The Spectacle Blog

National Security and the Difficult Debate

By on 6.10.13 | 6:52PM

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Phil Klein (formerly, of AmSpec’s masthead) reasonably cautions:

“[…] the problem I’ve had with the current debate, as with many of the national-security-versus-civil-liberties debates that have occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks, is that they’ve taken place within an informational vacuum. Many people are making arguments based on their own biases and suspicions rather than actual information.

Phil’s raises a good point…the debate is difficult to have because we “don’t know enough about whether government stepped beyond mere data-mining and whether these actions were necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.” It enables sticky assumptions on both sides of the coin.

Of course, that we’re having this debate on diminished terms—or, perhaps, not having the debate we deserve—is the problem. As our own Matt Purple notes in his post on surveillance-state prophylaxis:

"Security state defenders always speak in reverent tones about how intrusive programs like PRISM are keeping us safe. If so, then it’s time for the government to demonstrate that […] Give us the evidence that these massive dragnets are not only integral to stopping terrorism, and that a smaller scope would be insufficient."

Likewise, Luca cautions that Edward Snowden blew the proverbial whistle because our federal government suffers from institutionalized dishonesty, opacity, and an utter divorce from accountability. Anyone who’s picked up a newspaper in the past couple months should regard our government’s objective execution of its duties with a healthy sense of skepticism. So, even without the evidence Phil and Matt would like to inform their opinions, I think it’s a safe bet we have “little reason to trust the official version of events that will come out of the White House and intelligence community.”

I’d have a much harder time making the case for their good faith.

Phil wrote in response to his colleague, Tim Carney, who’s concerned with a matter of mission creep. Commenting on the NSA’s extraordinary harvest of personal phone records, emails, chat-logs, and other data from internet companies and cellular providers, Carney cautions:

"Maybe Obama hunts only terrorists with it. But our next president could expand it to follow violent felons -- without having to get specific warrants. Why not drug dealers and sex offenders? Tax evaders come next."

Echoing these concerns, Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute recently warned:

"Still more disturbing is the possibility that, the intelligence community has repeatedly done historically, those records could be exploited for illegitimate political purposes, or even simple greed. (Imagine probing communications for signs of an impending corporate merger, product launch, or lawsuit.)"

Worst case scenarios? Sure. Should we resist the urge to catastrophize? Probably. But if we’re going to be critical of big government, why shouldn’t we urge caution against “big intelligence,” while we’re at it? Presumptions that a surveillance-state is uniquely and organically benign are, at best, far-fetched.

Our fetishization of the intelligence industry is similarly problematic. It speaks, simultaneously, to our fascination and our fear of what we don’t know.

Remember, time and again, our government—as conceived by both parties—has behaved in a manner contrary to textbook definitions of a constitutional republic.

Now, the debate between civil libertarians and national security apologists trends existential. Ultimately, this crisis transcends our fundamental trust in government, to scratch at our cherished trope of American exceptionalism. 

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