Intelligent Discontent

On the NSA Scandal: The Good, The Interesting, and The Ugly


I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around the depth of the NSA/Snowden scandal since the story broke, and I’ve been periodically horrified, surprised, and disappointed by the information that has been leaked and the discussion about it.

I’ll admit that, like many, I assumed the worst abuses of the program ended either after the early days of the “War on Terror” or following the Bush Administration. That was certainly naïve, it seems—a naivety that is perhaps shared by the Obama Administration.  When Obama administration officials talk about executive power to detain Americans without trial, without the intent of using such a program, it’s hard not to question their judgment and values.

These are some of the best insights I’ve read about the program and its use since the story broke a few weeks ago.

Daniel Ellsberg highlighted the danger of the extensive surveillance programs in realistic terms:

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement – like the one we had against the war in Vietnam – or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely dangerous….

But what is not legitimate is to use a secrecy system to hide programs that are blatantly unconstitutional in their breadth and potential abuse. Neither the president nor Congress as a whole may by themselves revoke the fourth amendment – and that’s why what Snowden has revealed so far was secret from the American people.

David Simon, creator of The Wire, and one of the most incisive writers you’ll ever read, suggests that critics on the Left have failed to show actual abuses and why he hasn’t joined their attacks on the program:

On the other hand, it’s no surprise that liberals and moderates are flailing about on this issue, some to one side, some to the other.  For some of the folks over The Nation, for example, anyone shirking the call to outrage here is a half-hearted, cringing Trotskyite.  And for those who evaluate every issue in terms of simple political equations, such reluctance is quickly assessed as apologia for Barack Obama, who, frankly, has civil liberties affronts to answer for other than this particular datapile.  Yes, there are all sorts of half-assed ad hominem reasons to explain why an ally wandered….thus far the folks who are outraged at the NSA for this particular affront are having a hard time making a case against the stated purposes of an actual program with actual goals.

Congress must share the blame for the program—and has the power to restrict its use, writes Joshua Foust:

So this latest outcry over expansive surveillance is really the culmination of over a decade of lawmaking. All three branches of government – the court order was approved by a FISA court – and both parties, in two administrations, have agreed consistently to enable and protect the practice….That is an important debate that should have happened publicly already – back in 2001, or 2008, or 2012….

But the place where this broad, legal surveillance can be reined in is Congress, since they passed the laws to begin with. Congress created this mess, and they should be the ones to clean it up.

The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen points out that some of the problem is the failure of Supreme Court jurisprudence on 4th Amendment issues to match evolving technological sophistication and complexity:

Just because technology makes something possible doesn’t mean government has to do it. Laws can constrain practice; in a healthy democratic system, society should be able to make judgment calls about what that practice looks like — which technologies are on the table and which are off. But the example of the Fourth Amendment demonstrates why this is so difficult: Legislators and judges have to make these decisions half-blind, without full knowledge about what possibilities they are foreclosing, and which they are inadvertently leaving open. It’s not clear what the best way to proceed would be, nor if any could be better; maybe the Court’s muddling approach to the Fourth Amendment will, in the end, provide it with the flexibility it needs to address surveillance-state creep.

Unsurprisingly, the David Brooks from the New York Times offered the worst defense of the program:

When you work for an institution, any institution, a company, a faculty, you don’t get to violate the rules of that institution and decide for your own self what you’re going to do in a unilateral way that no one else can reverse. And that’s exactly what he did. So he betrayed the trust of the institution. He betrayed what creates a government, which is being a civil servant, being a servant to a larger cause, and not going off on some unilateral thing because it makes you feel grandiose.”

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a sixteen year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate. In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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