Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They've shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We'll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I'm Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I'm Micah Saul. And you're listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: So let's start this episode talking about the fact that it does not connect to any other episode in the project. So as you the listener are listening this, you'll probably—if you're anything like us—fascinated with the material. And you'll also be wondering, "How are these guys going to connect it at the end of the episode?"
Micah Saul: Spoiler alert: we're not…necessarily going to do that all that well.
Anderson: But we'll give it a fighting try. So, this is James Bamford. He's a journalist. He's an author. He's written three very large books about the NSA, two of which have been New York Times bestsellers, starting with The Puzzle Palace, then he wrote a book called Body of Secrets, and more recently a book called The Shadow Factory. He's also done documentaries for Nova, and he's written a lot of articles for Wired. Let's just launch into the interview now, and then we'll see what sort of…
Saul: What we can do.
Neil Prendergast: Connections, yeah.
James Bamford: The National Security Agency agency, the agency I've written three books on and a number of articles including the Wired article recently, had a different role before 9/11. It was mostly focused overseas. Its charter since the very beginning in 1952, it would listen outside the US. I mean just like we don't use the Marines in the US for law enforcement, we weren't going to use NSA, which is sort of the atomic bomb or the H-bomb of surveillance, on our own citizens in the United States.
And then after 9/11, the Bush administration decided to secretly turn it inward on the American public. It became the warrantless eavesdropping, warrantless wiretapping problem.
Aengus Anderson: And they aggregate as well, correct?
Bamford: Yeah, the NSA is building this brand-new data center, surveillance center, in Utah, Bluffdale, Utah, to store it all. It'll function as this major data storage cloud.
Anderson: So, there are a lot of new things here. I mean, it seems like there's a new legal role, or quasi-legal role, for the agency. There's also new technology with an actual physical place saving all of this stuff and people accessing it. What is the ostensible value of this?
Bamford: Well that's the $64,000 question. Is there a value in this other than throwing good money after bad money? The point is after 9/11, everybody got very nervous and scared about terrorism, so we just threw money at the problem without looking at whether there's any results coming from all that. And NSA was one of the biggest beneficiaries of all this money, because it is the premier intelligence agency on Earth right now. It's the biggest, most expensive, most technologically sophisticated. It's at least three times the size of the CIA, probably three times as expensive.
The CIA has gone way down in prestige and usefulness. The CIA used to be in charge of the entire intelligence community. That's gone now, after George Tenet, they created this Director of National Intelligence position, DNI, which degraded the CIA to another intelligence agency.
At the same time, the NSA increased enormously in terms of size, money, and power. So he's in charge of making all the codes in the US for the US government eavesdropping on communications all over the world, of breaking codes all over the world, as well as cyber offense and defense. So NSA is this enormously powerful agency. And also unlike the CIA, it's far more secret than the CIA ever was. The CIA, it was almost a requirement where if you left the CIA you'd have to write a book. Since NSA was created in 1952, there's not ever been a book written by anybody coming from NSA.
And it's secret by law. The NSA is the only agency that has a law that basically makes it immune from the Freedom of Information Act. Every other agency in the US government, including the CIA, was created publicly by a law, by Congress. And there were hearings. The NSA was very different. It was created not under a law, but was created by a top secret memorandum signed by Harry Truman, which is completely undemocratic in a democratic society.
Anderson: I mean, if we're dealing with an incredibly secretive agency that is eavesdropping and saving masses of data in extralegal ways, it seems pretty clear where that goes. But I would just sort of like to get a picture from you of well, why we care.
Bamford: Well, we care because… At least I think most of us care because we do have a sense of privacy and a sense that the government has a role to play, but we have a private life that also has a role to play and the government shouldn't intrude into that private life. Unless there's a need to, if you're a suspect in a murder or a crime of some sort. But there are legal ways of handling that.
The NSA existed for its first three decades without ever acquiring a warrant for anything. Yet it eavesdropped on communications— All the telegrams coming into the country, going out of the country, going through the country, NSA eavesdropped on, illegally. It was called Operation SHAMROCK.
After this came out, this Operation SHAMROCK in 1975, it really offended both the Democrats and the Republicans. They were joint in their condemnation of this activity, and they actually got together and they created this sort of buffer between NSA and the American public, which was called the FISA Court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And that court was a secret court, it was a top secret court. The United States has never had a top secret court before.
And so then anytime the NSA wanted to eavesdrop on an American citizen in the United States, they first had to get a warrant from this special court. And that lasted very good from 1975 until 2001, when Bush secretly bypassed the FISA Court. And then Congress, in this FISA Amendments Act, watered down the FISA Court. So how the whole system works is very secret and the average public, let alone people like me, just don't really have the knowledge to know exactly what they're doing. And that's why it's so hard writing these articles and books about the NSA.
Anderson: It seems like we know a bit about the technical end. What's new about that?
Bamford: Well, there's several things that are new. One is this cloud idea where everybody will be tied into this one database, and everything will go into this one database, and everybody will have access in this one database. So it's the cloud aspect of it that's new. Central storage location in one area is new. And there's one other aspect that's very new, and that's… Storage is one thing. Then you've got go through it. You've got to find what you want.
And so NSA's created, simultaneously along with this enormous data surveillance center, another very secret facility to develop the fastest computer, most powerful computer on Earth. Because what NSA is after is not just what you see on your computer there. They're after also what's known as the Dark Net. The Dark Net is what you don't see. It's because it's encrypted. It's everything that's in your private files. It's everything that is not accessible through Google, for example. So largely what NSA is interested in is not what everybody can get access to, but what nobody can get access to.
Bamford: Just over my lifetime, the computer started as this odd gimmick that maybe someone would bring home, and now it is something that like, every part of my life lives on this laptop that's sitting next to us here. And so it seems like our data trail is huge. So there's a new ability, I would assume, to connect bits and pieces of us in multiple dimensions and build a picture, essentially, of someone's motions, purchases, all of that? I mean, is that stuff that they're even interested in? Or are they interested more in when I sign an email in some way and say something…I don't know, silly but also dangerous-sounding. Does it look for that code word and then aggregate?
Bamford: Yeah. I mean, that's what I think people don't really realize today because it's been so gradual, the shift. When NSA was created in 1952 and right up through the 1970s, there really wasn't that much danger from NSA. I mean, first of all it was targeted outside the United States, so there wasn't that much that it had
And then technologically, it wasn't that much of a threat because most people communicated in only three ways. They either spoke face-to-face with people. Or they wrote letters which were sealed and put in an envelope and mailed, and NSA had no access to that. Or they spoke on hardline telephones. And tapping into all these hardlines was very difficult because…there's lots of lines.
So it really became a danger when everything began shifting by going through space. Satellite communications are very easy to eavesdrop. You just need a big dish out there and it all falls in there. And then in the late 90s, everything began shifting from satellites to buried cable. And what NSA did was they built these facilities where these communications come into the United States. It's sort of like an airport where you fly and everybody goes through customs. There are certain points…you know, a dozen points around the US where all this information comes in, either through a satellite link, and then the cable heads where the cables could come in.
So if you can put filters on those key links, build them into what are known as switches, the massive buildings like AT&T has in San Francisco, they build secret rooms in there. There was a secret room built in that facility. Came out a few years ago in Wired. The information would come into this big switch—and this is San Francisco so this is domestic as well as international—and there would be filters put on there. And anything that NSA would be looking for would go through the filters, and the original would go to where it was supposed to go, but a duplicate then would go to NSA. And it's from this enormous shift in technology that NSA's been able to capitalize on and get this information.
And that's today. Now, in the future, you've got NSA working on technologies to look into how people think based on what you've written before. There's an entire agency out there that does nothing but look into these technologies.
Anderson: You've put a lot of pieces on the table. Let's put them together. I mean, it does seem technologically unprecedented in the way the technology allows a much greater concentration of power than Orwell could've dreamed, or the Stasi could've dreamed about. It clearly has the potential to be misused. What does that future look like?
Bamford: Well, it's been misused numerous times in the past. It was used by every President from Harry Truman basically to Gerry Ford. And then it was misused in other ways by Nixon, and then misused again by Bush. So you could easily get a President in there who for whatever reason—we get attacked again, another terrorist attack, or whatever—who decides that for what he thinks is the nation's security, he's going to bypass whatever laws there are and use it for his own purposes. And what you see in the past is that everybody goes along. The Bush administration told the Director of NSA, Mike Hayden and his general counsel, that this is what you're supposed to do, and we can't tell you what the legal basis is, and they went ahead and did it.
So, you have people out there who will do these things. If you tell them to torture people, they'll torture people. So you can't rely on people's goodwill to do the right thing. It just doesn't happen that way. And there are very few whistleblowers, and the few whistleblowers that do come out get stomped on very heavily. The Obama administration has the most aggressive record of any President for going after whistleblowers. So it's very difficult, if a President wants to do something secretly against the American public, for that to come out.
One of the people I interviewed for my Wired article, Bill Binney, who was a very senior official—equivalent of a general—NSA person, one of the most senior people there, he quit because he discovered NSA was starting to use systems he created to eavesdrop domestically. He was one of the very few whistleblowers to come out of NSA. And he said— He held his fingers about two inches apart, and said, "We're that close to becoming a totalitarian society. NSA has that ability."
Because if you control what everybody says, and know what everybody says… I mean, the Stasi did this basically in East Germany. But they were very driven by limits on human capacity. I mean, one person, one set of earphones, one target. Now with all this technological capability (we have computers doing the listening and so forth), you do have that technological capability to potentially turn the United States into a sort of pseudo-totalitarian-style society.
The one thing we haven't discussed is what do you get for it all? You know, we're paying up to eighty billion dollars a year for intelligence. I mean, we we're paying half that much prior to 9/11, and we still got attacked during the first World Trade Center. That was all organized overseas, where NSA had a lot of capabilities. That was a total surprise. The attack on the USS Cole, total surprise. The US embassy bombings, again a total surprise.
And then you had 9/11. And again, the director of NSA is watching it on his office television instead of knowing about it in advance. And then after 9/11, with all the additional money, you have a guy getting on a plane after being trained in Yemen, and the Christmas Day bomber flies to Detroit. And again, big surprise when he lands. And you had the guy in Times Square. And now you have Benghazi. It's interesting to me that all the talk on Benghazi, part of this discussion should be on, if this was an al Qaeda attack, why didn't we know it in advance if we're paying eighty billion dollars a year for intelligence?
Well, there was one clue that came out, which nobody really picked up on. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was actually asked this question. And Clapper said, it was very classic, he said, "Well, they stopped communicating on their phones." So here you have the enemy figuring out how they can defeat the US very easily just like bin Laden did for a decade. So now it's only us, we're hurting ourselves by allowing our government to get access to all this data about us while the real bad guys are out there avoiding it.
Anderson: And so for all the people who are out there working and living and doing stuff, how do you communicate sort of the seriousness of this issue to them?
Bamford: I've tried very hard to try to write in a sense that was easily understood by the American public, so my books have all been bestsellers. And I think that's one way it has to be done. I've also done a big documentary as I said for PBS. It's possible that you can communicate this. When the New York Times first broke the story, it did get wide acceptance of being something wrong, and there was an outrage but it lasted very shortly because it is hard to talk about satellite transmissions and fiber optics and so forth in a form that doesn't glaze people's eyes.
Anderson: Right, right.
Bamford: The advantage is in the government's hands to do this both legally and in terms of the public's consciousness.
Anderson: It seems like there are a lot of parts of this that could resonate with our culture. I think it kind of… I mean, we seem so individualistic right now. And a lot of people have talked in this project about sort of a spectrum between being an individualistic culture and a more communitarian culture. A lot of people are trying to pull more towards the communitarian side.
But it seems like in a way, our hyper individualism (if that is a real thing) would really be an asset in this case. Maybe not to collective action, but at least to being indignant at being spied upon in this way.
Bamford: Well, there's another cultural aspect you have to understand also, or you have to throw into the algorithm there. And that's… So, I wrote The Puzzle Palace in 1982. That was a time when people actually did think about privacy to some degree. They would've been outraged if they knew when they put a letter into a mailbox, that would go through a government filter.
But now in society, you have an enormous shift. First of all, everybody communicates twenty-four hours a day, almost. So you have much more communications out there. And at the same time, you have all the social media that takes away from this whole atmosphere of privacy and puts it into an entirely different context where you get generations that are growing up where the whole idea isn't to keep things in, it's to put things out.
So you get this divergent culture. You do get a culture where you don't want the government reading everything you're doing. On the other hand, you're doing everything you can to put almost everything in your life—pictures, who you're dating, where you're going tomorrow, where you were yesterday—out there for anybody to see. So, society has changed enormously.
You're not going to get a generation of people outraged that somebody's reading their email like you would've in the 70s getting a generation of people outraged that you're reading their snail mail.
Anderson: Do you think we almost have to have something where we experience what it means? I mean, if you have say, a whole generation raised…maybe not explicitly as exhibitionists but certainly more comfortable with a public persona, is part of being okay with that maybe feeling that the things you do as a regular law-abiding person in your life are never going to trigger some false alarm and you'll never get swept off to Guantánamo? I mean, it seems like that's part of the assumption, right? Like, I'm fine, and I'm not going to do anything wrong, and this won't ever bother me.
Anderson: Like it's too late, anyway.
Bamford: Yeah, there's two aspects to that. I always hear that well you know, if you're not doing anything wrong why should you worry about it? And you're assuming the government never makes a mistake. Please. Give me a break. The government does nothing but makes mistakes. Did you ever hear of Iraq? I mean…you know, there are just so many errors that this government makes, including putting so many people on watchlists. There are between half a million and a million people on these watchlists.
And at least with the airplane watchlists you know you're on it because you're not getting on a plane or they're riving you a hard time before you get on a plane. But there's a far more subtle and sinister aspect of that. There are a lot of people on these various gradations of watchlists. Now, suppose you just moved into a new house and the person who just lived there had a subscription to Al Jazeera and communicated three times a week to Yemen. So, 24 Maple Avenue in Schenectady, New York is in the box, you know. It's there.
Now your name is connected with that link. You're not going to necessarily know, but if you apply for a small business administration loan you may not get it because the FBI is going to check these watchlists and somebody's going to say, "Oh yeah. We can't tell you why but this person's on the watchlist," and they'll go on to the next person, who gets the loan and not you. Or your son or daughter wants to go to Annapolis or West Point and they don't get in, even though they've got great grades and you just think it's because the next person has better grades. People have to understand that things may happen to them in their life, bad things, that they won't know about.
Anderson: What does a better future look like? What kind of bulwarks do we need in place?
Bamford: First of all, I think you've got to get better controls over the NSA. If you go back to the first Senate Intelligence Committee, the whole idea of that committee, protecting the American public from the government, it's completely reversed now. the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, they're just the cheering gallery for the intelligence committee. They're protecting the agencies, not the public. Where where they were when all this was going on about the warrantless eavesdropping? Nowhere to be seen. And it's still that same way.
Same thing with the protections. I mean, Congress came up with some very good ideas back in the late 70s, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. So there are creative ways, but the public caused that because of Watergate. The anger over Watergate, the anger over the exposures of what the intelligence community was doing. That's what drove Congress.
Anderson: And that gets to sort of an interesting thing, because what it seems like… The whole purpose of reining in an agency like the NSA is to encourage democracy. And yet it almost seems like what's dismaying about this is that democracy is to some extent in action, and it saying, "We don't care."
Bamford: Exactly. That's the problem. We have an apathetic country when it comes to the most important issues. It's like the public and the politicians who follow them are only capable of thinking of one thought at a time, you know. It's jobs, jobs, jobs. So, you can do a whole year and say nothing except "jobs, jobs, jobs," and Presidents have very little control over whether somebody actually gets a job. I mean, there are so many factors that go into it when Presidents and people in Congress have a great amount of power over issues like privacy, and wars in the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so forth.
Congress has always been followers. They're not leaders. They follow trends in the American public. So if the American public only want to talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, that's all they're going to talk about is jobs, jobs, jobs.
Anderson: Clearly in our conversation, the idea of good is personal agency, privacy… I mean, I think there's an assumption of democracy, an assumption of a certain type of liberty and freedom. And if that is ultimately, as we've just been talking about here, if that self-liquidates in the way that—I think of Athens, led into the war that destroys it, where afterwards you have kind of this democratic hangover. And you have Plato and Socrates reacting to this and going, "What is good about democracy?" And they're very bitter about it. So what is the virtue of a system that could undo itself? Why do we save this democratic process where no one cares and no one plugs in?
Bamford: Well, you can create the perfect democracy, and if everybody reads comic books all the time, well…then it's a democracy. They keep voting these people in, but they keep going back to their comic books and keep getting worse and worse policies, that's a democracy. It's not a very good government system, but it's a democracy. They have the right to vote, and they keep getting things taken away from them, and they keep having their children die in wars. Nothing's going to happen unless there's some interest on the part of the public. I mean, I'm certainly not… I've been saying the same thing for thirty years, nothing's changed. So…
Anderson: Does that leave you pessimistic?
Bamford: Well, it's always left me pessimistic. Every time I've written a book about NSA, I think, "Well, somebody else is going to write another book about NSA. I won't have to do it again." And then I ended up writing three books because nobody else wrote a book about NSA.
I did the Wired article because nobody ever looked into Bluffdale. Nobody ever looked into the computer's down at Oak Ridge and so forth. So, there's a dearth of information out there. I mean there's actually very limited people who actually have the time and the patience and the technical knowledge to go after these kinds of issues.
Anderson: So do you think we are going to slide down that path like William Binney was talking about, this close to a totalitarian state? Or do you think we will have that sort of Pearl Harbor of privacy?
Bamford: It could go either way. I was encouraged… Again, I didn't think about it at the time that the Petraeus scandal happened because it wasn't a discussion of how the scandal came about. But once it was determined, the sleazy nature of how the government found out about all this stuff, that's where you see the danger here. Without regulations, without any kind of laws, without restricting the government from access, what damage they can do to the average person. Not that I'm a big fan of Petraeus but you know… [crosstalk]
Anderson: But just thinking of it as a privacy case.
Bamford: He's an example of what can happen when you're allowing a system to get out of control.
Anderson: You know, a listener wrote something to me the other day which just came to mind right here because a lot of people I've talked to in this project have been very anti-government, anti-centralization. It seems to be a big theme that I've seen from left to right. And seems like in this conversation there's part of me that's thinking, "Well, alright. We're talking about the NSA, which is big and centralized and governmental. But we're also talking about the need for big and centralized judicial sort of institutions to combat it." Is this something that our focus on the local would almost, if taken to an extreme, make it harder for us to think about things like the NSA?
Bamford: Well, other countries are able to do it. It's funny that the US seems like it doesn't have the capability to think in these terms. In Europe, for example, there is a public interest in this, and they show their interest, and they act on these interests. And then their legislators act on them. And their government acts on them. So they come up with privacy commissioners. I mean, who needs a privacy commissioner more than the United States, which has the NSA, it has all these capabilities? If we have all these intelligence czars and agencies that are costing eighty billion dollars a year but we can't afford one little privacy commissioner, or put some emphasis on that?
Anderson: It's so intriguing, almost a Catch-22 where you need to have enough of a collective imagination to put in a federal privacy regulator to ensure your individual wellbeing. But if you don't even think collectively, you won't be able to protect yourself as an individual in that way. I mean, it seems like there's an interesting sort of paradox there somewhere.
Bamford: Well, there is.It's a big country. I live in Washington DC, so I'm surrounded by people who are interested in these topics. But once I get away from my little groups or once I get in parts of the country that aren't connected any these groups—Epic, EFF, the ACLU or whatever—they have no idea what I'm talking about when I say NSA or access to all this data and everything… You know they're focused on their one little part of the world there, and whether their kid gets into the basketball game. I'm not putting them down, just saying if you want the country to change you gotta change it. This is a democracy.
Anderson: This project is built upon a hypothesis. I was interested in these moments of historical change, where it seemed like longstanding ideas ceased to answer a society's questions. Is that putting too much weight on moments of change? You know, some people have said well, change just happens when the market kicks in. Other people say change is always happening. Some people say no, it's in these sort of break moments where there is a conversation.
Bamford: Yeah, it just seems like… at least looking back at these issues, the changes only really happened when there's been a catalyst for it. It's a little off the topic but you know, there was a catalyst for ending the Vietnam War. The reason that we got out of that war was because of the draft, so that a lot of people had a stake in the game. The war came to an end because little Johnny, instead of going to Harvard next year, he may be going to Vietnam or whatever.
So if you can show people that there is some connection, one way not to have wars in the future, for example, is to bring back the draft and have absolutely no deferments. Men, women whatever. So everybody has a stake in the game.
At the same time, you take what the wars cost on a yearly basis and put it as an item on everybody's tax at the end of the year so that everybody knows that they're paying five thousand dollars a year for this war. It's only when the American public has a stake in the game that you find some change. Either there's an explosion like you had at Watergate, or a draft, or something where you get somebody involved. And I think until that happens, people are going to go their own little way and not have this collective interest or want to find some collective solution to these big problems. No, I'm not an optimist. I'm not an optimist on this, but I keep doing my little part by writing and so forth.
Micah Saul: Neil, take it away.
Neil Prendergast: So, he's still working, still writing, still trying to get this message out. And I think that that's kind of a good indication that it's difficult to fit this material into other conversations that are going on. Other conversations about say, the public good, about all sorts of other sort of big myths. Where do we go from here?
Aengus Anderson: That's a great question for both where do we as a people go from here, and where do we as three co-hosts go from here.
Anderson: So. Privacy hasn't come up that much. You know, we've talked a lot about technology in this project, but we certainly haven't talked about surveillance. David Miller talked a lot about big government, but it wasn't this kind of big government. It was big clumsy government.
Saul: Yes. This is big, evil, intelligent government. That's just not something that's come up yet here.
Anderson: As we start making connections, let's start by asking why do you think no one else has talked about this? Why is this like we've just opened up a totally new door so late into the project?
Prendergast: I think that's a great question. I mean, the thing that fascinates me about it is that Bluffdale is a huge facility and you know, it's not hidden off in the remote part of the desert somewhere. It's in suburban Salt Lake City. And how does that not generate conversation? How is that something that is easy to dismiss?
Anderson: Right. And I mean, when I drove into DC to interview Bamford, I drove past their headquarters. And there's a—you know, exit ramp for it.
Saul: With a sign.
Anderson: Yeah, with a sign. And you know that you probably don't want to go down there, but you know that there are a lot of people down there. I mean, Bamford gives us a sense of the scale of this agency. It's not like a small thing, and it's not a hidden thing. But it's sort of…it's hidden in plain sight, right?
Prendergast: I think in DC we have a sense that hey, there's a lot of important stuff going on all around us. But elsewhere I think we're just used to driving past places not questioning at all what goes on inside, what those buildings are for.
Anderson: So why the invisibility?
Saul: I just don't think privacy is something that people really pay attention to. I mean… Well, I can't speak for the NSA, obviously, but as an employee at Google, where people certainly have privacy concerns with them, I feel like most of the things I see from people are…they sort of pay lip service to privacy. They say, "Oh no, Google's following us with this new tool…" And it sort of raises everybody's hackles for…a day or two.
And then they sort of forget about it and they go back to the same exact behavior they were you doing before. Posting naked pictures of themselves on Facebook, and talking about all the drugs they're doing on Twitter. People don't really think about privacy in the way that Bamford would would like for them to, I think.
Anderson: And Bamford gives us a couple of reasons for that. It seems like he gives us two big reasons. One is that we've got access to maybe more, or new types of information technology that is shifting the culture in a way that's totally unrelated to the NSA but is making us care about privacy less.
And then on the other hand, we're overloaded with information in a way that other people in this project like Ethan Zuckerman would not agree with. He would say it's that they we're overloaded, it's that we're deliberately choosing to consume bad information, or useless information. So what do you guys make of that? Do you think that explains why we're not seeing it? I mean, because in this series we're dealing with big thinkers, right, and they're not talking about it.
Prendergast: Yeah, I think the cultural moment matters a great deal. You think about the mid-1970s, and you think about Watergate, the Vietnam War, and we just haven't had the same reaction to the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. There's just a broader mood about distrust in government that once that starts to get moving, it can pick up all sorts of other concerns people have. And I think it actually takes some momentum to build it into a conversation that people are having.
Saul: You know, you say that you need to start with having people talking about mistrusting the government. I think we're seeing that right now. I mean, that's what the Tea Party's all about, is mistrust of government. Why isn't this something they're talking about? Because it seems like it should be right up their alley.
Prendergast: It just kinda sounds too much like a movie, you know.
Anderson: It does sound like a movie. That's something that we have to consider when we wonder are these other thinkers ignoring this because it sounds almost fake. It's so shadowy. I mean, as we try to situate this episode within the broader series, what does it mean to have that data for people who are concerned with economic movements, people who're concerned with environmental movements, people who're concerned with local communities and all of these things? What's the relationship between this big picture that Bamford paints for us and all of these other pictures that people have made? I mean, kind of what came to my mind was Occupy. Priscilla Grim doesn't really talk about this. Cameron Whitten doesn't talk about this. But like, what was the NSA doing? It almost feels like in their conversations the police departments were villains, the corporations and their rent-a-cops were villains, maybe the FBI was in on it—
Anderson: But we don't get a sense that there's this massive, coherent monitoring organization that can trace them all with computers. It doesn't even need people to be on the job.
Saul: Right. Well I mean, I think you hit the nail on the head. This is the weapon that any of those other opponents can use against things like Occupy. I mean, how hard is it to brand Occupiers as terrorists? Not very. I'm sure they could figure out how to do it.
Prendergast: Yeah, there's a long history of that. You can call Eastern Europeans or socialists or communists terrorists earlier in the century. It's easy to do it with Occupy people now.
Anderson: So, there's an implication. All of the change, all of the positive change, depending on your point of view, or all of the negative change that people have been talking about in this project, is affected by what Bamford is talking about. And yet, there's the wall. As we're exploring the idea of why don't these things connect, let's talk about the good. Let's talk about what is Bamford striving for? Does he want the status quo with the NSA held in check, or…
Prendergast: The thing that struck me is kind of what his desire was, was a strong sort of public discussion about what the government does. And I read him as an excellent journalist in that way, because that's in fact the major role of journalism. And so for him, clearly having an informed public is part of what I think he would consider the good.
Anderson: And is part of an informed public a democratic idea?
Prendergast: Well, I think that's an interesting thing to bring up. There was this sort of moving away from having the process of governance, democracy, be a little bit divorced from ultimately what it's supposed to be doing. I don't know. What you guys make of that?
Anderson: I think you just brought up something really big.
Saul: In some ways the way you can connect this with other conversations, either in this project or elsewhere, is there is sort of an underlying question here of what is government for. What do we give up to government, and what we get from government?
Anderson: We always talk about the relationship between the collective and the individual. And it seems like he feels that right now in some ways we've skewed towards the collective security in favor of individual liberty. And yet that collective security he sees as something that needs to be wrestled for by this group of individuals who become politically motivated.
So does he think we're considering the medium the message? Are we obsessing with democracy as an end rather than a type of good? You know, he has that example of the democratic nation and their comic books. And they keep voting for leaders but they're just reading comic books. So you do have a democracy, but you've got bad government.
Anderson: And something I know we've wanted to talk about a lot in this project is the idea of like, what would Plato? What would Plato do? And I brought him up in the conversation with James, and I didn't engage on this as much as I wanted to, but I really want to tear this idea apart and say like, what is democracy good for if it self-liquidates?
Saul: Yeah. That's not a question you can answer until you answer that other question I was talking about of what is government for. Government is not an end in itself, right. Government should be a means towards an end. As you said, we've sort of blurred the lines there, and democracy is what we're apparently defending. But that's just the means. That's just the government. What is the end?
Anderson: So is Bamford then driving towards an idea that what we really need is The Conversation? [crosstalk] I mean, is that the good beneath this?
Prendergast: I think he is. Yeah, I think so, actually. I think so.
Anderson: That's exciting.
Prendergast: I'm not sure if that was his first impulse, but I think that's where your discussion went.
Saul: So is one of the threats of the NSA… Is it government's weapon to keep you from asking what it's for? Is that the fear here, with the panopticon? You can't question it, and therefore you can't actually answer those questions?
Anderson: Yeah, and whether or not that's deliberate, that would be something that could just happen.
Saul: And I mean, this is a question that we really wanted to find in the project and we haven't yet.
Saul: And I still want to figure out who you can talk to that really will deconstruct what government is for, and deconstruct the whole myth of defense of democracy.
Prendergast: Yeah. Well, it's really interesting, I think, that when you find people making arguments for why democracy should be better implemented, they realize that other people are going to listen to them because in arguing for democracy they're arguing for something that everybody supposedly feels is a good idea in the culture. But also it's for basic things like dignity and respect. Material things as well, right. Access to jobs. All sorts of stuff that yeah, democracy's part of it but the argument has to be for democracy first so people will listen. But I think if you ask somebody who's saying, "Look, we need to have better democracy," if you ask them, "Well, why do you want it?" then I think you're perhaps getting at some of the things that people are really interested in.
Anderson: Can I connect this back to Roberta Francis for a moment, and a comment that you made at the end of her episode—
Anderson: —when we were talking about the Enlightenment?
Prendergast: Sure. Go ahead.
Anderson: Because here's something I think, like, as we're talking about this like "what is the virtue of democracy?" are we conflating democracy the system with the values of the Enlightenment? The individual, the agency. The ability to pursue happiness. All of these sort of civil society things that we lump in with democracy but aren't necessarily part of democracy.
Saul: Democracy is just the tool we use, ostensibly, to get those things.
Anderson: Right. And when democracy does not carry out those ends, it seems like we often become impatient with democracy. You know, when we see elections in the Middle East where you get a strong Islamist party and we feel that somehow democracy has miscarried because the will of the people was not some sort of enlightenend, secular government, it was Sharia law. I mean if we look at Weimar Germany and you get democracy, however questionable, but still democracy, producing the Nazi party, is democracy, democracy good?
Anderson: And so when we're asking I think about the NSA now, and democracy in our society and whether not people care, I think we do get back to that self-liquidating question. Is it any good if it destroys itself? Do we stand fast by the principle of democracy and then say goodbye to [crosstalk] the personal liberties?
Saul: And sacrifice the enlightenment.
Anderson: Right, and sacrifice the enlightenment, which we do actually care about.
Saul: I feel like these are some big questions, and might just be worthwhile to sort of leave it on that and let our listeners percolate on it, and let ourselves percolate on it. I mean, this went in a direction I was not expecting at all.
Anderson: No. And I think it's really valuable, because I think we talk a lot about systems that people don't question, and questioning them. And we haven't talked about democracy much. This conversation, in a way, has indicated to me that that is something that we need to talk about a lot more. Because I feel like you could beat up capitalism. A lot of people beat up capitalism. It's a little touchier to beat up science as an institution, but you really don't beat up democracy.
Anderson: Because I mean, as someone has already quoted Churchill in this series, it's the worst system of government except for all the other ones, right.
That was James Bamford recorded on November 20, 2012 in Washington DC.
Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.com.
Prendergast: You can follow us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.
Saul: I'm Micah Saul.
Prendergast: I'm Neil Prendergast.
Anderson: And I'm Aengus Anderson. Thanks for for listening.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.