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Since Edward Snowden’s leaks and subsequent defection, there’s been a raging debate on the Right about the proper role of our nation’s intelligence services. Those who favor broader powers and a more active role for these services have been on the defensive.
While I count myself as among the critics of such programs – as much because I believe they’re ineffective as that they’re dangerous – I share the hawks’ concern for my fellow citizens’s safety: I don’t want my loved ones or countrymen blown up by Islamic fanatics any more than the next guy.* Keeping us safe and in peace requires a lot of work, including some degree of surveillance. As national security is one of the core responsibilities of the Federal Government, our intelligence services bear an incredible burden.
That said, a majority of Americans – including many generally disposed towards hawkish polices – have lost their trust in our intelligence services’s ability to pursue terrorists without compromising citizen privacy. As John Oliver rather hilariously put it to former NSA Director General Keith Alexander a few weeks ago:
Do you think that the NSA is suffering from a perception problem with the American people at the moment, bearing in mind that the answer to that is yes?
Alexander acknowledged the problem, but then rattled off the familiar, ineffective talking points of the past year: that the American people aren’t the target of these programs; that the NSA has only the best intentions in mind; that it would never abuse its powers; that they’re not really looking at anything very sensitive anyway; etc. Oliver spent the rest of the interview mercilessly mocking these defenses.
Though I disagree with Alexander and other national security hawks on these matters, their perspective and responsibility are too important to be dismissed so quickly. But if hawks want to sway the American people, they need to offer better arguments than their leaders have proffered so far; I think they can and that it’s important that they do. Here are eight suggestions how you can make a better case:
1. Accept the problem and stop carping about it. You may say the criticisms against our intelligence agencies are unfair, or betray ingratitude and ignorance; you may be right. Regardless, the people you’re serving don’t feel well served by you. If you’re correct on the substance of these issues, then you need to work to change hearts and minds. Being right isn’t good enough; you must also be persuasive.
2. Acknowledge limiting principles. Defenders of the NSA’s policies and other post-9/11 security changes have consistently cited incredibly broad powers in defense of the government’s policies. When you begin your arguments by implying — if not outright stating — that the executive branch’s powers are essentially without limit when it comes to national security, it shouldn’t surprise you when people express concern with your judgement. Tell us — explicitly, and in plain language — what’s out of bounds, either constitutionally or as a matter of policy.
3. Acknowledge the asymmetrical nature of information on this. A common retort from defenders of the government’s policies has been “Can you explain to me how your liberty, or that of anyone you know, has been infringed?” Though the point behind the question is fair, the question itself plays into people’s paranoia, as the nature of the (alleged) abridgments of privacy is clandestine. By intent, it’s difficult to know if you’re being spied on; indeed, the point of spying is to do so without the target’s knowledge. And while your opponents need to make every effort to get their facts straight, you should acknowledge that they’re not the gatekeepers of information on this.
4. Tell us everything you possibly can and don’t exaggerate. If you intercepted a big plot a while back that hasn’t made it to the press, tell us about it and be blisteringly honest (as opposed to this). While doing so might compromise some intelligence or tactics, not doing so might have worse effects if Americans underestimate the threat, conclude that your services aren’t necessary, and elect politicians who will scrap or scale back the programs too far. Uninformed citizens can’t be expected to make informed decisions.
5. Leave Snowden out of it. Whether one thinks of him as a self-interested traitor, a noble whistle-blower, or Putin’s useful idiot — or some combination of all three — is largely based on what one thinks of the programs he exposed. Describing all the ways in which you find Snowden odious isn’t going to move people’s opinion about the programs he exposed, though defending the programs effectively might change people’s opinions of him.
6. Leave the strawmen out of it. Just as your critics need to cut out the rhetoric about “jack-booted thugs” and “police states,” you might want to watch your language. Implying that your opponents are indifferent to the safety and lives of fellow Americans comes off as arrogant and patronizing and isn’t going to help you.
7. Ask questions. Since the American people object to what the NSA is doing, ask them what they’d prefer you do instead. Then, explain costs and benefits of each alternative. This (rightly) puts the burden on citizens to shape their government’s policy, and might yield some interesting results.
8. Remember that you’re defending the government. While you may see a difference in kind between our intelligence services and other federal agencies that have abused their power recently, many of your fellow citizens do not make such distinctions. That this may be unfair makes it no less true.
If the Snowden leaks have taught us anything, it’s that there is a serious disconnect between what the American people thought they had authorized in the name of security and what our intelligence agencies were actually doing. Keeping us safe and free requires that we repair that break as soon as possible.
* As it so happens, I was a few blocks down the road from the attempted Manhattan Car Bombing, and my office is so close to the site of the Boston Marathon Bombing that my building’s western entrance was in the crime scene. My then-fiancee called me frantically a half dozen times to make sure I hadn’t gotten my legs blown off.
[Image credit: The mission logo of NROL-39, satellite launched by the National Reconnaissance Office in December 2013]Published in