Connect the dots

To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the content, stupid.” 

Listen closely to government officials and even they’ll admit they’re collecting not just metadata, but content.  Connect the dots, as the intelligence community likes to say.

To wit:  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper now says the NSA looked at the content of Americans’ emails and listened to Americans’ phone calls without first obtaining warrants.  In a March 28 letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Clapper said, “There have been queries, using U.S. person identifiers, of communications…” in the NSA’s database.

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“It is now clear…the list of ongoing intrusive surveillance practices by the NSA includes…the content of Americans’ personal communications,” Wyden said.

If not yet clear, consider the comments of former FBI counterterrorism agent, Tim Clemente, who was on CNN last year talking about the Boston bombings.  When asked how investigators were able to listen to phone calls between the suspect and his wife both before and after the bombings, Clemente said, “There’s a way to look at digital communications in the past, and I can’t go into detail of how that’s done or what’s done but I can tell you that no digital communication is secure.”

After seeing that interview, former NSA analyst Russell Tice  said he contacted some former colleagues at the agency and asked what he’d suspected all along -- if the NSA was now collecting everything.  “The answer came back, ‘Yes,’” he told Judy Woodruff on PBS Newshour.  “They are collecting everything, contents, word for word everything of every domestic communication in this country.”

And when FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying on Capitol Hill in 2011, was asked what the FBI was doing to prevent another mass shooting like the one at Fort Hood, he told lawmakers, “We put in place technological improvements…to pull together all past emails and all future ones as they come in.”  (Not so effective considering last week’s tragic shooting.)

NSA whistleblower and former crypto-mathematician William Binney says if the agency was simply collecting metadata, it would fit in a 12’ x 20’ room.  He believes the NSA’s storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah, which is five times larger than the U.S. Capitol, is being used to store the content of our digital communications.  In fact, he calculates the center can store 100 years’ worth of the entire world’s communications.

So, why aren’t we having the content conversation? 

There’s, arguably, not a single issue that affects each of us more or has a greater impact on the future of our country, yet no one seems to want to talk about it.  Why aren’t news organizations discussing the issue?  For example, what if the government is actually collecting and storing the content of all of our phone calls, emails and text messages?  What does that mean for us?  Our future?  How does that impact our First Amendment right to free speech?  Our Fourth Amendment right to be free from warrantless searches and seizures?  Is the penumbra of “state secrets” too broad?  Should the U.S. Supreme Court even hear a case on the agency’s “bulk data” collection before we know what all the government is collecting?  All questions we should be asking.

Cable news networks will speculate all day about what might have happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, but speculate about the government collecting the content of our communications?  They don’t want to go there. 

There could be a psychological reason for it: cognitive dissonance.  It occurs when reality doesn’t jibe with our expectations – when we’re confronted with information that’s inconsistent with our beliefs.  We all want to believe our government is good and wouldn’t rifle through our personal communications, so we just don’t go there.  We don’t want to believe it, so we reject the information.  It brings too much psychological distress to consider what that might mean, so we just pretend it isn’t happening.  Teenagers, although they might not know the term for it, understand this.  If they’ve been out partying and drinking and doing things they’re not supposed to, they’ll lie to their parents because they know their parents want to believe the lie.  Of course, Sally was just watching Downton Abbey at a friend’s house, even if she does reek of alcohol.

So, while it may appear at times that the NSA is winning the PR battle, it may just be that we want to believe the government when it says it’s simply collecting metadata – even if Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was caught lying to Congress about it last year.  And even if we find the collection of metadata objectionable, cognitive dissonance will cause us to try to justify it.  After all, the government needs that information to keep us safe!

Owen is a freelance journalist and producer of the forthcoming documentary, “One Nation, Under Surveillance.”