The NSA is spying on everybody.
That includes a major, major, prime target: Congress.
So imagine this conversation taking place, in a car, on a lonely road outside Washington, late at night. The speakers are Congressman X and a private operative representing a covert unit inside the NSA:
“Well, Congressman, do you remember January 6th? A Monday afternoon, a men’s room in the park off – ”
“What the hell are you talking about!”
“A stall in the men’s room. The kid. He was wearing white high-tops. A Skins cap. T-shirt. Dark hair. Scar across his left cheek.”
“We have very good audio and video. Anytime you want to watch it, let me know.”
“What do you want?”
“Right now, Congressman? We want you to come down hard on Snowden. Press it. He’s a traitor. He should tried and convicted.”
The Congressmen pulls himself together:
“Yeah, well, there’s another side to this story. If Snowden gets enough support, if the wave rises high enough, the NSA could take a hit. I know a dozen Washington players who’d like that very much. They’re pissed off. They don’t like to be spied on. It’s possible Snowden was their guy from the beginning. I couldn’t say…”
Let’s make a deal. That ends up being the topic of this and other similar conversations inside the Beltway.
“Senator, we know about the underage cheerleader in Ohio. Your trip there in 2012, just before the election.”
“Look, you’ve brought this up before. But now I’ve got a trump card to play. Ed Snowden. This whole scandal can escalate like a tornado in Kansas, or it can die down…”
Let’s make a deal.
If you want to see this starkly played out in a fictional series, watch Netflix’s House of Cards. For House Majority Whip, Frank Underwood, substitute the NSA. Track what happens to Congressman Peter Russo, and you have a rough approximation.
Here’s another vector. A Congressman gets a visit from his favorite lobbyist, who works for a private defense contractor in the Congressman’s home state:
“Congressman, here’s the thing. The NSA is an integral part of our nation’s defense system. Right? This Snowden thing is messy. We want it to go away.”
“It may not go away. I’m not some kind of traffic cop who can put up his hand and stop the tide.”
“We understand that. I was just talking to XXX at NSA, and he’d really appreciate your help on this. Slam this bastard Snowden. Make him into the worst scumbag in the world.”
“And if I do?”
“Your offshore account in Panama will remain protected. That’s what XXX wanted me to tell you.”
Calling in markers. Putting on pressure. Let’s make a deal.
If you’re a Congressman or a Senator, and you know NSA is spying on you, because it’s spying on everyone in the Congress, who’s your potential best friend?
Somebody who can go up against the NSA.
And who might that be?
It’s not perfect, but it’s the best you can do. For years, the CIA has been watching the transformation of intelligence-gathering. The CIA been participating in that transformation: from humans using sources to obtain crucial data, to computers doing blanket-spying.
That’s the trend. It’s inescapable.
The big problem for the CIA is: their specialty is human intell. And when they go to computers, they’re second rate, behind the massive NSA machine.
Federal budget money for spying has been flowing in greater amounts to NSA and away from CIA.
This is one of the key elements of the turf war between CIA and NSA.
So if you’re a Congressman, you go to a friend in the CIA and you have a chat about “the NSA problem.” How can you get NSA off your back? Your CIA friend has his own concerns about NSA.
He tells you in confidence: “Look, maybe we can help you. We know a lot about the NSA. We have good people. You might say one of our jobs is watching the watchers at NSA, to, uh, make sure they don’t go too far in their spying.”
This sounds interesting. If you have to sell your soul, you’d rather sell it to the CIA than the NSA. It’s a judgment call.
And now…you read about Ed Snowden blowing a hole in the NSA. You take note of the fact that Snowden worked for the CIA. He worked for them in Geneva. Then he left for the private sector and got himself assigned to the NSA.
Hmm. Maybe you have some cause for optimism.
You, the Congressman, don’t give a damn about the NSA spying on all Americans all the time. You couldn’t care less about that. You just don’t want NSA looking over your own shoulder.
You know the incredibly naïve American public would never imagine what’s going on behind the scenes, with CIA, NSA, and Congress. The yokels and rubes in America actually believe their Congressional representatives are, well, representing them in Washington.
This fact is good. It means privacy for you: you can try to work out your problems without public scrutiny. You can play all the necessary games to hide your own secrets and crimes, and you can do it in back rooms.
Unless those bastards at NSA decide to leak one of your embarrassing secrets. That’s why you need your friend at CIA.
And now, again, you look at the recent article and see that Ed Snowden worked for the CIA. You hope he still is. You hope this a signal from the CIA that they’re taking a battering ram to the NSA.
Some schmuck reporter asks you about the current NSA scandal and you say, “Of course we have to protect classified data, in order to prevent terrorist attacks. But at the same time, we need to respect the Bill of Rights. People can’t go around spying on anyone for no reason.”
You’re sending your own signal.
You’re tipping your CIA guy. You appreciate his help, if in fact he’s helping you. You can’t ask him directly. If you did, he’d never give you a straight answer. But just in case…
As for the naïve rubes in your home state, the voters, you don’t give them a second thought. They’re not on your radar. They’re merely clusters of polling data, and you’ll look at the data when election comes around again. They don’t have a clue about how the game is played, and they never will.
You’re representing two defense contractors, a pharmaceutical company, a big AG corporation, and a bank. Those are your only true constituents. You give them all the time they need.
To keep those relationships on track, you only need to hide your peccadillos from embarrassing exposure. The hooker in DC, the bank account in Panama, the influence you used to move a sizable donation to a university where you intend to teach when you retire.
There are only two things you really need to think about in your job. First, what happens when your Party leaders come down the hall and tell you which way you’re going to vote on a bill – and you know your vote is going to upset one of your key constituents back home.
That’s a tricky situation. But you’ve been successful in keeping feathers from being ruffled. That pharmaceutical company understands you can’t side with their interests every single time.
You’ve got to go with your Party. The Pharma boys don’t like it, but they get it.
The other thing you’ve got to think about is darker. Nobody is going to give you stats on it, because stats don’t exist. Here’s how it shakes out:
How many people in Congress are so controlled by the NSA that they’d never try to break out? How many people, with how many secrets, are so blackmailed, they’d never dare go up against NSA?
This is an important calculation. The battle might already be lost. You might not stand a chance. Maybe nobody can help you. Maybe you can’t escape.
Maybe you shouldn’t even hint that NSA has overstepped its legal boundaries by spying on Americans.
That’s the conundrum that keeps you up at night.
What if the spies spying on their own government are running the government beyond the ability of anyone to stop them?
You don’t give a damn about what this would mean for America. You only care about what it means for you and your secrets.
Maybe this is the jail you’re in for the rest of your life.
When you’re back in your home state showing your face and giving speeches, and a voter comes up to you and voices a concern about his dwindling paycheck, his house payment, his endangered pension…and when you nod and gaze out at the horizon, as as if to pluck a magic answer from the aether, you’re really thinking about the conundrum.
You’re thinking about the life sentence you’re serving in the Surveillance State.
And that night, in your hotel room, you get down on your knees and pray that Ed Snowden is still working for the CIA.