Scandals at NSA and IRS Are Equally Alarming

Both agencies reveal a government that's out of control.

If you're outraged by the Internal Revenue Service's invasive questioning and harassment of Tea Party groups, why wouldn't you be worried about the National Security Agency surreptitiously collecting bulk internet, email and phone data on millions of Americans? Aren't both episodes examples of a government that's out of control?

Not so fast, say some on the right. The NSA activity is less alarming, Professor Richard Epstein argued recently, because, among other things, "the military community" of which the agency is a part, "internalizes the norms against abuse in ways in which other government agencies do not."

And Jed Babbin insists in the American Spectator that "the NSA Isn't the IRS," and indeed the intelligence community is "a whole lot more trustworthy than most of the rest of our government."

At National Review Online, David French stresses "the limitations of the NSA/IRS comparison," which ignores that "national defense is a core, constitutional function of government."

True, as the writer Jim Henley once put it, national security is "a legitimate function of the state," but "it is still the state when it does this." Its various bureaucracies will be tempted to conflate their own interests with the common good, and, if history is any guide, its programs will be susceptible to mission creep and political abuse.

Mark Ambinder and D.B. Grady lay out much of that history in their new book Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. One of the most arresting sections covers Project SHAMROCK, the NSA program that collected the content of virtually all cable traffic entering or leaving the United States from 1945 to 1975, and which "at its height would collect 150,000 messages a month, illegally."

Using SHAMROCK, the NSA "acted as an information broker to the FBI and CIA" -- which the agency referred to as its "customers." Watchlists of potential subversives "eventually became blanket requests," expanding to track Americans suspected of drug trafficking, as well as Vietnam War opponents, including such dangerous characters as folksinger Joan Baez and peace-activist pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock.

Ambinder and Grady quote former NSA official Frank Raven: "When J. Edgar Hoover gives you a requirement for complete surveillance of all Quakers in the United States, and when Richard Nixon is a Quaker and he's president of the United States, it gets pretty funny."

Deep State also recounts how the NSA "covered up its role in mistakenly reporting that two U.S ships had been attacked" in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, helping to get us embroiled in what, until Afghanistan, was America's longest war. President Lyndon Johnson authorized airstrikes in response to the false intelligence and exploited it to sell Congress on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the Vietnam military commitment.

Though NSA officials discovered the mistake fairly quickly, the agency stuck to "a lie perpetrated by secrecy" for four decades. In 2005, Freedom of Information Act requests and pressure from the press finally forced the release of classified documents on the Tonkin incident.

The NSA resisted almost until the end, fearing, as one intelligence official told the New York Times, their release "might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq."

If, as Babbin suggests, the U.S. intelligence community is "a whole lot more trustworthy than the rest of the government," one wonders just when that miraculous transformation happened.

Still, in one sense, Epstein, Babbin, and French are right -- the NSA and the IRS are different. Among other things, the IRS can't shield itself behind a veil of state secrecy, and its functionaries might actually pay a price for lying to Congress. But these are hardly differences that inspire trust.

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  • Sevo||

    ..."the intelligence community is "a whole lot more trustworthy than most of the rest of our government.""

    Damning with faint praise.

  • anon||

    I, for one, disagree with the entire premise.

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  • tarran||

    Actually, it wouldn't suprise me if that isn't true. Consider John's experiences with the public health organs.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    John likes hookers?

  • ||

    I have been assured by a certain non-partisan freedom fighting libertarian ( who scored 5000% on the libertarian purity test ) that these are non-scandalous, non-issues and that we can totally trust choco-jesus to protect us from bushpigs.

  • anon||

    Fuck, nobody told me it was opposite day.

  • sarcasmic||

    The Mustache has lost a lot of cred over this.

  • Floridian||

    Rage is a lot like derp...infinite. I have plenty for the IRS and the NSA to each get their share.

  • ZackTheHypochondriac||

    I think SB was referring to palins buttplug.

    And in defense of stossel, the irs actually used their power to target political opponents where with the nsa scandal they might some day use their power to target people. So I kinda have to agree with him that at this point the irs one is worse.

  • PapayaSF||

    I agree, except I'd change it to "with the NSA scandal they might some day discover they have used their power to target people for partisan purposes."

  • ZackTheHypochondriac||

    That would make it worse than the irs one, and I believe stossel would agree if it is ever found to be the case. More transparency is needed either way though.

  • squarooticus||

    we can totally trust choco-jesus

    Well, we know it isn't Dondero: he'd only say this about that famous libertarian Republican defender of freedom, Rudy Giuliani. So, who is it?

  • DEATFBIRSECIA||

    Of course we should be alarmed by any one of these recent scandals. But when we step back and take in the big picture, we see that the corruption of the individual scandals is accompanied by the vast power bestowed upon the government by the extensive surveillance infrastructure.

    And therein lies the scary part.

  • Longtorso, Johnny||

    Killer Game
    Am I the only one who thinks Aaron Hernandez is still sexy even if he is a murderer?
    (@candymkvi) June 30, 2013

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    Steph (@StephMurillox3) July 01, 2013

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    Chicks dig jerks, what else is new?

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  • ||

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  • Loki||

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  • Aresen||

    Not so fast, say some on the right. The NSA activity is less alarming, Professor Richard Epstein argued recently, because, among other things, "the military community" of which the agency is a part, "internalizes the norms against abuse in ways in which other government agencies do not."

    We can trust "the military community" because they are trustworthy. Because "the military community" has never lied about anything.

    /sarc

  • Raven Nation||

    The one thing that has been encouraging about these views from the right has been the responses from the readers. I skimmed the Babbin column then read some of the comments. They overwhelmingly excoriated him, with many ripping him to shreds. Same thing happened to a similar column published at NRO.

    So, while the conservative "intellectuals" are defending the NSA, a lot of their readers are not.

  • Swiss Servator - past LTC(ret)||

    "the military community" of which the agency is a part, "internalizes the norms against abuse in ways in which other government agencies do not."

    This is also damning with (very) faint praise.

  • fish||

    And Jed Babbin insists in the American Spectator that "the NSA Isn't the IRS," and indeed the intelligence community is "a whole lot more trustworthy than most of the rest of our government."

    Anybody who has heard Jed Babbin interviewed would know that he sucks authoritarian cock like no other!

  • Rich||

    David French stresses ... that "national defense is a core, constitutional function of government."

    And French's point is ...?

  • Hugh Akston||

    ...that any time you invoke national defense, it means whatever dastardly deed you're doing is wholly justified.

  • Rich||

    Nationalus Defensus!

    /Harry Potter

  • Swiss Servator - past LTC(ret)||

    Exactly, it is just like a proggie saying "fairness" or "diversity". It is supposed to be a conversation ender.

  • Loki||

    The NSA activity is less alarming, Professor Richard Epstein argued recently, because, among other things, "the military community" of which the agency is a part...

    Uhm, no it isn't. While it's true that the NSA is headed by a general, and I'm sure many of their people are ex-military, it isn't, AFAIK, part of the military chain of command and as such is a civilian agency, reporting the National Security Advisor, I think. The mindset and overall culture of the agency is not the same as the military, and any former military types who work there become a part of that culture, or I suspect they end up quitting and going to work in the civilian world.

    I also seem to recall reading/ hearing something years ago when I still had my TS clearance that some higher ups in the NSA were actually lamenting the "military attitude" of some of the people in the agency and wishing to recruit more from the civilian ranks instead. Although my memory may be fuzzy on that point.

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    "Getting your face stomped on by the right jackboot of the leviathan is less bad than getting your face stomped on by the left jackboot" is what they mean.

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