Spooks and suits united: Bedfellows for country and bottom line

Editor’s note: This is an opinion column by George Salamon.

Richard Nixon once said, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Not many fellow Americans bought into his claim. What U.S. intelligence agencies (the NSA, CIA and FBI) are doing together with a huge number of American companies is perfectly legal, but some Americans are troubled by how they’re doing it.

Richard Riley broke the story June 14 on Bloomberg News: “U.S. Agencies Said to Swap Data With Thousands of Firms.” His story describes how “thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence.”

The troublesome part of this quid pro quo arrangement rests in that “in return receiving benefits” part of it. While no one on either end of the deal is acting in violation of any law (such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), the man and woman on the street might wonder why acting as a patriotic citizen reaps “benefits” for companies while it’s seen as civic duty for individuals.

Less troubling but also disturbing is that, as Riley points out, “the extensive cooperation between companies and intelligence agencies reaches deeply into many aspects of everyday life, though little of it is scrutinized by more than a small number of lawyers, company leaders and spies.” Maybe I’m a contrarian, but I really want things that “reach deeply into my everyday life” scrutinized by those entrusted with the responsibility to do so.

Yes, I’m talking about those elected to represent my interests in Washington, so the excuse for the absence of scrutiny quoted in Riley’s piece is pathetic: “The technology and technical policy is far outpacing the background and expertise of most elected members of Congress or of their staffs.” Oh, come on! Some of those splendidly credentialed boys and girls from Harvard and MIT who are annually recruited to serve in congressional offices could explain current technologies even to doddering senators and low-SAT-scoring members of the House.

They could then understand why Microsoft Corp. provides intelligence agencies with information about bugs in its popular software before it publicly releases a fix. In turn, they then could tell their constituents what they think of this practice and deal with the feedback from them.

And what do the companies receive in return? Well, “they are showered with attention and information by the agencies.” What could that possibly mean to them? The answer moves us a little closer to what the most valuable information their exercises in patriotism get them – namely, “warnings about threats that could affect their bottom line.”

Some readers in the United States and the United Kingdom offered jaundiced interpretations of the deal.

“It’s a scam to increase power for both companies and government at the expense of the American people,” wrote one from Denver.

“This sickens me,” another wrote to London’s Daily Mail.

Another reader glimpsed the big implications, comparing the relationship between agencies and companies to what happens in George Orwell’s 1945 novel “Animal Farm.”

There, where “All Animals Are Equal,” the afterthought that “Some Animals Are More Equal” trumps the initial one. The pigs form a partnership with the humans in running the farm, and when the other animals look through the window of the farmhouse, seeing the pigs and humans playing cards and drinking together, “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Will the American people outside the government-corporate farmhouse open their eyes and see what’s going on inside, and perhaps respond?

When pigs fly.

Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, and served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.