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 poten­tial to do in the US.

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.

Bamford: Right.

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.

Saul: Right.

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—

Saul: Right.

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.

Prendergast: Right.

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.

Anderson: Right.

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—

Prendergast: Sure.

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?

Prendergast: Right.

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.

Prendergast: Right.

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.

Is it?

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 find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.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 lis­ten­ing.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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