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On V's Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013

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.)

seven comments

Some years, we are tremendously passionate about the Thought Provoking Event (think Iranian Green Revolution or Wikileaks). Other years, we struggle to decide (like last year’s Benghazi/Petraeus debacle). This year, we have enough thoughts to write a book. So, yeah these are thought provoking.

I’m stoked we’ll be writing about an issue that the RNC/Republicans agrees with us on.


Months before Snowden leaked his information, I read Shane Harris’ ‘The Watchers’.


It is a great book that shows how the metadata collection apparatus went from an idea of Adm. Poindexter’s, from Iran-Contra infamy, into what we know today thanks to Snowden’s whistle blowing.

I’ve been following Shane Harris on this issue and look forward to your analysis as well.

There is an awful lot of hyperbole out there concerning government power (for example on taxes, which the founders were fine with (hence Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution). The tea party continually confuses the founders’ resistance to taxation without representation with taxation, period). But NSA data collection may actually be an example of a quantitative change becoming a qualitative change, and crossing a line. I look forward to the discussion.

BTW though, isn’t “trust but verify” an oxymoron, in that “trust” is akin to “faith” and the point is that if you really trust someone/something, there should be no need to verify?

@ Paul – I think I totslly agree with you on that wording.


I think the Tea Party is opposed to excessive taxation, not taxation period.

@Eric C: It’s more about “to entrust” than “to trust”.

@carl: The problem is the definition of “excessive”. It appears that any taxation is excessive if the other party is in charge or if the money is being spent to benefit ‘brown’ people (or the same is merely being assumed).

The Snowden leaks were an enormous series of events, but I think they only add to a hodgepodge of brewing issues – plutocracy – inequality – authoritarian tendencies (including SWAT raids, police MRAPs, police drones, assassinations by the government, infamous NYC stop&frisk) – repeated suppression by the government itself and on behalf of lobbyists on cultural phenomenons (LGBT issues, pot, copyright, weakened cryptography, birth control, Bitcoin, on the other side of the aisle the gun control debate) – lasting unemployment, lasting low wage sector, lasting economic disadvantage of several minorities (especially USA and France)

The government spying, data hoarding revealed by Snowden is but one of many issues raising the temperature and pressure in the pressure cooker.
I’d also like to add that the Snowden leaks and the official reactions to them have another dimension for foreigners; an overt disrespect and offence by the U.S.government even against the people (and governments) of formally allied countries. You’re basically not safe from the U.S. if you’re allied with them. This may matter double in Turkey, as U.S.senators sided with the informal ally Israel against the formal ally Turkey in the diplomatic dissonances between Israel and Turkey.