Frank Babb

Author & Adventurer

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Militarization, Electronic Spying, and Drone Warfare, Part 2

My first encounter with the National Security Agency (“NSA”) was on August 26, 1956, during my Army discharge process in Brooklyn. That summer the communist satellites in Eastern Europe were acting up against Soviet control.  In June a workers’ revolt in Posnan, Poland, erupted and was brutally squashed. Scuttlebutt had it that all Army discharges would be delayed. Strengthening our forces in Western Europe was in process in case the Soviets attacked to distract the satellites. By August, though, the climate in Eastern Europe had improved enough that the Army could get along without me and I became a Korean War veteran.

In those days the discharge process included, at least for soldiers who’d served in Army intelligence and were college graduates, the offer of a commission if you stayed in for another three years or, and here the sergeant hesitated and dropped his voice a few decibels, a job with the new National Security Agency which President Truman had organized three years earlier. I quickly declined the commission. The few officers I’d met in Panamá, including the general who thought his shoeshine man was a spy, hadn’t impressed me, and I wasn’t excited about getting drunk on Friday nights at the Officers Club with the senior officers rubbing up against my good looking wife.

The NSA I hadn’t heard of, and I asked the sergeant what it did. He told me it was a new “hush hush thing,” he didn’t really know what it was, but it was probably like what I’d been doing since the piece of paper he was looking at said I was well suited for it. Since I wasn’t keen on continuing what I’d been doing for the past eighteen months, I made an on-the-spot decision to take my honorable discharge, the GI Bill, and go to Harvard for a law degree.

While I’ve never regretted the decisions made that day, I have wondered in recent years how involved I might have been in the NSA’s management and operations that have been criticized. I’m not suggesting that I’d have had any positive effect, but I might have been in the middle of the muddle.

I don’t plan to discuss here the constitutional and other legal and human rights issues our current eavesdropping and collection and utilization of electronic information by our government and internet and telephone companies. These issues should and will be, I hope, thoroughly studied, discussed, evaluated, litigated, revised and, if necessary, terminated. I do want to make the point, however, that they are the result of excessive militarization of the governmental thought process and decisions. Notwithstanding what I just said, I’m not criticizing the military itself. Under our Constitution, our President is commander in chief of the military; the President’s ultimately responsible for what the military does or doesn’t do.

After 9/11 the NSA was asked what can be done to prevent “something like this from ever happening again.” Quite properly the head of the NSA solicited suggestions from the staff and ideas and recommendations from experts in the internet, telecommunications, and securities industries. At an enormous financial cost they came up with lots of ingenious ideas, the implementation of which would further grow the NSA, other military units, and companies in the private sector exponentially. Think Blackwater as an example on the private side. A subject not talked about at the time but having a bearing on how the system didn’t worked effectively, the NSA apparently had already harvested information with its existing tools about the 9/11 perpetrators that could have prevented the incident if the military and police forces had seen fit to communicate with each other.

As requested, the NSA reported the information it developed and its recommendations to the President and Congress who were induced to accept the recommendations without adequate consideration in my view of the non-military and security issues, such as the constitutional protections for Americans, the potential effect our spying would have on our friendly and generally supportive allies, and a cost effective analysis of what protection we would really get from the cost incurred. Not withstanding the recent testimony by the head of the NSA, there appears to be little concrete evidence that information it harvested has prevented terrorist events that had not also been discovered by others.

The decision makers seemed to forget that the fact you know how to do something and have the right and the means to do it doesn’t mean it’s in your overall best interest to do it. The recent embarrassment and anguish of our eavesdropping on Chancellor Merkel is an example of the failure of common sense circumspection in the decisions made. Might someone in government have pointed out to the President that eavesdropping on a good friend will affect the relationship when it’s discovered? Did we really think that we would catch the Chancellor in a plot or some juicy situation that wouldn’t otherwise be discovered by our electronic networks? Did someone ever remind the President or Congress that few secrets remain secrets indefinitely. My father, who had the benefit of an eighth grade education, warned me (too often I thought): “Frankie, don’t ever do anything you aren’t prepared to have reported on the front page of the Daily Forum.” The Daily Forum was The New York Times and Wall Street Journal of Nodaway County, Missouri.

I think Americans are entitled to better decisions by the Executive and Congressional branches of our government. What do you think?

3 Responses to Militarization, Electronic Spying, and Drone Warfare, Part 2

  • Howard says:

    An army buddy, also from Baltimore, went through basic and Holabird together in ’61, then didn’t see each other for years. On the airplane to Ft. Jackson, when he’d told me he was a PhD linguist with NSA , I asked him why he had enlisted. Surely, I said, “You could have gotten a deferment working for the agency.” But JFK had tripled the draft quota that summer, and his section chief couldn’t pull any strings. Just like me—one-year college dropout—it was either enlist or get drafted.

    I looked him up a few years ago before I left Maryland and we got together a few times. The last time was Thanksgiving 2011 for dinner with him and his wife before I headed west to escape the Balto-D.C. frenzy. We continued to swap emails, but when the Snowden story broke I asked what he thought about whistleblowers and Bob emailed back, “I hope they get him and crucify him. He’s a traitor.”

    Now, this is a very liberal guy, but he had to choose between endorsing the Bill of Rights or loyalty to his former employer. He closed ranks with the powers-that-be, and suddenly we were on opposite sides of the Rubicon.

  • Joanne Burch says:

    I have been concerned about the John Q. Public’s total acceptance of intrusions into our private lives since 9/11. I am old enough to have participated in fighting for our rights, only to see them given away in the name of “national security.”
    I enjoyed your article, and felt it covered concerns very well.

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I'm Frank Babb, author, traveler, and adventurer. I look forward to connecting with you!

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