Quote of the Day

If you believe Glenn Greenwald’s new book (which I reviewed here), the NSA’s appetite for gobbling up communications is unlimited. Legal controls on its behavior are trivial. Its much-repeated claim that it does not spy on American citizens is a lie. And its goal in its collection activities is political control over citizens, whom surveillance renders quiescent:

All of the evidence highlights the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you’ll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing. This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience, and conformity. The safest course, the way to ensure being “left alone,” is to remain quiet, unthreatening, and compliant.

I’ve been mulling Greenwald’s thesis for the past few weeks, and I have a question: Why would this omniscient global Panopticon, built to induce political control, tolerate the activities of one Glenn Greenwald?

One might expect, after all, that a system posing the implicit bargain Greenwald describes would have a particular interest in Greenwald, who has spent years “provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers.” Yet Greenwald appears to have lived free enough of surveillance to play a huge role in the biggest compromise of signals intelligence information in the nation’s history. And he has suffered no legal sanction for his activities. Judging from the case of Greenwald, at least, the surveillance state is kind of a wuss.

Benjamin Wittes.