You can treat a friendly wolf like a pet dog, but it will eventually rip your throat out. If you fail to comprehend and compensate for the nature of the beast, you are certain to get hurt. Since the Edward Snowden leaking of NSA secrets began, the world has been learning more and more about America’s top-secret organizations and their doings. Causing the most controversy is the agency’s massive effort to collect and store personal electronic data from all over the world, including inside the US. Meanwhile, the CIA has continually made headlines thanks to its drone program, among many controversial endeavors. Although spying on potential terrorists and targeting known terrorists is thoroughly justified, the outrage stems from the targeting of innocent Americans and the citizens of our allied countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Organizations like the NSA and CIA are tasked with ensuring national security interests through the gathering and securing of information. Unfortunately, the need for secrecy makes these organizations a magnet for individuals who view national security as a national interest that must be pursued by any means necessary. Although the spokespersons of these organizations have learned over the last few years to express a need to balance national security with civil liberties, such as privacy rights, hardliners view rights more as privileges to be waived whenever national security interests are at stake.
Under this mode of thinking, any potential threat to US security is a valid reason to ignore someone’s civil liberties. Under such a perspective, the US Constitution has value, because it provides structure to society, i.e. people adhere to the Law when they feel it protects their rights and their lives. On the other hand, an individual sharing such a view does not necessarily see the broader value of the principles behind the Constitution, thus they believe their conduct outside of US borders does not have to adhere to the values set forth in the US Constitution. In other words, hardliners in the NSA and CIA do not view civil liberties as their concern whenever they are operating outside of the jurisdiction of the US Constitution.
It might be said that hardliners within the NSA and CIA continue to operate under well-entrenched Cold War thinking. On the other hand, it is probably more correct to say hardliners used the Cold War to entrench themselves into organizations like the NSA and CIA then expanded their ability to operate freely by taking advantage of events like the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. In essence, the singular motivation of these individuals is to suppress any potential threat to our national security and secure the power to do that. This can make them very effective protectors; however, it also makes them very dangerous.
The United States of America was founded less as a Nation of borders and more as a set of principles based on the idea that all People should be free of government oppression and enjoy the same basic freedoms. When hardliners ignore the civil liberties of US Citizens to monitor for potential threats, which is largely what our spies are doing outside of a relatively few cases where they actually do avert terrorist attacks, these government employees are undermining the US Constitution and the principles our Country was founded on. When they dismiss the civil liberties of foreign citizens, they also undermine the American value system we have been trying to outsource for over the last hundred years. This means organizations like the CIA and the NSA are ignoring our broader national interests, which depend greatly upon an International Community built on cooperative partnerships.
In practice, the Cold War ear was a time when it was more acceptable to spy on everyone, but the current era demands partnerships build on trust and respect that can be used to address global issues like globalized terrorism. Therefore, it is one thing to try to identify targets with links to terrorists groups; it is another to target the leaders and vast numbers of random citizens of our allies. Truthfully, the leaders of other nations probably did, or should have, expected the US of spying on them; however, I am certain no wants us to do that and this incident gives them the political leverage needed to curtail the spying. Meanwhile, it is also important to recognize the world is shifting away from an American centered global community where we dictate the global agenda, thus we must step carefully if we wish to avoid frightening our global partners into running away from us. Hypocrisy may be the privilege of the powerful, but this does not mean the exercise of that privilege is free of consequences. After all, the world is realizing it can gang up against us without worrying too much about an even worse Russian or Chinese threat.
That said, the real challenge is suppressing the hardliner influence in our super secret spy organizations. Aside from seeking legal justification for completely ignoring the human and civil rights of anyone they suspect to be a threat, hardliners do not seem to be answerable to the Executive Branch, which is understandable given their nature and the nature of the bureaucracy overseeing their operations. Politically, Democrats will not take on our national security apparatus, because doing so makes them look weak, while Republicans will not because they have little to gain by doing so. As such, meaningful reforms to Congressional and Executive oversight of these organizations need to be put in place as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, the best option at this point for wrangling in our spies is to create official private and public channels for insiders to anonymously, securely, and responsibly submit material for review. People like Edward Snowden and Former CIA Agent John Kiriakou, who was targeted for publicly criticizing the Agency and prosecuted based on an uneven application of the Espionage Act in violation of his Equal Protection rights under the Fourteen Amendment for a simple mistake, are the only effective tools we have when it comes to oversight of organizations like the NSA and CIA . Quite frankly, these individuals and others are the only means of stopping the larger problems at the NSA and CIA at this time, yet we are prosecuting them instead of helping them leak information in a more responsible manner.