March 14, 2017

ARRAY | The Soft Power of the CIA

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On March 7th the CIA made headlines across the nation when Wikileaks released 8,761 sensitive documents and several hundred million lines of code from the CIA’s cybersecurity division. Many of these leaked documents were fairly mundane viruses and malware, the type you might get from torrenting media, but a few were much more impactful. It turns out the CIA has been able to break into nearly every major tech firm’s phones, applications and operating systems, and can turn these smart devices into bugs and recording technology by accessing their microphones. Wikileaks also revealed a CIA program that copies the “fingerprints” of other hacking groups, raising questions over the investigations surrounding Russian influence in the elections. Outside the international community though, there has been relatively little hubbub about the leak.

Photo courtesy of Google Trends

Photo courtesy of Google Trends

Google Trends reveal just how little most Americans care. Compared to Trump, the blip in traffic is practically invisible for both Wikileaks and the CIA, while other more mundane objects of our attention – like Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner – control a larger share of interest. I suggest playing around a bit with the software; I’m sure you can find plenty of other comparative trends that show how much Wikileaks’s big reveal fell flat.

The most likely reason is that really, we all expect it from the CIA – I mean, is anyone surprised that the Central Intelligence Agency is collecting intelligence? Wikileaks argues that the irresponsibility of the CIA lies in the fact that hackers could use CIA technology for their own devices, but the resultant shrug from American citizens suggests that maybe we’ve gotten used to the government spying on us and have just written this off as another consequence of the internet age. The only person praising Wikileaks, paradoxically, is President Trump, probably because the leaks give him political fodder against the agency that has been a thorn in his side since he won the primary elections.

Ask around and I’m sure you’ll find no shortage of people who had no idea a leak even happened, and fewer that care. As one person I questioned on the subject said, “I like the CIA better [than the NSA]; it’s more wholesome.”  Herein lies the cultural power of the CIA. The CIA has free reign to spy and to influence events because we expect it to. When we hear conspiracy theories about moon landings and state sponsored killings, we generally don’t think that the CIA doesn’t have the means to do it; we just think that CIA wouldn’t do it. All throughout our culture, the CIA is recognized as a super secret, super badass group that can make history all over the world. This is an image the CIA uses to its advantage, cultivating the image of sexy men and women in black suits aided by cutting edge technology. Look at the names of the Vault 7 leaks: Hive, Cutthroat, Swindle and – my personal favorite – Weeping Angel. These names just ooze the kind of elite black ops ethos that we’ve come to expect from the organization. We all want to know what’s going on behind the scenes in the CIA, but it comes off as more of a morbid curiosity than a desire to keep the organization honest.

As in the Snowden case, there exist supporters of the organization who have turned the battle into a generational one. Ex-CIA director Michael Hayden points to generational differences as the cause of these leaks, claiming that the recent scrutiny towards the agency has to do with Millennial understandings of privacy and transparency as they relate to the government. But it seems like Millennials are actually more interested in the technology and less concerned with any breaches of privacy accompanying that technology.

Realizing just how sophisticated the CIA’s intelligence software is tends to have a greater effect on foreign relations than on domestic ones because it damages trust between America and other countries, especially Russia. However, in terms of American perception, the CIA are still generally the “good guys”. Compared to other governmental bodies like Congress and the Supreme Court, they are viewed quite favorably– as of 2015 they have 52% approval and 27% disapproval ratings– and they are certainly not abhorred like Russia or mocked like Donald Trump, the two entities who have come out against the agency the loudest.

In general, the CIA’s soft power cannot be overlooked. Their conception in our culture and media has turned them into the invariant good guy, whether or not that image is historically correct. Although conspiracy theories paint them as the big baddies who control the system, in mainstream movies CIA agents are usually the protagonists who drive the plot forward.  As a result, the allegations from Wikileaks will have no lasting effect. In the age of mass media, some of the most advanced, large-scale breaches of privacy in our nation’s history have become just another blip in the American consciousness.