The Only Way to Restore Trust in the NSA

The public has no faith left in the intelligence community or what the president says about it. A strong, independent special prosecutor needs to clean up the mess.
Michaela Rehle/Reuters

I've recently seen two articles speculating on the NSA's capability, and practice, of spying on members of Congress and other elected officials. The evidence is all circumstantial and smacks of conspiracy thinking -- and I have no idea whether any of it is true or not -- but it's a good illustration of what happens when trust in a public institution fails.

The NSA has repeatedly lied about the extent of its spying program. James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has lied about it to Congress. Top-secret documents provided by Edward Snowden, and reported on by the Guardian and other newspapers, repeatedly show that the NSA's surveillance systems are monitoring the communications of American citizens. The DEA has used this information to apprehend drug smugglers, then lied about it in court. The IRS has used this information to find tax cheats, then lied about it. It's even been used to arrest a copyright violator. It seems that every time there is an allegation against the NSA, no matter how outlandish, it turns out to be true.

Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald has been playing this well, dribbling the information out one scandal at a time. It's looking more and more as if the NSA doesn't know what Snowden took. It's hard for someone to lie convincingly if he doesn't know what the opposition actually knows.

All of this denying and lying results in us not trusting anything the NSA says, anything the president says about the NSA, or anything companies say about their involvement with the NSA. We know secrecy corrupts, and we see that corruption. There's simply no credibility, and -- the real problem -- no way for us to verify anything these people might say.

It's a perfect environment for conspiracy theories to take root: no trust, assuming the worst, no way to verify the facts. Think JFK assassination theories. Think 9/11 conspiracies. Think UFOs. For all we know, the NSA might be spying on elected officials. Edward Snowden said that he had the ability to spy on anyone in the U.S., in real time, from his desk. His remarks were belittled, but it turns out he was right.

This is not going to improve anytime soon. Greenwald and other reporters are still poring over Snowden's documents, and will continue to report stories about NSA overreach, lawbreaking, abuses, and privacy violations well into next year. The "independent” review that Obama promised of these surveillance programs will not help, because it will lack both the power to discover everything the NSA is doing and the ability to relay that information to the public.

Presented by

Bruce Schneier is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the chief technology officer of the computer-security firm Co3 Systems. His latest book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive.

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