Support independent, student-run journalism.

Your support helps give staff members from all backgrounds the opportunity to conduct meaningful reporting on important issues at Stanford. All contributions are tax-deductible.

The NSA’s culture of paternalism must be fixed

I was always confused by the claim, made by representatives of the National Security Agency, that they were working to defend our American freedom, as their program of universal surveillance seems to be one of the greatest threats to it. The reasoning behind this apparent contradiction was recently elucidated by Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA.

In his Oct. 8 talk at Stanford University, Hayden explained that, if faced with another great terrorist attack, the American people may feel compelled to renounce their rights in the name of security. However, according to Hayden, the NSA cannot thwart another attack without encroaching upon some of our freedoms. Therefore, in order to avoid the possibility of losing all our freedoms in the future, we must surrender a few of them today, or as Hayden put it, “We will keep America free by making Americans feel safe again.”

Not only did this explanation finally clarify what had previously been to me a very confusing idea, it also confirmed what I had already come to suspect: namely, that high-ranking officials from the NSA possess a paternalistic and condescending attitude toward the American people. The fundamental premise of Hayden’s argument is that the American people are like children, who must not only be protected from external threats, but also from themselves.

It is highly implausible that anyone who takes such a dim view of the general public would be a great admirer of democracy, and indeed, Hayden seems to bear toward democracy at best a grudging acceptance. He conceded, in a nod toward democracy, that the NSA’s recently-revealed program of universal surveillance should be altered in response to the popular outrage against it. However, a true friend of democracy would never have acted without the consent of the people, and certainly would never have concealed from them the actions of their own government.

A liberal democracy like ours must suffer from a strange inversion of principles if its public officials work to undermine not only liberty, but also popular sovereignty. Yet Hayden insists that our government officials can rightfully act in secret, against the will of the people, so long as they believe they act in the best interest of the state. According to Hayden, if the people are disturbed by this indifference to their consent, our officials should give them “enough information to at least tolerate, if not support, what the government does to keep them safe.”

I would hesitate to criticize so accomplished a man if these faults were of merely minor importance and peculiar to him, but the disrespect shown to Congress by National Intelligence Director James Clapper, the audacity displayed by the Obama Administration in spying on journalists and the brazen shamelessness of the NSA with regard to its unconstitutional surveillance indicate that the imperious and patronizing attitude underlying Hayden’s remarks is unfortunately not unique, but is common among many of our leading officials.

Their actions would be justified if our government officials were correct in their low estimation of the general public, but it is not through foolishness or childish docility, but rather through lack of vigilance that we have permitted them to violate our rights and usurp our sovereignty. Now that we know how our officials have acted when out of public view, we must respond to their breach of our trust by reminding them that we are still citizens of a democracy, and that the just powers of our government are derived only from the consent of the governed.

Robert Moffatt is a graduate student in Physics and can be contacted at rmoffatt ‘at’ stanford.edu.

While you're here...

We're a student-run organization committed to providing hands-on experience in journalism, digital media and business for the next generation of reporters. Your support makes a difference in helping give staff members from all backgrounds the opportunity to develop important professional skills and conduct meaningful reporting. All contributions are tax-deductible.