TPM Longform

The February filibuster of Chuck Hagel was the last straw for Harry Reid.

In the eyes of the Democratic majority leader, Republicans had just shattered a mere three-weeks-old agreement to avoid a drastic change to the Senate rules. Not only was the Hagel vote the first time in U.S. history the Senate filibustered a nominee to be secretary of defense, but the minority party took an unprecedented step and rebuked one of their own: Hagel was a former red state Republican senator who also happened to be a decorated war veteran.

In the days that followed, a few things crystallized in the Nevada senator’s mind. The re-election of President Barack Obama and Republican promises of a "new day" in the Senate were all for naught. It became clear that the GOP was not going to change its practice of obstruction, which was rendering dysfunctional not only the legislative branch but also the executive and judicial branches by thwarting presidential nominations.

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This past July, the highest profile hacker conference in America - known as DEFCON - made a show of publicly disinviting all federal employees from attending. It was a shock, and a reversal: Last summer not only were the Feds in the audience, they were on the stage: National Security Agency chief General Keith Alexander was the keynote speaker; he had come, he said, to "solicit" support for cybersecurity. "You have the talent," he said, and called for more sharing between private companies and the government. (He also denied that the NSA keeps a file on every U.S. citizen.)

Only a few found outside of a paranoid fringe found Alexander's remarks terribly controversial at the time. That has now changed.

Gen. Alexander's appeal came from a deep understanding that the NSA cannot get very far without technologically savvy, innovative people designing secure systems, breaking encryption, and creating offensive cyberweapons. Some call them hackers: people who are obsessed with problem solving, and who love to take apart technology to see how it works and, if they're really good, how it can work better. The world of hackers - or coders, to use a softer term - can be difficult for outsiders to understand - an obsession with cryptography, Linux and homemade bespoke software, and a preference for cleverness over user-friendly design doesn't exactly endear them to mainstream America. There's another problem hackers have with the government - they tend to believe there is a right and a wrong way to do things, a mix of mindset and ideology, that doesn't fit well into Washington's or the Intelligence Community's very grey, sometimes dark, world.

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