Voice

Man, the State and trust

Your humble blogger will be attending a ridiculously well-timed conference on "The Internet and International Politics" for the next few days, so blogging here will be light. 

Before departing, however, I do feel compelled (much like last week) to blog about Edward Snowden, his NSA revelations, the scorn heaped upon him by much of the foreign policy community, and the furious pushback by other quarters against that scorn.  This time, however, I'm going to resist blogging about Snowden himself, since that A) distracts from the larger question of whether the NSA revelations are truly scandalous; and B) leads to some really bad psychoanalysis-cum-social commentary

Thomas Friedman captures the sentiments of a lot of the foreign policy community with today's column.  This passage in particular pretty much sums it up: 

Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.

I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.”That is what I fear most.

That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.

You know what?  Friedman's going to earn a lot of calumny for this column, but at least he's straightforward about his cost-benefit analysis.  And it bears repeating that the revelations to date involve programs that have been signed off by the relevant branches of government. 

That said, here's what I worry about: 

1)  Friedman allows that these surveillance programs are vulnerable to abuse but says that, "so far, [it] does not appear to have happened."  Here's my question:  how the f**k would Friedman know if abuse did occur?  We're dealing with super-secret programs here.  Exactly what investigative or oversight body would detect such abuse?  What I worry about is that we have no idea whether national security bureaucracies abuse their privilege. 

The last time I trusted intelligence bureaucracies and political leaders that the system was working was the run-up to the Iraq war.  Never again. 

2)  The traditional ways to constrain government bureaucracies in a democracy -- transparency, legislative oversight and political control -- are weakened when we move to national security questions.  The traditional way to compensate for this is to develop a strong organizational culture and powerful professional norms.  This is one reason why, despite recent scandals, the military remains one government institution that still possesses the public trust.

I don't have deep insights into the organizational culture at Fort Meade, but I'd suggest that the norms there might not be as powerful as they are in the Pentagon.  That might be due to the primary nature of their job, which is to keep information secret above all else.  This is an organizational culture where the boss feels it within his prerogative to flat-out lie to Congress.  So no, I really don't trust the NSA's organizational culture. 

3) Based on what happened in the wake of the Boston bombings, I'd wager that Friedman's logic about public attitudes doesn't necessarily hold up.  Indeed, public opinion polls showed greater concerns about civil liberties infringements.  That's not a 9/11-level event -- if one of those happened, public opinion might very well shift in the way he predicts.  Still, nearly twelve years after 9/11, Americans seem less "shockable" from terrorist actions. 

There are valid policy grounds for some of the surveillance state, and I don't think I'm naïve about the threats against the United States.  That said, a major personal legacy of 21st century American foreign policy f**k-ups is that I can't give these agencies or their political masters the benefit of the doubt.  Threats have been overhyped and intelligence has been spectacularly wrong.  Without much greater efforts by the intelligence community, the Obama administration, and Congress to restore trust in these institutions, that doubt will only grow. 

As Ron Fournier put it (link via Matt K. Lewis): 

The response is predictable: Don't be naive! Discussing secret national security programs will tip off the terrorists and make the United States vulnerable!

I don't buy it. There must be a way to shed a modicum of light on how far Presidents Bush and Obama stretched the Patriot Act. Surely, it's possible to start an open and honest conversation about drone warfare, domestic surveillance, and big data in general terms that don't expose cherished "sources and methods."

How do I know this? Because it's done all the time, usually when transparency suits a White House's political agenda. The Bush administration declassified (bad) intelligence about Iraq to sell the war to a skeptical public. The Obama White House opened intelligence files on the assassination of Osama bin Laden to promote the president's reelection bid.

And there is this Orwellian habit: Virtually every unauthorized leak, including the most recent ones about the prying eyes and ears at the National Security Agency, is followed by the release of classified information (an authorized leak) that supports the administration's case against leaks.

Most Americans want to give the president the benefit of the doubt on national security. They want to believe their elected representatives are fully briefed, as Obama dubiously claims, and committed to intensive oversight. They'd like the media to be a backstop against abuse.

But these institutions keep failing Americans. Why should we trust them? 

I reluctantly agree.  And if this gets me kicked out of the Respectable Foreign Policy Pundit Club, so be it. 

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