Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Data-Collection Debate We Need to Have Is Not About Civil Liberties

A great piece from Reuel Marc Gerecht, at the Weekly Standard, "The Costs and Benefits of the NSA":
According to Glenn Greenwald, the left-wing American columnist of the Guardian newspaper, Snowden first realized how unpleasant the U.S. government could be when he read the cable traffic of CIA case officers attempting to recruit a foreign banker in Geneva by getting the poor man drunk and arrested, to set up an opportunity to bond with him. Note to the reading public and Mr. Greenwald: This makes no sense. CIA operatives don’t want to get their recruits into legal and professional jeopardy; they want to nurture their prospective agents’ careers and self-confidence.

It should be obvious by now that Snowden is a serious flake. But the American government and its contractors—even the CIA and the NSA—are chock full of flakes .  .  . along with responsible, Constitution-loving liberals and conservatives who would be loath to allow the U.S. government to spy on their fellow citizens, let alone their own relatives and friends. It is endlessly amusing how many liberals and libertarians seem to believe that the employees of the CIA, NSA, and other shadowy organizations are hatched in hawkish communities far from the world that liberals and libertarians inhabit. Certainly, good people can do bad things if put into a corrupt system.

But journalists in Washington, who rub shoulders every day with national-security types, surely know that America isn’t that far gone. Civil liberties after 12 years of the global war on terrorism are actually as strongly protected in America as they were in 1999, when Bill Clinton was treating terrorism as crime and his minions were debating the morality of assassinating Osama bin Laden. The same is true in France and Great Britain, liberal democracies that have the finest, but also the most intrusive, counterterrorism forces in the West. Surveillance in these countries is intimate—the French internal-security service, the DST, and British domestic intelligence, MI5, bug and monitor their countrymen in ways that remain unthinkable in the United States. Yet the political elites and the societies of both countries have become much more sensitive to, and protective of, personal freedom as their internal security forces have grown more aggressive.

It’s an odd and, for those attached to Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, disconcerting development: The massive American government, born of the welfare state and war, hasn’t yet gone down the slippery fascist slope. Liberal welfare imperatives may be bankrupting the country, but they have not produced a decline of most (noneconomic) civil liberties. Just the opposite. American liberalism’s focus on individual privacy and choice has, so far, effectively checked the creed’s collectivism. America’s national-security state, which Greenwald believes has already become a leviathan, is, for the most part, rather pathetic.

As much as the conspiratorial left and right would like to believe that big super-secret bureaucracies like the NSA are easily capable of violating our constitutional rights, the truth is surely the other way round: Civil liberties are much more likely to be in danger when smaller organizations—the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the CIA, or the Secret Service—with specific, highly selective targeting requirements, abuse their surveillance authority or, in the case of Langley with its drones, their war-related authority. And it’s doubtful that the national-security institutions since 9/11 have engaged in practices that fundamentally challenge anyone’s constitutional rights—the possible big exceptions would be the FBI’s counterterrorist practices against militant Muslim Americans that have occasionally tiptoed close to entrapment and the bureau’s extensive use of national-security letters that can allow curious minds to wander freely through the personal lives of targeted individuals. If the government sensibly gives the Secret Service the capacity to intercept cellular telephone calls as a means to protect preemptively American VIPs, its officers may well monitor the salacious conversations of Washington celebrities or sexually adventurous co-eds at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Adults are always required to ensure that such practices don’t become anything more than bad-boy behavior. All organizations run amok unless adults are present.

The huge high-tech intelligence bureaucracies, like smaller outfits such as the operations and technology directorates within the CIA, are extremely difficult for senior government officials to manipulate and abuse because of the many overlapping and checking authorities in these institutions. Unlike the IRS, intelligence agencies are not designed to interact with the citizenry, nor do they have or want prosecutorial power. The intelligence agencies grow uneasy, sometimes even too cautious, when foreign threats develop a domestic dimension.
Read it all.