Spying on Americans is not for Security—It is an End in Itself

The defenders of the Patriot Act don’t care that it doesn’t work because spying on Americans is the goal, not a means to some other end.

We’re about to have reason to hate the Republicans in Congress even more than we already do. The Patriot ACT is up for renewal. I think the chances of Congress doing the right thing and putting the monster out of our misery are almost zero.

It wasn’t that long ago that I felt much more optimistic. Not so much now. I would love to be pleasantly surprised.

But, as we await the slow motion train wreck, Mike Masnick over at Techdirt.com asks an insightful question: “Why Don’t Surveillance State Defenders Seem To Care That The Programs They Love Don’t Work?

As the pressure is finally on over renewing Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act (and the mass surveillance programs enabled by the law), there are some interesting questions being raised: such as why doesn’t the intelligence community seem to care about whether or not its programs work. That link takes you to a great article by former FBI agent (and now big time defender of civil liberties) Michael German, investigating the issue in the context of cybersecurity legislation. Here’s just a snippet in which he notes that basically everyone agrees that these programs won’t help at all, and yet some are still pushing for them.

The quotation from German is damning. Masnick goes on, though, to try to answer his own question—given the fact that these programs are failures at security and come with far more cost than benefit (German mentions that the NSA has already cost the U.S. tech industry $180 billion due to distrust), why does Big Brother have so many defenders?

Masnick offers a couple of possibilities. One is bureaucratic momentum. The Department of Homeland Security is always going to want to expand its budget. It does this by coming up with ways to ask for more money. Spying is something they can do to justify more money.

In our recent podcast with Barry Eisler (himself a former CIA agent), he suggested a similar, but slightly different rationale, pointing to the “streetlight effect” based on the old joke of a drunk man searching for his lost keys under a streetlight, while admitting they were actually lost somewhere else. When questioned about this, he notes that he’s searching under the light because “that’s where the light is.” In other words, the surveillance state collects all this useless data because they can — and the costs associated with it (not just the direct costs, but all the damage done to US companies, trust in government and more…) don’t really matter.

I think the proper label for this would be the Security Theater explanation.

Masnick offers another proposal: the CYA effect. Everyone is scared that, if another terrorist attack occurs, and they weren’t spying as much as they could, that they will get blamed.

I think there is another reason for spying on Americans that goes beyond all three explanations. Spying on Americans is an exercise of power, and for many people, exercising power really needs no justification; it is self-explanatory.

The man who gave us the term “Big Brother,” George Orwell—put it succinctly in the mouth of a villain:

Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

And the object of spying on Americans is to spy on them. Violating their privacy with impunity is its own reward.