The Best and Worst Independence Day Essay of 2013

From James Traub, writing in Foreign Policy.

The American people have learned in recent weeks that their government has been engaged in a vast surveillance effort of which they knew nothing…

What Snowden revealed must be fixed, rather than abolished…

The United States has erected this colossal machinery of information-gathering for one overwhelming reason–to stop terrorism. In the name of fighting terrorism it has launched hundreds of drone strikes, shrouding that program in secrecy as well; preserved the prison at Guantanamo, holding prisoners with no prospect of trial and trying others in a military tribunal; converted the CIA into a paramilitary organ; and hounded journalists for publishing secrets. All of these policies have been promulgated by a president who was a scholar of constitutional law–because the overwhelming fear of another terrorist attack has made what once might have felt repugnant to him seem necessary…
Fear has become America’s permanent state–and fear of fear. Thomas Friedman argued in the New York Times that it is best to accept the surveillance program as it is because another terrorist incident would make the American people demand much graver violations of liberty and privacy in the name of security…

The very fact that this civil libertarian president has approved so many onerous programs–that he has acknowledged their necessity–isn’t necessarily a sign to Americans of how very great is the threat that faces them. Perhaps it’s a sign that Obama knows that his opponents would try to whip up a national outbreak of hysteria should a major attack occur on his watch. And so he caters to that fear, and hereby helps keep it alive…

Hear, hear!

But then:

It is hyperbolic, and even hysterical, to say, as Glenn Greenwald has, that the United States has a secret plan “to destroy privacy and anonymity not just in the United States but around the world.” It is equally excessive to lionize Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract employee who exposed the programs, as a heroic defender of democracy in the face of authoritarian menace. Surveillance, even on a giant scale, is not conspiracy, or murder.

Oh, dear. No, no, a thousand times no. If we don’t lionize those who reveal government’s constitutional violations, particularly those that threaten our rights and liberties. Perhaps Traub ought to have prepped for his independence day essay by re-reading the Declaration of Independence, which declares that the purpose of government is to protect our inalienable rights, and that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” To begin altering our government, we must first learn of the problem–the whistleblower is necessary to achieve this end. What could be more noble than that? As Carl Schurz said of real patriotism, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right (emphasis added).” Traub, like so many other critics of Snowden and Greenwald seem not to recognize that setting one’s country right is a great patriotic act.

Traub’s assurances that there is no government plan to destroy privacy overlooks the ample evidence of a set of policies dedicated to exactly that. Conor Fridersdorf explains:

In fact, the U.S. government is, right this second, pouring untold billions into what is ultimately an effort to monitor all digital communications; scan all mail; amass a fleet of surveillance drones that can hover in the sky for days on end; develop technology to scan all faces in crowds; assemble gigantic databases of biometric data; break all encryption efforts; indiscriminately spy on millions of citizens in friendly countries like Germany and Brazil; and share spy technologies with allies. None of that is in dispute… (Fridersdorf’s emphasis) There isn’t a government document somewhere titled, “The Plan to Destroy Global Privacy,” but that is exactly what Western intelligence agencies will do if adequately funded and left, unopposed, to their own devices. Anyone who can’t see that hasn’t adequately grappled with the implications of Snowden’s revelations, the history of spy agencies allowed to operate in secret, or the radical new capabilities that advances in data analysis and retention have given states (and are likely to give them in the near future if they aren’t stopped).

Hear, hear!

But Traub does in fact reference the Declaration of Independence, but only in passing, and only to immediately repudiate its message:

But for passionate defenders of liberty — one of the “unalienable rights” which, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed to the world, governments are established to safeguard — the sweeping collection of “metadata” in the United States and of actual communications abroad is incompatible with democracy. The abuse is the act itself.

But we do not live in Jefferson’s world…

Well, the issue is a bit more subtle than Traub suggests. The collection is itself an abuse, because in no way does it comport with the 4th Amendment’s general purpose of restricting searches of people to cases where there’s some reasonable cause to do so (the surveillance at issue is akin to police watching your house around the clock just in case they spot some suspicious activity). But far more importantly, it opens the door for other abuses. If we have a general practice of surveilling the public, it becomes easier to justify, based on accepted practice, more intrusive forms of surveillance. It also opens up a greater possibility of data being misused, and political pressure put on opponents. Tie this into the presidency’s now-engrained habit of invoking the state secrets privilege, and anyone falsely accused just for political gain has no means of combating the charge.

Of course Traub might plausibly accuse me of slippery slope arguments. But let’s look at this historically. In the 1970s would anyone have believed the government was recording all our calls for the purpose of looking for suspicious activity? Would anyone have believed we’d pass a law making it a crime to reveal the existence of a subpoena for evidence? We’ve slipped since then. The slope is real, and while it’s not excessively slippery, it’s far from being very sticky, primarily because it lacks Schelling points. There is no generally recognized point where we all agree “that’s a step too far, we must stop here.”

So the last part of Traub’s essay sounds to me like cheap patriotism of the “my country right or wrong, full stop” variety; a fear of facing up to our real, Jeffersonian, duties as citizens when our country is wrong:

Despite the Orwellian fear-mongering, the United States is less likely than almost any of the other democracies to fall prey to an overweening, all-pervasive state.

That’s scant assurance, even if we accept the dubious proposition that it’s true. I’m less likely to get blind drunk than almost any other of my friends, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred more often than it should. And I suspect it’s not true. Traub is relying heavily on American exceptionalism here, but while I think America was once exceptional in this sense, the evidence is that we no longer are. We have become, beginning in WWII, and increasingly so, a national security state, which is all too typical of not just other democracies but of authoritarian governments as well. There’s also quite an authoritarian streak in the American character (if such a thing as national character actually exists), and that authoritarian tendency, favoring strict social control, is not averse to “an overweening, all-pervasive state,” because they assume it won’t target them. And if it does, the likely response is not to try to dismantle the system of all-pervasiveness, but just to redirect its focus to other targets.

In trying for a rousing patriotic conclusion, Traub undermines real citizenship, the skepticism demanded of a democratic demos.

We are in danger. That Snowden’s revelations were shocking is a clear indication of just how clueless we are about that danger. We’re not willing to confront it. Traub suggests, echoing FDR, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But while that’s cheering, it’s empty sloganeering. It was empty sloganeering in FDR’s time, when families faced eviction from their homes and no money for food or clothing–those are real things to fear!–and it’s even emptier now, when national security becomes a justification for ever more extensive government intrusion into its citizens’ private lives.

[Hat tip to Ethan Gach, for bringing Traub’s essay to my attention. His response is also worthy of your attention.]

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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4 Responses to The Best and Worst Independence Day Essay of 2013

  1. Scott Hanley says:

    But we do not live in Jefferson’s world…

    No, we live in a world incomparably safer than Jefferson’s, with far fewer threats to our security than when the Bill of Rights was ratified.

    At that time, the British government refused to give up their forts on US soil, while Florida and Louisiana were controlled by another foreign power (Spain, which would have to be considered a rival at best, an impending enemy at worst). Americans were in more or less continual conflict with Indians in the trans-Appalachian west, who found ready material support from those European powers. To this list of external threats, add the internal threat of slave rebellions.

    And the US didn’t even enjoy the presumption of unity that it has today. Former vice-president Aaron Burr concocted a scheme to detach the western territories from the US and deliver them to Spain; during the War of 1812, a group of New England notables plotted secession.

    No, we don’t live in Jefferson’s world. He could only dream of a world as secure as ours.

  2. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Good point. I like to point out to my students that the early U.S. was a fragile concoction surrounded by the 3 great powers of the world, England occupying their northern border, Spain their southern border, and France their western border (and that doesn’t even consider weird resistance of Native Americans to being pushed off their territories). Then I ask them to consider a new country today that was surrounded by Russia, China, and the U.S. When they agree that country would be really vulnerable, I point out that China is far less territorially expansionist than any of those historical powers were, and that international norms are much less supportive of trying to pick off bits of neighboring countries these days (not that it doesn’t still happen). That new country today could at least go to the UN and lodge an international protest that might–might–slow the dismemberment.

    The U.S. in the late 18th century? A far more tenuous position. It’s almost a miracle the thing survived. Thank God France and Spain both needed money to continue fighting each other and England, and England was too busy fighting them to have energy and resources to screw with us any more than they did. It’s sort of a weird divide and conquer story, where we didn’t need to divide them because they eagerly did that for us.

    You know, Traub explicitly emphasizes that terrorism is not an existential threat to the U.S. And yet he uses the “we’re not in Jefferson’s world anymore, Toto” line to imply that the world is more dangerous for Americans now. What was Orwell’s term? Doublethink?

  3. Cletus the Retard says:

    I have a micropenis. I suck in bed. And I’m angry about it. Grr.

  4. michaeldrew says:

    This sentence,

    If we don’t lionize those who reveal government’s constitutional violations, particularly those that threaten our rights and liberties.

    …which is directly on the topic of a comment I made recently at the League, interestingly tails off. If we don’t, then… what?

    I have no problem that people have a high opinion of Edward Snowden and his acts, and I don’t have a problem if they want to lionize him vocally, so long as they then don’t turn around and complain that assessment of him and his acts dominate the discussion about the entire matter or crowd out a lot of the policy debate that should happen about the programs his disclosures brought to light. You can say both should happen, but what does happen is not going to take account of that.

    For my part, I think what he did was valuable, but I am actually more angry that Members of Congress did not decide to take it upon themselves to do this. I mean Ron Wyden and others who at least had the tenacity to obtain the information (and to hell with the ones who didn’t). Yes, I understand that Ron Wyden doesn’t want to get thrown off the Intelligence Committee or even out of Congress. But if I am not mistaken, I actually don’t think he could be arrested for revealing classified information as a sitting Senator (though if he did so in a truly treasonous way, I imagine he could be prosecuted for treason… though I actually am not sure about any of that.) At the very least, it wouldn’t have been any more illegal for Ron Wyden to bring us this information (and he could have done it after going to the president and simply saying, Look, if you don’t changes these policies, I am going to go ahead and tell the American people about them, because they are illegal and they need to know about them,” something Edward Snowden would never have been in a position to do.) The key point (to me) is that these representatives are the ones we pay to make these decisions about the balance between blah blah, to monitor and oversee the government’s activities, and to keep us informed about those activities. We should expect them to do it.

    I don’t expect someone like Edward Snowden to do it. We don’t pay people like him to do all of that; we pay them to carry out the policies that are decided upon by our informed representatives whom we entrust to apply good judgement in our stead as to those matter. If it’s left to the Edward Snowdens of the government to do it, that means that the people constitutionally put in place to do it are falling down on the job (which they obviously are). And if they’re not doing it, then it is left to the Edward Snowdens to do it.

    And I’m ambivalent about that at best, because I actually do want the government to seek to maintain a culture of discipline within its national security professional/functionary ranks. I don’t want it to be thought the presumptive right thing to do to at that level to go ahead and freelance decisions about on what matters the government is right or might be wrong in its judgement about what should be kept secret. I want that done by my elected federal representatives (including the president), not my national security bureaucracy functionaries.

    So that’s why where I ultimately come down on Snowden is that I think what he did was valuable and (unfortunately) necessary, that he is not a Coward nor a Scoundrel, and that I am ultimately okay with the fact that the government is going to apprehend and prosecute him if they can. I would support a full commutation of any sentence, but I do think that the government needs to make clear that freelancing decisions to break binding agreements not to reveal classified information won’t be tolerated. Call me an authoritiarian (I have a feeling you do. J/k.).

    And every member of Congress, from James Sensenbrenner to Ron Wyden to Rand Paul, ought to be ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror every time the name Edward Snowden comes over NPR or the Hannity show, whichever is their preference.

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