Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The NSA–Why They May Be Delivering What You Demanded

Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves. - Abraham Lincoln

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. - Benjamin Franklin

This blog is not a typical blog post but is in fact a paper that I wrote that some asked to see as an example of the material I write outside of public scrutiny.

It is deep, dry and academic.  If you don’t like such things, please come back later. Smile


In the months that followed since Edward Snowden released classified documentation where he revealed the breadth and depth of surveillance activities carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA), there has been much debate about whether the NSA has overstepped its bounds morally, ethically and legally. There is great uncertainty about how far the surveillance actually goes, how far it will go in the future and what the impact will be on the personal freedoms of citizens now and in the future. Some have even suggested that such surveillance is the final piece of evidence implying that the theme of lack of individual citizen rights as expressed in novels such as George Orwell’s 1984[i] are about to be realized.

Whether or not citizens of the United States or other nations are in favor of such surveillance, I posit that neo-institutional theory demonstrates that such surveillance is not only inevitable, but in fact that people inadvertently demand such surveillance or demand it through implication, only to be unhappy when they see what the results of those inadvertent or implied demands are. I also posit that the concept of institutional isomorphism (how an organization forms, develops, spreads, and becomes legitimate) can be clearly applied to the NSA, demonstrating how it may slowly evolve from an institution that people fear, distrust or dislike into an organization that people will willingly submit to in order to protect themselves and their family. I will not be discussing whether such an evolution of the NSA is right or not as such a topic is based largely on perspective.

As context for my discussion, I will be leveraging my 30-year career as a strategy advisor to Wall St., Fortune 25, military and government groups.

In Scott’s Institutional Theory[ii] and Managing Institutional Environments[iii], Scott suggests that institutions exert influence in one or more of three different ways:

1. Regulatory influence - constraining behavior through rules and inducements of behavior.

2. Normative influence – guiding behavior through a logic of appropriateness and a sense of duty or an awareness of what one is "supposed" to do.

3. Cognitive influence – guiding behavior as a result of preconceived notions or conceptions.

When the events of 9/11 had taken place and the initial grieving and outrage had passed, citizens of the US demanded that their government protect them from the possibility of similar events in the future. In order to comply with such demands, the US Government recognized that the sweeping powers necessary to accomplish such a task would require:

1. Regulatory influence, passing the laws to enable what the government perceived to be “the right actions” moving forward.

2. Normative influence, explaining through a massive campaign of information or misinformation (depending on the information and perspective) that what the government and the citizens were doing together was “the right way” for the safety of American citizens and their families

3. Cognitive influence, explaining that action not taken today will produce greater risk for the safety of the nation moving forward, making it imperative to take action “right now”.

In essence, the demand of the American people and the response by the US Government, including the NSA, could be summarized as “we need to take the right actions, the right way, right now”. Unfortunately, there was a disconnect between the implied demand and the response to that demand.

One of the greatest challenges that the NSA and other groups recognized early was that while they were satisfying a “demand” from the people, it was possible that the people might quickly discover that the solution was much more heavy-handed than they had anticipated.

It was therefore deemed imperative that the Government find a way to rationalize their efforts in a manner that appeared to be in alignment with the needs of the people and with that, the Government began a process of using rationalized myths to justify their actions.

Rowan and Meyer in Institutional Organizations: Formal Structure As Myth and Ceremony[iv] described rationalized myths as:

1. Ideas that are rationalized because they are impersonal prescriptions identified with the appropriate means to pursue goals.

2. Ideas that are myths because we accept them on faith, trusting in institutions that we assume represent our best interests.

Therefore, in order to initiate a response to the demands of the people that served the needs of the government, the US Government began a campaign of demonstrating that not only had the US been attacked but it also faced greater danger as a result of:

1. The alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction by nations such as Iraq[v].

2. The intention of groups like Al Qaeda (and the nations that provided them with safe harbor) to commit further acts of violence. It was noted that such groups, or people sympathetic to their cause, might also be active on US soil[vi].

While the second item was conceptually accurate in some areas, the first one was not all but the citizens of the US believed their own government. Once both items were generally accepted, it was a rational, logical conclusion to all parties (including citizens) that an invasion of other nations was required and to the US Government, it was a legitimization to begin a larger campaign of domestic and international surveillance.

As Rowan and Meyer suggest in Institutional Organizations: Formal Structure As Myth and Ceremony[iv], such rationalized myths originated from:

1. The need to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty – to answer the question of “how do we guarantee the security of the nation moving forward, with different solutions perceived as required by the US people and the US government”.

2. Utility – the solutions provided, including new wars and additional surveillance, satisfied everyone’s needs within the “security of the nation” scenario.

3. Diffusion through networks of association – collaborations with other nations were created, thus asserting the “truths” of the actions being taken as different governments agreed on the definitions of the threat and the required response.

Once the US Government initiated their solution, including new wars and additional surveillance, the challenge then became one of sustainability, the notion that events that are consistently expensive financially, politically and in the cost of human lives, would be difficult to sustain over time as citizens began to question the legitimacy of past and future actions.

In order to sustain the mix of truths and rationalized myths that the US Government were promoting, they relied on Scott’s logics of confidence:

1. Avoidance – limiting access to information as requested by citizens by deeming it “classified for reasons of national security” and so information that might weaken the Government’s position or actions was restricted from the American people and information supporting various actions flowed freely and unquestioned.

2. Discretion – information shared for the purposes of carrying out the intentions of the Government were shared only with organizations or nations who were considered to be totally bought into the strategic intentions of the US Government.

3. Integrity – since information disseminated to the people came from sources identified as trustworthy, either through reputation, accreditation or implication, many people assumed that such information must always be true and unquestioned.

So Where Does The NSA Fit Into This Puzzle?

The NSA and other organizations, both predecessors and peer organizations, got their start in the Second World War with the introduction of surveillance of enemy governments and military groups for the sake of obtaining strategic military intelligence. After the war concluded, the mechanisms that had been created continued to be useful, especially in regards to the Cold War adversaries of NATO and the Soviet bloc.

Domestically, surveillance programs such as Echelon were created for the purposes of monitoring domestic criminal activity including but not limited to money laundering and other organized crime activities[vii]. However, after 9/11 occurred, Echelon and other programs quickly expanded their efforts to include counter-terrorism and eventually morphed into today’s modern surveillance programs.

How did such an evolution take place and how did the NSA become the number one brand known for surveillance?

The evolution of the NSA took place in a process that Scott, Rowan et all describe in their process of isomorphism:

1. Competitive isomorphism – the NSA was just one of many organizations competing for government resources (money and people) but without a cause to justify greater actions, they were one of many groups, lost within the complexity of the many departments that exist within the government. The results of 9/11 suddenly gave them “an edge” over their peer government departments in the struggle for resources and recognition.

2. Institutional isomorphism – the NSA recognized that in order to achieve their intentions, they needed support within Capitol Hill and so they began a campaign of creating internal champions such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other powerful people. This allowed them to promote their agenda, garnering support within the population-at-large and American lawmakers for legislative support.

To accomplish this, the NSA took action in three key ways:

1. Coercive actions – the NSA presented themselves to the people and the Government as the focal point of American security. As domestic and international pressure increased suggesting that the American people were threatened, the NSA was able to position itself as a stalwart protector of the nation. They also used legislation to quiet naysayers who questioned their intentions and actions.

2. Mimetic actions – whenever the NSA was questioned, whether it be by the people or by a legislator, it was able to position itself as being similar to other successful groups, referencing their existence as proof of successfully deterring terrorist efforts[viii].

3. Normative actions – by citing recognized experts in the areas of civil defence as well as domestic and international security, the NSA was able to set itself up as the “obvious logical choice” coordinator for national security, justifying their intentions and actions in their own minds.

So Why Is the NSA Despised Now?

In the research of Scott, Rowan, Meyer and others, they suggest that there are five ways to manage both the isomorphic institution and the relationship between such an institution and other organizations (in this case, the American public).

1. Acquiescing – conforming to the needs or intentions of others.

2. Compromising – balancing intentions or negotiating them with other groups.

3. Avoiding – hiding from the inspection of others or creating barriers that prevent such inspection.

4. Defying – blatantly defying the intentions and requests of others who attempt to explore their intentions.

5. Manipulating – changing the “rules of the games” by finding support in other powerful people (corporately, politically or diplomatically), promoting messages of validation (in this case, the threat against the people) and through the use of legislation to enforce the items of “avoiding” and “defying”.

In successful partnerships, whether it is within an organization, between organizations or between an organization and the people it serves, success is usually defined as acquiescing (in the short term, not being sustainable in the long term since someone eventually tires of sacrificing ad infinitum) or finding a true win – win by negotiating a balance via the process of compromising.

The American people, in the days immediately following 9/11, assumed incorrectly that their demands of security would be answered by the government in a manner that suggested either acquiescing or compromising. This assumption was perhaps based on the notion that that is how most people tend to live their lives and it forms a fundamental belief in how their relationships, personal, professional or otherwise are lived.

However, in the days and years that followed, the solution for the problem they demanded a solution for was provided by a group of organizations that chose to follow the models of avoidance, defiance and manipulation.

When people deal with other individuals who live by such models, we tend to avoid such people since the ability to create trust is an innate part of the human experience. This need to trust extends beyond person-to-person relationships but extend to defining the relationships between individuals and organizations as well. Much has been written on the importance of trust, including articles such as Grove’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Method For Trust-Based Relationships[ix].

When seeds of distrust are planted, an opportunity for tension between participants in a relationship is created. Such distrust can only be nullified through the free exchange of information that, for reasons explained previously, is not permitted when it comes to national security.

The relationship difficulty originated entirely on an assumption – the notion that when someone demands a solution (national security in this case) without identifying the “rules” of the solution, that the solution provided will automatically fit the definition of the person demanding it. In the case of national security, the Government also made an assumption, that they defined the rules by which the solution was provided.

The relationship difficulty is also complicated by the notion that we rely on one of the five relationship maintainers in any relationship (acquiescing, compromising, avoiding, defying or manipulating). Given that the organization that makes the rules (the Government) realized that the first two would not serve their needs, the American people are forced to submit to one or more of the final three, making distrust on both sides inevitable.

The foundation for much of today’s difficulties when it comes to surveillance are contained within these complexities and assumptions that have allowed specific groups to pick and choose their actions at will and for the most part out of sight of the people they claim to serve.

The question of whether conspiracy theory people are right (that groups like the NSA have overstepped their bounds) or that the NSA will ultimately prove to be justified in their actions (creating a verifiable legitimacy within the people) is something that is difficult to answer with our limited access to information.

Moreover, with the continued limited accessibility to information, the answer will probably only be provided by historians who look back upon our past. As to whether such a historical retrospective will be accurate, one should consider the famous words attributed to Winston Churchill when he said, “History is written by the victors.” and this quote from the Yale Book of Quotations[x] where it was noted, “History is written by the survivors. (Social Forbes, 1931)”.


[i] Wikipedia, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Retrieved from URL http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four on November 27, 2013

[ii] Scott, Richard., Institutional Theory (pp. 119-120) of Organizations: Rational, Natural and Open Systems, 5th Edition, Prentice-Hall, 2003, Print

[iii] Scott, Richard., Managing Institutional Environment (pp. 213-220) of Organizations: Rational, Natural and Open Systems, 5th Edition, Prentice-Hall, 2003, Print

[iv] J. W. Meyer & B. Rowan, Institutional organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony, American Journal of Sociology, 83, 1977, 340-63, Print

[v] Wikipedia, Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Retrieved from URL http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_and_weapons_of_mass_destruction on November 23, 2013

[vi] Huffington Post, Janet Napolitano: Domestic Terrorism is Top Concern, Retrieved from URL http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/21/janet-napolitano-domestic-terrorism_n_470915.html on November 22, 2013

[vii] Webb, D.C., Echelon and the NSA, Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, 2008, Print

[viii] CNN, NSA Chief: Snooping is crucial to fighting terrorist, Retrieved from URL http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/31/tech/web/nsa-alexander-black-hat/ on November 30, 2013

[ix] Grove, Heidi, Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Method for Trust-Based Relationship Building, Regis University CPS Blog, Retrieved from URL http://cps.regis.edu/blog/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-method-for-trust-based-relationship-building/ on November 28, 2013 [Editor note: Link has been removed since original paper was published]

[x] Shapiro, Fred R., The Yale Book of Quotations, Yale University Press, 2006, Print