First off, this isn’t exactly a Great Debate, but rather a question with a factual answer, but one which I reckon any doper might not know the answer to. Hence speculation is all there will be, and so this thread is in GD.
Russell Tice, the whistleblowing former NSA employee, gave an interview to Reason magazine.
One of the Q/A exchanges really piqued my curiosity:
From a jaded cynic’s PoV, what could these programs possibly be, requiring near-permanent secrecy?
When you delve deep enough into the intelligence community, you’ll find that there will always be secrets. They are just secrecy fetishists. They think that they are living up to some lofty ideal of protection, but in reality they just like hording secrets. They create half the problems they use to justify their own existance.
We can only guess. Mine would be advanced surveillance technologies.
Or kidnappings and “disappearing” of individuals not sympathic to the current overlords, I mean leaders. Money laundering, drug trade, anything.
It has to be rather unseemly if hidden torture camps are part of “the tip of the iceberg”
The most charitable construction one could put on Tice’s statement is that NSA, in the course of its surveillance, happened to learn some things about some private citizens’ private business which would be highly embarassing to them, but not in any way relevant to national security, criminal justice, or any other compelling public interest. It would be only fair and gentlemanly to want to bury such things deeply and near-forever.
Well, it’s hard to imagine. If we were talking about the CIA I would think of “black ops” and secret prisons. But this is NSA, which specializes in surveillance – not covert operations, not assassinations or election-rigging, not interrogation of prisoners, not espionage through field agents, only surveillance and analysis of electronic communications – and, AFAIK, it has never done anything else, and Tice does not seem to be suggesting it is dabbling in anything else. (My Dad worked for NSA once and I’m sure he would agree.) Any particular ongoing surveillance program might be compromised if published, but how could it be dangerous enough that Tice thinks it should be kept secret forever? After all, whatever the NSA is doing in any given year will almost certainly be obsolete and discontinued eventually, owing to technological change.
My jaded cynical take: There are no programs that should be kept secret forever, and Tice knows it. But talking vaguely about stuff far too dangerous for the world to know is a time-honored way impressing the hell out of people.
I sometimes think intelligence agencies can’t actually do at least half the stuff they’re rumored to do, but they want us to think they can. The good reason for the bluff is to scare the bad guys. The bad but probably more important reason is to make themselves look very big and very bad and very very smart. And very deserving of lots of funding and cool overpriced toys.
Some possibilities, though, would include having prominent people secretly in our pocket in some way or another. As a pure hypothetical: suppose Kofi Annan had planned to take a much firmer stand against the Iraq war and the US stopped it by telling him they had pictures of him with little boys. That’s something that would do nobody any good to come out, ever. Would it be old news and irrelevant if it were revealed that Kruschev was in some way compromised by the CIA? Not at all; it would poison US-Russian relations for a generation … and that was 50 years ago.
Or say that US agents did not stop some terrorist acts because stopping them would have cost us a source of information. Actually, I would not be surprised at all if TWA 800 was shot down by a SAM in 1996, and our government suppressed it because it would crush the airline industry and the economy. The reasons for suppressing that would still be valid for the next several decades at least.
Why wouldn’t revealing that the US blackmailed Kofi Annan like that do anybody any good? Well, it wouldn’t do Mr. Annan any good, obviously, and it would hurt the US’s reputation on the world stage and our relationship with the rest of the world.
But it would do the world as a whole a great deal of good, in making it just a bit harder to pull off diplomacy-by-blackmail in the future. And if it hurts the reputation of the U.S. (and/or that of the Administration in power at that time), well, that would be one scenario in which that would be exactly what we (and/or, etc.) deserved.
I don’t see how it would make it harder to pull off diplomacy-by-blackmail in the future. All it would do is make certain that would be blackmailers were more careful. As long as people have secrets they don’t want to be made public, blackmail is effective, and blackmail will continue to be used so long as it’s effective.
And whether we “deserved” to have our reputation hurt or not if we did something like that seems irrelevant. Our goal isn’t moral purity…our goal is to stay as strong and well respected as possible, and part of that, of course, means seeming to be morally pure. So, while the best solution for us might be not to blackmail in the first place, once we’ve done so, we need to make sure it’s not found out, because then people might think we did something like that.
Remember, you’re not a bad guy unless you’re caught.