Sen. John McCain is a stalwart of the Senate, a former candidate for president, prisoner of war and fighter pilot. As such, his voice is among the most prominent of the American Congress, and when he speaks, foreign powers listen in order to get a feel of the wind of our political climate.
So his words matter. Sen. McCain recently gave an interview to the German Der Spiegel, a paper that has taken part in breaking the intelligence releases related to and stemming from the Edward Snowden leaks. His responses to select questions, including agreeing that NSA chief Keith Alexander “should resign or be fired”, are important to read because they demonstrate views that I think are annoyingly pro-NSA, as they shape that side of the political spectrum.
The full interview is quite obviously worth reading, but I will present you with a few excerpts that relate to the ongoing privacy scandal, followed by short commentary.
SPIEGEL: Senator McCain, do you still use your cell phone?
McCain: Yes, because I don’t say anything that I am concerned about being publicized.
Off the bat, I disagree with the Senator on why we should protect the privacy of individual communications, most especially here at home. The overtones here are that privacy doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide. You should have no fear about having zilch in terms of protection of your communication in that case. This is fallacious.
Also, McCain does have things that he doesn’t want publicized. Private calls with his family about medical issues. Campaign plans. Donor call sheets. His views on current issues that might not match his public stance as he works through difficult political issues. What he thinks of certain Senate colleagues. The list goes on.
It’s important to keep the above perspective in mind as McCain answers questions regarding your privacy, as he doesn’t seem to want much for himself.
SPIEGEL: Can you understand why German Chancellor Angela Merkel was so upset by the revelation that her cell phone had been monitored?
McCain: Yes, absolutely. A certain amount of eavesdropping goes on amongst friends. We all know that. But it happens to be my personal opinion that the German chancellor’s personal cell phone is not something that should be eavesdropped.
The key here is that the Senator is opposed to monitoring the cell phone of the Chancellor. How did it happen? Well, he has an opinion on that:
SPIEGEL: Why did the NSA do it then?
McCain: The reason I think they did it is because they could do it. In other words, there were people with enhanced capabilities that have been developed over the last decade or so, and they were sitting around and said we can do this, and so they did it.
Bingo. This is a brilliant answer. The idiom that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail is apt, but insufficient. The NSA is a modern hammer, itching to find a nail to prove its worth as it spends billions each year.
Also the Senator’s comments are perfect commentary as to why the NSA must be reined in: If we grant it increasing power, stuff of this sort will only continue at a quicker pace, as its technology – and, apparently, therefore its hubris – grow.
SPIEGEL: Are the intelligence services out of control?
McCain: There has not been sufficient congressional oversight, and there has been an absolutely disgraceful sharing of information that never should have taken place.
The first part of McCain’s comment relates to oversight, the second to sharing information with those who might not need it, such as contractors and Private Chelsea Manning. The questioning continues:
SPIEGEL: You mean Private First Class Bradley Manning, now Chelsea, who leaked thousands of secret documents to Wikileaks.
McCain: And now we have a contractor employee, not a government employee, who has access to information which is, when revealed, most damaging to the standing prestige of the United States and our relations with some of our best friends. Why did Edward Snowden have that information? And what are we doing as far as screening people who have access to this information? It’s outrageous, and someone ought to be held accountable.
I think that the damage to America is more internal than external due not to the revelations, but instead due to the degradation of the Constitutional right to privacy that the revelations unveiled. The senator appears to disagree.
SPIEGEL: Who must be held accountable?
McCain: The head of the NSA, the president of the United States, the Congressional Intelligence Committees, all of these contractors we pay that were responsible for performing the background checks. There should be a wholesale housecleaning.
SPIEGEL: Should Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, resign?
McCain: Of course, they should resign or be fired. We no longer hold anybody accountable in Washington.
So close, senator. Yes, General Keith Alexander should resign, but not for the leaks, but for what the leaks disclosed. His actions, not his failure to not have his actions reported on are why he should be shown the door, and if he fails to walk through it, be given the boot.
Finally, later on in the interview, McCain draws the line on the limits of what surveillance should be able to collect, and answered that the “limit should be the potential damage to relations with that country. In other words, is it worth the collateral damage that could result in those techniques being revealed?” As TechDirt points out, McCain did not mention the privacy of either U.S. or global citizens.
Above, the likely consensus view of Washington. Something to think on.
Top Image Credit: Flickr