Uncle Jimmy was in for the holidays, and I pulled him aside after dinner last night. I knew he was going to leave early Monday morning to drive back up to his job at the Pentagon, and there was something I wanted to ask him about.
“Jimmy,” I said, “I saw a headline on Yahoo! What’s the deal with Bernie Sanders asking the NSA if it spies on Congress? That’s crazy talk, isn’t it? Why would he even think such a thing?”
Jimmy looked surprised. “The NSA's spying on people in Congress was the first thing I thought about when Snowden’s revelations started popping up,” he said. “Any intelligence service, sooner or later, targets the people who are supposed to oversee it. Sooner, usually. That’s where their money comes from, and where the power lies. When news came out that the NSA spies on the UN, and then that it spies on the leaders of our allies, it was obvious these guys are operating in a free fire zone.”
That definitely wasn’t what I wanted to hear. “What I don’t understand, Jimmy, is that Sanders asked a ‘yes or no’ question, but the NSA didn’t give him a ‘yes’ or ‘no‘ answer. Sanders asked, ‘Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?‘ And what the NSA wrote back was, ‘Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all US persons’.”
Jimmy laughed. “Oh, Sanders got his answer all right. ‘The same privacy protections as all US persons’ means Congress members don’t have any privacy protections. None. Zero. The message the NSA is sending loud and clear is ‘YES, we spy on Congress and other elected officials--and people in the administration too. You didn’t think you were exempt from the spying that you’re approving for everybody else, did you?‘ The NSA did everything but give Congress the finger with that answer. It makes you scratch your head. Did those people in Congress really think that the great fishnet in the sky had a catch-and-release program for them because they’re big fish?”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What do you mean when you say that having the same protections as all US persons means they don’t have any protections?”
He gave me a look of disbelief. I get that a lot. “Lord have mercy, boy, don’t you read your own newspaper? Or listen to the news on NPR? Or get news somewhere?”
“Mostly the sports page,” I admitted. “Actually, only the sports page. Well, and the comic strips. And sometimes my horoscope.”
He groaned. I get that a lot too. “An informed citizenry is the cornerstone of democracy,” he muttered. “Okay, Ace, here’s what we know at this point. Edward Snowden said these NSA programs ‘put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever.’ The NSA collects and stores data on every phone call made in the United States. They also track and store the information on hundreds of millions of cellphone users on a minute-to-minute basis around the world--including our exact locations at each moment, where we’re going, who we meet, and where we meet.”
“They’re tracking me everywhere through my cellphone?!” I asked incredulously.
“Yep. The NSA also broke into the global data centers of Yahoo! and Google, which enables them to collect information at will about hundreds of millions of people. They search our e-mails, our online chats, and our browser histories. They also bribed the company that provides encryption programs for computer security to create a ‘back door’ enabling them to enter and spy on supposedly secure data and communications.”
I was stunned. “What does all that mean?” I asked, still trying to take it all in.
“Basically it means none of us have any privacy when we use any electronic communication device, or when information about us goes into any electronic data system.”
My mind started racing over things I’d looked at or written online. Whoa! “That’s scary,” I said.
“It sure is,” Jimmy said. “There’s a saying that ‘information is power.’ Nobody in the world has ever had anything even close to as much information as the NSA. If that saying is correct, the NSA is now the most powerful institution in the history of the planet.”
“Another saying is that ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’,” I threw in.
“That too,” Jimmy agreed.
“But now that Congress members know their lives are under a microscope just like the rest of us, they’ll do something about it, won’t they?”
“Well,” said Jimmy, “from the NSA’s standpoint, that’s the beauty of it. Congresspeople are just as human as the rest of us, with the same weaknesses and vices--maybe even more, because the sheer expense of running for office, along with the lure of the political spotlight, guarantees that Congress will have more than its share of the ambitious, the vain, and the power-hungry.”
“So while members of Congress are thinking about the NSA’s response, they’ll also start thinking about that stretch they spent in rehab. About their confessions to their AA sponsors, which they thought were private. About the affair they’re having with a staffer, and the e-mails they’ve sent each other and the telephone calls between them--all part of their NSA record. About the bribe they took for a vote. About the information on their medical record--now converted into an electronic health record which the NSA can break into. About lies they’ve told. About their gambling habit. No need to go on; you get the idea.”
“It doesn’t take much of a scandal or hint of weakness to derail a political career,” I mused.
“No, we definitely operate with a strange standard,” said Jimmy. “‘For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,’ according to the Good Book. But that doesn’t help somebody at the ballot box. And if the congressperson feels fairly secure about his or her own life--which sure isn’t guaranteed--, what about their spouse, their kids, their brothers and sisters? When you get right down to it, we’re all vulnerable. And now congresspeople are on notice. If you don’t vote right, if you try to stop the NSA or even make an effort to curtail its power, they can hurt you. Really hurt you. Your life is an open book to them, and they wouldn’t hesitate to make a best-seller out of it.”
“What’s gonna happen then? Can the NSA keep on getting away with all this? It’s like Big Brother on steroids!”
Jimmy frowned. “It doesn’t look good,” he said. “James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lied under oath back in March of 2013, when Ron Wyden asked him if the NSA collected any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans. ‘No sir... not wittingly,’ said Clapper. Just three months later, in June, NSA director Keith Alexander lied to Congress when he claimed that 54 terrorist plots had been thwarted through use of mass phone surveillance. Eventually Alexander admitted that the number 54 was entirely fictitious, that maybe one or two plots have been affected in some way. At a bare minimum, both should have been fired immediately and the NSA reined in. Both could and probably should have been charged with perjury and contempt of Congress. But neither paid the slightest price for lying. Which probably gives you a pretty good indication of the leverage they have over Congress.”
“I don’t get it, Jimmy,” I said. “What you’re describing sounds more like a police state than the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
“Those are your words, not mine,” he said. “I’d be careful not to use them in an e-mail or on a telephone.”
© Tony Russell, 2014