As public discourse over the extent of NSA surveillance programs continues it was inevitable the Godwin’s Law would raise its ugly head.
For those not familiar with the law, Mike Godwin came up with the proposition that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”
As a communicator, I hate to go down that road, but sometimes things get to the point that it simply becomes impossible to avoid the comparison.
Consider a recent joint statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice on Court-ordered Legal Surveillance of U.S. Persons in response to documentation published by Glenn Greenwald revealing the names of five Americans targeted by the NSA that shared little in common beyond their Muslim faith. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels surely would have approved. He would have considered the NSA statement a propaganda masterpiece.
The statement was nothing more than sweetly packaged lies designed to reinforce the narrative positioning the NSA as a partner with the American people locked in a struggle against dangerous enemy forces.
These tactics come straight from Goebbels principles of propaganda.
Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.
The statement starts positioning the “other” as the enemy in the second paragraph.
Unlike some other nations, the United States does not monitor anyone’s communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.
In other words, don’t consider us the bad guys. Those “other nations” do these things, but not America.
Of course, evidence mined from Snowden documents indicates the NSA does exactly what it claims it doesn’t do. As Greenwald pointed out, there was no apparent justification for spying on the five Americans he revealed as targets – other than the fact that they were Muslim. In fact, others engaged in similar activities were not targeted.
The NSA never directly addresses the accusations against it. The statement paints with a broad brush, ignoring specifics, but generally holding the agency up as an vigilant protector of America. This dovetails with another Goebbels principle.
They must evoke responses which the audience previously possesses.
Most Americans instinctively believe their county “good” and her motives pure. Americans find it difficult to believe that their own government would harbor Orwellian tendencies. The NSA plays on this, offering calm assurance that it acts only in their best interest.
Our intelligence agencies help protect America by collecting communications when they have a legitimate foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose.
And when they don’t.
Consider this from the Washington Post.
Many other files, described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained, have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless.
The statement goes on to offer calm assurances that the NSA acts under the watchful eye of the FISA Court, protecting Americans from even a hint of abuse.
With limited exceptions (for example, in an emergency), our intelligence agencies must have a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to target any U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident for electronic surveillance.
These court orders are issued by an independent federal judge only if probable cause, based on specific facts, are established that the person is an agent of a foreign power, a terrorist, a spy, or someone who takes orders from a foreign power.
Again, the propagandist raises the specter of more nefarious enemies that the NSA must protect Americans from. These enemies include “terrorists, spies and agents of foreign powers.” In fact, the specter of terrorism repeatedly comes up when anybody questions or challenges NSA spying.
“But the terrorists!” they cry.
And sadly, the fear of the terrorist bogyman trumps any privacy concern in the minds of many Americans. This leads us to another Goebbels principle.
They must be utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations.
Again, we find the messaging rooted in lies.
Former NSA technical chief William Binney points out, “The NSA is mass-collecting on everyone, and it’s said to be about terrorism, but inside the US it has stopped zero attacks.”
And Snowden documents reveal that the FISA Court does nothing but serve as a rubber stamp for NSA snooping. In the FISA Court’s 35 years of existence, it approved 35,434 government requests for surveillance, while rejecting only 12.
Something as simple as typing an email in a foreign language can get you declared a “foreigner” and a legitimate target for snooping. And the Washington Post story revealed that NSA spies bypass the court and use the more lenient standards of PRISM and Upstream programs to continue spying on targets even after the FISA Court refuses to extend warrants beyond the initial 90 days.
“These selectors were previously under FISA warrant but the warrants have expired,” one analyst writes, requesting that surveillance resume under the looser standards of Section 702. The request was granted.
The statement utilizes another Goebbels principle in its final line.
Propaganda must diminish anxiety (other than that concerning the consequences of defeat) which is too high and cannot be reduced by people themselves.
The NSA propagandist communicates both a danger and assurances of benevolence.
The United States is as committed to protecting privacy rights and individual freedom as we are to defending our national security.
Notice that it’s not just the NSA protecting your privacy. The entire United States shares the commitment. We are the United States, right? We couldn’t possibly violate our own rights. But remember, the terrorist bogyman waits right around the corner. If we don’t spy on you, that could lead to another attack! It could lead to defeat. Don’t worry about spying. Worry about the terrorist.
Yes. Goebbels would be pleased.