This is a story about more than just the national security implications of government surveillance, but it begins there.
The New York Times reported in a front page story earlier this month that the Central Intelligence Agency is paying AT&T in excess of $10 million annually for information from the company’s telephone records, including the international calls of U.S. citizens. The article pointed out that this work "is conducted under a voluntary contract, not under subpoenas or court orders compelling the company to participate, according to officials." The story adds yet another chapter to the still-unfolding revelations about National Security Agency surveillance. Every week seems to bring new reports about the close and almost seamless ties that bind the several intelligence agencies to the huge telecom and broadband companies that bestride our nation’s communications infrastructure.
When I became a Member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2001, I assumed I would be privy to at least a credible amount of information about what the companies under FCC oversight were doing behind the scenes. My expectations went unfulfilled.
Did I expect the nation’s most sensitive intelligence information to be shared with me? No, I did not. But would it have been helpful for me to know more about how the industry executives who visited me on a whole range of non-national security communications industry issues were at the same time working hand-in-glove with the White House and these secretive agencies on a far more intimate and confidential basis than I was? Yes, absolutely.
Warnings about various special interest-government complexes hearken back to President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech wherein he warned of the dangers that the military-industrial complex held for democratic government. Historians consider Ike’s admonition as a high-point of his Presidency. Since that speech almost 53 years ago, the influence of special interests and corporate power has only grown -- at the White House, in Congress, and among the federal agencies.
Maybe I’m a slow learner, or maybe I just wasn’t supposed to know, but it finally dawned on me that the CEOs and top management who came calling on me at the FCC were far better informed and connected than I was -- because their companies were the ones running these sensitive monitoring and surveillance operations in behalf of the national security agencies. It was, very often, their workers and their technologies that drove the process. Meanwhile, industry leaders themselves served on such influential but hush-hush boards as The President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee.
As I began to grasp the power of these huge companies to leverage their influence on non-national security matters, I also began to understand that my influence as a Commissioner at an independent federal agency was more limited than I had thought. In a lengthy July 25, 2013 article in the National Journal, Chief Correspondent Michael Hirsh traced in considerable detail how our nation’s leading telecom and tech companies supported -- and even helped create -- the “surveillance state.” It is, of course, a story going back long before Iraq and Afghanistan to the days of World War II, and it’s the stuff of a thriller novel -- except it’s not that entertaining.
Hirsh tells how the NSA became an influential voice in the evolution of our communications systems, becoming a “major presence” in such seemingly non-defense decisions as industry mergers and consolidations. But these transactions weren’t “non-defense” to the intelligence agencies. On the contrary, it was easier and more efficient for the agencies to deal with huge industry players where the number of decision-makers was narrowed and where the sheer power of size helped get the national security job done.
It wasn’t news to me that these huge companies wielded far-reaching power all across Washington. I just didn’t realize how much power until I had been there a while. Then I began to think: what difference does it make if one or two Commissioners at the FCC don’t approve of a pending merger between telecom giants? (And, goodness knows, there are plenty of such transactions!) I conjured up images of a national security agency meeting at the White House and someone saying, “This guy Copps down at the FCC is opposed to this merger.” And I could envision a White House or national security type saying, “So what? These companies are working with us on all kinds of secret projects, and that takes precedence over any Commissioner’s worries about diminishing competition in communications or about consumer protection.”
And so the consolidation bazaar rolls on, companies continue to merge, and we find ourselves in a world wherein a few dominant players drive the last spikes into the coffin of competition. I am not arguing that national security concerns alone brought us to this point; there are plenty of other reasons that Big Telecom wants to grow even bigger. I am saying that both parties to this national security-communications industry complex derived great benefits (in their eyes) from this partnership. I am saying the tentacles of this cooperative enterprise reach widely and deeply into many aspects of our national life. And I am saying the American people need to know more -- much more -- about this.
We can argue the pros and cons of national security surveillance, and it is a debate worth having. But this debate needs to be informed by facts. Maybe we can’t have all the facts in all their detail, but certainly we need more than we presently possess. There is a point where national security depends upon secrecy. There is also a point where national security depends upon sunlight. The balance is sadly out-of-whack right now, and we are paying the price in the loss of government credibility both at home and abroad.
Finally, we need to conduct this discussion in a broader context because it is part of even larger issues. Every day brings non-national security revelations about companies developing and deploying new ways to invade our personal space, capture every available fact about our daily lives and habits, and share them for purely commercial benefit. This is not an issue separate from what I have been discussing in this piece. And, as deeply troubling as the privacy and consumer issues are, the implications for democracy are just as severe. Open communications are a prerequisite of self-government. Any short-circuiting of this openness diminishes the ability of free people to chart their own democratic future.
[The Benton Foundation publishes articles penned by Commissioner Copps each month for our Digital Beat Blog.]