Talking at You is Different from Talking with You

Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Charlie Allen has a longish post on the DHS “Leadership Journal” blog today entitled “Why the Country Needs the National Applications Office.” The NAO has come under a lot of fire for the threats to privacy and civil liberties that come from its national satellite remote sensing capability.

I haven’t spent a lot of time studying the NAO, so I’m not well positioned to discuss all of its issues, but this post probably doesn’t clear the air much. It helps illustrate why the credibility of communications like this is relatively low.

The need for the NAO, as Allen puts it, is established by the agreement by a couple of government agencies that they should do it.

In 2005, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. Geological Survey, which chairs the CAC [Civil Applications Committee], chartered a blue-ribbon commission to review how the CAC facilitated, managed and oversaw capabilities and resources of the Intelligence Community for appropriate domestic applications. The commission concluded that there is “an urgent need for action because opportunities to better protect the nation are being missed.”

People in government got together and agreed that people in government should be doing more. Surprise, surprise.

Does the NAO have support?

I am not sure what some commentators meant when they said the NAO lacks for champions. All they needed to do was ask a homeowner whose home was saved by the kind of overhead imagery NAO will be able to provide firefighters. Or they could have spoken to me, who has served this country as an intelligence officer for 50 years, or to my bosses, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell. The homeowner or any one of us in government service would have been happy to explain how the NAO will benefit the American people.

This is classic, and ham-handed, appeal to authority. “We all agree that we should do this, so we should do this. And homeowners would agree with us because we plan to save their homes from fires.” Fires are in the headlines this week, y’know.

Where the post really falls down is its defense against charges that the NAO threatens privacy and civil liberties.

The Department of Homeland Security, with the assistance of a number of partner agencies, has designed the NAO with an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and oversight to ensure that the civil liberties, civil rights and privacy of Americans are protected. A National Applications Executive Council will oversee the NAO. It will be chaired by the Deputy Secretary of DHS, the Deputy Secretary of Interior, and the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, and aided by their policy, legal, privacy, and civil liberties and civil rights advisers.

Both the Privacy and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties offices of DHS thoroughly reviewed the NAO Charter and other plans, and completed privacy and civil liberties impact assessments. In addition, DHS’ Inspector General reviewed the NAO’s privacy stewardship and issued a very favorable report.

To rephrase: “The government has agreed that it will safeguard your privacy. We’ve got a lot of panels and boards to do it. So you’ll have your privacy.” The DHS Privacy Committee, on which I serve, is one such panel, and nobody asked us … All the government stamps of approval can go on a government program and that doesn’t show that it will protect privacy.

There is a big difference between telling someone something and showing someone something. Officials like Allen can announce from every rooftop that the NAO will protect privacy, but people won’t believe it unless they can get a look at its operations, understand all that it does, and see what will prevent its work from slipping into privacy-violating domestic surveillance. This is when the secrecy trump card gets played, of course.

This post is Charlie Allen talking at the public, not talking with the public.

I’ve experienced this before. When he spoke before the DHS Privacy Committee, it was pretty much a fillibuster. He spoke for nearly the entire time his schedule allowed and took only two questions before whisking himself away to go be important somewhere else. We were talked at, not with. I gained no assurance that Allen has privacy in hand, much less in mind, as he goes about his work.