Close Reading: AT&T “doesn’t comment on matters of national security”

National Security Agency headquarters, which looks like freedom

The National Security Agency headquarters just looks like freedom.

Using documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the Times wrote Saturday that the NSA’s ability to spy on US internet traffic “has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.” NSA documents praise AT&T’s “extreme willingness to help” and remind contractors visiting the company to be polite, since “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.” I think we can all agree that a partnership between one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies and the federal government to secretly monitor our communication is an exciting direction for America to go. As if this relationship did not smack of corporatocracy already, there’s this refusal from an AT&T spokesman to discuss any of the findings: “We don’t comment on matters of national security.” It’s subtle, but it’s the subject of today’s Close Reading.

It’s not unusual to hear government spokespeople say they won’t comment on matters of national security, but that’s because the government decides what national security is. In making a similar statement, the phone company asserts not the authority of government, necessarily, but a share of government’s importance. National security is a project we’re all involved in—specifically, our democratically elected leaders and AT&T. The pretension is subtle, but it becomes more obvious when we consider alternate versions of that sentence:

  1. That’s a matter of national security, and we won’t comment on it.
  2. We can’t comment on this matter of national security.
  3. I don’t comment on matters of national security.

Unlike the verbs in hypothetical versions (1) and (2), the plural and “don’t” in what the spokesman said implies that AT&T deals with matters of national security all the time. They have a standing policy. Version (3), which is kind of a cheat, would at least suggest that the spokesman himself recognizes the fraught nature of talking about such things without implying national security is part of AT&T’s business. As it is, he evoked a whole cosmos of important national security issues AT&T isn’t telling us about.

AT&T’s decision to co-opt responsibility for the survival of the United States is funny in much the same way  as Walter’s co-opting of the Dude’s money handoff in The Big Lebowski1

Really, Dude, you surprise me. They’re not gonna kill shit. They’re not gonna do shit. What can they do? Fuckin’ amateurs. And meanwhile, look at the bottom line. Who’s sitting on a million fucking dollars? Am I wrong?


Who’s got a fucking million fucking dollars parked in the trunk of our car out here?

“Our” car, Walter?

This exchange is funny because Walter, who already lives in a borderline-delusional world of violence and intrigue, has been steadily assuming responsibility for the Dude’s situation (and making it worse, of course.) He saw trouble and ran toward it. Judging by the Times report, AT&T has done much the same thing. They saw A) large-scale domestic spying and B) close cooperation between government and industry, and they could not wait to get involved.

The rest of us might consider those two items less promising. The disconnect between how I feel about one of the nation’s largest communications companies volunteering to help the NSA spy on us and how they seem to feel about it is unsettling. But maybe I’m the outlier on this. Maybe the rest of America loves AT&T and the NSA, and trusts them both implicitly. I suppose the only way to find out would be to check everybody’s email.

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