Advocate of Secret Infiltration, Cass Sunstein, on Obama’s “Committee To Make Us Trust the Dragnet”

ABC reports that, along with former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell, former Homeland Security Czar Richard Clarke, and former Obama special assistant for economic policy Peter Swire, the White House (or James Clapper — who knows at this point) has picked Cass Sunstein for its Review Committee on NSA programs.

Frankly, a lot of people are investing misplaced confidence that Richard Clarke will make this committee useful. While he’s good on a lot of issues, he’s as hawkish on cybersecurity as anyone else in this country. And as I keep pointing out, these programs are really about cybersecurity. Richard Clarke is not going to do a damned thing to rein in a program that increasingly serves to surveil US Internet data to protect against cyberthreats.

But Sunstein? Really?

As Glenn Greenwald (yeah — that Glenn; did they really think no one would raise this point?) reported back in 2010, Sunstein wrote a paper in 2008 advocating very creepy stealth measures against “conspiracy theories.”

In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, Sunstein co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-”independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups — which advocate views that Sunstein deems “false conspiracy theories” about the Government.  This would be designed to increase citizens’ faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists.  The paper’s abstract can be read, and the full paper downloaded, here.

Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.”  He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government).   This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”

And remember, a big mandate for this committee is not to review the programs to see if we can make them more privacy-protective, but simply to increase our trust in them. Which goes to the core of what Sunstein was talking about in his paper: using covert government propaganda to, in this case, better sell covert government spying.

Well, if Obama and Clapper’s rollout hadn’t already discredited this committee, Sunstein’s selection sure does.

Update: Adding some quotes from Sunstein’s paper.

The importance of undermining conspiracy theories is especially important with terrorism.

Our main though far from exclusive focus – our running example – involves conspiracy theories relating to terrorism, especially theories that arise from and post-date the 9/11 attacks. These theories exist within the United States and, even more virulently, in foreign countries, especially Muslim countries. The existence of both domestic and foreign conspiracy theories, we suggest, is no trivial matter, posing real risks to the government’s antiterrorism policies, whatever the latter may be. Terrorism-related theories are thus a crucial testing ground for the significance, causes, and policy implications of widespread conspiracy theorizing.

True conspiracy theories shouldn’t be undermined.

Of course some conspiracy theories, under our definition, have turned out to be true. The Watergate hotel room used by Democratic National Committee was, in fact, bugged by Republican officials, operating at the behest of the White House. In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency did, in fact, administer LSD and related drugs under Project MKULTRA, in an effort to investigate the possibility of “mind control.” Operation Northwoods, a rumored plan by the Department of Defense to simulate acts of terrorism and to blame them on Cuba, really was proposed by high-level officials (though the plan never went into effect).13 In 1947, space aliens did, in fact, land in Roswell, New Mexico, and the government covered it all up. (Well, maybe not.) Our focus throughout is on false conspiracy theories, not true ones. Our ultimate goal is to explore how public officials might undermine such theories, and as a general rule, true accounts should not be undermined. [my emphasis]

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

29 replies
  1. Saltinwound says:

    After 9/11, most of Clarke’s complaints seemed to be about internal politics–hierarchies, principals meetings. More than anything, he wanted a seat at the table.

  2. peasantparty says:

    Thanks, Marcy.

    I have to say that no matter who they place on these so-called forums or committees, nobody is going to TRUST anything anymore.

    This NSA stuff is so illegal that even Clapper and Alexander can lie to Congress in official hearings without consequence!

    In the meantime I’ll just keep reminding people in every way that I can.

    The Patriot Act, all 17,000 pages of it was prepared and ready to go about two weeks after 9-11. Congress voted on it without full reading or understanding, the same way they did the AUMF.

    The Patriot Act used in conjunction with the AUMF are BOTH documents for WAR and/or Battlefield. Neither one of them were officially instituted or fleshed out for DOMESTIC use.

    The only way that I know of to implement these programs under the Patriot Act is for Congress to approve a Suspension of the our Constitution. PERIOD!

  3. peasantparty says:

    @Saltinwound: Yes! We seem to have that problem with all of them. They have some egotistical insanity with the need and desire.

    I think I am going to apply for a research grant for it.

  4. Peterr says:

    I’m getting a Mark Twain book ad to accompany this post, which seems highly appropriate.

    When asked for comment, Larry Summers said “Well of course the committee is all men. We’re talking about engineering and math and stuff like that, where there are issues of intrinsic aptitude involved in which women trail behind men.”

  5. peasantparty says:

    If you read carefully and think between the lines, they are scrambling to try to figure out how to get around the “domestic” issue.

    https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/08/intelligence-agency-attorney-explains-how-multi-communication-transactions-allowed

    No matter what they say, they have intentionally used and created the database systems to collect and store domestic communications.

    Marcy has covered this in such great detail and follow up. No other journalist that I know of has done this much work to bring the information out.

    I will continue to try to inform as well. It is a DOMESTIC issue and they are doing all things illegally.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: Frankly, there aren’t really any REAL technologists on this–I think Swire is the closest. But no one we should expect to be able to review these programs and say, “Hey, it’d be a lot more efficient and privacy protective if you did it this way.” No Bill Binney types.

  7. Peterr says:

    @emptywheel: I’m shocked. Shocked, I tell you . . .

    Yet another sign this is about optics and not oversight.

    [Which then suggests that the Summers appointment to head the Fed looks like a lock, right?]

  8. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: In fact, maybe that’s why Sunstein’s “expertise” was necessary. He’s a big backer of firing public employees.

  9. Frank33 says:

    I think the first person to report that Sunstein was promoting a Police State, was a BLOGGER, Marc Estrin. Sunstein published in a peer reviewed journal which seems amazing, that his scholarly peers approved this. And I do not know if there was any published rebuttal to this promotion of scientific dictatorship.

    I myself published my own rebuttal to Sunstein’s advocacy of fascism , and of course shout out to those fine renegades at FDL. I did rough up Sunstein but his criminality cannot be overstated. And Sunstein networks, with the other members of the secret government.

    He cites Philip Zelikow, his friend, about how corrosive CT’s, (conspiracy theories) are. Zelikow conspired to conceal the truth about 9/11. But Zelikow has plenty of other conspiracies of his own. Architect of the Irak War, Concealing CIA falsification of the Russian nuclear threat, member of Obama’s secret spymaster committee.

    And Zelikow should be quoted as he is a prophet, predicting, the benefits of a catastrophic Pearl Harbor type terror attack for the secret government.

    The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force.

    Sunstein may have written the worst academic paper ever. The CT’s must be stopped according to Sunstein by doing …exactly what they, the NSA are doing now.

    Sunstein admits that Governments do conspire, as when the Bushie’s catapulted the propaganda that Irak’s Saddam Hussein was part of the 9-11 attacks. Suppose there was a future administration that was motivated by peace, justice and freedom. Ha ha. The CT would still need to be suppressed. The CT could harm a President who wanted postive social welfare. And nothing of theoretical interest in this case matters, and that is not the topic of Sunstein’s paper, which is what repressive measures should the government use against dissidents.

    Governments must be allowed to make conspiracies and so nothing to see here move on when governments conspire.

    Some believe that the Bush administration deliberately spread a kind of false and unwarranted conspiracy theory–that Saddam Hussein conspired with Al Qaeda to support the 9/11 attacks. Suppose for discussion’s sake that this is so; then a future administration motivated to improve social welfare would need to consider whether this theory is false and harmful, and if it is what can and should be done about it. But this would just be another case of a conspiracy theory circulating in the population, which might or might not be worth responding to, in light of the considerations we adduce below. Nothing of theoretical interest follows from this case for the questions we address here, which strictly involve optimal responses to conspiracy theories on the part of a (real or imagined) well-motivated government.

  10. bell says:

    getting an insider – sunstein- to give the nsa a stamp of approval makes a lot of sense to anyone who can’t remember anything past the last sound bite offered up by usa pravda…

  11. whispersd says:

    This is actually a good development. Why? It shows that the circle of people who are trusted by the secrecy violators is not very big. The fact that people as compromised as Clapper and Susstein are being rolled out as the public face of the polish-the-NSA-apple committee shows that they are having real difficulty finding many people who want to be on their side.

    The next two appointees with be Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy.

  12. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    When Sunstein came back to Harvard from the Obama administration, he did what many high profile law school faculty do to inuagurate their new program: hold a conference. Sunstein’s was called “Social Media and Behavioral Economics” (http://www.law.harvard.edu/news/2013/02/social-media-and-behavioral-economics-conference.html). Now, I want to emphasize that it wasn’t anywhere near as creepy as this description is going to sound, but it featured things like Facebook talking about its experiments on increasing both voter turnout and organ donation. Yes, Facebook did A/B testing on what could be injected into your timeline to increase the likelihood you could vote and did this to millions of people. Yes, Facebook thinks you should be an organ donor and is both doing the same sort of testing about how to nudge you to do that, but is also building interfaces to state DMVs to let you change your organ donation status via Facebook.

    The conference being at Harvard, there were the loud voices raising all the obvious objections. But Sunsetein clearly lives in the world where the benefits of big data and massive social expeerimentation by corporate rorces is good.

  13. greengiant says:

    Hmm, when did the flood of commerce business daily federal contractor programs for social media monitors and ( ct counter spinners and behavior modifiers ) take off? Little of the public money and none of the black money ever rises to a CBD visibility. Get your supplier to start with a misleading statement of work, and then just do add ons.
    Another tell is the flood of job postings to provide the worker bees, especially through obscure supposedly minority contractors in out of the way places like Point Barrow Alaska.

  14. Bay State Librul says:

    You got a nice acknowledgment from Charlie Pierce, the best damn sportswriter in the world and the Patsies play Detroit.

  15. Everythings Jake says:

    Since this, like all thing Obama, is mostly an empty PR exercise, I didn’t expect anyone meaningful would be joining, a Marc Rotenberg or Bruce Schneier say. And of course, I’d tend to think that if someone like that did join, they were selling out.

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    That is, “as a general rule,” true conspiracies should not be undermined by government cyber “security” goons.

    When a Harvard law professor inserts an out into otherwise protective language, it is sure to be wide enough to drive Harvard’s Kennedy School, business school and law school buildings through it.

  17. earlofhuntingdon says:

    If Mr. Obama had named a majority of independent commissioners to a properly briefed and resourced commission, it might have been a signal that he intended to review these issues and to have one of those “public debates” he keeps telling us would be a good thing. None of these “commissioners” fits that bill. Rather, Mr. Obama, as have presidents before him, is using a commission to protect his administration from accountability and to protect the public from knowledge about what his security apparatus is doing.

  18. Jessica says:

    I can’t quite seem to figure out whether Obama is, willfully or not, clueless about the damage he’s done to privacy, etc. or if he’s simply “evil” or, less dramatically, pursuing an entirely different agenda than the one he campaigned on. Or more accurately, the one his supporters projected upon him. I mean, he has to be intelligent enough to know, objectively, the “right side of history” to be on, and this could be a shining legacy: he rolled back – or at least courageously tried to – the totalitarian nightmare that’s been created over decades. But he doesn’t even try, and that is blatantly obvious. So is it intentional or simply cluelessness?

  19. Andrew Macpherson says:

    It saddens me greatly that a man as chilling evil as Sunstein is even allowed into government. I have been following him for some time, and he really is right out of Orwell & Huxley’s playbook.

    He is as sinister as Himmler and Goebbels rolled into one, the poster child for the tyrannical police state, Rockerfeller’s New World Order.

    We all need to be very, very concerned about his rise to power.

  20. Lew says:

    Obama has been associated with the CIA from the start, as have all of our Presidents in recent history. E.g. his only real job was with a CIA front company.

    If that wasn’t enough, he was very likely blackmailed by the CIA/NSA. NSA now has the largest cache of blackmail material that any human institution has ever collected, and thereby has more power than any human institution in history.

    You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to realize that our military-intelligence-police sector of our socio-politico-eonomic system has power out of all proportion to its supposed role in a Constitutional system.

    Be very clear what has happend to us : our government rewrote the Constitution in secret, and is intent on ramming their interpretation down our throats. That is a coup, intended to change the basic workings of our government, to move power from citizens to a ‘deep government’.

    If we can’t restore our original interpretation of the Constitution, put the gov back inside the Constitutional box, we will have entered a permanent surveillance state, enforced by drones and gulags.

    There is no other important issue in world politics.

  21. Colinjames says:

    Defend the indefensible with the unjustifiable, which is in turn justified by the indefensible, and on it goes. That paper perfectly illustrates the DC mindset- tackle every problem with Rube Goldberg machinations, complete lack of irony and self-awareness, and all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Effing CRAZTOWN.

  22. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Remember, too, that Mr. Obama wants to appoint Cass Sunstein to the Supreme Court. Mr. Legacy seems more and more to be channeling Mr. 1% Doctrine.

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