Episode 45: James Bamford
James Bamford is an author and journalist who has written extensively about the National Security Agency. His books include The Puzzle Palace, Body of Secrets, and The Shadow Factory. He has also produced a documentary for NOVA on PBS. We learned about James last year through a Wired article about the NSA’s new data center in Bluffdale, Utah.
My conversation with James covers several topics that have been missing from The Conversation thus far: privacy, surveillance, and the threat of totalitarian government. As a result, this episode has few overt connections to the rest of the project, but there are underlying commonalities. From Chuck Collins to David Korten, we have heard thinkers concerned with hyperindividualism in its economic and social manifestations. On the other end of the spectrum, we have David Miller and Robert Zubrin who are worried about the possibility for collective regulation to dampen individual creativity and enterprise. James departs from all of these conversations and examines how the individual/community tension plays out in the realm of security and personal liberty.
Micah, Neil, and I conclude the episode with an attempt to better integrate James into the rest of the project. Somehow, this leads us into a discussion of what government is for and if an apathetic democracy is worth preserving.
I recently failed out of one of my programming classes. I suppose half of it was my fault — I mean, I acknowledge some failure of my own, as I was feeling worn out from a difficult semester. It’s curious though. How exactly was it that I failed at something I am otherwise very able at doing? In some ways, it was because I did not feel like I had to retain any information of my own accord, and that led to my downfall.
I learned very early on that programming is the art of building from research. To outright memorize anything other than the syntax of a language is usually time not well spent. There is simply too much to know. When I’m on the job and need something quick that I can’t remember off the back of my hand, a search to stackexchange will usually help out. If the Internet is having a slow fit, then I have around two full shelves worth of programming-related textbooks that I’ve all skimmed in one form or another. As long as I’m learned enough to know *what* I’m looking for, a quick check to the index at the back of the book will usually get me the page numbers I need. I hardly ever am on the job without the Internet or my book collection on hand.
So even though I don’t know a lot at any given point, it is an ignorance I am comfortable having. If I need to know something, I have the resources such that I can quickly learn it, and with enough previous practice to do so without hassle. (For that class, we had two textbooks for reference: a very good one and a very bad one. We were only allowed to bring the bad one with us for reference during exams. Understandably, this was not a very comfortable position.)
I feel this type of “comfortable ignorance” is exactly what the NSA was built in order to achieve. Their actions don’t seem [too] irrational under this assumption. They wouldn’t be out to try and collect such a completely massive amount of information if they didn’t think it helped in some form or another. They must collect all known information. They must collect all unknown information. They must have all the information, just in case they will ever need it.
When they see the world as a threatening place — as the NSA likely did during its formative years during the cold war where a mysterious, unknown, technologically advanced enemy was out to destroy everything (maybe) — and you are charged with the (largely impossible) task of finding things out before they actually happen regarding things you don’t (and couldn’t even possibly) know about, a logical path to take would indeed be buying a state of comfortable ignorance. … at the cost of an XX billion dollar money drain of a military-surveillance complex, no less.
With your taxpayer dollars, incredibly nervous leaders/administrators/managers exposed to the stress of continued public scrutiny to the point where the people they represent antagonize them, felt the need to buy this form of comfortable ignorance. This way, they can know with absolute certainty just how little of a threat you are to them. With this herring, they can protect themselves against anything and everything, right?
Only it protects against nothing. 9/11 still happened. Congresswoman Giffords was still shot. I still failed the exams. Etcetera, etcetera. Comfortable ignorance is still ignorance. It is a fallacy in human thought induced by exposure to prolonged stress. The result is irrational behavior.
You can see the result of this irrational behavior in many recent examples. The world hegemon sees its enemies, not in other advanced countries who seek to usurp it, but in underdeveloped nations without the advanced and standardized communications infrastructure to spy on. They are information black holes — the last bastions of true uncertainty. It’s why North Korea, proudly announcing to the world its rouge-state nuclear arsenal which it is biting at the bit to try out all the countries in the world, doesn’t really scare us at all. But Iran? Iran, who *might* (or might not) be interested (devoted? or just passing?) in *possibly(?)* making a nuclear bomb? Oh! That terrifies us! … somehow!
Is it that so much information might be just too much for even the shrewdest program to select the right paths to follow to indicate the possibility of your 9/11?
there was a point in the interview where someone said some crisies or catastrophes are just so brain changingly obvious everyone gets it and has chance to change too, and used example of 9/11. This is probably not the massive thing to many other people in the world though. In Bangladesh with rising water eating up all you and your ancestors have ever had to maintain themselves and there’s no recompense coming from whoever caused this anytime soon, if you had the power to get them to take responsibility, which you dont, 9/11 may not have registered much on your neuro receptors. Nor on many pacific islands and in many other places only in the most negative ways. It is interesting to see how this assumption that what’s important to us, in the US, must so too be to the world at large pops up even in a situation like this program, which is intending to question. And even I, in a first world (though I question the attribution myself!) country speaking english, notice this and think “Huh, that’s not me.” How much more so will your Nth Korean, Iranian et al? In the interest of global feedback and all that.