Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, whom I seldom have much use for, actually makes himself useful here:
Did the Obama Administration ever spy on Mitt Romney during the recent presidential contest? Alex Tabarrok, who raised the question at the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, acknowledges that it is provocative. Until recently, he would’ve regarded it as a “loony” question, he writes, and he doesn’t think that President Obama ordered the NSA to spy on Romney for political gain.
Let’s be clear: I don’t think so either. In every way, I regard Obama as our legitimate head of state, full stop. But I agree with Tabarrok that today, “the only loonies are those who think the question unreasonable.” * Most Americans have a strong intuition that spying and electoral manipulation of that kind could never happen here. I share that intuition, but I know it’s nonsense: the Nixon Administration did spy on its opponents for political gain. Why do I worry that an unreformed surveillance state could put us in even greater jeopardy of such shenanigans?
Charlie Pierce, even less of a fan of Friedersdorf than I am, also thinks Friedersdorf has a point — not about Obama, but about the larger issue of unchecked national-security power in a constitutional republic:
I don’t think the Obama people bugged the Romney people either, but Barack Obama’s only going to be president until 2016. The NSA is forever. This should concern us all.
True, and, as Friedersdorf points out, it isn’t just the guys at the top, like NSA director Keith Alexander [no relation that I know of], who pose the threat. Sure, Alexander or a successor might be sorely tempted to impede the progress of any political candidate who they knew intended to rein in the NSA. But that’s not the only scenario that leads to trouble:
Forget about Alexander. Let’s think about someone much lower in the surveillance state hierarchy: Edward Snowden. As we know, Snowden broke protocol and violated his promise to keep classified information secret because his conscience demanded it: He believed that he was acting for the greater good; his critics have called him a narcissist for taking it upon himself to violate rules and laws he’d agreed to obey.
It isn’t hard to imagine an alternative world in which the man in Snowden’s position was bent not on reforming the NSA, but on thwarting its reformers—that he was willing to break the law in service of the surveillance state, fully believing that he was acting in the best interests of the American people.
A conscience could lead a man that way too.
This Bizarro Edward Snowden wouldn’t have to abscond to a foreign country with thousands of highly sensitive documents. He wouldn’t have to risk his freedom. Affecting a U.S. presidential election would be as easy as quietly querying Rand Paul, or Ron Wyden, or one of their close associates, finding some piece of damaging information, figuring out how someone outside the surveillance state could plausibly happen upon that information, and then passing it off anonymously or with a pseudonym to Politico, or The New York Times, or Molly Ball. Raise your hand if you think that Snowden could’ve pulled that off.
And if you were running for president, or senator, even today, might you think twice about mentioning even an opinion as establishment friendly as, “Hey, I’m all for NSA surveillance, but I don’t trust a private contractor like Booz Allen Hamilton to do it”? Maybe safeguards put in place since the first Snowden leak would prevent a Bizarro Edward Snowden with strong Booz loyalties from targeting you.
Maybe. Why risk it?
In yet another scenario, the NSA wouldn’t go so far as to use information obtained through surveillance to affect an election. But they’d use it to their advantage to thwart the reform agenda of the candidate they didn’t like if he or she won.
And maybe the NSA would be as horrified by this sort of thing as I am. But maybe one of their contractors is on the payroll of a foreign government, andthat person wants to affect a presidential election by exploiting the unprecedented amounts of data that the surveillance state has collected and stored on almost everyone.
American democracy could be subverted in all sorts of hypothetical ways. Why worry about this one in particular? Here’s the general standard I’d submit as the one that should govern our thinking: If a powerful institutional actor within government has a strong incentive to do something bad, the means to do it, and a high likelihood of being able to do it without getting caught, it will be done eventually.
The NSA has the incentive. At least as recently as the Snowden leaks, an unknown number of its employees or contractors had the means. And many informed observers believe abuse undetected by overseers could be easily accomplished.
We need to pull back hard on the reins of the NSA now, and to the greatest extent possible we need to get private, for-profit corporations out of the national-security business. And we need to start today because it’s only going to get harder the longer we wait.