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Are sane people allowed to suspect blackmail?

A friend of mine directed me to this essay by Steve Waldman about the current NSA/GCHQ/etc. controversies.

It begins with an interesting question: at what point is it acceptable for “sane” people to believe “nutty” theories about the world around them, and one “nutty” theory in particular. I will quote just one paragraph to give you the flavor of why you should want to read it:

I want to introduce a word into the discourse surrounding NSA surveillance that has been insufficiently discussed. That word is blackmail. I will out and say this. I think our President’s “evolutions” on questions of civil liberties and surveillance are largely the result of blackmail. I think it is not coincidental that support for the security state is highly correlated with seniority and influence, in both of our increasingly irrelevant political parties. The apparatus we are constructing, have constructed, creates incredible scope for digging up dirt on people and their spouses, their children, their parents. It doesn’t take much to manage the shape of the economy of influence. There are, how shall we say, network effects. You don’t have to blackmail the whole Congress. Powerful people are, almost by definition, people very attuned to economies of influence. They quickly detect the trends and emerging conventions among other powerful people and conform to them. A consensus that emerges at the top is quickly magnified and disseminated. Other voices don’t disappear, there is plenty of shouting in the blogs. But a correlation emerges between a certain set of views and “seriousness”, “respectability”. The mainstream position is defined. Eventually it’s reflected by the polls, so it’s what the American people wanted all along, we are just responding to the demands of the public, whine the politicians.

32 comments to Are sane people allowed to suspect blackmail?

  • CaptDMO

    At one point the FBI was “shackled” by the need for warrants and stuff for wire taps.
    They did it anyway, knowing full well the any evidence from them could NOT be used against the target, because it was illegal and stuff.
    The information garnered led the FBI to just happen to be in the right place, at the right time, to “catch a lucky break” in setting up entrapments and such.
    Of course, certain well connected folks with inside information from “penumbras” in the illegal FBI wire taps
    had “problematic” individuals meet with some ASTONISHINGLY “bad luck” in legal, but politically damaging “insights”.
    Then again, there was the “infinity transmitter”, available through “hobby” magazine classified ads.

  • Darrell

    Hell, some think Supreme Court members were blackmailed by the administration to help get Obummercare approved. Part of Chicago machine politics, writ large.

  • Alsadius

    I’ve heard a less-malicious version of why both parties support it, from some former higher-up who got access to secret data. Basically, it goes to your head. You got from being a pleb who has no meaningful access to getting the entirety of the country’s intel take dumped on you, and the eight trillion threats they’ve found scare the crap out of you. You don’t want to be the guy responsible for letting baddies get through, and you see all the cases where scary-looking plots were foiled and it was kept under wraps, so you assent to keeping the security apparatus going, whatever your initial thoughts, because it actually seems to be doing its job pretty well.

    By the time you figure out the limitations of it and know where to draw the line, you’re already basically out of office.

  • JohnK

    It is trivially easy to imagine the chilling effect on any politician to know that the secret state has access to every website, email and phone call he has ever made. There is probably no need for anything as crass as blackmail. We know from Snowden that he, as an NSA contract worker, could read the emails of the President if he wanted. Politicians know this, and so the secret coup d’état is in place. One day the American empire, sustained as it is by unlimited fiat currency, will crumble. There will be no NSA when there is no money to pay for it. Until then, the prospect of this unconstitutional crime being reined in seems very small.

  • Sean

    I think it is worse than that. I’ve been impressed by the number of usually sharp people who toe the ‘climate change’ line in public (when you know in private they think it is rubbish) and wonder what might make them do that. I suspect they are taken aside and told quite plainly that if they want to keep what they have they need to do as they are told. If not, a “child porn perp walk” will be scheduled…

  • Regional

    Today is the anniversary of the beginning of England opting out of a unified Europe.

  • neal

    One does not have to actually posess fungible information to make a profitable threat.
    One merely has to sell it as being real.

    Most stuff gets settled behind the scenes. CIA heart attacks are not even the profits from night terrors.

  • newrouter

    baracky be doing this for a while

    >Campaign demise

    Ryan married actress Jeri Ryan in 1991; together they have a son, Alex Ryan, born 1994. They divorced in 1999 in California, and the records of the divorce were open but their custody documents were sealed at their mutual request. Five years later, when Ryan’s Senate campaign began, the Chicago Tribune newspaper and WLS-TV, the local ABC affiliate, sought to have the records released. On March 3, 2004, several of Ryan’s GOP primary opponents urged release of the records.[6] Both Ryan and his wife had agreed to make their divorce records public, but not make the custody records public, claiming that the custody records could be harmful to their son if released. On March 16, 2004, Ryan won the GOP primary with 36 percent to 23 percent against Jim Oberweis, who came in second.[7] Obama won the Democratic primary, with 53 percent to 23 percent against Dan Hynes, who came in second.

    On March 29, 2004, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider ruled that several of the Ryans’ custody records should be opened to the public.[8] The following week, on April 2, 2004, Barack Obama called on Democrats not to inject them into the campaign.[9] The Ryan campaign characterized Obama’s stance as hypocritical, because people they alleged to be Obama’s backers had been emailing reports about the divorce records prior to Judge Schnider’s decision, and urging the press to seek to open them.[9]

    In May 2004, two polls were conducted statewide. The Chicago Tribune poll found Ryan trailing Obama 52% to 30%[10] while the Sun Times reported that he was trailing Obama 48 percent to 40 percent in the U.S. Senate race, according to a Daily Southtown poll of 500 likely Illinois voters.

    On June 22, 2004, after receiving a report from the referee, Judge Schnider released the files that were deemed consistent with the interests of Ryan’s young child. In those files, Jeri Ryan alleged that Jack Ryan had wanted her to perform sexual acts with him in public in sex clubs in New York, New Orleans, and Paris, although no sex occurred. Jeri Ryan described one as “a bizarre club with cages, whips and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling.”[11] The decision to release these files generated much controversy because it went against both parents’ direct request, and because it reversed the earlier decision to seal the papers in the best interest of the child, who had special needs. On the same day, Jim Oberweis, Ryan’s defeated opponent in the GOP primary, commented that if the allegations were true, “it would end the candidacy.”[11]

    Ryan’s campaign indeed ended less than a week after the custody records were opened, and Ryan officially filed the documentation to withdraw on July 29, 2004. The same party leaders who called for Ryan’s resignation chose Alan Keyes as Ryan’s replacement in the race; Keyes lost to Obama, 27% to 70%.[12][13]
    In retrospect

    Subsequent to his withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race in Illinois, Jack Ryan has characterized what happened to him as a “new low for politics in America”.[14] According to Ryan, it was unprecedented in American politics for a newspaper to sue for access to sealed custody documents<

    see wiki jack ryan history

  • the frollickingmole

    This is why in the future we will see increasingly ‘aligned’ politicians.
    Lets not even get into the possibility of planting data onto computers to facilitate blackmail if nothing is found.
    Which may have a perverse outcome. There is a possibility things like youth porn/kinks/perversions etc will become legalized precisely because pollies know they are on the hook for it.

    Either that or the only people in parliament will be sperglords and shut ins with no life history.

  • newrouter

    The Power of the powerless : citizens against the state in central-eastern Europe / by Vaclav Havel et al. ; introduction by Steven Lukes ; edited by John Keane

  • newrouter

    >for a newspaper to sue for access to sealed custody documents<

    that be axeltool for folks in rio linda

  • Laird

    Good essay. I think the key section is this: “Bribery, blackmail, influence peddling, flattery — these have always been and always will be part of any political landscape. Our challenge is to minimize the degree to which they corrupt the political process.” J. Edgar Hoover was a piker compared to the NSA. It ought to be burned down, and the ground sowed with salt.

  • roystgnr

    “I suspect that, you know, on — on a list of people who might be targeted, you know, so that somebody could read their emails or — or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list. So it’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected.” – President Obama

    The conspiracy theory that while saying these lines he was blinking S.O.S. is only slightly crazier than the mainstream theory that while saying these lines he thought he was making a pro-surveillance-state argument.

  • Rich Rostrom

    So the NSA is controlled by a cabal of homosexual activists and open borders enthusiasts?

    Because those are the two agendas that the “elite” seems determined to force on the masses.

  • Because those are the two agendas that the “elite” seems determined to force on the masses.

    Both of which are trivial issues compared to pervasive economic regulation, mass surveillance and the end of free association.

  • Niall Kilmartin

    Obama’s habit of winning by finding dirt on opponents is well established; in some of the cases, it seems absurd to doubt that “illegal” knowledge of “good stuff” in sealed records must have preceded and motivated arranging “legal” knowledge of it. (He is far from the first to use this technique. There are cases – e.g. the WWI Zimmerman telegram, IIRC – where, as a patriotic Brit, I would applaud the James Bonds’ of the day for their neat operation.)

    That Obama rose in the Chicago Democrat political machine, notorious for over a century, is well established; again, it would be absurd to suppose he could do this without becoming very comfortable with what some call “the Chicago way”, even if his behaviour did not advertise that he was.

    So one answer to Perry M’s question is a statement with a deducible side effect.

    Statement: there is nothing remotely insane in thinking that, on becoming president and being presented with improper but secret means to learn stuff about opponents, Obama would yield instantly to temptation.

    (He would not be the first, nor would I treat equally every past case. In the Britain of the 60s and 70s, it was said that Labour leaders in elections used to dread some far-left labour MP being detected in some in-bed-with-Russian-communists action that would hurt their election chances. If they got into No. 10, they were then delighted to learn that one of MI5’s jobs was to monitor such people and give the PM regular briefings on what they were up to. It is rumoured that some potential Labour scandals were headed off at the pass through Wilson or Callaghan receiving a timely hint at the weekly security briefing about some George-Galloway-lookalike’s activities. This (if indeed it happened) was deceiving the public, but I concede that, party-wise, it has a defensive aspect. Obama, given his known form, would act offensively – in every sense. 🙂 )

    Thus I see the solicitation to the NSA to abuse its powers, indeed the heavy political pressure, as coming from the political side, as (I assume) it did in the IRS, perhaps meeting (even?) less resistance there. Maybe the NSA compromised Obama before president Obama compromised himself with them, but they’d hardly need to.

    The side effect: the spy agencies thereby acquire dirt on the soliciting/pressuring politicians – and are probably much mores skilled than the IRS at having all this “solicitation” recorded, right to the top. Thus, my guessed answer to the question in the comment above,

    “So the NSA is controlled by a cabal of homosexual activists and open borders enthusiasts?”

    is: probably _not_, but when that same cabal attempt to control the NSA, then the NSA knows enough about the cabal (inevitably, what the cabal has been abusing the NSA for; possibly, not only that) to be able to defend themselves.

    (There is of course more in Perry’s speculation than just this case. I simply wanted to analyse one aspect in detail.)

  • Marcopohlo

    “Powerful people are, almost by definition, people very attuned to economies of influence. They quickly detect the trends and emerging conventions among other powerful people and conform to them.”

    Like Wilhelm of Prussia and Nicolas of Russia? Yeah, that’s how the world got World War I, and how both of them lost their jobs.

  • Alsadius

    JohnK: Sustained by fiat? Please. Fiat is a rounding error. Venezuela is what a sustained-by-fiat country looks like.

    Sean: If that was the case, why haven’t any of the noted opponents of AGW been put on a “child porn perp walk”?

  • JohnK


    Every empire falls when it runs out of money. America will be no different when the dollar reverts to its true value, and that is the only way I can see that will bring an end to the NSA: no money to pay for it.

  • Alsadius

    The dollar is at its true value, or so close as makes no difference. The US government gets its money from taxing the US economy, for the most part. I ran the numbers a few years back – 90% of everything the US has ever spent was taxed, 9% was borrowed, and 1% was printed.

  • Thailover

    “Allowed” to suspect blackmail? When is it “acceptable”….? I really don’t understand the nature of these queries unless one is conforming to some kind of group-think.

    As to the question, was Obama blackmailed to conform to a more statists view, the question seems, (with all due respect) absurd to me. Not because blackmail is an absurd consideration, but because he’s been a complete statist his entire public life, and if he’s had bouts of appearing less than that in certain occations, you can rest assured that it was a mere expedient political gesture. Indeed, the man who wrote in his autobiography that in college he would go listen to Marxist speeches to clear his muddled mind, and the man who tossed around Marxist phrases during his initial “debates” with Hillary Clinton when running for the presidential office, would require no blackmail in order to make pro-statist political moves as commander in chief.

    And on a last note, on the matter of surveillance v civil liberties, to presume that laws and policies will in any way hinder an organization that has been operating illegally for decades is more than naive IMO, but people seem to be following this latest dog and pony show in congress about what the NSA is “allowed to do”. To me, it seems profoundly absurd. They’ll do exactly what they feel like doing, because even when caught, there is no negative consequence, and to BE caught requires someone like Mr. Snowden to throw himself on his sword.

  • Thailover

    You do realize don’t you that more than half the money supply is not currency?

  • JohnK

    I am sure Alsadius knows that the US National Debt is in the order of $17 trillion. Unfunded liabilities are more like $200 trillion. It is never going to be paid. The dollar is not linked to gold any more, it is worth precisely as much as a politician’s promises.

    The point I am making is that monstrosities such as the NSA will exist as long as there are dollars to pay for them. When the dollar loses all its value, and not before, the NSA will cease to exist. I have no confidence at all that politicians will ever have the desire or ability to reign it in. These secret state agencies are akin to the Praetorian Guard of Ancient Rome. The Emperor knew that in reality he could never control the Guard, and when the time came that they were paid in coins that no longer contained any silver, the end was nigh.

  • Laird

    I agree with Thailover’s comments at 4:13 PM (and 4:18 PM, for that matter). But I think speculating about whether Obama was “blackmailed”* is a bit of a red herring. There was no need to co-opt him. But Waldman’s larger point is that less-indoctrinated politicians and policy officials (i.e., regulators and judges) could be swayed by a rogue agency in possession of incriminating or even embarrassing information. That’s how J. Edgar Hoover gained such power, and if he used it for generally benign purposes** that’s not to say that others wouldn’t be more overtly evil. (Indeed, it’s difficult to explain Chief Justice Roberts’ abrupt turnaround in the Obamacare decision a few years ago in any other way.) No one, and certainly no agency of government, should be in possession of such information.

    * Surely that’s a blatantly racist term, is it not?

    ** I.e, ensuring generous funding for the FBI. Admittedly, blackmailing (there’s that word again!) Martin Luther King Jr. and others was hardly “benign”, but that’s why I included the qualifier “generally”.

  • Paul Marks

    J. Edgar Hoover used to collect dirt on people – but he did not normally use it (he sat on it – uselessly).

    Why Hoover just let people he hated carry on doing things he hated, when had the evidence to utterly discredit them in his hands – I do not know.

    Perhaps, in the end, he just had a yellow streak.

    As for the NSA (or whoever) blackmailing Mr Obama.

    Sadly no.

    I wish they were – but they are not.

    I suppose the difference between me an Perry M. is that he fears there is a conspiracy against democracy.

    Blackmailing “reformers” into giving up their noble reforms.

    Whereas I am afraid there is NOT a conspiracy against “democracy” – I wish there was.

    Mr Obama and the rest are doing just what they want to do.

    The top people at the NSA (and the FBI and the CIA and….).

    University educated bureaucrats – left “liberals” to a man (and to a women – we must be PC).

    One could give the NSA the Crown Jewels of intelligence on a plate – say a recording of Mr Obama declaring his life long support for Marxism.

    They would probably just nod and say to themselves…..

    “Well Marxism goes a bit too far – but he means well, and at least he believes in Social Justice and Progress”.

    There is no “deep state” no “secret state” to appeal to.

    I wish it existed – but it does not.

    Just more left “liberals” – much the same in the NSA as in the Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Paul Marks

    “No Paul we mean dirt – drugs and adultery an so on”.

    Hoover had that on Jack Kennedy, did nothing with it (just hoarded the info like a magpie).

    Even with Martin Luther King – where the teams went looking for treason and found drug abuse and adultery (remember “Dr” King was a Rev) Hoover did very little with the information – a few letters (not a massive publicity campaign on the television news).

    “Blackmail” – these people do not know how (they are hopeless).

    Let us say, just for the sake of argument, they found (had on audio an visual record) Barack Obama raping and murdering a young child.

    Would the “military industrial complex” blackmail him into attacking Iran?

    No they would not – because they do not exist. At least not in any meaningful way.

    There is no military industrial complex (worthy of attention) – which is why the United States armed forces have been in decline (yes decline)for decades.

    As for the NSA – film of Barack Obama raping and killing a small child would not be used to blackmail him, and it certainly would not be put on the evening news.

    After all best not to undermine the faith of the population in “Progressive Reform” – and Mr Obama is a role model and an “historic figure”, because he happens to have black skin.

    They really are that shallow.

  • Richard Thomas

    Be careful of language used. The thing that Obama claimed to have “evolved” his opinion on was gay marriage and in that case, it is fairly obvious that that was to be his actual position anyway and the being against it was just a thing to help get elected (I suspect he personally doesn’t have much of an opinion on it in any case but it is what his base would expect) along with the many other lies that he told.

    As to whether he is being blackmailed about the other stuff? Hard to tell. I am a bit suspicious about what happened to Herman Cain though.

  • JohnK


    J Edgar Hoover did indeed have the dirt on all major figures in Washington. Did he use it? Well, there is a reason he did not have to retire like other public officials, but died still the Director of the FBI. Like all good bureaucrats, his main aim in life was to protect his position and to expand his bureaucratic empire. In this, he succeeded superbly.

    The hugely expanded spy network which is the NSA will have exactly the same objectives. The idea that total surveillance is necessary to the War on Terror is very wide of the mark. Total surveillance will make (or should I say has made) the NSA the most powerful spy network in world history, it will have (or already has) the dirt on everyone, and so it will never be reformed. The 20 years since the invention of the internet, email and smartphones has resulted in a hidden coup d’état and the subversion of constitutional government.

  • Laird

    JohnK, my only quibble with your comment is that the subversion of constitutional government here began a long time before the creation of the NSA. We can argue about the actual starting point (indeed, some would place it during Washington’s first term), but clearly it has been going on more or less continuously (if not entirely steadily) for at least 80 years. The process has certainly accelerated in the last 20 years, though.

  • JohnK


    I agree with your points about the subversion of the US Constitution. Senior bureaucrats swear to uphold it, and then stick it on a nail on the toilet door. But the growth of total surveillance is truly shocking. J Edgar Hoover, monster though he was, could only afford to surveil a few thousand people of interest. It took time and effort to bug phones and steam open envelopes.

    The rise of electronic communications means the NSA can and does surveil everyone. Given that young people live their lives on their phones and tablets, the rising generation of politicians will know that the NSA knows everything about them. No spy agency in history has ever had that reach, and it is why the NSA will effectively have a veto on the actions of every politician. I imagine the NSA has some sort of worthy motto over its door, but its real motto ought to be “Constitution? We don’t need no steenking Constitution.”

    USA RIP.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    It has always struck me as remarkable that some people actually believe that the motivation a politician cites for a change in his position on an issue is actually the reason he changed it.

    Subtle blackmailing, implied threats – these fruits of dirt digging are the puts and options in the markets of favor trading that drive political fortunes.

    I wonder what the world must look like to those blissfully unaware of how blackmail works. How does the Speaker whip votes in Congress to get a bill passed? Favor trading and, if all else fails, a threat – a veiled one, of course.

    Blackmail need not be explicit and is, in fact, implied at a frequency that rises with the influence accorded to the victim. In other words, the higher the stakes, the higher the premium placed on plausible deniability.

    And besides not speaking, nothing assures the plausibility of one’s denial of having threatened to blackmail somebody as not technically having done so.

    See, for example, John Koskinen shut down Paul Ryan with respect to the IRS scandal. It’s not that John refuted Paul’s claims; it’s that he could do so honestly!

  • Eric

    I don’t see any reason to believe Obama’s changes of heart have anything to do with blackmail. As with gay marriage, it’s far more likely he never believed what he told the voters he believed. And since he’s done with facing the voters he doesn’t need to pretend any more. Who could really believe a leftist is against a more intrusive state?