Stephen M. Walt

NSA Spying: Where’s the Beef?

NSA Spying: Where’s the Beef?

I have a question about the diplomatic value of all the NSA spying we’ve been reading about lately: Where’s the tangible payoff for all this activity? With each week, it seems, we learn more about just how active and energetic the NSA has been. They’ve spied on our enemies, they’ve spied on our closest allies, and they’ve spied on us. The NSA’s defenders have made various claims about thwarting terrors plots and the like, but these claims don’t seem to stand up too much scrutiny. I repeat: Where are the big foreign policy and national security gains that we’re reaping from this work?

As a realist, I’m neither surprised nor horrified to learn that governments spy on each other, or that a wealthy, powerful, self-important, and slightly paranoid country like the United States might…ahem…do a bit more of it than others. But this unthinking, unstrategic Hoovering of data, megadata, and actual conversations is obviously out of control, and the diplomatic and other costs could easily outstrip any putative benefits.

In particular, given our capacity and willingness to spy on virtually everyone, you’d think that American diplomats would be entering foreign policy contests and diplomatic negotiations with an enormous advantage over their counterparts. If we’re as good at extracting private information from other countries’ networks, cell phones, emails, and the like, you’d think U.S. officials would usually have a good idea of our antagonists’ bottom line and would be really skilled at manipulating them to our advantage. We now know that the Allies in World War II got big strategic benefits from cracking German and Japanese codes; I want to know if we’re getting similar benefits today.

It is hard to believe we are, given that America’s foreign policy record since the end of the Cold War is mostly one of failure. And that leads me to suspect that one of two things is true. Either 1) the NSA is good at collecting gazilla-bytes of stuff but not very good at deciding what to collect or figuring out what it means, or 2) the rest of our foreign policy establishment is not very good at taking advantage of the information the NSA has worked so hard to acquire. In other words, either the NSA is not worth the money we’re paying for it, or the rest of our foreign policy establishment is less competent than we thought. To be frank, I’m not sure which possibility I prefer.

There is a third possibility, of course: The kind of information that the NSA is good at getting isn’t that useful for most policy problems. They collect it because that is what they are able to do — like the proverbial drunkard looking for lost keys under the lamppost "because that’s where the light is" — but the overwhelming majority of it doesn’t really aid our foreign policy (or our counterterrorism efforts) very much. One might say the same for the vast majority of stuff that the U.S. government now classifies. Which raises the worrisome question of whether we are unwittingly laying the groundwork for a much more intrusive authoritarian state without getting much compensating benefits.

Given how ossified and entrenched government bureaucracies tend to be, I doubt another Church Committee-style congressional inquiry is going to have much effect on this problem. Instead, it seems to me that what we need is a real root-and-branch investigation that fearlessly probes the costs and benefits of these activities. And it can’t be done by pre-neutered Congressional watchdogs whose sympathies are clear. To be both effective and credible, we’d need an independent task force of intelligence professionals, civil liberties experts, highly skeptical journalists (Jane Mayer or Glenn Greenwald, anyone?), some seasoned but sensible politicians, and maybe a smart academic or two. Otherwise, I suspect we’ll get a whitewash, and a rapid return to business-as-usual.