Politics & Policy

Tinker, Tailor, Stalker, Spy

In violations not just of NSA policy but of the law, agents spy on their romantic interests.

A private investigator once explained to me why he always turned down husband-and-wife cases: If your marriage has gone so sour that the best course of action you can think of is hiring a guy to spy on your spouse, then you don’t need an investigator — you need a minister, a therapist, or a good divorce lawyer. That has always seemed eminently sensible to me.

So how screwed up does your relationship have to be that getting the NSA involved sounds like a good idea?

Thanks to a Christmas Eve document dump, we learn that agents of the National Security Agency, the spookiest spooks in all our vast spookocracy, are a bunch of stalkers, using the effectively boundless surveillance powers of their organization to spy on husbands and wives, overseas girlfriends, and sundry romantic partners. And that’s our government at work: While the guys who are supposed to be keeping an eye on Gordon Gekko are keeping their eyes on marathon porn sessions instead, the guys who are supposed to be putting a hurt on Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad are trying to figure out whether their girlfriends are browsing Tinder. One curious analyst targeted the numbers in her husband’s telephone directory. Another spied on his wife, who was stationed overseas.

As usual, basically nothing happened to the wrongdoers — working for the government means facing no real consequences for real crimes. Yes, crimes: These actions do not represent mere violations of NSA policies — there were plenty of those, too; more on that in a bit — but willful violations of the law. One offender retired before the investigation of his crimes was complete; others were merely reprimanded; the fellow caught spying on his wife abroad was docked a month’s pay. Who these offenders are remains unknown, as the reports are heavily redacted. Funny thing, that: These criminals, some of them still employed by the NSA, intentionally used the awesome power of a federal spy agency to violate American citizens’ privacy, but the NSA is all discretion when it comes to the privacy of the criminals on its payroll.

Thought experiment: If you, citizen, were caught illegally using an NSA database to check up on that girl you met on OkCupid, what do you think would happen? Do you reckon that you’d get a cease-and-desist letter — or that you’d be scooped up by a team of thick-necked men with very short haircuts and dumped in the darkest oubliette Uncle Sam has available?

Of course, there is precedent for tolerating this sort of thing. If you’re former presidential adviser Sandy Berger, you can loot classified documents out of the National Archives and face practically zilch in terms of real consequences: We still do not even know for sure what classified terrorism documents Berger stole and destroyed to protect Bill Clinton’s reputation (Mrs. Clinton subsequently gave him a job as an adviser) in the course of his comical docs-in-my-socks caper. Nobody seems to want very badly to know what Berger stole, and of course some people want very badly not to know. For his crimes (which were knocked down to a misdemeanor) Berger received a small fine and a temporary — temporary! — revocation of his security clearance.

This is an inversion of the right order. In a sane society, people entrusted with state power — from NSA agents down to traffic cops — would be held to a higher standard rather than a lower one, and sanctioned more severely for wrongdoing rather than less.

The problem for the NSA and other intelligence organizations is that we expect their agents to do the occasional creepy and possibly illegal deed — in pursuance of their mission — but we cannot openly bless those deeds.

In a free and open society, there is a generally unspoken understanding between the citizens and the intelligence forces: We the people understand that they’re going to necessarily conduct themselves in a nefarious fashion from time to time, bending or breaking some laws along the way. We know this: That’s what spies do, being a necessary evil that is no less evil for being so acutely necessary. The spooks’ end of the bargain is: being good at what they do, not comporting themselves like a bunch of jackasses, and getting really bendy with the situational ethics only when doing so advances some legitimate national-security interest. Operation Mincemeat we can live with; Operation Stalk My Girlfriend we cannot. Little hypocrisies are the lubricant of a free society. In the case of our spy agencies, we don’t want to be paying too close attention to what they’re up to, because, if we did, we’d probably feel the need to intervene more than we do. So it’s in everybody’s best interest — cynical though it may be — that they do not give us too much reason to give them the hairy eyeball.

And here is the second source of concern in the documents: NSA agents are not only naughty — they’re sloppy. Records were sent to people without clearance to receive them, surveillance was conducted improperly inside the United States, data was stored in unsecured computers, records that were supposed to be destroyed slipped through the cracks, etc. For spy agencies, holding up their end of the unspoken bargain means not getting their secrets hijacked by a nobody such as PFC Bradley Manning or a contractor such as Edward Snowden. It means not forgetting to destroy files and not leaving them on computers that are vulnerable to intrusion. It means doing the job we entrust them to do.

And for you suspicious husbands and wives on the national-security payroll, it means doing your mate-stalking on Google like an ordinary schmo.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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