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January 16, 2014

“This really was an extraordinary thing.”
Posted by Patrick at 04:10 PM *

Bruce Schneier, “Today I Briefed Congress on the NSA”:

This morning I spent an hour in a closed room with six Members of Congress: Rep. Logfren, Rep. Sensenbrenner, Rep. Scott, Rep. Goodlate, Rep Thompson, and Rep. Amash. No staffers, no public: just them. Lofgren asked me to brief her and a few Representatives on the NSA. She said that the NSA wasn’t forthcoming about their activities, and they wanted me—as someone with access to the Snowden documents—to explain to them what the NSA was doing. Of course I’m not going to give details on the meeting, except to say that it was candid and interesting. And that it’s extremely freaky that Congress has such a difficult time getting information out of the NSA that they have to ask me. I really want oversight to work better in this country.
Comments on "This really was an extraordinary thing.":
#1 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2014, 05:52 PM:

I'm not surprised that representatives not on the appropriate committees get no access at all. I don't say it's right, but senior civil servants will naturally regard 2-year politicians with no relevant skills or knowledge or past briefings with a jaundiced eye, so I'm not surprised--

But wait. Rep. Lofgren is in fact on the Judiciary committee. Apparently responsible for NSA oversight, according to the Democrat view of the committee website: http://democrats.judiciary.house.gov/

All right, then. It's not merely outrageous that these representatives should feel they need to talk to Schneier to learn what the NSA is doing, it's completely insane. Doubly so considering the President and the representative are of the same party.

There's been lots of reasons to declare Congress and government in general to be broken over the last 20 years or so, but in the absence of all those other cases, this would be enough by itself.

#2 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2014, 06:25 PM:

Amash is my congressperson. I wouldn't trust him with my secret date nutbread recipe, let alone something related to national security.

#3 ::: Dan Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2014, 06:37 PM:

So between Congress, the President, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court they've got it nice and contained, have they?

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/16/us/obamas-path-from-critic-to-defender-of-spying.html?_r=0

Quote:

At the same time, aides said Mr. Obama was surprised to learn after leaks by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, just how far the surveillance had gone. “Things seem to have grown at the N.S.A.,” Mr. Plouffe said, citing specifically the tapping of foreign leaders’ telephones. “I think it was disturbing to most people, and I think he found it disturbing.”

"Things" have grown. This is that "mistakes were made" construction.

You would think Obama would be thanking Snowden for the important clue-in, since apparently no one else could tell the leader of the free world.

I'm worried they won't be able to shut it down even if they want to. Which, apparently, they don't.

#4 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2014, 06:43 PM:

Any large and complex organization is characterized by individual fiefdoms that are quick to point out to other fiefdoms that, "Hey, your end of the boat is sinking."

#5 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2014, 07:25 PM:

4
This is that "mistakes were made" construction.

I've seen it called 'past exonerative' tense.

#6 ::: Semilog ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2014, 08:58 PM:
…In facing a legislature, the bureaucracy, motivated by a pure lust for power, will battle every attempt of the legislature to gain information by means of its own experts or from interest groups. The so-called power of legislative oversight is but one means by which a legislature can seek such information. But bureaucracy inherently welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless legislature—at least in so far as ignorance somehow coincides with a bureaucracy’s own interests.
—Max Weber, 1918
#7 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2014, 09:52 PM:

This, together with the report Dan #3 refers to, effectively confirms that the NSA has gone off the rails, and decided they don't have to answer to anybody. The next question is whether they can be reined in. :-(

#8 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 12:18 AM:

Actually, it will be extremely easy to rein in the NSA should anyone in Congress ever decide it's a good idea.

We're not talking about some kind of rogue army here. This is an IT organization with ludicrous funding. Everything about NSA activity is enabled though money, directly or indirectly, and they make almost none of their own, now that the consulting business has blown up in their face. All that needs to be done is to restrict the true NSA budget to something reasonable. Say a mere $1 billion a year. That's still good for say 5,000 technical staff.

#9 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 12:35 AM:

Miramon... A mere billion dollars? To think that, in 1966, spending seven billion dollars on the Time Tunnel seemed like a lot of money...

#10 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 12:52 AM:

Yeah, I chose $1 billion because it is such a modest sum. I have no idea what their true budget is because it's secret, but I suppose it must be somewhere around twenty times that today to be able to afford these ludicrous data center projects and these absurd wholesale data collection efforts. I see a CNN estimate of $10 billion, and I can't imagine they are erring on the high side.

#11 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 01:16 AM:

10
It's a money sink, and they're really good at getting Congress to throw more money in.

#12 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 01:47 AM:

P J Evans @11: But they said their surveillance of all US communications really truly stopped almost one terrorist plot once! Well... at least they kind of stopped this guy from trying to send some money to some terrorists! If that isn't worth spending 20 trillion and spying on everybody in the world, then I don't know what is.

#13 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 07:04 AM:

Miramon @ #8:

It requires but a small piece of tinfoil to start going "to what extent do the NSA have blackmail material on its prospective shutters-down".

Clifton @ #12:

I am lucky I wasn't sipping a beverage as your comment flew past my retina, because it truly made me giggle (and snort).

#14 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 11:10 AM:

Miramon #8: Ingvar M #13 has part of my worries. They might also play a card to the effect of "if all our top-secret-cleared employees go walkies, who knows where they'll end up?"

#15 ::: Miramon ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 12:10 PM:

Dave@14: Yeah, "we have to keep paying our people so they don't turn traitor" will never be spoken out loud, because it begs the question "so why are you hiring potential traitors?" But I wouldn't be surprised if that notion appeared frequently in subtext in response to any suggestion of a budget cut.

The answer to that, of course, should be "let them go, and good riddance, to them and to you", but you never know what insane fantasies a politician will adopt to justify their wrong decisions.

#16 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 12:15 PM:

Add to #13, #14: "and, since we'll have to hit our compliance teams as well as our investigative teams, we won't be able to guarantee that our remaining operatives are in compliance. We'll do our best..."

#17 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 12:28 PM:

12
I know about that one. He sent $10,000 to someone who was part of his tribe/clan group, once, cor charitable purposes.
I wish the people who are in charge would learn about the rest of the world, before they get put in charge.

Also, when you're looking for half a dozen needles in a large haystack, making the haystack even larger is not a good idea.

#18 ::: Dave ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 12:59 PM:

Miramon@15 you never know what insane fantasies a politician will adopt to justify their wrong decisions
True.

Also, I doubt anyone wants to be the most recent person who cut staff at the NSA before something bad happens in the world, since they will inevitably be blamed for allowing that bad thing to happen, whether or not there's any reasonable grounds to think the NSA would have prevented it. This is how superstitious behavior protects itself.

And, on a sillier note:
rea@2: I wouldn't trust him with my secret date nutbread recipe

Is that a secret recipe for nutbread with dates? Or a recipe for nutbread to serve on secret dates?

#19 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 01:20 PM:

Miramon @ 15... you never know what insane fantasies a politician will adopt to justify their wrong decisions

Same with big corporations. I almost got fired when I asked why they were going to again try to make something work after the first attempt had cost a boatload of money without anything to show for it aside from decapitated managers.

#20 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 01:25 PM:

Dave @18 Is that a secret recipe for nutbread with dates? Or a recipe for nutbread to serve on secret dates?

That information is classifieid.

#21 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 02:50 PM:

Is there a morality of bureaucracy? Has someone thought out what the standards have to be to do what we need bureaucracies for (e.g., accounting for resources, making people listen to each other, gating one kind of activity to balance others) while minimizing the errors?

(desultory research)

paywalled sociological research, Jackall, promising a descriptive analysis, starting with What Happened to the Protestant Work Ethic (`secular asceticism');

Aha! Jackall is summarized in a more recent NYT essay about Snowdon, Manning, et al. And the summary of Jackall is that managers learn that they have to preemptively lie to their managers.

H_0: first moral rule for bureaucracies: don't require lying. (The court needs a jester?) I'm told Japanese companies have at least two ways of dealing with this; getting drunk together, or hiring Westerners who are so rude and (usefully) blunt. (The ideal Westerner for this role knows exactly what they aren't supposed to say and pretends ignorance. I'm told a Deep South background is useful.)

#22 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 02:55 PM:

Dave @18 Is that a secret recipe for nutbread with dates? Or a recipe for nutbread to serve on secret dates?

The latter, surely; why else the need for discretion?

#23 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 03:20 PM:

Possibly it's a nutbread with occulted dates.

#24 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 03:52 PM:

Wow, Bruce, someone in Congress actually wanted a briefing? And they had to go outside NSA to get it? Quelle surprise.

After the way Congress and the President has treated Federal employees the last five years, I can see why co-operation might be thin on the ground.

As a retired Federal employee, I can tell you that a lot of the upper level activity is trying to keep whomever the President appointed as Secretary from screwing up -- Democratic presidents tend to appoint someone who has a clue about their departments, but Republicans miss more often than they hit (See G.W.Bush, Lurita Doan and the politicizing of GSA).

I've helped prepare reports from my department to Congress -- ones that Congress has requested from us, and was appalled that we had to place the key paragraphs into the document multiple times because we we told that even the committee members or their staff would not read the entire document.

Aside from that, every Federal employee is required to take a certain amount of ethics training and refreshers on that subject every blasted year. I have no idea if the political appointees are subject to this requirement, and I'm fairly certain the Representatives and Senators aren't. Guess which bunch REALLY needs this?

And to make matters worse Obama has been death on whistleblowers...helpful, huh?

They've made working for the government more stressful than it has to be. I'm guessing most current Federal employees are keeping their heads down in hopes of not being noticed.

So the NSA doesn't want to brief Congress -- I think it's time they had most of their wires clipped, but I doubt it will happen. Want to bet someone in the agency has taken a leaf from FBI Director Hoover's book?

#25 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 04:08 PM:

24
Want to bet someone in the agency has taken a leaf from FBI Director Hoover's book?

Nope. They claim to have have all the public phone numbers and e-mails blocked from being searched. But that doesn't say that all the private phone numbers, or any of their private e-mail addresses, aren't searchable.

Clip all their wires, repeal the enabling acts, and do it again with better safeguards and limitations, including explicit requirements for search warrants.

#26 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 05:33 PM:

clew:

That's also a useful purpose of consultants. When someone powerful has invested too much in a technically unworkable plan to allow his employees to safely criticize it, sometimes the consultant can innocently ask whether the emperor isn't going to catch cold dressed like that.

#27 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 05:35 PM:

clew:

People in organizations of any kind tend to behave in frighteningly different ways than would be predicted by normal morality. You can get that in bureaucracies or companies, but also on police forces, in church hierarchies, in standards groups, on football teams, etc.

#28 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 05:36 PM:

P J Evans, if I had access to the info NSA currently does, I would be digging up everything I could about every Representative and Senator...and then quietly letting them know what I have when circumstances make it necessary.

Maybe I'm over-estimating what NSA is capable of...

Or I've read too much Tom Clancy!

#29 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 05:47 PM:

That's also a useful purpose of consultants.

Ha! Consultant friend of mine calls those `the baby is ugly' jobs. Terrible metaphor if you extend it, but it does recognize the sunk cost and emotional attachment people have to bad-idea projects.

#30 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 05:52 PM:

28
I believe you. It's a thought I've had, too. (J Edgar comes to mind.)

#31 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 06:16 PM:

Yes, there can be a morality for government bureaucracies. Back in the 80s I worked for the Inland Revenue for a couple of years. In a very lowly capacity. General ethical standards were definitely higher than in private business I've worked for.


And most of us really did care about what we did and really did want to serve the public - which we did not confuse with serving the government of the day. Of course governments hate that...

#32 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 08:22 PM:

clew @ 21: I'm told Japanese companies have at least two ways of dealing with this; getting drunk together, or hiring Westerners who are so rude and (usefully) blunt. (The ideal Westerner for this role knows exactly what they aren't supposed to say and pretends ignorance. I'm told a Deep South background is useful.)

Getting further off topic, but a while back I read an article or blog entry by a guy who'd found the reverse in Japan - he had inadvertently stumbled onto a great IT career for himself in Japan as professional gaijin scapegoat.

As I recall he was initially hired on to some disastrous IT project as it was nearing its end and was looking like it would take a bunch of peoples' careers down with it. However, now that they had a non-sarariman non-Japanese on the project, the management cheerfully - and with his tacit consent - blamed the entire multi-year failure on the foreigner. He just had to look very serious, make regretful noises, and bow a lot, and they regretfully fired him and paid him a huge severance bonus. Immediately thereafter, his name spread through the grapevine and he found himself in huge demand by other Japanese companies with similar problems on their hands.

#33 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2014, 10:25 PM:

Clifton #32: A little like the "firing-boys" once employed by banks, explicitly so the bank head could call "the manager responsible" out in front of the customer, and "fire him on the spot"?

#34 ::: Semilog ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2014, 03:46 AM:

Miss Tomlin (Ernestine) calls Jedgar Hoover (YouTube).

#35 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2014, 06:29 PM:

Ken Brown #31: Neat! Could you describe it a bit? Were there parts that were particular to working in a bureaucracy, particular to the government, IRS, etc? How was it passed on to new employees? How much of the check and enforcement was informal? etc etc etc.

#36 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2014, 06:31 PM:

Clifton, #32: Huh. He could practically have eaten porridge held over the corpse of the project.

Not sufficient as a tactic, since I'm pretty sure one of the institutional responses is `And now the scapegoat is gone, it's sure to work!'

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