Is Government Inept or Sinister?

The image of a bumbling government, fumbling the rollout, clashes with the image of NSA running a terrifying Big Brother dystopia. But these sharp contrasts often reflect the viewer’s opinions or political needs more than the shaded realities, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Two basic ways of berating something or somebody are to make charges of ineptitude or charges of ill intentions. With most subjects there is tension between those two modes of criticism. Ill intentions do not matter if there is insufficient ability to act on them. When a particular line of criticism becomes conventional wisdom this tension often is overlooked, as is true of many implications of conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom in criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies has focused most of the time on accusations of ineptitude. “Intelligence failure” customarily gets explained as a matter of organizational incompetence. This is a subtype of a larger leitmotif according to which government agencies overall are said to be less competent than enterprises in the private sector.

Big Brother poster illustrating George Orwell's novel about modern propaganda, 1984.

George Orwell’s image of Big Brother.

This broader conventional wisdom overlooks many significant developments that government pioneered before the private sector commercially exploited them, from space travel to the Internet. Nonetheless, the broader conventional wisdom seems to have become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

The controversy over collection activity by the National Security Agency, however, has lurched conventional wisdom about intelligence agencies into a different mode, one that had seldom prevailed except for a time in the 1970s. Little notice has been taken of the suddenness of the lurch, or of the irony involved in it, although it did come up in a recent report by NPR. The specific subject of the report was NSA’s breaking through encryption used to protect private data and messaging, and an “arms race” between technology companies seeking better ways to encrypt material and NSA seeking to decrypt it.

The chief information officer of NSA states that the agency’s whole budget is less than what big tech companies spend on research. But other views nonetheless give NSA a better chance of winning the arms race.

James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, “NSA has been in the business a long time. They’ve got 300 of the best mathematicians in the world. They’ve got the world’s most powerful computer. Hmm, that’s a hard hand to beat.”

Lewis observes that previously “companies assumed that they were the ones who were the tech wizards and government was sort of bumbling,” but with recent revelations about NSA’s work “that whole world view has been stood on its head.”

Breaking codes is, of course, central to the mission assigned to NSA. This is just one respect in which much of the controversy about the agency’s activities arises because it is very good at doing what it is supposed to do. Think about that the next time there is a real or perceived intelligence failure and criticism lurches back to the more common mode of alleged ineptitude.

Think about it also as we await President Barack Obama’s response to his advisory panel’s recommendations about electronic surveillance. Ill intentions are not really the issue here, since nothing in the torrent of leaks has revealed any agency malevolence; it is only the fear of some future ill intentions (although that fear would be better directed at data collection in the private sector).

Whether real or feared, there is still a tension between this concern and our interest in an intelligence agency having the ability to do its job, the job here being not just the cracking of a code but the broader mission of providing accurate and timely intelligence on behalf of national security.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Is Government Inept or Sinister?

  1. Joe Tedesky
    January 16, 2014 at 02:17

    Here’s a question I have in regard to security; if my cell phone gets stolen then why would it not be easy for the cops to be able to track down the thief? This pass winter my son got pistol whipped and had his cell phone stolen. The police said they were helpless to catch the mugger thief. No way to track the phone. That’s life, sorry. (My son is okay)

    Here’s a story; recently a chauffeur friend of mine was traveling 120 mph attempting to get a very important person to an engagement. My chauffeur friend (while speeding) got a call on his cell phone. The caller identified their self as being a state cop who was at the same time was watching the limo on his computer screen. The happy ending was the cop was going to escort my chauffeur friend to the destination the VIP had to be. Two questions here; how did the state trooper get the chauffeur’s cell phone number? Question number two, how does a person get to that level they get an escort, and no ticket? My chauffeur friend said it was the money the promoter was willing to spend to get this VIP rock star to his concert. Yeah, a rock star, and it wasn’t Paul McCartney or Mick…just some rapper! Seriously, my chauffeur friend couldn’t remember the rapper’s name…we are old guys, sorry!

    So if I get mugged tonight and my cell phone is stolen then that’s the way the cookie crumbles. If I am a concert promoters starring act, then cell phone numbers and gps tracking are all available for the ready, if you are willing to pay.

    I have asked this question before, why didn’t the NSA catch on to Snowden? I sometimes wonder who may really be behind Snowden. You must admit, that Snowden even only releasing about 1% of his information has in someways influenced some worldly events. Snowden may have helped the White House more than hurt it.

    I also believe that the ACA rollout with their computer glitches and all is a smoke screen. Why anyone would believe that the ACA is going to hurt the very industry who wrote the new rules is beyond me. I won’t go into it here, but as much as I hope the ACA will improve things for the many uninsured, I have my doubts.

    Whether you believe that the government is bumbling or not is not the point. The point is the money. It always us!

  2. John
    January 15, 2014 at 22:56

    Few would dispute that national security requires considable intelligence gathering and analysis. I have heard no one suggesting that to be incompatible with democracy. But in recent decades it has been largely politicized to support foolish right-wing wars which have dramatically worsened our security and are the primary cause of terrorism directed at this nation, as Robert Parry shows in America’s Stolen Narrative on this website. And the NSA issues are unrelated to normal foreign intelligence gathering.

    The problem with domestic surveillance is that it cannot be effectively monitored, has always been the pretext of tyranny, has always been abused, and offers “turnkey tyranny” (Snowden’s words) to every future rightwing administration.

    Because history shows politically-motivated surveillance in every generation with the technology available then, it is certainly done by NSA and other agencies today. There is not only no way to prevent this, there is no way to discover it. There is no basis for trust of secret organizations, and no history of effective monitoring: always the right wing muscles into the monitoring committees and courts, and the secret agencies are allowed to serve the right wing. FISA is not only a rubberstamp, the entire federal judiciary is no more than a right wing charade promoting rightwing prejudices, people, and profits. There is no potential for checks and balances there, and there have never been checks and balances over the judiciary.

    It is a simple matter to automate disadvantages for those automatically identified as political undesirables (progressives), much worse than the mere traffic delays of “Bridgegate”, and to distribute denunciation dossiers to right wing operatives in executive agencies, the judiciary, and industry. And just as simple to automate advantages for right wing sympathizers, their companies, and those they wish to benefit.

    Personal vendettas by NSA operatives against persons they simply dislike are already admitted, and they cannot be limited to someone’s ex. Those are certainly politically motivated as well, and doubtless include former employers, acquaintances, competitors, and notables. They have only to define their prejudices by selecting connections of any kind, or enter a list of those they dislike, and allege some security risk under the seal of their agency. Assuming honor in secret agencies which have always had abuses is unrealistic.

    The discretionary power enjoyed by judges and secret operatives already makes them drunk with a vision of their own perfect judgment, autocracy, divine favor, and immunity from prosecution. The modern dark state employee has thousands of times that power and no visibility at all, let alone accountability. His victims cannot even know what has been done to them. To argue that there are technical limitations at present to these abuses simply neglects the exponential growth of the technology to be abused.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 16, 2014 at 00:30

      John here are a couple quotes from a guy who suffered the worst of conspiracy;

      I don’t think the intelligence reports are all that hot. Some days I get more out of the New York Times.

      John F. Kennedy

      The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.

      John F. Kennedy

  3. F. G. Sanford
    January 15, 2014 at 15:00

    Now, I have to admit, I’ve heard some jaw-dropping stories that seek to minimize morally questionable motivations or rationalize conceptually flawed strategies, but they usually come from the likes of Steve Doocey on FOX and Fiends (Friends?) or the ghouls on the editorial staffs at NYT and WaPo.

    That code-breaking and encryption are ethically “gender neutral” activities in and of themselves is hardly the issue. Professor Pillar may not yet have heard the recent revelation about the memo confirming that Henry Kissinger gave the green light to the neo-fascist military junta in Argentina, resulting in the deaths of 30,000 people. But I am sure he is aware of stories to which The United States of Amnesia has become profoundly anesthetized. These would include The Bay of Pigs, Operation Northwoods, The Tonkin Gulf Incident, Operation Mockingbird, The USS Liberty Incident, the Watergate break-in, The Grand Wurlitzer, Cointelpro, The October Surprise, Iran Contra, Iraqi WMD’s, Fastwalking, Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch, the destabilization of foreign governments ad infinitum, and most recently of course, the Chris Christie scandal, which Steve Doocey characteristically wrote of as, “…Oh yeah, that bridge thing”.

    Far from a bumbling, stumbling failure, the Healthcare rollout has accomplished exactly what it set out to do: millions of people who didn’t have to pay tax to private insurance companies will now have to pay, and for those who can’t, the government will pay. This amounts to the largest private “middle-man” scheme in the history of the world. Not a failure at all if you’re an insurance exec getting one of those four million dollar bonuses. (Test question: who makes more money, doctors or insurance executives? For extra credit, why do we need both? Hint: Single-payer eliminates insurance executives. For extra bonus points, why do insurance executives lobby congress against single-payer and make big campaign contributions?)

    The real problem, as always, is the temptation to abuse authority. Misfeasance and malfeasance are historical facts. Like the poor, “They are always with us”. And just like healthcare, which is abused for the sake of profit, surveillance will be abused for the sake of power. At the end of World War Two, Winston Churchill ordered the destruction of the Colossus computer that had decrypted German code “…into pieces no bigger than a man’s hand”. That’s difficult to appreciate today, because it was a VERY LARGE computer. But it’s not so difficult to appreciate what he feared. If it exists, it will be abused, and there is no such thing as a “secret” program with adequate oversight. Just ask Jim Clapper. He’ll tell you, “No sir, we don’t spy on Americans”. We don’t send innocent people to death row, either. Except for the dozens that have been saved by DNA evidence. Surveillance may bridge the gap. Who’s to question the evidence when the NSA says you’re guilty?

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 15, 2014 at 16:56

      F.G. You have out done yourself this time. I enjoy hearing what you have to say. Often, your writing is better than the article…but, then again I agree with you.

      • F. G. Sanford
        January 15, 2014 at 18:53

        Thanks, Joe – sometimes I feel pretty lonely out here.

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