After the Vietnam War, the Pentagon reflected on its wartime policies and military tactics and came to understand that they fanned public distrust in the military which, in turn, limited public support of their actions. Our defense leaders grasped that they needed to modify their tactics and policies in order to rebuild public confidence and soon military prestige was restored and the military’s effectiveness returned.
The National Security Agency and the entire intelligence establishment needs to go through this same process of self-reflection and to realize that their overreaching in surveillance and their futile efforts to cover-up what they are doing are undermining public support. Because we live in a democracy, unless the NSA gets it and grasps that it can’t continue to conceal and overreach and still get the public backing it needs to fulfill its mission, they may face a backlash which could cripple their efforts to protect us.
One thinks back to the 70s when a Senate committee headed by Idaho Democrat Sen. Frank Church investigated CIA activities and horrified Americans with its tales of secrecy, assassinations, abductions and the like.
The results of the Church hearings were that the CIA was effectively crippled for a decade and we were helpless and blind as a nation.
But the criticism of the NSA will not be muted nor should it be. The agency is invading our privacy is outrageous ways that are inconsistent with democratic government and refuses to be honest or open that defies accountable and transparent governance.
General Petraeus understood that if the military in Iraq attacked civilians, while it might kill some insurgents, the price of alienating ordinary Iraqis was not worth it. It is that sort of thinking we need at the NSA. They must grasp that if they push the envelope on surveillance and lie about it they will undermine the democratic mandate they need to operate.
I would have voted to cut off NSA surveillance funding to get their attention and to penetrate the arrogant, self-involved secrecy which permeates the agency. It was rejected by seven votes. Next time, it will probably pass unless or until the NSA gets that it just can’t do stuff like this and get away with it.
If the surveillance is helpful in smashing terror plots, that’s just too bad. The NSA, like the New York Police Department, had just better come up with ways to stop terrorists that comports with our notions of privacy and limitations on government action and authority.
Of course, the NSA could go the other way and decide to double-down and use its access to our secrets to terrify us and suppress dissent. Then we will be en route to a fascist state. One hopes that’s not on their menu of options, but sometimes I am not so sure.
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