Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Monday, June 10, 2013


John Cole yesterday told all of us concerned that the messenger in the NSA story is Glenn Greenwald to go pound sand.  I get his point, in that just because Greenwald has a bit of the libertarian narcissistic personality disorder doesn't mean he's a liar.

But Greenwald - to his credit and fault - is a civil libertarian absolutist.  There are no encroachments on liberty that are acceptable.  Let's take his recent statement:

"The reality is that U.S. government officials for many decades now — and certainly over the last ten years — have been abusing their secrecy power to shield from the American public, not programs that are designed to keep America safe and not to prevent disclosures that would help the terrorists, but to conceal their own actions from the people to whom they're supposed to be democratically accountable," Greenwald said. "What we disclosed was of great public interest, of great importance in a democracy that the U.S. government is building this massive spying apparatus aimed at its own population, and it harms nobody. Anyone who wants to say that any of these stories or disclosures have harmed national security, I defy anybody to say anything that we've published that does that in any way. The only people who have been harmed are those in power who want to conceal their actions and their wrongdoing from the people to whom they're supposed to be accountable."

OK, let's unpack this.

The programs were deliberately designed to stop terrorist attacks.  These programs have swept up terrorists in the US, including some guy who was on his way to New York to bomb the subway system there.  That's what it was designed to do and it did it.  Perhaps, as Greenwald has noted, there are more allegations to come that show that these programs were used to spy on domestic groups, too. But if he has that evidence - that the US is using these programs to deliberately spy on US citizens not involved in terror cells - why hasn't he shown it?

As for the "concealing their own actions" again it would be helpful if there was evidence of them doing this.  If there is a "massive spying apparatus aimed on its own population" presumably this is more than storing phone records or peaking at international e-mails.  The program is no doubt massive, but how is it aimed at the US population?

Has this harmed national security?  I think Al Qaeda leadership has known that their electronic communications have been compromised for years.  So I don't think we've told Ayman al-Zawahari anything he didn't know.  It's more about would be jihadists like the Tsarneav brothers.  In fact, BECAUSE this dragnet that Greenwald claims is aimed at US citizens DIDN'T pick up these domestic terrorists, wouldn't that suggest it isn't targeting US citizens without links to overseas groups?  So perhaps this makes it less likely that some amateur jihadists use their G-mail accounts. And that could compromise security.  Not in a huge way, but some.

The idea that this illegal hasn't be broached yet, really.  John Judis says this reminds him of the harassment he got from COINTELPRO during his radical days in the '60s.  That would be troubling indeed. But again, where is the evidence of this?  He spoke of harassment by the FBI.  Are there any examples of this?  If there are, then that's a big deal.  But again, I haven't heard any.

President Obama has said he welcomes the debate over the trade-offs between national security and civil liberties.  I would add that this debate is long overdue.  We strenuously avoided having that debate in 2001-3 when the Pile was still smoking and we were passing the PATRIOT Act. Good, let's have the debate.

But if the programs was legal, then what we have is less a "scandal" than a policy debate.  One that we should absolutely have.  But I guess policy debates are boring and only scandals have any juice.

And that's why I am reticent to give Greenwald too many laurels yet.  He sees a scandal, precisely because he's a civil libertarian.  These programs to him, though apparently legal, are de facto wrong.  Until he can produce examples of this power being abused in the way some have argued it could be, then again we have a needed policy debate, not criminal wrong doing.

Greenwald is a hammer.  So everything looks like a nail.

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