By  – Alex WellersteinWhy are the likes of Sen. Dianne Feinsteinso supportive of wide-reaching National Security Agency surveillance even as polls show a majority of Americans horrified by such intrusions? At the risk of venturing into paranoid territory, could it be that the NSA has gone all J. Edgar and compiled compromising information about officials who might otherwise be a bit less enthusiastic about snooping? That’s what Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union wonders, and he has some evidence to support his theory.

Writes Stanley:

Sometimes when I hear public officials speaking out in defense of NSA spying, I can’t help thinking, even if just for a moment, “what if the NSA has something on that person and that’s why he or she is saying this?”

Of course it’s natural, when people disagree with you, to at least briefly think, “they couldn’t possibly really believe that, there must be some outside power forcing them to take that position.” Mostly I do not believe that anything like that is now going on.

But I cannot be 100% sure, and therein lies the problem. The breadth of the NSA’s newly revealed capabilities makes the emergence of such suspicions in our society inevitable. Especially given that we are far, far away from having the kinds of oversight mechanisms in place that would provide ironclad assurance that these vast powers won’t be abused. And that highlights the highly corrosive nature of allowing the NSA such powers. Everyone has dark suspicions about their political opponents from time to time, and Americans are highly distrustful of government in general. When there is any opening at all for members of the public to suspect that officials from the legislative and judicial branches could be vulnerable to leverage from secretive agencies within the executive branch—and when those officials can even suspect they might be subject to leverage—that is a serious problem for our democracy.

Stanley has more than speculation to go on. He points to an interview with former NSA analyst and whistleblower Russ Tice, who claims the Bush administration unleashed the NSA on Barack Obama back in 2004. He also told an interviewer just this summer that surveillance of high-ranking officials was a common procedure for his former employers.

From Washington’s Blog:

Tice: Okay. They went after–and I know this because I had my hands literally on the paperwork for these sort of things–they went after high-ranking military officers; they went after members of Congress, both Senate and the House, especially on the intelligence committees and on the armed services committees and some of the–and judicial. But they went after other ones, too. They went after lawyers and law firms. All kinds of–heaps of lawyers and law firms. They went after judges. One of the judges is now sitting on the Supreme Court that I had his wiretap information in my hand. Two are former FISA court judges. They went after State Department officials. They went after people in the executive service that were part of the White House–their own people. They went after antiwar groups. They went after U.S. international–U.S. companies that that do international business, you know, business around the world. They went after U.S. banking firms and financial firms that do international business. They went after NGOs that–like the Red Cross, people like that that go overseas and do humanitarian work.

Tice explicitly says such scrutiny made subjects susceptible to blackmail. And while his experience is some years old, other whistleblowers suggest the practice continues.

William Binney, another former NSA officer, told frequent spy-documenter James Bamford that he and J. Kirk Wiebe approached the Obama administration about putting safeguards on data collection and were brushed off. “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,” Binney told Bamford.

That’s a soothing thought on the day that the Washington Post reveals that the NSA harvests personal contact lists from around the world, building roadmaps of our connections and relationships that can be very revealing about our lives. Our contacts and connections are just the sort of information that can become part of an awkward dossier. The sort of awkward dossier that elicits cooperative behavior from officials who’d rather their lives be kept under wraps.

It’s not like blackmail has never been used by government officials before. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was said to be quite the master of turning inconvenient secrets into cooperative behavior.

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