Motive, Means, and Opportunity: Why NSA Secrecy Should Worry Us All

No profile picture available.

Even if you haven’t studied criminal law, you’ll immediately understand the concept of motive, means, and opportunity.  Motive is you wanted to kill the victim.  Means is you were holding a loaded gun. Opportunity is the victim was standing right in front of you. Without all three, you can’t have a motive-based crime.

When it comes to domestic dissent, the government always has a motive. It’s just human nature to see ourselves as noble and good and our detractors as malignant.  And indeed, the historical evidence for the proposition that governments tend to view dissenters as the enemy is overwhelming: see CointelproProject Minaret; and Project Shamrock for just a few recent historical examples, or the Obama administration’s unprecedented campaign against whistleblowers for something more contemporary. Glenn Greenwald has more in an excerpt from his new book, No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State (#6 in the Amazon store so far, and it’s only been on sale for a few hours).

So the government will always by virtue of human nature itself have a motive to take action against dissent. It’s critical, therefore, that the government be denied means and opportunity. And this is what’s so alarming about everything Edward Snowden has revealed to us. The programs — Boundless Informant and Prism and XKeyScore and far too many others to list here (thank you, Wikipedia are the means.  Secrecy is the opportunity. Combine new programs with ever more far-reaching secrecy and the motive that will always exist, and you get what NSA whistleblower William Binney called “turnkey totalitarianism.”

Of course, the national surveillance state wants us to think that whatever dangers might be inherent in this unprecedented combination of governmental motive, means, and opportunity, it’s all worth it because otherwise The Terrorists will slaughter us all in our beds. Which is why it’s so important that journalists call bullshit on this tactic, and prove that in fact much of America’s gargantuan surveillance apparatus is directed at industrial espionage, not terrorists. If we want to risk the likely results of a system of turnkey totalitarianism to make ourselves safe from The Terrorists, I guess that’s one thing (although…really?). But running those risks for some marginal economic advantage? That’s another conversation entirely, and apparently one the national surveillance state doesn’t want to have, given how much lying it does about what these surveillance programs are about. 

And look, I’m sure the national surveillance state is staffed and run by many well-intentioned people   This is as universally true as it is irrelevant, despite the strenuous efforts of authoritarians like Alan “torture warrants” Dershowitz and former CIA and NSA head Michael Hayden to argue otherwise.  People almost always think their motives are good, even when they’re doing terrible things.  There’s even a name for this profound aspect of human nature:  the Fundamental Misattribution Error   We judge ourselves (and the organizations, factions, countries, and cultures with whom we identify) by our intentions and others by their actions.  (Here’s Digby with some thoughts on an amazingly pristine example of the FMA at work in the mind of reporter Matt Bai as forgives all the sins of former president Bush because he knows they were well intentioned.)

As the NSA itself says in its own slides, it aims to “Collect it All”... “Process it All”... “Exploit it All”... “Partner it All”... “Sniff it All”... “Know it All.” They don’t just have the motive, they’ve told us they have it. If they get away with means and opportunity, as well, we won’t be able to say we weren’t warned.

Barry Eisler is a best-selling thriller author who spent three years in a covert position at the CIA Directorate of Operations. You can read more about his work at his website