Some Friendly Advice For National Security Hawks

 

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.

nrol-39-nothing-beyond-our-reachWhile 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]

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  1. Carey J. Inactive
    Carey J.
    @CareyJ

    Duane Oyen:

    I have concluded for myself that one’s position on this matter tends to be religious conviction one way or the other. I tend to think that the evil use to which government is directed regarding national security is a function of the character of the leaders.

    Elect a Chicago Machine Scoundrel who believes that political war may be prosecuted by any means necessary because He Alone Is Virtuous Because He Opposes Inequality (for the non-government masses) and you have an issue with those who administer the programs (and the IRS EPA, etc.). Elect a man of character (e.g., GWB) and they follow safeguards.

    I’m with Richard Epstein on this.

     Which was the whole point of the Constitution’s limits on what government can do. As long as government is limited in the manner set up by the framers, even a complete scoundrel can’t do too much damage. The problem is that too many Certified Pre-Owned Moderates™ have “compromised” with Leftists for too long and eroded the limits on governmental power. Some have done so in the name of “national security”, some out of spinelessness, some out of venality. 

    • #31
  2. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    They were so busy figuring out what they could do they never stopped to ask themselves whether they should do it.

    Anyway it’s Bush’s fault.

    • #32
  3. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    Tom Meyer: 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.

     I disagree with your assessment here. There are clear limitations on the NSA. Libertarians just refuse to acknowledge the limitations.

    • #33
  4. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    Misthiocracy: I don’t think there are many people out there who genuinely argue that a state has no right to gather and analyse foreign SIGINT.

     I would not make this assumption. The Obama administration reads Miranda rights to terrorists who are captured on the field of battle in Afghanistan, after all. Many liberals do genuinely believe we have no right to gather and analyze foreign SIGINT. Libertarians, too.

    • #34
  5. Devereaux Inactive
    Devereaux
    @Devereaux

    I love reading this kind of lawyer discussion (many on this thread appear to be lawyers). I recognize that they have a world they live in and that it requires a certain kind of thinking.

    My problem is that too often it appears to be stunted, or ice-pick viewing. So, a lawyerly argument could go:

    Water runs downhill.
    Well, no it doesn’t always run downhill.
    So water doesn’t always run downhill.
    Then we can’t say that water runs downhill.
    Therefore water must run UPhill, since we can’t say it runs downhill.

    Us unlawyerly types generally don’t go through such convolutions. We read the law, and MOSTLY we understand what it means, or should mean. And when we say that we don’t want the NSA to be “spying” on us, we have a pretty clear idea just what we mean.

    Lawyers also argue that precedent and rulings make law. But clearly the courts have gotten it wrong on numerous occasions. And governments have demonstrated – repeatedly and emphatically – that they can’t be trusted.

    So what to do.

    • #35
  6. Carey J. Inactive
    Carey J.
    @CareyJ

    Albert Arthur:

    Misthiocracy: I don’t think there are many people out there who genuinely argue that a state has no right to gather and analyse foreign SIGINT.

    I would not make this assumption. The Obama administration reads Miranda rights to terrorists who are captured on the field of battle in Afghanistan, after all. Many liberals do genuinely believe we have no right to gather and analyze foreign SIGINT. Libertarians, too.

     I think I’ve been a fairly harsh critic of domestic warrantless surveillance programs. But I have no problem with monitoring any communication if one end of the conversation is foreign. If someone in America is talking to foreign terrorists, I have no problems with getting a warrant and monitoring the guy to see who he’s talking to in the US and what he’s saying to them. But get the warrant first, then collect the data. 

    If anybody in the Obama Administration had the stones to do anything with the information they had on Maj. Nidal Hassan, the Ft. Hood shooting wouldn’t have happened. 

    • #36
  7. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    I’m a pretty hawkish guy.   I was a strong cold warrior, and I think the world is a dangerous place that requires eternal vigilance and U.S. military superiority to maintain peace.  

    That said,  if the only way to win the war on terror is to become a police state, the price is WAY too high.  I’d rather live with an increase in terrorism than a government that claims unlimited power to monitor the citizenry.  

    Terrorism is dangerous, but out of control government is far more dangerous.   Terrorists may kill thousands,  but tyrannical governments can kill tens of millions, impoverish a nation or sink an entire planet into global warfare. 

    Every time you move away from the core values of the U.S. in the war on terror,  the terrorists get to put a little chalk mark in the ‘win’ column.  

    Enforce strong constitutional limits on domestic spying.  Abolish the TSA.  Send a message to the terrorists that you’re not frightened of them – but if they attack you, you’ll kick their asses, plus the asses of the countries that harbored them and people who financed them.

    • #37
  8. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Salvatore Padula:I’ll stipulate that courts make mistakes. What I’m trying to get from you is an explanation of why you think the courts are mistaken when it comes to this particular issue.

     Sorry for not getting back to you fora couple days. Busy, busy weekend. And I apologize, also, I wasn’t trying to be evasive. I was discussing why people don’t find the legal arguments convincing more than why I don’t like the program. But here goes.

    If you know the metadata, you know everything. Everyone is guilty of breaking the law on some point. The combination of those two factors makes it dramatically easier for the government to decide it doesn’t like someone and either embroil them in a court battle or leak embarrassing data and create a scandal. This has always been possible, but the efficiency modern techniques bring enormously reduces the cost of any single action. Combined with the level of secrecy appropriate for a national security program, and you have the potential for a serious instrument of internal repression.

    In a question of the Scylla of terrorism and the Charybdis of government oppression I worry more about the latter.

    • #38
  9. user_96427 Contributor
    user_96427
    @tommeyer

    Albert Arthur: Many liberals do genuinely believe we have no right to gather and analyze foreign SIGINT. Libertarians, too.

    Names?

    • #39
  10. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    Hank Rhody:

     

    Sorry for not getting back to you fora couple days. Busy, busy weekend. And I apologize, also, I wasn’t trying to be evasive. I was discussing why people don’t find the legal arguments convincing more than why I don’t like the program. But here goes….

    No worries about the delay. Life happens.

    I agree with you that that increases in technology make the potential for government oppression an increasingly troubling matter, but I don’t see how you connect that valid concern with the conclusion that the NSA metadata collection is unconstitutional. I know why you don’t like the programs. I’m skeptical of them myself. I was asking you the legal question of why you think they are unconstitutional. (My own view of the matter is that critics of the program undermine their fairly strong practical concerns when the attach them to constitutional claims which do not stand up well under scrutiny.)

    • #40
  11. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Hank Rhody:

    Salvatore Padula:I’ll stipulate that courts make mistakes. What I’m trying to get from you is an explanation of why you think the courts are mistaken when it comes to this particular issue.

    Sorry for not getting back to you fora couple days. Busy, busy weekend. And I apologize, also, I wasn’t trying to be evasive. I was discussing why people don’t find the legal arguments convincing more than why I don’t like the program. But here goes……

    In a question of the Scylla of terrorism and the Charybdis of government oppression I worry more about the latter.

     So, just to be clear, you think that the courts ought to focus more on policy and less on the Constitution?

    • #41
  12. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Salvatore Padula:
    . I know why you don’t like the programs. I’m skeptical of them myself. I was asking you the legal question of why you think they are unconstitutional. (My own view of the matter is that critics of the program undermine their fairly strong practical concerns when the attach them to constitutional claims which do not stand up well under scrutiny.)

     So, you know why it’s illegal, you’re asking how it’s illegal. Can I point to the space on my wall where no law degree hangs and refuse to answer the question?

    I believe the third party doctrine is fundamentally incorrect when used in reference to information that the third party is expected to keep secure. That metadata about a message is fundamentally part of the message such that it ought to also be covered by the “papers,” bit of the fourth amendment. I also believe that such monitoring might constitute a violation of the right to assembly much like the “chilling effect” we hear about in 1st amendment jurisprudence.

    I don’t know if I can make any of that stand up to scrutiny from a lawyer though.

    • #42
  13. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    James Of England:

    Hank Rhody:

    Salvatore Padula:I’ll stipulate that courts make mistakes. What I’m trying to get from you is an explanation of why you think the courts are mistaken when it comes to this particular issue.

    In a question of the Scylla of terrorism and the Charybdis of government oppression I worry more about the latter.

    So, just to be clear, you think that the courts ought to focus more on policy and less on the Constitution?

     Right where I want to be arguing: opposite Mr. Padula and Mr. of England.

    I had misunderstood Mr. Padula’s question; he was asking a question of legal/illegal where I read it as a question of right/wrong. To answer your questions, the courts should be considering the constitutionality of a matter more than policy considerations. Especially in the area of National Security I don’t know that you can separate out policy considerations entirely.

    • #43
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