Idols of the Tribe – by James A. Lewis

I’m tired of being spun. The New York Times has an agenda, the Snowden handlers have an agenda, and they control the narrative to serve their agenda. It’s not honest. NSA breaking the rules doesn’t justify a phony narrative by critics. Far too many people fall for the spin because it fits what they want to believe.

Let’s take the New York Times story on Sunday about NSA spying on American lawyers. It could be ignorance, or it could be selecting only facts that fit a story. The Australians spy on Indonesia for good reason—the Australian Attorney General said at a conference I attended in 2013 that communications surveillance had stopped “four mass casualty events.” That’s his term, “mass casualty,” and he meant Bali style bombings. This was a government conference, largely police and security types, so there was no incentive for him to make things up.

The reporters probably didn’t know this and we don’t know if they made an effort to find out. So the Australians are sitting on Indonesian networks and they come across trade negotiations assisted by an American law firm. They ask, “NSA, what should we do?” NSA says, “keep collecting, but minimize.” Minimization means that the data on US persons is not sent to the US. US persons aren’t identified. US law is not circumvented by having allies collect on Americans. NSA told the Australians they can’t collect on Americans and then share it with them. But minimization didn’t appear in the story at all. Maybe the reporters didn’t know about it.

Then we had the old apples and oranges trick. The US gets intelligence on trade negotiations, the New York Times calls this economic espionage, and therefore the US claims that it doesn’t engage in economic espionage are false, the implication being that it acts just like China. I’m not sure which kind of fallacy best describes this, but it’s probably “undistributed middle.” It’s sleight of hand. The US says it doesn’t steal intellectual property or confidential business information to give its companies a competitive advantage. I’ve been in the room when US officials have told other governments, “yes, we spy on economic activities like trade negotiations and foreign corrupt practices, but we don’t use espionage to help our companies.” We’re talking about two different things, let’s avoid the New York Times’ error and not pretend they are the same.

Nor did the reporters ask a very basic question about effect. Australia gave the US information on Indonesian negotiating positions on shrimp and clove cigarettes, and the US conceded the issues. Do we know if there was a connection? Nobody asked.

If this had been a paper I reviewed, I would have sent it back for revision, saying you’ve left out essential facts and need to do more research. People don’t like mass surveillance or espionage; I don’t like mass hypocrisy. Bacon called this fallacy “Idols of the Tribe,” where preferred conclusions take precedence over methodological enquiry. The tribe prefers the NSA story as it is being spun, a Hollywood spy movie. And until that changes, we’ll just have to live through a storm of half-truths and misrepresentation.

About James A. Lewis

James Andrew Lewis is a senior fellow and program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) where he writes on international affairs and technology. Lewis led the U.S. delegation to the Wassenaar Arrangement Experts Group on advanced civil and military technologies. He is an internationally recognized expert on cyber security and has authored numerous publications since coming to CSIS, including the bestselling Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency. Lewis was the rapporteur for the UN’s 2010 and 2012-13 Group of Government Experts on Information Security and led a long running track II dialogue on cyber security with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. Lewis is frequently quoted in the media and has testified numerous times before Congress. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

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