Keith Alexander Needs a Hug

Why liberals should learn to stop worrying and love the NSA.

One year ago today, an article popped up on the website of the U.S. edition of the Guardian: "NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily." It was a blockbuster story that would presage a year of drip-drip leaks about the inner workings of the National Security Agency. Almost immediately, a toxic political narrative was born (or, perhaps more accurately, pushed by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald): The NSA was an agency out of control, the Constitution was being ripped to shreds, and America was on the path to becoming an Orwellian surveillance state.

Today this narrative remains dominant, even if it also remains an exaggeration. A strange pair of political bedfellows has bolstered it: libertarians and liberals. The former is not surprising. Fearing the concentration of government power is a basic ideological premise of libertarianism. The reaction of liberals was something else. While there has been a long-standing wariness on the left toward law enforcement and the national security state, writ large, liberals have traditionally been more trusting of government institutions. Yet many of the left's loudest voices, from the New York Times editorial page (which famously called for Snowden to receive clemency) to the Nation, from a host of liberal commentators to the ACLU, from civil liberties groups to Internet privacy organizations, have adopted this narrative.

But rather than fearing the NSA and its intelligence-gathering programs, liberals should be embracing it. For all its faults -- and the NSA, like any government institution, is far from perfect -- the kind of signals intelligence gathering (SIGINT) done by the NSA is one of the most effective and least kinetic national security tools that the U.S. government utilizes in the fight against terrorism. It is perhaps the best antidote to the many counterterrorism policies -- from military intervention to torture -- that liberals, often quite rightfully, despise.

One of the many ironies of the Snowden story is that the modern legal infrastructure that regulates the actions of the NSA is a significant liberal accomplishment. The FISA Act of 1978 -- which in the wake of the Church Committee sought to regulate domestic surveillance -- was an idea pushed and promoted by liberals.

What we've learned over the past year is, in key respects, a validation of those efforts to place greater restrictions on how law enforcement agencies utilize electronic surveillance. By and large, the system, as imperfect as it may be, has worked. Contrary to popular opinion, the NSA is not listening to your phone calls, not reading your emails, and not, as an act of policy, violating your privacy. Indeed, there is really no evidence to suggest that the U.S. government is systematically violating the privacy rights of Americans. If, as Greenwald has warned, "you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing," perhaps he could clue us in on all those secret prisons housing those who loudly proclaim the government is spying on them.

That doesn't mean liberals shouldn't be gravely concerned about the potential for abuse by the NSA, or that a secret court is in the business of making secret law. It also doesn't mean that legal opinions on the use of metadata shouldn't be updated or that the benefits of NSA's domestic data gathering are worth the costs (they likely aren't). Just because what the NSA is doing what is legal and blessed by the FISA Court doesn't mean it is right.

But, at the same time, we should be honest about what the NSA is doing. The oft-heard charge that the NSA is breaking the law -- or, as Snowden put it last week, violating the Constitution on a "massive scale" -- is simply not true.

Such assertions further erode confidence in public institutions and bolster the conservative/libertarian argument that a federal government, with access to the private information of Americans, puts the nation on a slow road to tyranny. It was particularly striking that in Michael Kinsley's recent controversial review of Glenn Greenwald's new book, almost no attention was paid to his casual accusation that the Snowden leaks exposed "lawbreaking." It is now just part of the narrative.

The politics of the NSA leak story are, however, only part of the issue. There is also a critical policy element. The NSA is an inordinately effective counterterrorism weapon. First, it allows the government to track terrorists, listen to their phone calls, read their emails, actively disrupt how they communicate with each other, and break up their plots.

Second, it might be the most efficient deterrent to future terrorist attacks. By its very ubiquity, the NSA creates enormous hoops that terrorist groups must jump through before they can do actual harm to Americans.

America is never going to eliminate every terrorist, nor should it try. But if the United States can make it harder for them to plan attacks -- and minimize their ambitions -- that's hugely beneficial.

From that perspective, the very fact that the United States conducts aggressive foreign intelligence gathering is crucial. Indeed, one of the advantages of the Snowden leak was that it was a reminder to terrorist groups of just how sophisticated and advanced the NSA's capabilities are. The flip side, of course, is that knowing how the NSA operates makes it easier for terrorists to evade the agency's surveillance dragnet, which is what makes so deceptively wrong the oft-heard notion from Snowden fans that "the terrorists know we're listening."

While it might seem counterintuitive, such eavesdropping creates a smaller U.S. footprint overseas and puts fewer lives at risk (more analysts at Fort Meade are most certainly better than troops on the streets of Baghdad) and is more defensible (both legally and morally) than many of the counterterrorism tactics utilized since September 11.  

If liberals (correctly) don't like invading foreign countries, don't support indefinite detention, abhor torture, and disagree with the flagrant use of drones, then it begs the question: What steps are they willing to take to fight terrorism? Unless one believes that the threat from terrorism is simply nonexistent, what's the affirmative liberal counterterrorism strategy? The fact is, the more America adopts a law enforcement approach to terrorism (a familiar liberal demand) the more it must rely on SIGINT.

To be sure, the benefits of SIGINT are more than just fighting terrorism -- SIGINT is elemental to a liberal internationalist foreign policy. It allows U.S. policymakers and diplomats to be that much better informed about the world and ensure adherence to international rules and norms. Understanding the leadership intentions of Iranian diplomats in the run-up to nuclear talks or Russian leaders as they plot their next moves against Ukraine or whether Chinese provocations in the South China Sea are bluster or evidence of a broader military effort are critical nuggets of information. It's also a pretty good way to avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that have led to conflicts in the past.

Of course, liberals should not be indifferent to how the NSA does its job. Over the past year we've learned of many reasonable foreign intelligence-gathering activities, from spying on terrorist groups to keeping tabs on Pakistan's nuclear program. But we've also learned that the NSA in tapping the phones of friendly foreign leaders, weakening encryption standards, and engaging in bulk metadata collection -- pushing the envelope of what is defensible. Better political judgment and a more thorough weighing of costs versus benefits appear to be much-needed reforms in Fort Meade -- and liberals should be the loudest voices making that call. At the same time, they can make the push for even greater privacy protections -- both at home and abroad.

But liberals who have so often been right about the excesses and mistakes in the war on terror need to also uphold and defend the intrinsic value of foreign intelligence gathering. It would be a mistake for them to discard the baby with the bathwater or to sit mum as others with less altruistic views of the federal government are allowed to dominate the public debate. As odd as it may sound, liberals need to learn to stop worrying and love the surveillance state.


Democracy Lab

The Lady Rallies the Masses Once Again

Aung San Suu Kyi wants to change the Burmese constitution. But will the military really go along?

The big question in Burmese politics these days is whether the military will allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency. The current constitution, which was drafted and passed by the old military regime, bars her from the job. Article 59F of the constitution states that any Burmese who has a foreign spouse or children who are foreign nationals can't become president or vice president. Aung San Suu Kyi's two sons (from her marriage with the deceased Oxford professor Michael Aris) have British citizenship, so she needs to change that rule before she can qualify for Burma's highest office. Burma's military rulers included that rather peculiar condition precisely in order to prevent her from taking power.

During the third week of May, Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters gathered for two mass rallies in Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma's two biggest cities. (The demonstration in Mandalay, the most important commercial city in upper Burma, drew an estimated 25,000 supporters.) Both rallies called for amending Article 436 of the 2008 constitution, which essentially gives the military a veto over any amendments. The article stipulates that any amendments require the support of more than 75 percent of members of the parliament, where unelected military representatives control a quarter of the seats. Aung San Suu Kyi's camp have to get rid of this provision before they can amend the article that prevents her from holding the presidency.

There's no doubt that Burma's constitution is deeply flawed. The excessive power that it grants the military and the obstacles it places in the way of amendment are only two of the most obvious problems. Ideally, of course, these provisions can be changed or abolished. In reality, matters are a bit more complicated. The 2008 constitution was the result of an effort to reduce the military's direct control of the state as part of the country's transition away from the previous military dictatorship. For all its flaws, the constitution has enabled the political opening that continues in Burma today.

At the rallies, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters called for replacing the 75 percent requirement with a simple majority parliamentary vote. After spending the past two years lobbying for a constitutional amendment, the Lady (as the Burmese often refer to their revered opposition leader) has finally lost her patience with the military, which failed to respond to her request for a formal meeting with key political players, including President Thein Sein, House Speaker Shwe Mann, and Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Speaking to thousands of supporters at the rallies, she ultimately resorted to some highly charged, shame-and-name rhetoric: "I challenge the military..." "Soldiers must be brave enough to face reality... "The military was founded as the Burma Liberation Army, not as the Army for Repressing Burma."

The crowds were suitably fired up. They also applauded her decision to team up with the 88 Generation Group, the most influential activist group in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi's own party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to organize these mass rallies and launch a nationwide campaign to petition for constitutional reform.

The question is whether this show of political influence will achieve its professed goal. The short answer is "no." In all likelihood, the campaign will end up serving merely as part of the broader political effort to garner support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, ahead of the 2015 elections. There are at least three reasons to assume this outcome.

First, what is the Lady's broader game plan? What will she do if the military rejects her call for constitutional reform? Will she launch a campaign of street protests? Judging by her statements to date, she has no plans to go that far. She insists that she's planning to reform the constitution in compliance with parliamentary procedure. Will she boycott the 2015 elections? Also unlikely. Such a move would leave her and her supporters in the political wilderness once again.

So what's left? The 2008 constitution does not provide any path for translating public opinion into policy apart from regular parliamentary elections and the right of voters to recall elected officials. (A controversial bill that would translate the latter principle into law remains on hold.) So long as Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to pursuing constitutional change according to the military's rules, it's hard to see how her strength on the streets can translate into actual reform in the parliament.

Meanwhile, the military and its associated political party are becoming savvier in dealing with the challenges posed by the opposition. Consistent with their strategy of co-optation, the ruling elites do not reject anything outright. They typically respond to opposition demands by making partial concessions and preventing full-blown confrontation. On May 21st, the parliamentary Joint Committee for Reviewing the Constitution (JCRC) announced that its members had agreed to amend Article 436, saying that they will submit a proposal to parliament for a final decision. Though the incumbent-dominated JCRC did not reveal details of the proposal, it almost certainly won't do anything to help the opposition get what it wants. Moreover, the military chief recently made it clear that any constitutional changes have to be passed according to the existing amendment procedures. In short, even if the military agrees to make concessions, the opposition will find it virtually impossible to pass a corresponding amendment.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to resort to full-on street protests or election boycotts, the main effect of her current campaign for constitutional reform will be to motivate her base to vote for her party in the 2015 elections. Even so, the effort does come with a substantial risk. The campaign could spark conflict with pro-government activists such as the Buddhist nationalists who have already declared their support for the incumbent president and Article 59F. More importantly, military leaders might view Aung San Suu Kyi's call for soldiers to sign the charter reform petition as a ploy to divide the military. It's precisely such fears that fuel continuing suspicion of the democratic forces among the officer corps. The Election Commission, for its part, issued a warning to Aung San Suu Kyi, chiding her for using language "challenging the army."

Whether or not the Lady has the stomach to pick another intractable fight with a new generation of military generals is a question that has to do with a second concern: the credibility of the constitutional reform campaign.

Given the country's complex ethnic makeup and its continuing civil war, minority groups are among the most important actors in Burmese political conflicts. So far, however, their representatives have been conspicuously absent from the stage at Aung San Suu Kyi's public rallies (even though the Lady has paid lip service to the federalist cause in her speeches). This seems odd, considering there's no way to build enough support to reform the constitution that bypasses the ethnic groups (whether inside or outside parliament). So the exclusion of the ethnic groups from the current campaign merely reinforces the conclusion that the NLD constitutional reform campaign is really just a way of preparing for the 2015 elections. Instead of the ethnic groups, the Lady has brought in her informal sidekick, the 88 Generation group. Observers agree that most of the group's leaders do not entertain electoral ambitions, so they have no plans to field candidates against Aung San Suu Kyi -- at least in the 2015 elections. 

Finally, even if Aung San Suu Kyi throws all of her energy and resources into the campaign, the current political context does not seem to favor her. The current government's liberalization process might appear inclusive, but the reality is quite different. While the new regime has accepted Aung San Suu Kyi as a valid spokesperson in certain areas, it still refuses to give her any real power over policy. And there is little she can do to change that now, having given the government her blanket endorsement early on. The lady's public announcement of trust in President Thein Sein and his "genuine wishes for democratic reform" in 2012 granted the new regime much-needed domestic and international legitimacy; she may well regret that decision now, but what's done is done. Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim nationalist movement is preparing to push back if the Lady dares to launch a full-scale confrontation over the issue of constitutional reform.

The promise of the Arab Spring has ebbed. Turkey's once-promising democracy is torn between chaos and rising authoritarianism. And now Thailand has once again succumbed to military rule. Under such conditions, it's hard to imagine that the international community will wholeheartedly throw its weight behind the unpredictable Lady. The countries of the West, who have generally taken Aung San Suu Kyi's side, insist on categorizing Burma as a success story not only because of the presumed success of its "democratization," but also due to geostrategic interests. Here, for example, is what President Obama, said about Burma in his recent speech to graduates of the U.S. military academy:

...[W]e have seen political reforms opening a once closed society; a movement by Burmese leadership away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America and our allies.... If Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.

Given its ambiguous endgame, its weak credibility, and the changing domestic and international context, the opposition's amendment campaign is likely to fall short of its declared goal before the 2015 elections. The leader of the campaign, however, may have a very different perception of what counts as success.

Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images