Amidst this week’s revelation that a federal judge would likely rule in favor of a judicial activist who argues that the NSA’s activities violate the Fourth Amendment — and the revelation that some in the NSA would rather grant fugitive Edward Snowden amnesty than drive him further into the open arms of the Russians and Chinese — I am reminded again how often the story isn’t the story.
At best, it is incomplete.
Personally, I have no problem in offering Snowden amnesty, if only because Snowden revealed what we already knew about the privacy of our phone and email communications both before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What few are talking about, by contrast, carries more serious implications.
If I cast a net wide enough to catch every fish in the ocean, while in reality I am only fishing for sharks, how efficiently can I separate the sharks from the dolphins?
The metaphor posits a key question: Can or should we have confidence that government data mining efforts will be timely enough to prevent terrorism? The Boston bombing would seem to suggest otherwise. Pervasive, indiscriminate data collection not only encroaches upon Americans’ right to privacy, it is a bottomless pit when it comes to taxpayer money — to the tune of nearly one trillion per year! And there are environmental ramifications, too. The NSA alone is said to consume as much energy as a mid-size city in its data collection efforts according to the December 15 edition of “60 Minutes”.
Whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor really isn’t the end-all, be-all question. The story behind the story concerns the government’s ongoing efforts to obtain prohibitively costly services from glorified staffing agencies which, as in the case of the Obamacare website, are not fit to render core services. Uncle Sam leaves to the private-sector the bulk of recruitment efforts, too. In spite of a still rather anemic U.S. economy, the contract to build the HealthCare.gov website was awarded in a no-bid process to a foreign firm its own government saw fit to fire. Snowden, meanwhile, landed a six-figure information technology job in spite of the fact that he is a high school dropout — a fact that, in the tough economy of recent years, would have almost certainly precluded him from similar employment elsewhere.
As long as middlemen continue to line up for taxpayer handouts — even as they line politicians’ pockets with campaign donations — the scope of government intrusion into our lives will increase even as the government’s ability to keep tabs on the actions of their own contractors and subcontractors, let alone bona fide terrorists, decreases. In IT alone — not including other aspects of defense spending — the U.S. government spends $80 billion annually, often for systems that are largely obsolete by the time they are ready to implement.
Government outsourcing of sensitive and vital services increases the risks associated with the proverbial Right hand’s failure to know what the Left hand is doing. All the while, background checks are administered by private firms that are raking in taxpayer funds only to offer up questionable candidates. A firm under contract to facilitate government security clearances — the same firm that cleared Snowden — also enabled a mentally-deranged man, Aaron Alexis, to obtain IT work at a Navy yard in spite of an alleged rap sheet. Note how deftly controversy was steered away from the more telling topic of government’s inadequate vetting practices to law enforcement’s actions when the not-yet-murder called to complain that guests at a hotel where he was staying were attempting to implant ideas into his head. First-responders, subsequently, were delayed in their attempts to aid to shipyard shooting victims, thanks to flawed communication systems supplied by yet another DOD contractor.
The Paradox is On Us
The bigger the government’s metadata-collection machine, the more unwieldy, Constitutionally-untenable and unaccountable the outcome — fiscally, legally and technically. The revolving-door face of today’s temporary employment landscape not only makes us vulnerable to the likes of Snowden and Alexis, it makes us more vulnerable to foreign spies, identity theft and nearly any other crime unlawful access into a centralized database permits. If we want to safeguard both the Constitution and the American people, the proliferation of noncompetitive government contracts staffed by non-government employees, and foreign firms to boot, ought to be the topic.
From all appearances, a slight-of-hand has taken place with respect to Snowden’s NSA leaks — reducing the story to little more than fodder for the usual partisan finger pointing. And yet the Left/Right polarity does no justice to the matter at hand: As long as the government continues to operate the way it does we will see the Constitution crumble, the debts and deficits skyrocket, the leaks continue — and efforts to protect the American public from terrorist attack prove unsuccessful. If we allow for all manner of failure, whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero hardly matters in the end. Conservative or liberal, we need both country and constitution to survive the economic pitfalls of outsourcing and the epic temptations of technology. The buck has to stop somewhere, and it could very well stop here. Problem is, with Snowden at the pinnacle of the debate we’re missing the point.