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Applying the Dick Cheney Rule to the NSA

Published on 19 December 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

If there is a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It is not about our analysis … Itis about our response.

Dick CHENEY[1]

Vice-President Dick Cheney argued for applying this rule when confronting a new and unusual type of threat, a “low-probability, high-impact event.” He had probably been been musing on the political import of statistical “long tails”.

The destruction of freedom as “low-probability, high impact event”

Dick Cheney’s rule drifted back into my consciousness after reading an over-long article in The New Yorker, chronicling the hidden domestic surveillance programs of the US intelligence agencies.[2] These quotes stand out for me:

  • “The majority of the [Intelligence] committee declared, in a report that the compliance issues at the N.S.A. were “uniformly unintentional, self-identified, and reported to the Court and to Congress.” The majority added, “Up until these programs were leaked, their implementation by N.S.A. was an example of how our democratic system of checks and balances is intended to, and does, work.”
  • “In practice, Obama has not wavered from the position taken by the N.S.A.’s lawyers and embraced by Feinstein and the majority of the Intelligence Committee. “The system generally has worked,” Matthew Olsen told me. “One way to think about the current debate is the degree to which, as a lawyer or as a citizen, you have confidence in our government institutions to operate effectively and trust our system of court oversight, congressional oversight, and executive-branch responsibilities.”
  • “The history of the intelligence community reveals a willingness to violate the spirit and the letter of the law, even with oversight.”

I grant, for the sake of developing a principle argument: “the system has worked.” To my knowledge, no lawmaker has revealed having been the target of coercion grounded in unwarranted state knowledge of his private sphere. Of course, such a target is unlikely to volunteer the information. Furthermore, proof is not a prerequisite for the blackmailer’s credibility with his victim. Possession in 95 points of the threat. Direct confrontation may not even be necessary: spreading rumors may be enough to warn and in the last resort sink the person.

One might note that the “discretionary benevolence” of the Executive has replaced “rule by law”. Arguably, the whole purpose of the American Revolution and the US Constitution was “not to be beholden” to the goodwill of Authority. Self-regulation is inherently self-affirmative and self-serving, was the argument then, as it is now or tomorrow.


The destruction of political freedom in the American Republic can be described – with somewhat intuitive imagination – as a “low probability, high-impact event.” By the time such an attack on civil liberties has occurred, it would be too late: the destruction is irreversible. Cheney’s rule should apply for the preservation of what, Americans would agree, is the highest priority of their democratic society. According to Cheney, furthermore, one need not analyze whether the attack is imminent. The response should be immediate and unrestrained. Following this line of argument, one might argue for shutting down the US domestic spying system before politicians misuse it. Where are you, Dick Cheney, when we need you most?

Collateral effects – subtly shifting the political discourse

Individuals and groups are sublimely situational. Micro-adjustments to the social environment are continuous. When meeting each other, people soon take over each other’s mannerisms, intonation of speech, and so on. It happens unthinkingly, and we do not know the underlying unconscious mechanisms. We evolve emotional mechanisms creating trust and previsibility. We internalize them, and make them our own. Informal surveillance systems[3] are the flip side of social systems built on trust. Together, trust and surveillance create a homeostatic social system that is sustainable over time. Trust and surveillance have been at the core of the self-domestication process of human groups that began 100’000 years ago or even earlier.

Now enter state authority. Even the vague knowledge of state-sponsored surveillance has an inevitable chilling effect on social behavior in the public and political space. State-sponsored surveillance systems shift ever so slightly the political discourse towards compliance with authority. Appeals to patriotism enhance this effect. Unsurprisingly, the “Patriot Act” is the driver of these surveillance programs. This is a classic case of stereotype threat: we know the effects are significant, though the mechanisms are poorly understood.[4]

Collateral effects – pro-active group manipulation

So far, I have eschewed confronting the possibility of a manipulative Authority. It is time to do so. Power-holders in a democratic society fear most intimately being thrown out of office as “rascals.” How to secure re-election? Ideology no longer secures longer term voter allegiance: politicians are becoming administrators as efficiency trumps objective. The temptation to manipulate public opinion is great.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Waiting for the Barbarians


A climate of fear inevitably favors the known incumbent over the unknown newcomer (“the devil we know…”). Nowadays, fear bears much of the burden of securing partisan stability.[5] Highlighting a (more or less credible) threat – say terrorism – is one of the ways to create group cohesion. Some historians even argue that a perception of threat has been at the source of state formation.[6] Asymmetry of information rapidly skews the decision making process in favor of the holder of “secret knowledge” (it is the very basis of religion). Fear, furthermore, resonates with other fears. A discourse of fear soon gains the upper hand in a society. Fear destroys trust and with it the basis of a sustainable society.

Pro-active manipulation the next forward. “Soft power bespeaks a nation’s ability to influence the behavior of others to attain the outcomes it desires.”[7] The overt use of soft power has not been a success. The causal chain between action and outcome is far-slung and convoluted: the outcomes disappointing. States and people tend to react negatively to such blatant behavior.

“Soft power” is outward directed, hence viewed as permissible. The largest scope for “soft power,” however, may be endogenous to the state. Wholesale data mining as practiced by NSA & Co. combined with evidence-based social psychology and massive data crunching programs may yield a new threat – professionalized group manipulation.[8] Authority is in a position to be the “hidden persuader.” Advertising began to professionalize the process 50 years ago. It was crude and limited to the commercial. Meanwhile, group manipulation has become pervasive and can affect the political. It need not be totalitarian, or crude. Totalitarian states erred in demanding full compliance from all its citizens. “Good enough” to win a democratic election will do. Dictatorship can afford a human (and smirking) face, when some quiet prodding or “nudging” all that is needed to win a majority vote.

At the moment, all that stands in the way of unbridled application of group manipulation are unwritten norms.[9] Western Constitutions aim to protect individual liberties from direct invasion by the state.[10] Western Constitutions are utterly helpless at protecting the group from manipulation, or stopping the state from oppressing the individual through manipulation of his social and political situation. Coercion of the individual by social pressure is more effective, leaves no trace, and when push comes to shove, isolates the individual from the group, emasculating his role in society. The individual can be safely ignored rather than put away.

Add another element. Massive data analysis predicts behavior even in ignorance of the underlying motivation. Quantity replaces quality, and quantity can be safely entrusted to computers – the ultimate bean-counters. Knowing everyone’s location is a predictor of crowd behavior irrespective of the underlying motivation for a possible demonstration. The state may not limit the liberty of expression. Here the lines are clearly drawn. The state’s powers are more extensive when it comes to behavior – and expanding. If the social group is to function, some behaviors are constrained by necessity. Group manipulation may target behavior, while respecting content.

Neither norms nor laws ring-fence “legitimate” group manipulation by the state. In fact, this question is not even asked. The current obsession with transcendent and individual human rights posits an individual immune manipulation by the group or the state behind the group. This is naïve pipe-dream, and self-destructive of a sustainable social fabric.

By the time we awake from the drunken dream of “self-assertion” people will be in gossamer if no less effective fetters. What is worse, while the overt destruction of the social fabric is a “low probability – high impact” event, preventive surveillance and group manipulation is already here and looming. It is the elephant in the room no one is prepared to acknowledge. It is high time to reflect on the state (or better – any regime) as likely “hidden persuader.”

[1] Ron SUSKIND (2006): The one percent doctrine: Deep inside America’s pursuit of its enemies since 9/11. Scribner, New York.
[2] Ryan LIZZA (2013): Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community? The New Yorker, December 16.

[3] Gossip is a form of informal group surveillance. Gossip and even more fear of gossip kept people on the straight and narrow. Socially enforced compliance to norms is exceedingly rare – mostly self-restraint does it. After all, internalization of social rules is the basis of socialization.

[4] See e.g. Claude STEELE (2011): Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. Norton, New York. “Stereotype threat” is the experience of anxiety in a situation in which a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about his or her social group. Since its introduction into the academic literature, stereotype threat has become one of the most widely studied topics in the field of social psychology. Stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. If negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group, group members are likely to become anxious about their performance, which may hinder their ability to perform at their maximum level. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype_threat

[5] Italy is often the harbinger of future political developments – totalitarian regimes first emerged there. Berlusconi has ruled for 20 years by highlighting the improbably fear of an ill-defined “communism” as well as by showcasing crime on his television stations in the run up to the election.

[6] See e.g.: Peter TURCHIN (2009): War and peace and war. The rise and fall of Empires. Penguin, New York; Charles TILLY (1990): Coercion, capital, and European states, A.D. 990 – 1990. Blackwell, Cambridge.

[7] Joseph s. NYE (2004): Soft power: the means to success in world politics. Public Affairs, New York.

[8] Politicians have always been manipulative, to some extent. It was artisanal, and often a hit-and-miss affair in the past. Evidence-based treatment may significantly and dangerously enhance the capacity to manipulate.

[9] “Data protection” is just what it says, no more. It does not protect the individual from malign elaboration of data. It does not ensure reverse engineering of algorithms tht may affect him.

[10] This statement is subject to qualification. Individuals leave an “electronic footprint” or “electronic shadow.” In a contentious 1979 case, Smith v. Maryland, the US Supreme Court was ruled that police could place a type of monitor called a “pen register” on a suspect’s phone without a warrant. The boundary of “privacy” may well be limited to the physical one. Unlike garbage, which one knowingly places inn the public reals, the disposal of the “electronic footprint” occurs unthinkingly.

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