from the cold”, Politico, June 13, 2013, Accessed http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/the-slacker-who-came-in-from-the-cold-92534.html#ixzz2WJGqqyCM on June 15, 2013.”

6.       Conor Friedersdorf, “The Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror”, The Atlantic Monthly, June 10, 2013, Accessed http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/06/the-irrationality-of-giving-up-this-much-liberty-to-fight-terror/276695/ on June 19, 2013.

7.       The Roman Republic also distributed political power in order to prevent a reoccurrence of the Tarquin Kings (autocracy). However, their unwritten constitution came into being without a coherent philosophical framework. Other nations, particularly those of Northern and Western Europeans in which the Protestant Reformation made great impact, also constituted their politics with elements of checks and balances. However, the depth of distrust of unified government power has never reached the level as that in the United States; something that foreigners often and critically point out.

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