News Release

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

MARCY WHEELER, emptywheel at gmail.com, @emptywheel
A noted blogger on legal issues, Wheeler writes at EmptyWheel.net. She just wrote the piece “Advocate of Secret Infiltration, Cass Sunstein, on Obama’s ‘Committee To Make Us Trust the Dragnet,'” which notes: “ABC reports that, along with former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell, 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 U.S. 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.'” Wheeler notes Greenwald wrote:

“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.”

Wheeler continues: “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.”