Why is @WeeklyStandard Leading Conservatives Astray on NSA Monitoring?

Posted on 23 June 2013

The more you struggle to justify something, the more likely the odds that the subject is inherently unjustifiable. As such, it’s disappointing that the June 24 issue of The Weekly Standard spends so much time trying and failing to reassure conservatives that the recently disclosed monitoring activities of the National Security Agency constitute a “nothing to see here, move along” moment.

Consider:

  • In The Scrapbook, we learn that “[g]iven the choice between impersonal surveillance, and a repetition of 9/11, most Americans understand what’s at stake.” Because, apparently, there are no options between impersonal surveillance and a repetition of 9/11.
  • Bill Kristol’s lead editorial — titled “IRS Bad, NSA Good” — is a veritable piñata of fallacies. He cites “two leading libertarian legal thinkers, no friends to intrusive government” who support the NSA’s activities and who are quoted, without a hint of irony, as suggesting that we “can’t cite a single case” of government abuse of NSA data. Apparently, Kristol hasn’t surveyed the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the program within the pages of Reason (the propaganda arm of the modern libertarian movement) or considered that perhaps the NSA (like the IRS or EPA) doesn’t actually disclose its abuses. After deploying the libertarian red herring, Kristol devotes half a page to an odd paean about conservatives being able to “walk and chew gum at the same time” before concluding with the non sequitur that … well, I’m not sure. The entire second half of the editorial is as perplexingly off-topic as a Krugman column.
  • Stephen F. Hayes, in “Our Disappearing President,” tell us that since Congress authorized NSA monitoring, and the four top Congressional overseers of the intelligence community are peachy-keen with things, that the only real scandal here is that President Obama hasn’t been more forceful in defending the NSA.
  • We then learn from Reuel Marc Gerecht, in “The Costs and Benefits of the NSA,” that the document leaker, Edward Snowden, is “a serious flake” and that “[c]ivil liberties after 12 years of the global war on terrorism are actually as strongly protected in America as they were in 1999.” A proposition that will come as a surprise, no doubt, to anyone who’s ever passed through a TSA screening checkpoint. Then Gerecht tells us that it’s more likely for civil liberties to be violated by “smaller organizations — the FBI, the CIA or the Secret Service” than by the presumably larger NSA. What a relief! And, by the way, someone should tell political scientists that there’s a direct positive correlation between the size and ethical integrity of a given bureaucracy. We are also invited to trust, on Gerecht’s assertion alone, that the NSA “would probably break down bureaucratically if it attempted to shift gears from foreign observation to domestic surveillance in any threatening way.” Because, of course, it’s apparently impossible to replace people from the old regime with members of the new.

So what do we take away from all of this reassurance?

First, TWS resorts surprisingly often to ad hominem attacks against Snowden and we see many more false-binary and straw-man arguments on this subject than I’m accustomed to seeing from this otherwise intellectually solid magazine. This rhetorical approach hints at an ideological meta-narrative: The writers cannot paint a principled conservative argument in favor of a wide intel dragnet, so they rely on insinuation, assertion and misdirection to arrive at a semi-plausible but logically sketchy conclusion that does comparatively little institutional violence to the muscular interventionist worldview the magazine did so much to promote during the George W. Bush administration. Perhaps the editors adjudged it better to defend the NSA, albeit imperfectly, than to acknowledge honestly that civil liberties really can be (and potentially are) a casualty in the Global War on Terror.

Second, the tack followed by TWS tracks the course charted by leaders in Congress and within the intelligence community — that without the kinds of surveillance presently underway by the NSA, America stands at risk for another 9/11.

It’s not so much that Washington leadership asserts, without proof, that surveillance has averted terror attacks. It’s not even the “trust me, there are no abuses here” line that gets tossed about with reckless abandon. Rather, the problem is the paradigm, the Hobson’s choice that our options are either to accept the surveillance or risk death by terrorist.

America may plausibly pick from any combination of anti-terror initiatives on a very long list of options. The policy currently favored in Washington indicates a bunker mentality: We’ll collect everything, everywhere, and sort things out retrospectively. We’ll hide behind a wall of security, like TSA screenings, that serve more as theater than effective deterrent. We’ll do something comparatively bloodless, like electronic surveillance, instead of risking boots on the ground or deploying human assets in global hotspots.

But why can’t we deal with terror networks in a manner that’s less disruptive to civil liberties? Why can’t we aggressively attack terror cells where they are, and hold accountable the states that harbor them? Why can’t we engage in behavior-based profiling, like the Israelis do, instead of watching TSA agents search the colostomy bags of disabled WWII veterans? Why can’t we invest in a more robust eyes-and-ears intelligence network instead of relying disproportionally on signals intelligence? Why must the emanating penumbra of the Constitution guarantee my privacy, but only about sex?

There’s a wide range of effective policy decisions between “surveillance state” and “unattended borders.” Conservatives must evaluate the risk/reward matrix for national counter-terrorism activity as part of a broader policy formulation. Is the risk of a massive loss of privacy sufficient to guarantee, for any individual citizen, a miniscule reduction in the already miniscule odds that he’ll be a victim of a terror attack? We need a national conversation about whether the benefits are worth the cost. The real scandal here is that the public hasn’t been engaged in that conversation — that the key choices have been made in secret, by people with a vested interest in building a surveillance state. That it took Snowden’s leaks to disclose a program that President Obama said shouldn’t have been all that secret, speaks volumes.

Personally, I would rather risk another 9/11 while maintaining my freedom of obscurity, than to surrender that freedom for the illusion of safety. I have no conspiracy-laden fear of the NSA or of surveillance, per se. I do object to the mindless aggregation of data that serve no useful purpose, but which one day, when an abuse does occur, puts my freedom at some small but non-zero risk.

There’s no such thing as true risk avoidance. The best you can do is balance different strategies to arrive at an optimal cost-benefit ratio. America really hasn’t addressed the cost-benefit ratio — not yet, anyway. What a shame that The Weekly Standard seems content to short-circuit the debate with a “nothing to see here” issue that proved short on substance but long on misdirection. The conservative movement deserves better leadership than this.


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