Americans are just beginning to deal with new, shocking disclosures about government intrusion into private communications. At this writing and for several years now, the National Security Agency has been sifting through billions of telephone calls, recording the details of each contact and archiving the contents of the calls for possible examination later on. The federal government had to upgrade the wiring at Fort Meade to accommodate NSA’s computers, and they’re just finishing a vast complex in Utah to store some of the data.
We have the testimony of more than one signals intelligence analyst that the monitoring is all-inclusive and largely contracted out to private business, giving thousands of people in and out of government free access to the communications of each and every one of us. One analyst has said he personally handled information collected from the telephones of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, General David Petraeus, and other highly placed officials and commentators, and he became aware of intercepts directed against less well-known people, including up-and-coming Illinois senatorial candidate Barack Obama. High government officials, including the President himself, have lied when questioned directly about the surveillance.
Many people say, “I ain’t got nuthin’ to hide. No harm done.” People who say that are idiots. In the first place, everybody has something to hide. Every adult–excepting only the most solitary people–hears something in confidence and is bound to secrecy. Maybe it’s your child or your parent that confides in you, or maybe it’s your boss or your friend or your sister. Somebody has told you a secret that you are obliged to keep, even if you have no secrets of your own.
In the second place, we don’t accord people a right to privacy so that they can hide crimes and plot wrongdoing in private. We do it protect trade secrets, personal confidences, strategies, plans, ideas, and the security of personal property generally. When the protections are abridged, all commerce is endangered. Anybody who thinks there are no consequences to Communist-style monitoring should take a look at what happened to the nations that were doing this sort of surveillance in eastern Europe. Their institutions failed, and their governments were overthrown.
We can and should draw some inferences from the facts now on the record. A fair inference is that the information archived, ostensibly, for reasons of national security will also be used to force individuals to comply with demands of at least some of the archivists. We know that the free market assigns a price to everything, and bits of information are no exception. Secrets, especially guilty secrets, can be exploited for gain, and, as a corollary of Murphy’s law tells us, anything that can be exploited for gain will be. It’s a fair inference that some of the information gathered will be used for blackmail, especially when the entire data collection process is conducted in secret.
The demands of blackmailers typically take the form of quantities of money, but when the secret involves an influential person–a public official, for instance, or an opinion leader–the blackmailer might demand advocacy of a particular kind or forbearance on some issue. We should infer that critical decisions are made and positions advocated to avoid disclosure of guilty secrets about the decision-maker or advocate.
It’s also reasonable to infer that the spying has been going on long enough to enable proactive blackmail. Archivists in and out of government have the capacity to identify promising candidates for manipulation from among a vast pool of people with guilty secrets. They can recruit for espionage, assassination, leadership and public service, and we should infer that they do that. The potential political attraction of a man like Barack Obama, for instance, might be identified early, and he might be targeted for leadership and financial support, along with many others, once he’s survived the vetting process. It’s a peculiar form of vetting, because it selects those who have committed acts of misconduct and are vulnerable to blackmail. Somebody like Obama might not even know he’s owned until he’s advanced to high office.
Finally, it’s reasonable to infer that the vetting process has been going on long enough to infest the highest echelons of power and influence with venal, blackmailed people, and that spies and their customers in private enterprise control public policy through these corrupt cadres. It would explain why public policy so rarely reflects the public interest. There is no evidence to refute this inference, and public opinion polls seem to confirm it. The average American now believes that politicians are thugs, businessmen are cheats, and the mass media are liars.
If it’s true that corrupt people control public policy, reform could prove difficult. Somehow, ordinary people would have to repudiate their leaders and turn against the monopolies that feed, clothe and shelter them. They might be able to stage an election in which incumbents were dumped wholesale, but would the replacements be able to govern? They might be able to enact confiscatory taxes, but could the officials with power over the seized assets be trusted to act in the public interest? They could take to the streets, but their every move would be anticipated. Leaders would be harassed, and potential participants would be intimidated. It’s a daunting project, but fair inferences dictate that it should be the top priority project for the remainder of this century.