It’s no secret that secrets are the worst kept secrets in the federal government.
In his address to a Joint Session of Congress in the days just after September 11th, President George W. Bush declared that “we will direct every resource at our command, every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence and every necessary weapon of war, to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network.”
And with those words, the president spurred his administration and Congress to establish a burgeoning intelligence and counterterrorism infrastructure. A classified netherworld of hundreds of thousands of top-secret clearances, clandestine agencies, contractors and specialized spying programs. This surveillance industrial complex produces terabytes of intelligence, avalanches of dossiers and so much data it’s nearly impossible for any group of individuals to completely mine and digest these abstracts.
But still the information is scooped up. Phone calls are documented. Email exchanges are chronicled. Web traffic is logged. So is automobile traffic via cameras. And, as the New York Times reported, every single piece of U.S. mail is photographed.
Locations of mobile phones are registered. GPS devices are tracked. Parents purchase video baby monitors to keep an eye on their newborns in their cribs.
In other words, nearly everything has the potential to be surveyed and chronicled and it permeates all quarters of life. The mushrooming reliance on technology facilitates the ease with which to archive all we do. And among those who were on crib cam, the supposition is that this is just how things are done. Everything is absorbed and collected somewhere.
But it’s so much stuff, it makes it practically impossible to manage. And for the administration and Congress, it makes it hard to keep up.
As George Orwell wrote, “if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
Which is exactly what the federal government may have done in creating such a surveillance behemoth. This is why lawmakers are all atwitter over exactly what intelligence and spying programs the federal government has, how they work and why the U.S. uses them – mostly spurred by the contretemps over National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden.
In recent days, both bodies of Congress began probing how there are no uniform standards to dole out security clearances, the use of government contractors to assist in intelligence gathering and how easy it may be to comb through this information if the government vacuums up so much stuff. It’s brought together coalitions of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives – to examine what the U.S. government knows, how it got to know it and what it does with it. That’s why Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the Senate Intelligence panel, spearheaded a bipartisan letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about whether the nation’s spies are using this information properly.
“We are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the Patriot Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law,” wrote the lawmakers.
Of course, all nations have secrets and all conduct espionage. And surveillance is as American as…George Washington. American insurgents conducted espionage as early as the 1770s as General Washington commissioned the “Culper Ring” to monitor the British in what is now New York City, Long Island and Connecticut. The Culper Ring communicated in ciphers, designating numbers for various words and its operatives – including Washington. Some codes were transmitted via the way various pieces of laundry were hung on clotheslines. The Culper Ring even employed women, who were certainly not expected to be spies at the time.
But in those days, there was only so much intelligence one could gather – and with a specific goal in mind.
Today, the NSA amasses a library of around two billion electronic communications each day. And the quandary for lawmakers is what good does it do for the government to acquire all of this information if it’s virtually impossible to sift through it all – simply because of the massive overgrowth of the intelligence industry after 9/11? Certainly counterterrorism analysts devote most of their time to tracking concrete threats. But civil libertarians fret about what this nationwide dragnet of practically every piece of information available means and are concerned about the potential for abuse. This is a major problem as the intelligence community grew exponentially since September 11th. That created more methods and systems to inspect – making the role of Congressional oversight that much more challenging.
And is there any sign of this surveillance industrial complex slowing down? Weeks after word about the leaks and the revelations by Edward Snowden, there is no trend to curb the data collection systems of the federal government. Meantime, the Department of Homeland Security is forging ahead with construction of its massive, 4.5 million square foot headquarters off I-295 in Southeast Washington, DC. The nearly $4 billion facility is the biggest federal government building project since it erected the Pentagon during World War II. It’s no surprise that passersby on the freeway might view the structure as a bricks-and-mortar testament to the government’s commitment to securing the nation – but simultaneously constructing a surveillance apparatus subject to abuse and potentially lacking in oversight.
James Madison warned of this:
“There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden urspations,” Madison wrote.
That’s the issue policymakers in Washington are wrestling with. The government now has a lot of secrets at its disposal. Many people have access to those secrets. Some secrets are important. Some are not. Some may stand merely as an intrusion.
But that’s the trouble with secrets. Everyone wants to know about them. After all, who doesn’t like a little good gossip? There’s an increasing appetite for that.
And as more people learn the secrets, the secrets aren’t so secret any longer.