Tag Archives: PRISM

Is Sunshine Really the Best Disinfectant: Edward Snowden, PRISM, and the NSA

In keeping with the theme from yesterday’s post about Edward Snowden and the leaks about PRISM and the NSA, I thought I’d share something that I was reminded of when I was watching some of the coverage of it earlier this week. Before doing that though, if you haven’t, and regardless of your position on whether he should or shouldn’t have done this, I would urge you to read the article and watch the clip about him in The Guardian.

A couple of days ago I happened to catch a segment of Morning Joe where one of the journalists who broke the story about the NSA, Glenn Greenwald, was on. The clip is about 20 minutes and there’s an interesting exchange between one of the hosts and Greenwald. The part I’d like to highlight today happens towards the end of the segment. I think it was Willie Geist who asked the question and included the phrase, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” in reference to getting the information about these programs out in the open. This reminded me of a paper I wrote for a Public Administration class and I thought it might be useful if I detailed some of the research I used for that paper.

The idea that “sunshine is the best disinfectant” with regard to public administration stems from the idea of government reform. In a 2006 paper in Public Administration Review, Paul C. Light defined four tides of government reform:

All government reform is not created equal. Some reforms seek greater efficiency through the application of scientific principles to organization and management, whereas others seek increased economy through attacks on fraud, waste, and abuse. Some seek improved performance through a focus on outcomes and employee engagement, whereas others seek increased fairness through transparency in government and access to information. Although these four approaches are not inherently contradictory — and can even be found side by side in omnibus statutes such as the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act — they emerge from very different readings of government motivations.

These approaches also offer an ideology for every political taste: scientific management for those who prefer tight chains of command and strong presidential leadership; the war on waste for those who favor coordinated retrenchment and what one inspector general once described as “ the visible odium of deterrence ” ( Light 1993 ); a watchful eye for those who believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant for misbehavior; and liberation management for those who hope to free agencies and their employees from the oppressive rules and oversight embedded in the three other philosophies. [Emphasis Added]

My point in sharing this article wasn’t to say that the idea that sunshine is the best disinfectant is good or bad, but merely to put it in context with some other ways of reforming government. You can decide for yourself which you prefer. In fact, there’s a handy table for differentiating the four:

The Four Tides of Reform

And one more interesting table that shows you how government reform in the US has changed since 1945:

Patterns in Reform Philosophy

The Question No One’s Asking in the Debate about Privacy and Terrorism

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or don’t read/watch/consume the news), you’ve probably heard about Edward Snowden and his decision to leak classified documents about a US government agency, the NSA, to the public. I thought I’d raise an issue that I haven’t seen raised or written, yet. In fact, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen it raised. There have been plenty of Op-Eds (Brooks, Friedman, Shafer, Cohen, etc.) and columns (Simon, etc.) from many of the common people who write Op-Eds and columns about national security, but no one seems to be taking a step back and re-examining the question.

Most of what I’ve seen has the illusion of taking the step back and saying something to the effect of, ‘remember 9/11? That’s why we need programs like these to spy on those would seek to do us harm. It’s because of terrorism that we need these types of programs.’ Did you catch it? Did you see the underlying question that this line of reasoning assumes away?

Before I spell out exactly the point I’m trying to make, I think another analogy may help. Have you ever been sick? Of course you have, what a silly question. Upon being sick, ill, or injured, you’ve probably had to visit a doctor. When at the doctor, you were probably asked about your symptoms. After a few minutes, the doctor likely gave you a prescription or recommendation for something that would help you take care of your symptoms. As the symptoms were the thing that was bothering you, taking care of them probably seemed like a good idea to you, too.

Unfortunately, treating the symptoms won’t solve the problem of you being sick. It’ll just make the symptoms go away, but leave the underlying issue! Maybe you got sick because you were too stressed out about a big project and so that compromised your immune system, thereby making you more susceptible to being sick. And because your immune system was compromised, not washing your hands after playing with your kids at the local park meant that those germs that remained on the swing from one of the other kids was able to take up residence in your body. So, giving you medicine to make your symptoms go away might be helpful, but it weakens your immune system slightly (as it’s not able to develop antibodies on its own to take care of what’s affecting your system) and you still have that big project to finish.

What’s the tie-in? Terrorism is a symptom. It’s not the cause. The kind of terrorism that’s trying to be prevented isn’t the kind of terrorism that happens on a whim. It’s thought out, it’s well planned, it’s premeditated. Actions like that come with a reason. There’s an underlying cause to that terrorism. What is it that the US has done to provoke “terrorism?” That’s not a facetious or rhetorical question, but I think that’s the missing question from this debate. That’s the question that needs to be debated in Op-Eds and in columns.