Feb 03

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

One of the more remarkable facts, I think, of the whole Snowden affair is how long it took for these disclosures to get leaked. Well before the Snowden leaks, Senators speaking on the record and some NSA officials speaking well off the record, said some variation of the line, “Americans would be shocked by how much the NSA snoops on them.”

Sure enough, when the Snowden leaks came out, a majority of Americans were shocked by an intelligence leak.  

So if we can take the large--but not universal--shock of most Americans as evidence they felt the NSA overstepped its authority (and its leaders probably lied to Congress about their spying), why did it take so damn long to come out? Most bad deeds get leaked eventually. But why did it take over 11 years? Why did only one person decide to leak all these documents? Well, the answer is simple:


To show this, I need a thought experiment. To start, assume that every employee at the NSA is motivated by one of two things: self-interest and altruism. For self-interest, I mean everything which causes Americans to go to work: pay, keeping their job, providing for their family, advancing up the career chart, and gaining responsibility/power/respect. (This could be called the "classical" economics framework.) For altruism, I mean all those pesky things which might cause someone to forego personal gain: belief in the greater good, religious beliefs, ethics, morality, emotions and patriotism. (This could be called the hard part of economics--the things which screw up economist's traditional models. For more on a related topic, click here.)

In real life, the employees of the NSA are motivated by mixtures of both self-interest and altruism. But which predominates? Supporters of the government--like now-On V-punching-bag David Brooks (whose writing we still absolutely love)--insist that the vast majority of government employees are "good people" who "try to do the right thing". Unfortunately, my thought experiment shows that self-interest usually trumps altruism. 

In the first ideal version of the NSA, every employee is only motivated by altruism. How would this NSA look? Well, its officials would never lie to the American public. There wouldn't be a need for whistleblowers, because superiors would respect subordinates who went to the Inspector General to report abuse. And if, for whatever reason, wrong deeds still needed exposure, NSA employees would go to Congress or the press on a regular basis. But employees wouldn't care about advancement, only helping the NSA protect America. Employees would speak their minds because they care about the greater good.

What's the alternate? In a perfectly self-interested NSA, it would operate much differently. Since most promotions are controlled by superiors, employees would think first and foremost about upsetting these power brokers. They probably dress up their motivations in altruistic terms--"loyalty", "team player"--but they don't ever make their bosses look bad. Thus, when they come across wrongdoing, they don't do anything. At best, self-interested employees tell themselves that, "When I am in charge, I'll fix all the problems."

And leaks? Virtually non-existent from the lower levels. Would-be whistleblowers know that the surest way to end a career is to expose wrongdoing via leaking classified information. Though leaks occur all the time, they only come from senior officials to make the intelligence community look good. A leak from a subordinate which makes the whole intelligence community look bad will ruin a career absolutely.

In the self-interested NSA, anyone who leaks goes to prison to send a message for future leakers. (If you still want to leak, you would have to flee to the most ironic country possible, Russia.) In its darkest iteration, the self-interested NSA even bribes congressmen with donations to ensure future funding. In an even darker version, the NSA could blackmail elected leaders to insure they continue funding its operations.

So, let me ask, which version of the NSA seems more realistic? Which one do we seem closer to?

Considering the vast lack of unauthorized leaks, I would say the latter. No NSA employee chose to speak out that the NSA had twisted sections of the Patriot Act to expand domestic surveillance. Until Edward Snowden, not a single employee who heard General Clapper lie to Congress went public. Skeptics of the NSA, like myself, would argue that the incentive structure inside the NSA so vastly outweighs the altruistic motivations that only the exceptionally rare individual would blow the whistle on wrongdoing.  My thought experiment from above shows this.

While most American intelligence officials and employees are indeed good people, they're still self-interested. As Manager-Tools frequently points out, the employees at the NSA are all addicted to food, clothing and shelter. Unless Congress passes strong legislation which protects whistleblowers, and maybe even encourages it, we can expect waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, corruption and other ills of government.

Edward Snowden is a very rare individual for doing what he did almost solely based on altruism. We should understand that, and instead of condemning him, we need to find ways to get more Edward Snowdens to do what he did...legally. We need to shift the incentive structure so that the natural altruism of NSA employees isn’t bowled over by the need to continue paying for food and shelter. In other words, Edward Snowden and the vast lack of leaks show the incredible need to change the incentive structure inside the intelligence community.

There is, as Eric C pointed out reading this post, another darker explanation. Many if not most of the workers--and especially the leaders--could be altruistically motivated. However, the values they adore aren’t values like civil liberties and respect for the Constitution. If their fundamental value is security, they could act in much the same way. In this scenario, the altruism of the NSA means it does whatever it takes to keep Americans safe despite the harms to freedom. In short, security trumps liberty.

Now that is a scary thought.

Jan 28

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

"A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. The physicist says, "Lets smash the can open with a rock." The chemist says, "Let’s build a fire and heat the can first." The economist says, "Lets assume that we have a can-opener..."

Old Economist Joke

A long time back, on a topic completely unrelated to the NSA scandal, I found this link to a post on the Crooked Timber blog which described, “The Correct Way to Argue with Milton Friedman”.

In short, if you find yourself engaged in an argument with Milton Friedman, or a disciple, you usually find yourself accepting some initial, key assumption. If you accept this assumption, you will find yourself, several logical conclusions later, trapped in a losing position like a player losing a queen in chess. In the Crooked Timber post, they demolish the initial, key assumption that renters and landlords have equal power in a negotiation. On paper, they can both be profit-maximizing individuals. In reality, no one doubts that landlords have much, much more power than renters.     

This brings me to a widely-cited and referenced article published in Foreign Policy, called “Evil in a Haystack” by intelligence analyst J.M. Berger (of IntelWire.com), where Berger explains to the layperson how the NSA uses meta-data to stop terrorism.

While I love J.M. Berger’s work on the whole, I couldn’t help but think of the “The Correct Way to Argue with Milton Friedman” post when I read his article.

I’ll concede this: J.M. Berger accurately describes how the NSA goes about using meta-data. But let me make this shocking accusation: His description shows the single key flaw which undermines most intelligence agencies. Mainly, Berger presents an authoritative and unwavering belief in the accuracy of intelligence. Along the way, he presents a case study for “over-confidence bias” in action. And he does this all without ever thinking about the consequences to the people (Americans) who turn up in his searches. 

Berger starts by setting the scene:

“We start with a classic scenario. U.S. intelligence officials have captured an al Qaeda operative and obtained the phone number of an al Qaeda fundraiser in Yemen.”

When I read, “We start with a classic scenario...”, I see, “Let’s assume that...”.

Instead of saying, “intelligence officials believe” or, more accurately, “intelligence officials assume”, Berger has set the stage to show the efficacy of meta-data by giving the reader certainty: “We have captured an al Qaeda operative,” not “we have captured someone we believe is an al Qaeda operative.” Berger presents no doubt or hesitancy as to the identity of the suspects.

In real life, determining the facts is incredibly difficult.  Even determining an operative’s level of involvement is incredibly difficult. For instance, a CIA source could have fingered the suspect as an operative, but only did so in exchange for cash. Or under threat of blackmail. Or the person is an al Qaeda operative, but incredibly low on the totem pole. (Believe it or not, CIA bribes--er payments for information--usually escalate for information about more valuable people. This could incentivize the people giving the information to lie. I know, a liberal is bringing up incentives based on profit maximization but go with me here.)

You shouldn’t trust any intelligence analyst--or detective or district attorney or federal prosecutor or federal agent or military intelligence officer--who comes to you with absolute certainty. In psychology terms, it’s called the “over-confidence effect”. Studies show that whenever people have a “99% certainty”, they are often very wrong. In some extreme examples, people who rate their confidence as “99%” certain are right only 40% of the time. (Think political or sports forecasters if you want a daily repeating example.)

As a final point, this scenario hardly ever happens. I know Berger calls it a “classic”, but really intelligence analyst hardly ever come across a smoking gun to begin their investigation.

Nevertheless, the analyst proceeds to investigate the phone number, which leads to finding more suspects:

In our example data, the result is a list of 79 phone numbers that were involved in an incoming or outgoing call with the fundraiser's phone within the last 30 days. The fundraiser is a covert operator and this phone is dedicated to covert activities, so almost anyone who calls the number is a high-value target right out of the gate.

This is how bad intelligence happens. Berger’s analyst doesn’t just start with absolute certainty, he proceeds down an investigation and triples his assumptions:

    1. Assumes the target must be a covert, al Qaeda fundraiser.

    2. Assumes anyone who calls phone must also be a high-value target.

If the fictional analyst is correct, then he has indeed identified 79 new targets. If he is wrong, than 79 largely innocent people could now be investigated and added to intelligence databases. For instance, say the blackmailed or bribed “al Qaeda” member from above fingered a perfectly harmless Hawala business-owner. With all these assumptions, when will the intelligence analyst find out his mistake? A Hawala business-owner certainly acts like an al Qaeda financier, but with completely different ends.

Berger then proceeds to show how the analyst keeps plumbing at meta-data including expanding the size of the list of possible contacts, cross-referencing data in other databases, creating new reports on possible contacts, expanding the search to many American phone numbers (even with possible inaccuracies) and even initiating wiretaps on Americans, all without needing anything more than the word of a detainee in some foreign country (who may be under “enhanced interrogation”).

This expansive scope of government powers, based only on hunches and tips, really frightens strong civil liberties proponents like myself. It should frighten small government types as well. To assuage your fears, though, Berger trots out a favorite trope...

For one thing, U.S. policies are still informed by the idea that all terrorist attacks should be interdicted. A frequently expressed corollary to that premise states that, while tradeoffs against civil liberties might be bad in the abstract, those issues are meaningless when faced with a ticking time bomb…

I believe the NSA/intelligence community must have a guidebook which says, “When in doubt, bring up a ticking time bomb”. It also has the corollary, “If anyone questions your funding, bring up 9/11 (with personal example of what you were doing when you watched the planes hit for added emotional pull).” The issues with Berger’s analyst aren’t ticking time bombs, it’s about bad intelligence. And that bad intelligence violates the civil rights and liberties of Americans enshrined in the Constitution.

Jan 27

To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", read the articles below: 

- Assumptions in a Haystack: Milton Friedman, J.M. Berger and the NSA

- Why They Leak (Or Better, Why They Don't)

- Think Again Pt. 1: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget) Part 1

- We're All Ordinary Americans: Getting Orwellian on the NSA

- Think Again Pt. 2: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget)

- Think Again: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget) Part 3

Eric C asked me after the initial batch of Edward Snowden NSA disclosures if we had just found our “Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013”. (Check out our past "On V's Most Thought Provoking Events", click here for 2009, click here for 2010, click here for 2011, and click here for 2012.)

I said, “No, why would we have?”

Then the leaks kept coming. And coming. And coming. Then it turned out that James Clapper was lying. Then a super-majority in Congress came out to support...the NSA. Then President Obama claimed that he had planned to restart this debate, allegedly without Snowden’s disclosures.

Then I read--with great interest--the pro-NSA crowd defend the NSA on cable news, in blogs and on Twitter. I also noted heaps and gobs of misinformation, mostly from NSA defenders.

After following the story for a few weeks, I went on a plane trip to visit some friends. I pulled out my iPad, attached a keyboard and planned to capture some of my thoughts. 5,000 words later, my flight landed and I called Eric C.

“Yeah, the NSA disclosures are the On V Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013.”

What do we hope to provide with yet more articles on a topic that has already generated millions of printed words? As always, unique takes you (hopefully) won’t read elsewhere. For instance:

- A post trying to find the last time an intelligence or security agency willfully disclosed bad information about itself.

- A post describing why so few leaks happen, using my business school knowledge of economics and organizational behavior.

- A post debunking the idea that China and Russia haven’t already infiltrated our intelligence agencies, a la Snowden.

Yeah, unique takes. (We’ll also have a post on the most unique takes on the Ed Snowden NSA disclosures as well.) The sad fact is most of the millions of articles on the NSA simply reported the most recent disclosures and took the same quotes from the same officials on background. Even the analysis tended to repeat the same political talking points.

So expect nearly a dozen posts (if not more) and hopefully some guest posts in other media. Overall, what is the theme you can expect? Well, the first theme is bi-partisanship. Our posts take a viewpoint both civil libertarians and left-wing radicals can respect: the government has immense power and we shouldn’t automatically trust it. Trust but verify, if you will. We also feel that this is the constitutional position. Any scholar of the revolutionary period knows that most of the founders (except for Alexander Hamilton) deeply mistrusted concentrated power. Since both political parties have deep ties to the intelligence-security-military establishment now-a-days, this is a unique viewpoint you don’t often hear.

You can also expect plenty of calls for more government transparency, less classification in general, and more incentives to support whistleblowers. You’ll also find heaping doses of skepticism about the intelligence community’s effectiveness. This comes from personal experience.

And that last point is probably the viewpoint you will hear more than any other. If you want to know what inspires us in this event, re-watch 60 Minutes’ NSA hagiography. It treated the analysts as superheroes, terrorism as an omnipresent threat, and the NSA as veritable truth teller.

We don’t agree with any of those positions, and we hope to provide that unique context to these unprecedented disclosures. (Only a short six months after everyone else started.)