The Surveillance State Puts U.S. Elections at Risk of Manipulation

Imagine what Edward Snowden could have accomplished if he had a different agenda. 
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Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA (Reuters)

Did the Obama Administration ever spy on Mitt Romney during the recent presidential contest? Alex Tabarrok, who raised the question at the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, acknowledges that it is provocative. Until recently, he would've regarded it as a "loony" question, he writes, and he doesn't think that President Obama ordered the NSA to spy on Romney for political gain. 

Let's be clear: I don't think so either. In every way, I regard Obama as our legitimate head of state, full stop. But I agree with Tabarrok that today, "the only loonies are those who think the question unreasonable." * Most Americans have a strong intuition that spying and electoral manipulation of that kind could never happen here. I share that intuition, but I know it's nonsense: the Nixon Administration did spy on its opponents for political gain. Why do I worry that an unreformed surveillance state could put us in even greater jeopardy of such shenanigans?

Actually, I have a particular scenario in mind, and it seems frighteningly plausible. I'll sketch it out at the end of this article. But first, let's get back to Tabarrok:

Do I think Obama ordered the NSA to spy on Romney for political gain? No. Some people claim that President Obama didn’t even know about the full extent of NSA spying. Indeed, I imagine that President Obama was almost as surprised as the rest of us when he first discovered that we live in a mass surveillance state in which billions of emails, phone calls, Facebook metadata and other data are being collected.

The answer is yes, however, if we mean did the NSA spy on political candidates like Mitt Romney. Did Mitt Romney ever speak with Angela Merkel, whose phone the NSA bugged, or any one of the dozens of her advisers that the NSA was also bugging? Did Romney exchange emails with Mexican President Felipe Calderon? Were any of Romney’s emails, photos, texts or other metadata hovered up by the NSA’s break-in to the Google and Yahoo communications links?

Almost certainly the answer is yes.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Romney's information was improperly exploited during the election. "Did the NSA use the information they gathered on Mitt Romney and other political candidates for political purposes? Probably not," Tabarrok writes. "Will the next president or the one after that be so virtuous so as to not use this kind of power? I have grave doubts. Men are not angels."

I'll tell you why I agree on both counts. 

Why do I doubt Romney was treated unfairly? Because I doubt Obama would have dared order it, and because the prospect of a Romney victory didn't threaten either the NSA nor a contractor like Booz Allen Hamilton nor the national-security state generally. There was reason to believe he'd have been friendlier to them than Obama!

The scenario I worry about most isn't actually another Richard Nixon type in the Oval Office, though that could certainly happen. What I worry about actually more closely resembles Mark Felt, the retired FBI agent exposed 32 years after Watergate as Deep Throat **—that is, I worry more about people high up inside the national-security state using their insider knowledge to help take down a politician. Is part of the deference they enjoy due to politicians worrying about that too?

Imagine a very plausible 2016 presidential contest in which an anti-NSA candidate is threatening to win the nomination of one party or the other—say that Ron Wyden is challenging Hillary Clinton, or that Rand Paul might beat Chris Christie. Does anyone doubt where Keith Alexander or his successor as NSA director would stand in that race? Or in a general election where an anti-NSA candidate might win? 

What would an Alexander type do if he thought the victory of one candidate would significantly rein in the NSA with catastrophic effects on national security? Would he really do nothing to prevent their victory? 

I don't know. But surely there is some plausible head of the NSA who'd be tempted to use his position to sink the political prospects of candidates antagonistic to the agency's interests. And we needn't imagine something so risky and unthinkable as direct blackmail. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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