Apr 04

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)

Like any good, card-carrying liberal, I love The Daily Show. Though I love it as a whole, I hate it when Jon Stewart rails against the media without ever offering any alternatives.

Watching the show, you’d think the entire media was an endless parade of nonsensical blabber. You’d think that 95% of all Americans got their news from Fox News, CNN or MSNBC, when, at most, only three to five million people watch a cable news channel each night (which is less than 2% of the adult population). Jon Stewart doesn’t hold up other media outlets as beacons of informational enlightenment, never pointing his viewers in the direction of NPR, The PBS Newshour, The New Yorker or The Economist. (Or any number of very intelligently and fairly written blogs, like The Dish or 538.)

In short, he dishes out criticism instead of offering solutions.

Starting On Violence five years ago, Michael C and I came up with an unofficial list of guiding principles: have a take, don’t chase the news, don’t make predictions, and most importantly, “offer solutions”.

If I’m being intellectually honest, so far in my “COIN is Boring” series, I haven’t offered a single solution. I’ve bemoaned video games, board games, cable channels and Hollywood films without discussing what mediums could or have depicted contemporary counter-insurgencies well. Without further ado, COIN media that actually work...or could work:

Non-Fiction Books

When a skilled writer has over 200 pages to write about an insurgency, I think they can do the topic justice. Sure, they can’t cover every angle, detail or insurgent group, but they can convey the scope, complexity and emotional feel on an insurgency. Off the top of my head, I’d recommend Dispatches by Michael Herr, The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, Victory Point by Ed Darack or Fiasco by Tom Ricks.

Counterinsurgency is a lot of things in those books; boring is not one of them.

Blogs

Yeah, it’s a little self serving, but if you want to learn about counterinsurgencies, debate minutia, or read real life true stories, then the blogging world has you covered. Outside of the insanity of conservative milblogs, the blogging world can and does cover COIN very well. Check out our blogroll for a good idea of what to read. (We have a blogroll update coming soon, we promise).

(Just don’t criticize Clausewitz. He is a golden god.)

Novels

Wait, I haven’t reviewed the new novels about Iraq and Afghanistan yet? Dammit.

That said, if one medium could cover the scope of an insurgency, it’s the novel. A piece of long fiction can show the experience of either a soldier or an insurgent, and the balances that must be maintained among various sides in a conflict. I’m thinking of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American, and, unexpectedly enough, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls as sterling examples. Still, we haven’t seen many novels by soldiers on the current wars yet...

They must have been blogging.

Photography

Have no doubt: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are some of the most photographed wars in history.  On the one hand, no picture can convey the depths of an insurgency. (You just don’t have the time to cover the scope of an insurgency in one thousand words.) That said, four photographers have won Pulitzers for photography from insurgencies since 9/11. That’s pretty good, in my opinion.

Or watch Syria, Egypt or Tunisia. Citizen photography and citizen reporting defines these civil wars and revolutions. We know about war crimes in Egypt and Syria because of cell phone cameras.

Documentary

If you look at the last ten years of Academy Award nominees for best documentary, you’ll find one subject more than any other: documentaries about counter-insurgencies, including three films on Iraq (Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, Iraq in Fragments, and My Country, My Country) a film on Afghanistan (Restrepo), two films on the larger politics of Iraq and 9/11 (No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side), and two films on Vietnam (The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and The Fog of War).

Though I had some issues with Restrepo, I think it offers a blueprint for making a film on a counter-insurgency: follow a group of soldiers or insurgents for an extended period of time.

Unlike fiction films, documentarians feel comfortable depicting the everyday existence of regular people, instead of having the plot lead up to one final, ultimate battle. (For example, Lone Survivor added a final battle that never happened. Oh, and its depiction of counter-insurgencies was abysmal.) Unlike fiction, non-fiction can use the stories of regular people to act as a microcosm for the larger conflict.

Could a film do this? Yes...but that film wouldn’t make money so it won’t get made.

A Cable Series or Miniseries

When I wrote about film and counterinsurgency, I made two points: 1. Films about insurgencies aren’t popular. 2. They don’t have the time.

But what if we gave them more time? I think that could work to depict an insurgency on the (small) screen. This hasn’t been done yet, but I have no doubt that a Wire-esque series on either Iraq, Afghanistan or the mountains of Pakistan could be critically acclaimed, if not popular. (Or as we wrote about last year, a multi-season cable drama about intelligence officials.) I think you could depict, one, two or three sides. In Iraq, watch the inner workings of Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups and the local government and the US military as each group struggles for power. Now that sounds intriguing…

Except The Wire wasn’t popular when HBO first aired it. And this series sounds expensive as hell, filming in a place that looks like Iraq or Afghanistan.

I guess COIN is just expensive.

Apr 01
(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.) - See more at: http://www.onviolence.com/#sthash.urR2eHTL.dpuf

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.)

Today’s post continues our series about the intelligence community after the release of their black budget last fall by the Washington Post. Today’s edition debunks the critics of Edward Snowden.

Myth 9: The release of the Intelligence Community’s Budget isn't useful. Edward Snowden’s disclosures will probably provide more use as a historical document than any other intelligence document of the last 50 years. The Washington Post explains why, “Historical data on U.S. intelligence spending is largely nonexistent.”

So I ask the rhetorical question, how can you write a history of America’s intelligence community if you don’t have the documents? You can’t. As an academic and historian, this troubles me. Indeed academics--rather than journalists--can write the best, most critical research and analysis on intelligence. (Tenure is a powerful thing.) As a result, we don't have great histories of intelligence written by non-intelligence insiders. This document (plus Wikileaks) will do a tremendous job of filling the gap. It will enable historians to study intelligence without relying on insider access.

Of course, oversight is useful in and of itself. As the 9/11 Commission wrote:

“When even aggregate categorical numbers remain hidden, it is hard to judge priorities and foster accountability...”

Who doesn’t want every single member of Congress to have the knowledge of how much our country spends on intelligence? It seems vital to ensuring oversight and protecting the civil liberties of Americans. Further, this release will help small government conservatives, transparency advocates and anti-war activists marshall facts to support their opinions.

So, yeah, it is pretty useful.

Myth 10: The intelligence community isn't redundant or wasteful. Thanks to this budget, the whole country can go through and see how many agencies conduct the same activities, repeat the same functions, and analyze the same information.

When the President doesn't even know the names or purposes of the sixteen intelligence agency under his purview (read this Politico story of the details), you probably have redundancy and waste. When multiple agencies have human intelligence, satellite collection, technical intelligence and signal collection capabilities--not to mention analytical overlap--then yeah, you probably have redundancy and waste. When a government agency’s budget doubles in a ten year period without regular reviews, then you probably have redundancy and waste.

Now that we have all the numbers to quantify those redundancies, we might (small might) be able to fix it.

Myth 11: Releasing this document harms America's national security. When I first wrote this article, I asked myself, “What does that even mean?” Does “harming national security” mean “making it more likely Americans will be harmed?” In that case, it’s hard to see how releasing our national collection priorities will suddenly change the behavior of our enemies. Will al Qaeda, armed with the information that U.S. wants to hunt it down, suddenly change tactics? Will China be shocked we are spending gobs to stop its cyber attacks? Probably not and Americans won’t be harmed in either case.

Really, though, the question is irrelevant. The onus isn't on us for explaining why this isn't dangerous, but on the classifiers to explain how this specific document could hurt America's security in concrete, specific ways. Operational plans fall into that category; broad strategic plans don't. We should release this document unless the NSA can show the concrete harm which could stem from it. The benefit from having millions of Americans having more insight into how the governments spends their money far outweighs the hypothetical damage to national security.

Myth 12: The Intelligence Community doesn't have goals, metrics or a report card. For this myth, we go to myself (Michael C). Like its bigger brother the Pentagon, I just assumed the IC spent our money wildly with no eye to accomplishing concrete goals. As this budget shows, the IC does have goals, for example improving human intelligence collection, but it hasn’t done very well accomplishing them, which might explain why they stay hidden. Nevertheless, I have to give credit that at least somewhere America’s intelligence world created goals for itself.

Mar 24

A few weeks back, I wrote that the NSA defends itself by using a version of English only spoken within the intelligence community. (See this Slate piece for how “surveillance”, “collect” and “no” mean different things in the intelligence world than in the rest of America.)

Yet that Slate article missed a few good examples of how the NSA abuses the English language. The last time I “Got Orwellian”, I wrote about President Obama’s liberal use of the phrase “ordinary Americans” to defend the NSA. Today, I want to tackle another another word that has bugged me: “legal”,  in that the NSA’s programs were “legal.” (For the most common uses, see General Keith Alexander’s repeated defense of NSA programs as “legal” here, here, here and here.)

Were those programs “legal”? Imagine this hypothetical. Facing budget shortfalls, Congress passes a new law to save on military spending. Instead of forcing troops to pay for their own houses, Congress requires any citizens living near military bases to house and quarter troops. President Obama, in an act of bi-partisanship, signs this law. He then orders the military to execute the law, and they start planning. Eventually, troops start living with civilians in their homes.

To be perfectly clear, the Pentagon legally acted on President Obama’s order, as in the Pentagon obeyed/followed laws passed by Congress.

As any one who has read the Constitution can attest--and so many politicians claim they love the Constitution that they now read the Constitution on the House floor (leaving out, of course, that whole 3/5ths thing)--quartering troops is clearly unconstitutional. I deliberately chose the oft forgotten 3rd Amendment, which prohibits quartering troops, because no one worries about having to house soldiers, nor could anyone really call that constitutional. Unlike other amendments, pundits and politicians don’t argue over the 3rd.

This thought exercise illustrates perfectly a clear gap between legal actions and legal yet unconstitutional laws. Supporters of the NSA completely miss this distinction.

Critics of the NSA aren’t simply claiming that the NSA is acting illegally (though there is plenty of evidence that the NSA exceeded its legal authority in any reasonable interpretation of the Patriot Act). Critics argue the NSA is acting unconstitutionally. In this interpretation, it doesn’t matter that Congress passed a law and the President is enforcing it; the law doesn’t pass Constitutional muster in the first place. American history is filled with laws that were deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

Unfortunately for the American people, we can only challenge unconstitutional laws in court. Doubly unfortunately, the Intelligence Community does most of its dirty, unconstitutional work in secret. Congress passed the Patriot Act publicly, with a few classified sections, which the NSA interprets in secret, gets approval from the FISA court in secret, and then executes in secret. The entire snooping apparatus was erected...in secret.

Only after the Snowden disclosures did critics have the standing and the ability to challenge the constitutionality of these programs.

Take a key piece of the Patriot Act, national security letters. These letters--unconstitutionally--made it illegal to tell anyone an intelligence agency had contacted you to execute a search warrant. They also prevented recipients from challenging them in court. The intelligence agencies approached companies like Google, Yahoo, Verizon and others (including civilians) with these letters, and threatened criminal prosecution if they told anyone they had started spying on Americans.

Without a whistleblower like Edward Snowden, and hopefully others in the future, we never would have found out about this program. Not because the law isn’t legal--though many doubt the NSA’s interpretations will stand in court--but because the laws are unconstitutional in the first place.

Feb 19
(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.) - See more at: http://www.onviolence.com/?e=775#sthash.qYBD8JIS.dpuf
o read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.) - See more at: http://www.onviolence.com/?e=775#sthash.qYBD8JIS.dpuf

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.)

Congress recently passed a new budget about the same time that President Obama laid out his plan for reforming the intelligence community. Unfortunately, as others have written, they missed a huge opportunity to declassify the “black budget”, the part of our annual spending which goes to intelligence, opening up the dark intelligence world to the bright, cleansing sunlight of transparency. Like most people in the intelligence game, they continued to pretend that Edward Snowden didn’t leak that same black budget six months earlier.

Alas.

Today we continue debunking the myths about intelligence related to Edward Snowden’s leaks. (Find the previous post here.)

Myth 4: We need that funding because the world is more dangerous than it has ever been. Again, in James Clapper's words:

“Today’s world is as fluid and unstable as it has been in the past half century...”

General Clapper again relies on an emotionally-compelling reason for increased spending. He doesn't provide facts, data or evidence--the logically/rationally compelling reasons--to increase intelligence spending. As we’ve covered before the world is, if anything, safer and more stable than at any time in history. Not even in proportional terms, but in real world terms; less people die each year from armed conflict, including terrorism, than at any time in history. This is due to rising global incomes, the spread of international institutions and the general decline of violence in the modern and contemporary periods.

Yet General Clapper said the opposite.

Further--and we need to write about this more--no rational foreign policy or national security expert could reasonably claim the Cold War was less dangerous or unstable than today. If anything, the Cold War motivated both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to oust unfriendly dictators, which is why the rate of civil wars (and terrorism) skyrocketed.

Myth 5: This spending keeps you safe. I could provide an explanation of logical fallacies, but I think I’d rather have Lisa and Homer Simpson demonstrate for me. After a bear sighting in Springfield, Homer says:

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.

Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.

Homer: Thank you, dear.

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.

Homer: Oh, how does it work?

Lisa: It doesn’t work.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?

[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]

Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

It would be funny, if the intelligence world didn’t snooker the the Washington Post with the same logic:

The United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence during that period, an outlay that U.S. officials say has succeeded in its main objective: preventing another catastrophic terrorist attack in the United States.

Of course, officials can say that; they just can't prove it. Over ten years, what amount of spending would have allowed a terror attack? $100 billion? $200 billion? Clearly, if we had spent a trillion dollars, that would have prevented another catastrophic attack as well, but since a terrorist attack didn’t happen, we didn’t need to spend an extra $500 billion.

We’ll have more in future posts, but in the mean time, I have a rock that prevents terrorism. Anyone want to buy it?

Myth 6: Terrorism is our gravest threat. No, that's still nuclear weapons possessed by states. Terrorism is more likely, but less serious. The Washington Post, again quoting from the document, wrote, “In words, deeds and dollars, intelligence agencies remain fixed on terrorism as the gravest threat to national security." Though intelligence officials believe that terrorism is the gravest threat, that doesn’t make it so. This myth shows how the intelligence community--even in secret--can’t accurately identify threats to the country.

Myth 7: The CIA is understaffed/underfunded. For this, we go to past On V contributor Matt Bradley via email:

I thought this was the case. Yet, the CIA's budget has exploded, and as the article rightly points out, it now is a paramilitary force.

Myth 8: Technology will save us. The Washington Post again:

The documents make clear that U.S. spy agencies’ long-standing reliance on technology remains intact. If anything, their dependence on high-tech surveillance systems to fill gaps in human intelligence has intensified.”

I've said before that President Bush's biggest missed opportunity was the chance to really improve language training across America to help with human intelligence. He also could have allowed more immigration to provide a pool of foreign experts. He did neither, and the intelligence community never really strengthened their human intelligence collection capabilities.

Why not? Economics. Intelligence-contracting companies make more money off of fancy tech than training people to learn Arabic. Yet somehow the Post and government officials think this reliance on technology could be a good thing. Think tanks funded by defense contractors want Americans to think this too. Americans--led by their imagination of innovation in Silicon Valley--are also prone to buying this. As the IC"s own report cards show, human intelligence gaps can't be filled through tech, no matter how hard we try.

Feb 18

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.)

One of the most disappointing parts of the NSA disclosures was the repeated twisting of language by NSA officials to obfuscate what they were doing. Of course, all public relations people play this game. When it comes to possible constitutional violations, possible criminal conduct, insane amounts of secrecy and national security, though, that’s a game I don’t want government officials playing; we have to hold NSA and administration officials to a higher standard.

Today, I want to “get Orwellian” on the worst defense made by President Obama of the NSA, and it centers around a single word, “ordinary”.

Repeatedly uttered in his most recent speech on national security--in some variation of “ordinary” and Americans/people/citizens--President Obama tried to reassure the public that we’re not after you; we’re after terrorists. By our count, in his most recent speech on NSA reforms, he uttered it seven times:

“...U.S. intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of checks and balances, with oversight from elected leaders and protections for ordinary citizens.”

“...the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people.”

“In sum, the program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans.”

“But our efforts will only be effective if ordinary citizens in other countries have confidence that the United States respects their privacy too.”

‘To begin with, the directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary folks.”

‘The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security...”

“Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does.”

Interestingly, President Obama never defines what an “extraordinary American” is. Presumably, based on the speech’s repeated reference to terrorists and stopping terrorism, terrorists aren’t “ordinary Americans”. So we have a clear dichotomy: “ordinary Americans” and “terrorists”. Unfortunately, the world isn’t so simple and the phrase “ordinary Americans” presents as many problems as it solves.

For instance, while the NSA may not investigate “ordinary Americans”, the FBI certainly does. Numerous accounts have shown that the FBI spends a disproportionate amount of its time trying to infiltrate mosques. In many cases, these same FBI agents encourage ordinary Muslim Americans to commit terrorism, many of whom showed no interest in extremism before the FBI took an interest in them. (Listen to this episode of This American Life, for an extreme example.) Of course, in their NSA meta-data searches, many ordinary Muslim American phone numbers likely show up, simply because the NSA, like any intelligence agency, spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on Islamic terrorism.

And while I don’t want to suggest that politics might use racially coded language for political purposes--for instance “welfare queen”--I could make the argument that “ordinary Americans” means, you know, the non-Muslim Americans. (The NYPD Intelligence Unit spent most of its time mapping and infiltrating Muslim communities. Do they count as “ordinary Americans”?)

A final point that I will hammer home in the next “Getting Orwellian” post: for a Constitutional scholar, President Obama must know better. Under the Constitution, every American is an ordinary American, until proven otherwise in a court of law. Everyone receives the full-protection of the law, no matter what the government accuses them of doing. This includes a right to privacy and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

When we start to pick and choose who gets Constitutional protection, well, we are probably on the wrong track.

Feb 11

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.)

Of all the Snowden leaks, few will have as much impact on our intelligence community (IC) as the release of the secret intelligence budget. With this budget, the American people--and tragically, their elected representatives--have better insight into the intelligence community than ever before. The release of the budget, like most of the leaks coming from Edward Snowden, shows that the unelected leaders of the intelligence community have consistently exaggerated, misled, and deceived Americans about both the threats facing our country and their actions to counter those threats. 

In this case, how they spend money.

So consider this a "Think Again: The Intelligence Community". It will tackle three different types of myth, including myths the release from last summer overturns, myths the intelligence community continues to peddle to lawmakers and the American public, and the myths the intelligence community uses to attack Edward Snowden and the journalists releasing classified information. 

Myth 1: There is nothing new here. In future posts, we plan to hold some NSA defenders’ feet to the fire when it comes to this claim. Supporters of the NSA manage to argue two contradictory statements about nearly every Snowden leak: 1. “Oh, everyone already knew that” and 2. “This devastates our national security.”

How can something everyone knows devastate our national security if everyone already knew it? 

And with the budget release, this line of attack is especially disingenuous. The biggest update is that, far and away, most national security observers had been drastically underestimating the size of particular agencies. For instance, most analysts believed the CIA was still operating under budget constraints, when they had the single largest growth in funding since 9/11. In this case, the intelligence agencies didn’t lie per se, but chose to pretend that they were cash-strapped agencies.

Speaking of underfunding...

Myth 2: The intelligence community is underfunded. This is frankly an incredibly shocking statement...and it comes from the Director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper. In his words:

Never before has the IC been called upon to master such complexity and so many issues in such a resource-constrained environment...

Apparently General Clapper never learned to never say, “Never say never.” As the Washington Post describes later describes:

Spending in the most recent cycle surpassed that amount based on the $52.6 billion detailed in documents obtained by The Post, plus a separate $23 billion devoted to intelligence programs that more directly support the U.S. military.

That’s $75 billion on intelligence, by my calculations. To be clear, the U.S. spends more on intelligence than every other country in the world--besides China and Russia--spend on all their military spending. The United Kingdom has the third largest military spending in the world, and it only spends $60 billion per year on its whole military.

Worse, in historical terms, the amount spent on intelligence rivals any time during the Cold War. In other words, far from being “resource-constrained”, the intelligence community has never had as much money on hand as it does now.

Frankly, General Clapper can only get away with calling the budgeting environment "resource constrained" because a majority of our representatives don't have the ability (or the time) to read the secret IC budget . He can only get away with it because academics can't chart the budget historically, or in detail. He can only get away with it because think tanks and lobbyists funded by defense and intelligence contractors spread this myth through reputable journalists.

Myth 3: The U.S. only spends 1% of its GDP on intelligence. Again from General Clapper: "Even with stepped up spending on the IC over the past decade, the United States currently spends less than one percent of GDP on the Intelligence Community.”

Actually, I cannot debunk this fact. General Clapper is correct that we spend less than 1% of GDP on intelligence. The myth is that the U.S. should even think about pegging its intelligence spending to GDP. It is simply stunning that General Clapper could use this argument.

Maybe the definition of a security state is one which spends one percent or more of GDP on intelligence. So yes, we aren't there yet, but we're on our way...and should be, according to intelligence officials.

Feb 05

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

As you may have noticed if you’ve been reading the blog the last couple of weeks, we’ve switched topics. We’re putting Lone Survivor on hold for right now--frankly, we’re tired of writing about just that subject; you’re probably tired of reading about it--and switched to the Edward Snowden NSA leaks. This is a topic we feel very, very passionate about, especially since Michael C worked as an intelligence analyst.

It’s not because we don’t have more things to say about Lone Survivor. We do. (We have like six other posts, including Eric C’s take on the film’s inaccuracies and why they matter, diving into the issue of who wrote the book, and so on.) When the DVD comes out, or during Oscar week, we’ll hit some of those topics again, to finish the subject. (Also, writing about Lone Survivor, we’ve had at least two or three other tips come our way for things to investigate, so we want to dedicate our time to some of those.)

Before we go, though, we have some updates to our posts on Lone Survivor. Mainly, we’ve updated the posts “The Worst Media Coverage of Lone Survivor (film and memoir) and “A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality”.

We’ve added the following sections to each post:

Media coverage:

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday

PBS’ Charlie Rose

Star-Telegram’s “The Big Mac Blog”

Mistakes and differences:

Ahmad Shah’s Missing Earlobes

Who Stumbled Upon Luttrell?

Did the SEALs Have Rope?

What Type of Sidearm did the SEALs Use? And Why Was it Changed?

A final thought. You might be wondering, why didn’t you add Fox News to the media post? They did like six or seven segments on Lone Survivor the week after the film came out, blasting the film's critics.

First off, they weren’t talking about us. Their main targets were the LA Weekly, Salon and Atlantic Monthly i.e. “liberal bloggers” who questioned the film’s patriotism or called it “propaganda”. They never contacted us or mentioned the blog. Or the very popular article (at least more popular than the Slate or Atlantic Monthly blog posts) we wrote for Slate. Nor did Fox News mention any other veteran writers who questioned the film’s facts. If you read the post from two weeks ago, you know at least three other veterans wrote about the inaccuracies in Lone Survivor. It was easier for them to go after “liberals” who questioned the film’s patriotism than veterans questioning the film’s facts.

We’ve really enjoyed the positive feedback on our efforts to correct the record about Operation Red Wings. Continue to spread the word to friends, families (and journalists if you know any).

Feb 03

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.)

One of the more remarkable facts, I think, of the whole Snowden affair is how long it took for these disclosures to get leaked. Well before the Snowden leaks, Senators speaking on the record and some NSA officials speaking well off the record, said some variation of the line, “Americans would be shocked by how much the NSA snoops on them.”

Sure enough, when the Snowden leaks came out, a majority of Americans were shocked by an intelligence leak.  

So if we can take the large--but not universal--shock of most Americans as evidence they felt the NSA overstepped its authority (and its leaders probably lied to Congress about their spying), why did it take so damn long to come out? Most bad deeds get leaked eventually. But why did it take over 11 years? Why did only one person decide to leak all these documents? Well, the answer is simple:

Economics.

To show this, I need a thought experiment. To start, assume that every employee at the NSA is motivated by one of two things: self-interest and altruism. For self-interest, I mean everything which causes Americans to go to work: pay, keeping their job, providing for their family, advancing up the career chart, and gaining responsibility/power/respect. (This could be called the "classical" economics framework.) For altruism, I mean all those pesky things which might cause someone to forego personal gain: belief in the greater good, religious beliefs, ethics, morality, emotions and patriotism. (This could be called the hard part of economics--the things which screw up economist's traditional models. For more on a related topic, click here.)

In real life, the employees of the NSA are motivated by mixtures of both self-interest and altruism. But which predominates? Supporters of the government--like now-On V-punching-bag David Brooks (whose writing we still absolutely love)--insist that the vast majority of government employees are "good people" who "try to do the right thing". Unfortunately, my thought experiment shows that self-interest usually trumps altruism. 

In the first ideal version of the NSA, every employee is only motivated by altruism. How would this NSA look? Well, its officials would never lie to the American public. There wouldn't be a need for whistleblowers, because superiors would respect subordinates who went to the Inspector General to report abuse. And if, for whatever reason, wrong deeds still needed exposure, NSA employees would go to Congress or the press on a regular basis. But employees wouldn't care about advancement, only helping the NSA protect America. Employees would speak their minds because they care about the greater good.

What's the alternate? In a perfectly self-interested NSA, it would operate much differently. Since most promotions are controlled by superiors, employees would think first and foremost about upsetting these power brokers. They probably dress up their motivations in altruistic terms--"loyalty", "team player"--but they don't ever make their bosses look bad. Thus, when they come across wrongdoing, they don't do anything. At best, self-interested employees tell themselves that, "When I am in charge, I'll fix all the problems."

And leaks? Virtually non-existent from the lower levels. Would-be whistleblowers know that the surest way to end a career is to expose wrongdoing via leaking classified information. Though leaks occur all the time, they only come from senior officials to make the intelligence community look good. A leak from a subordinate which makes the whole intelligence community look bad will ruin a career absolutely.

In the self-interested NSA, anyone who leaks goes to prison to send a message for future leakers. (If you still want to leak, you would have to flee to the most ironic country possible, Russia.) In its darkest iteration, the self-interested NSA even bribes congressmen with donations to ensure future funding. In an even darker version, the NSA could blackmail elected leaders to insure they continue funding its operations.

So, let me ask, which version of the NSA seems more realistic? Which one do we seem closer to?

Considering the vast lack of unauthorized leaks, I would say the latter. No NSA employee chose to speak out that the NSA had twisted sections of the Patriot Act to expand domestic surveillance. Until Edward Snowden, not a single employee who heard General Clapper lie to Congress went public. Skeptics of the NSA, like myself, would argue that the incentive structure inside the NSA so vastly outweighs the altruistic motivations that only the exceptionally rare individual would blow the whistle on wrongdoing.  My thought experiment from above shows this.

While most American intelligence officials and employees are indeed good people, they're still self-interested. As Manager-Tools frequently points out, the employees at the NSA are all addicted to food, clothing and shelter. Unless Congress passes strong legislation which protects whistleblowers, and maybe even encourages it, we can expect waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, corruption and other ills of government.

Edward Snowden is a very rare individual for doing what he did almost solely based on altruism. We should understand that, and instead of condemning him, we need to find ways to get more Edward Snowdens to do what he did...legally. We need to shift the incentive structure so that the natural altruism of NSA employees isn’t bowled over by the need to continue paying for food and shelter. In other words, Edward Snowden and the vast lack of leaks show the incredible need to change the incentive structure inside the intelligence community.

There is, as Eric C pointed out reading this post, another darker explanation. Many if not most of the workers--and especially the leaders--could be altruistically motivated. However, the values they adore aren’t values like civil liberties and respect for the Constitution. If their fundamental value is security, they could act in much the same way. In this scenario, the altruism of the NSA means it does whatever it takes to keep Americans safe despite the harms to freedom. In short, security trumps liberty.

Now that is a scary thought.