Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How to regain trust in the NSA era: The IGUS Gambit

How might the Obama Administration best respond to wave after wave of "NSA revelations" that roil and cloud the political waters?

NSA-Snowden-AssangeIronically, almost none of Edward Snowden's leaks -- or those of Julian Assange -- revealed anything that was illegal per se. What they have done is stir a too-long delayed argument over what should be legal!  Specifically, the Patriot Act and the ratchet effect on surveillance that always happens when a country enters a state of panic. The post-9/11 alarm is finally fading and -- (barring some new, panic-inducing event) -- elements of the Patriot Act and pervasive surveillance are now up for public debate.

See page 206* of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom? (1997) -- where this cycle of terrorism and increased government surveillance was predicted in precise -- and rather creepy -- detail.

NSA-WATCHING-WATCHERS Elsewhere, I recently dissected and appraised the forty-two suggested reforms that a commission presented to President Obama, many of which he has instituted or sent to Congress. Here I want to focus on one important, trust-building measure that would make a huge difference.

= Meeting the needs of the Public and the PPC =

As expected, most of the current argument is about the wrong side of the issue -- mewling plaints calling to prevent society's elites (like the NSA or Google) from seeing -- an effort that is fated to be futile, condemned to absurdity by Moore's Law.

But at last there is talk also of doing what will work -- improving the degree to which the citizenry can supervise and have confidence that government remains essentially a servant of the people.

The main sticking point is over the need that members of the Professional Protector Caste (PPC) have for tactical secrecy, or the ability to conceal their operations from villains and adversaries.   This need is very strong, but so is that of citizens to feel assured that secrecy remains only tactical, short-term and pragmatic, never an excuse for permanent avoidance of accountability.

INSPECTOR-GENERAL-UNITED-STATESI have over the years offered several innovations that might achieve a win-win -- securing both tactical shadows for the PPC to be effective, while ensuring accountability that at least partially reassures the public. Foremost among these proposals would be to create the Office of Inspector General of the United States (IGUS).

IGUS could be established with a one-page law that simply transfers all of the inspectors general in every agency and department to an independent service under a figure of noted rectitude, whose staff might then perform their functions without the inherent conflict of interest that stymies so many IGs. IGUS members would be trained in both confidentiality and prim skepticism on the taxpayers' behalf, allowing PPC agencies to continue tactically secret investigations, but always with the peoples' delegated gaze over their shoulders.

NSA-Citizen-OversightA POLITICAL WIN-WIN: 
Without question, proposing and establishing IGUS would be an agile jiu-jitsu move on the part of the Obama Administration. It would simultaneously say:

"We understand that public confidence is shaken and this move should help to restore it while preventing the worst and most perniciously chronic abuses… while at the same time allowing our skilled public protectors to continue doing their important jobs. It is also the quickest way to do this, requiring the fewest changes in law."

Will this satisfy everybody? Of course not… nor should it! Indeed, I do not consider IGUS to be enough. I have several more proposals that would work in parallel with IGUS, so that in-sum we all can truly be sure that our watch dogs remain loyal (if fierce) dogs, and never wolves.

inspectors-GeneralNevertheless, establishing an Office of the Inspector General of the United States would be a good start. And it would allow the Administration to be seen acting vigorously, in a forward, pro-active direction that BOTH enhances public trust and allows our agencies to do their jobs.

My IGUS proposal was written in greater detail as one of two dozen "Suggestions for the Incoming Obama Administration" way back in 2008. Alas, not one of them got to anyone's ear. C'est la vie.

Still, you can read about it here: Free the Inspectors General!

== Political Miscellany ==

Lying with Data: Fox viewers in the family? Show them this chart that appeared on their news” network and ask if they can explain why almost no American scientists are republican, anymore.  See this appraisal, also: The Statisticians at Fox News use classic and novel graphical techniques to lead with data. 

Transparent-Society-206*Page 206 of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to choose between Privacy and Freedom?


AMusingFool said...

I need to go look things up again, but I'm pretty sure that you're wrong about Snowden's revelations being illegal.

But, main reason for writing was about Inspector General suggestion. I like most of the idea, but there's two issues.

One is that the AG is supposed to be doing what you're suggesting. He isn't (and hasn't for quite a while), but it is in his job description.

The other is of more practical import. And that is that the various IG's don't have subpoena power. It's just about impossible to conduct a thorough investigation without that.

Unrelated, are you going to be talking about Oligarchy more, soon?

David Brin said...

AMusing… you miss the whole point, which is that IGs would be empowered if they were part of a separate Inspectorate service and not appointed by the secretaries they are charged to inspect. As for oligarchy, name one person on this planet who uses that term more often (or effectively) than I do.

Andy said...

David, any particular people in mind who would be a good fit for the IG position?

David Brin said...

Off the top of my head? Nate Silver. No experience and different skills. But he would fanatically correlate his staff inspectors and ferret out any statistical signs that any of them are corrupt.

locumranch said...

For Inspector General, I nominate Judge Dredd, a jackbooted thug with unlimited authority, answerable only to the MegaCity Supreme Council, who can snarl 'I am the Law' with ferocious impunity.

Snarkiness aside, the whole IG idea is wrong-headed on many levels as if creating another level of bureaucracy like the CIA and NSA, independent & answerable to none, will somehow serve to regain the public trust, as if ANY individual or agency, possessing of both unlimited authority & personal 'discretion', is worthy of our faith or trust.

To put it another way, the US Constitution specifies a tricameral government composed of executive, legislative & judicial branches, but the NSA (which is none of these things) lacks any pretense at constitutionality, as would an 'IGUS'.


Andy said...


The point of a IG who is independent from the branch they are supervising is exactly the point of our tricameral setup. Checks and balances. Sure, it makes it more bureaucratic and complicated, but also prevents abuse of the system.

Having an IG who oversees and investigates the actions of agencies such as the NSA and holds them accountable is an obvious good move.

Wm. L. Hahn said...

In my view, a democracy NEEDS to be lousy at keeping secrets- it's almost a litmus test of a people's freedom that their own government proves unable keep what they know away from public knowledge. I am to this day very, very unclear as to what horrid things my government knows and doesn't let me find out, that actually by their existence limit my liberty.
It seems to me that we suffered a wave of PERCEPTION, suddenly and belatedly discovering that the government's ability to observe us was well beyond their imagination. Well and good. But with respect, if a guy like Snowden could pull a dump-and-run with reams of data in such ease, I'm not greatly concerned that we're entering a fascist state. Messy, embarrassing, constantly in the news- all good signs.
The fix, on the other hand, must be viewed with suspicion. An IG of great moral rectitude? How about an NSA chief with the same qualities! We save a position and a salary that way.

locumranch said...

The IGUS is a Trojan Horse...

We swallow corruption after corruption. We swallow the IGUS to catch the NSA, we swallow the NSA to catch the FBI, we swallow the FBI to catch our legislators and we swallow our legislators to catch our will though corruptions wriggle and jiggle and tickle inside us.

I know an old lady who swallowed a horse, She's dead, of course!!

We need less complexity rather than more in lieu of 'great moral rectitude'.


Duncan Cairncross said...

The best model for an "Inspector General" is not an overseer but an "Auditor"

Just as in a modern quality system;
The operators check their own work,
But it is then audited
The operations management set up the quality systems they operate under but it is then audited
In a big company we would do internal audits
And head office would do annual top level audits

You check;
Is the system sensible?
Are you following the system?
What are the results?

David Brin said...

"Snarkiness aside"??? It has been six months at least since the formerly-sometimes-cogent snarler offered anything about sophomoric. Alack.

Duncan, Sun Yat Sen proposed the Inspectorate as his 4th branch of government. He explicitly called the Civil Service the fifth branch, which is obviously true but seldom acknowledged here.

Alas, the Oligarchy is currently one of our branches

Anyone who actually read my articles - with attention above a cranky fun scout -- would know that I consider IGUS to be merely the first and easiest to implement of perhaps a dozen transparency moves, ALL of which might barely suffice to ensure Big Brother never arrives from any direction, left or right.

But IGUS is very easy to implement and would do a lot.

Tacitus2 said...

One final word on the voter ID debate that has sprawled across the last couple of threads.

Having spent a little time perusing the changes proposed by the R controlled legislature here in WI I find them.....excessive. More than necessary to deal with the issue.

It is part of an ongoing, quiet political war here in Badgerland. I get scolded for proposing "equivalence" but on my home turf I claim a degree of expertise. And trust me, the degree to which the D side is twisting the judicial system is no prettier.

But as a fair person I have to be honest when what you all seem to insist is "my side" goes too far. So stipulated.

I suggest you be as gracious when behaviour on the other end of the political spectrum warrants a rebuke.


Paul451 said...

"We swallow the IGUS to catch the NSA, we swallow the NSA to catch the FBI, we swallow the FBI to catch our legislators and we swallow our legislators to catch our will though corruptions wriggle and jiggle and tickle inside us."

Except the NSA wasn't created to watch the FBI. The FBI wasn't created to watch legislators.

So your old-lady-who-swallowed-a-fly analogy fails at its first and every step.

It's worth repeating that David's IG system already exists, but each IG is employed by the agency they are overseeing (or auditing...). Hence their career depends on those they are watching. David's proposal is really just to shove them all in the same group, independent of their respective agencies. To make their careers external to their individual agencies, make them answerable (at the first level) to each other. An analogy is the GAO.

[Making the IGUS a uniformed branch is silly, IMO. It gives them a authoritarian self-importance that they shouldn't have. That way lies abuse of power. We want them to be rats digging in the filth, despised by all; not show-ponies strutting around... errr, despised by all.]

Personally, I'd also set up another, completely separate "inspector"/"auditor"/"rapporteur" division which would be a part of the Congressional oversight system. Rather than (or in addition to) calling heads of agencies to committee meetings on the Hill, the committees would delegate free-roaming independent agents to operate within the overseen agencies, reporting back. The President should have something similar (cabinet is meant to serve this role, in part, but most often doesn't.) So "Inspectors General", "Congressional Rapporteurs", and "Presidential Auditors", all competing with each other to be the ones to root out the next Big Lie.

Paul451 said...

You speak as if liberals don't already criticise their own side.

David Brin said...

Tacitus, you know that swiveling to diss lefty flakes is one of my trademarks. Indeed, one of my dreams is for the conservative side of the American personality to go back to having a huge wing that's like you. Similarly able to turn their heads.

It is fused spine disease that is ruining America. And here I must agree with Pau451. Liberals (as opposed to leftists) are ill disciplined and frequently can change their minds. Many now support cautious nuclear power. Many bought arms under Bush.

If Clinton had done actual malfeasance of office, I'd have wanted him impeached.

== as for a comment two layers above this one… "Who are you and what have you done with locumranch?"

..actual…. cough.. sputter… good and cogent points….

David Brin said...

oops. mistaken identity on my part.

never mind.

carry on.

db from another computer

Tony Fisk said...

Locum's been renditioned to Australia? (sorry Paul ;*)

About 15 years ago the (Lib*) Vic govt, exercising evangelical zeal about corporate efficiency, decided to privatise the office of Auditor General and put it out to tender.
Unfortunately the AG bit back. There was an election due and, to everyone's astonishment, the govt lost.
Pundits will state various reasons for this, but it's a matter of record that reinstating the AG as an independent body was the first order of business.
I guess old ladies like their flies.

* Libs are Australian conservatives. ALP are, by US standards, screaming socialists. Except it's a little more complex than that.

Alex Tolley said...

Judges are also independent of agencies, yet somehow they become corrupted and complicit too. If judges cannot be trusted, why should we trust a newly created, "independent" IG?

Far more likely the IG will bought by teh oligarchy, much as they bought other government branches, including teh judiciary.

Unless you can guarantee that teh corruptible will only be a tiny minority of the institution (nothing can be perfect), then this idea won't fly.

As for regaining teh public trust, well one should bear in mind teh saying "It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, and a single day to lose it". We see that problem in institution after institution, including, nations. You are going to need a generation, at least, for the USA to rebuild trust in its institutions. I won't hold my breath.

locumranch said...

David & I agree on many things, including that the USA has become (or is becoming) an Oligarchy, but unlike David (who appears to hold the system blameless), I believe that the problem is 'The System'.

Through the gradual modification of the social contract, the average citizen has been into manipulated into a classic 'double-bind' situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical or self-contradictory rules & conditions.

Joseph Heller called this a 'Catch 22'. Barry Malzberg used this as a recurrent theme in his science fiction (see 'Final War'). Want freedom? Get money. Want money? Get education. Want education? Well, that takes lots of money, so you'll have to 'work it off' unless you are already rich. Employment is not guaranteed, btw. It is a privilege. It is also a binding 'obligation'. So, get to work, you dunce, because you've forfeited your freedom by your attempt to gain it.

And, for the record:
(1) Sitting US Legislators are immune from civil arrest, being subject only to criminal arrest by the governmental (IE. 'federal') agencies that they were originally in charge of (see US Constitution, Article I, Section 6, Clause 1: Privilege from Arrest)
(2) The NSA charter includes all encrypted communications, all governmental computer systems, including those of the FBI, interagency data coordination and data surveillance at home & abroad; and
(3) Educational debts are non-dischargeable under US Law.


David Brin said...

How do I DO it?? I mistook one of Paul's missives as being a return to cogency by locum… and lo! The next missive from locum is… cogent!

I don't fundamentally disagree, except he completely misses the forest for the trees. That it is the process of dividing authority, then dividing it again, and using transparency to sic elites against each other in reciprocal accountability that is the only thing that can fight back against and (partially) prevent "capture." By oligarchs or any other conspiring power.

No single reform -- such as IGUS -- will be safe from conniving capture. So? Then watch the watchers of the watchers! And keep doing it "all the way down."

Moderate, sensible but relentless paranoia is the only thing that can prevent REAL paranoia from coming true.

Cynics who claim this cannot work -- while living in precisely the oasis of freedom and opportunity and relative accountability in which is HAS (partially) worked -- are at best myopic and at worst simply hypocrites. We know this is possible because it has happened and we are living proof.

Is it HARD? Are there always forces striving to end-run or suborn or corrupt or connive or capture…? Um… duh?

Dig this, I am the most radical and militant fellow on… this… freaking… planet. I just have a pretty clear historical perspective on what can and has worked. And it is NEVER the tempting allure of simplistic, dogmatic cynicism and doctrinal radicalism.

One thing has worked. And it is the things that I am a hollering radical about. Moderate and reasonable but utterly relentless reciprocal accountability. Transparency.

Encouraging citizens to be citizens. Us.

LarryHart said...

locumranch's non-evil personality:

Joseph Heller called this a 'Catch 22'. Barry Malzberg used this as a recurrent theme in his science fiction (see 'Final War'). Want freedom? Get money. Want money? Get education. Want education? Well, that takes lots of money, so you'll have to 'work it off' unless you are already rich. Employment is not guaranteed, btw. It is a privilege. It is also a binding 'obligation'. So, get to work, you dunce, because you've forfeited your freedom by your attempt to gain it.

To me, the fundamental flaw in the system is the failure to distinguish the commons (which we all share) and private property.

Air and water are two easy examples of what should belong to all who live here. It should not be the case that a private individual or corporation owns the means of survival, and that they can prevent others from drinking or breathing just because they can find other, more profitable uses for water and air than letting other human beings use it to continue their lives.

In an economy of scarce resources, it might make sense that hard work is a requirement for continued living. After all, if you are going to consume scarce material, you should at least do the work required to replenish it. If you're going to eat food, you have to do the work to grow it--that sort of thing.

It's a different sort of thing altogether for a handful of private entities to own all the food (or water, or shelter, or the money required to acquire any of those things), and to assert that your right to the very means of survival is something you must bargain with them for on their terms.

Arguments about "willingness to work" and such always conflate the two cases as if they are the same thing. If the latter is really true, then what's the point of even throwing around high-sounding words like "freedom" and "liberty"? In what sense is anyone free if they have no access to the means of survival other than through the grace of a master? And what does it matter whether that master is a government official or a corporate one?

Alex Tolley said...

Cynics who claim this cannot work -- while living in precisely the oasis of freedom and opportunity and relative accountability in which is HAS (partially) worked -- are at best myopic and at worst simply hypocrites. We know this is possible because it has happened and we are living proof.

To quote from financial prospectuses: "Past financial performance is no guarantee of future performance". That we have had a desirable democracy is no guarantee of its continuance. Just ask the Ancient Romans, who had a republic for 500 years, then lost that government to rule by an emperor and never regained their republic. A roman at any time for perhaps 100 years after Julius Caesar seized power could have made the same claim that because Rome had been organized as a republic, only cynics and hypocrites would say that it couldn't be returned to this form of government. Yet it never did.

The IG gambit is not going to work, IMO, for the reasons stated. The onus is on DB to show why the IG + other things will work, why the obvious points of failure are untrue and what specific features will ensure it works correctly for a reasonable period into the future. So far I do not see the case as even close to being convincingly laid out, and certainly with nothing as logically compelling as "inevitable transparency".

David Brin said...

AlexT did I ever say it would be easy? Or that it ever WAS easy?

At this critical phase, we must settle for nothing less than transparency all over the world, so that conspiracies will always be forced to be small and their henchmen very few, always lured by whistleblower rewards.

And that is the answer to the IGUS critics. Are you blind to that basic fact? That when you multiply the number of ways for plots to be seen and reported it hurts bad guys far more than in inconveniences decent folk?

IGUS by itself could be suborned and captured. Combined with other reforms and sousveillance methods, it could be powerful limiter on abuse of power.

I put it forward first because it it trivial to implement using current structures, and it would seem less threatening to agencies who already have IGs…

…but the real answer is this. "What's YOUR proposal?" A giant, all or nothing reform that can never pass? Something messianic? Or a cynical shrug?

greg bysehenk said...

Alex Tolley wrote:
Unless you can guarantee that teh corruptible will only be a tiny minority of the institution (nothing can be perfect), then this idea won't fly.
I'd suggest that the beauty of David's IGUS idea is that actually just the opposite is the case.

Corruption 'works' when those in power support it (or look the other way), and those lower in the order have no incentive to uncover it. It is hard to keep corruption or conspiracy running when anyone you might involve could be an honest person, with the ability and the duty to make things public.

Even assuming only one honest person in ten, how many would be willing to take a chance at lining their pockets a bit if the odds were even one in ten that they would be caught and prosecuted? (And the real odds are likely to be much worse for the corrupt, in a number of different ways.)

David Brin said...

gregb nailed the "henchman effect". Al we gotta do is make it too dangerous to trust more than 5 people in a criminal conspiracy.

Though I admit my "Manchurian GW Bush" conspiracy only needed two or three.

Paul451 said...

For some reason this appeals to me on the dystopian-SF level: Supposedly, criminals in the UK are using drones and IR cameras to identify marijuana "grow houses", then either stealing from or "taxing" the growers.

[Note: The article set my BS detector is tingling, but it amused me anyway.]

Jonathan Roth said...

I'd like to believe that transparency is enough, but I think Cory Doctorow pointed out that transparency by itself in not the same as action, and not enough.

Nixon never went to prison, nor Kissinger, MacNamara, George W. Bush, Wolfowitz, Rice, Gonzales, Yoo, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Blair, etc.

What good is knowing about their crimes, all of them, some of them, *any* of them, if there is never accountability?

I don't want to preach defeatism, but given how often "they get away with it" and given how the bill of rights and constitution as a whole seem to be "inoperative" these days, I'm not seeing a lot of cause for optimism. Obama keeps sending drones, the government keeps spying on everyone, and denying it, Guantanamo is as much open for business as it ever was, and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes.

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Tim H. said...

I'd have higher hopes for such a "IGUSA" once campaign finance can be reformed to the point where government would more or less representative again. Another point, unlimited campaign spending has ill-served conservatism as much as liberal-progressive politics, you only see what enormous money considers "Conservative" forget any conservative value that lacks immediate profitability.

locumranch said...

I agree with David that "it is the process of dividing authority, then dividing it again, and using transparency (and reciprocal accountability) to sic elites against each other" is a good tactic for dealing with the oligarchic rise, but I habour serious doubt about the appropriateness of this 'Divide & Conquer' strategy if balkanization & fragmentation is not your stated goal because 'A House divided against itself cannot stand'.

I do think that we can make a difference, save the planet (as it were) and reclaim our hope for a future past but, in order to do so, I believe that we must reexamine our most treasured & reflexive assumptions about our motivations, our polity & our once 'diamond-shaped' system.

Conversations for a later time:
Assume that most 'Small Businesses' are not small, that most of the polity are wage slaves and that Middle Class is dead. How did this happen? Where did they come from? Where did they go? And how can we help them rise again?


Alfred Differ said...

I suspect Snowden would have tried to go to work for the IGUS if it had existed. I don't doubt he would have brought what he knew to them if they were capable of political independence. That's enough of an argument in favor of an IGUS for me to consider it an experiment worth trying.

As for Nixon going to prison, it didn't happen formally, but he was treated in many of the same ways. Shunning a person who lives for the feedback they get from people around them (politicians) is pretty harsh. That might not be enough for those who want to extract a tooth for a tooth, but it is the next best thing.

Alex Tolley said...

@ greg bysehenk
So according to your analysis, corruption should be almost non-existent. And yet the real world is a counterfactual. BTW, Robert Axelrod did some game theory on "rotten apples" effect in organizations and showed that without punishment, the problem rapidly spread to the the stable state of everyone becoming bad.

Alfred Differ said...

I forget where I saw it, but both the henchmen risk and game theory explanation are true enough to help explain the complexity of our situation. The article went on to examine liberal democracies to see which ones were managing this best and to try to figure out why they were. Ultimately, it appears that cultures do best with this conflict if people believe they should 'do the right thing even when no one is watching.' If enough of us behave this way, it pushes the game theory best strategy toward a positive sum outcome because we believe others are doing it too. If few do it, we fall toward the negative sum strategies.

Alex Tolley said...

@DB …but the real answer is this. "What's YOUR proposal?" A giant, all or nothing reform that can never pass? Something messianic? Or a cynical shrug?

Nice try. Firstly you are begging the question of whether the problem even needs solving. You assume it does, and I don't disagree, but here is the Devil's Advocate argument against it:

The stable state of the political economy is the oligarchic/monarchic model with high wealth/income inequality. Much like your "transparency" argument, the economic logic supports it (c.f. Piketty). Therefore, we should not be surprised that oligarchs will use all means at their disposal to reinforce their position. They aren't stupid either, they know that they must support laws and their enforcement to be protected against the time the tumbrels might be what the citizen's want. I find it interesting that the one revolution that worked, the American Revolution, is held up as a model that worked and is proof that revolutions can work. In contrast, there have been many failed revolutions (e.g. Europe's 1848) and revolutions that succeeded, but slipped back from democracy/equality - Napoleonic France, Britain's Restoration Period, Russia's Revolution, to name a few that come to mind.
There are many people who openly opine for a "strong leader" in the US and are happy to support oligarchy/dictatorship.

Turning back to what might be a solution. Simple to formulate, hard to implement.
1. Strongly progressive taxation to reduce wealth inequality. Return to inheritance taxes for large fortunes. Remove tax incentives that aid cheating. Make hiding assets illegal.
2. Enforce the laws on even the connected. Nothing like knowing that real jail time is a possibility (non of this club Fed stuff either) to decrease the risk-reward ratio for cheating. This is the hard part. It requires the equivalent of Elliot Ness's "Untouchables". You want IG's. I would want teams in existing institutions charged with this task and given full support and no interference, whoever was the target. We know such people exist, as the are revealed when they are fired or moved to other positions when wealthy/connected targets complain.

LarryHart said...


For some reason this appeals to me on the dystopian-SF level: Supposedly, criminals in the UK are using drones and IR cameras to identify marijuana "grow houses", then either stealing from or "taxing" the growers.

Jeez, how long before those things can identify (at a distance) things like gold bars buried in the back yard or dollar bills stuffed in your mattress? Heck, for all we know, the latest incarnation of US currency has little GPS-locators woven into the threads.

With apologies to our host, that's a level of transparency I would not like to live to see.

David Brin said...

I agree with everything AlexT just said. Fine. But what are the passable increments?

Checking to see if Rod Serling is standing nearby… because I agree with locum (this time) as well.

LarryHart: don't fear the village, make it a friendly-tolerant one.

David Brin said...


Derrick Sly said...

I like to get in touch with the era that spawned the Constitution. The American Nation was much different then than it is now, but it definitely has a lot of similar elements. I try to get my hands on as much fiction as I can detailing said era.