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…
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).
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.]