Politics & Policy

Spooks off the Leash

Our relationship with the national-security and public-safety bureaucracies has changed.

Apparently having decided to embark upon a course of self-parody, the National Reconnaissance Office — the other NRO — sent out a press release sharing the logo for its new spy-satellite program, NROL-39. The image is that of an evil-looking giant octopus with its tentacles encircling the entire planet over the motto: Nothing Is beyond Our Reach. It may be that they’ve been reading Matt Taibbi’s breathless Wall Street commentary and developed a case of tentacle envy, but what the image really put me in mind of was the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Internet jokesters have been running a “​Cthulhu for President” campaign the last few times around — motto: Why Settle for a Lesser Evil? — but what stuck in my mind was the contact info for the Cthulhu 2012 campaign site: “We don’t need your email address or ZIP code to keep you updated.” Long tentacles, indeed.

There is a certain amount of entertaining swagger in military and intelligence logos. I’ve always liked the naval-intelligence patch featuring an eagle wearing a headset over the motto: “In God We Trust — All Others We Monitor.” But it was all a lot more fun when the spooks were spying on Cold War Communists and Sheik Yerbouti.

Instead of, you know, us.

But things are different now. Our relationship with the national-security and public-safety bureaucracies has changed. It used to be that you called the fireman to get your cat out of a tree; now the policeman shoots your dog. We have police rolling through the streets of such combat zones as Lubbock, Texas, in armored vehicles, wearing camouflage uniforms to help them blend into the honeysuckle bushes and crepe myrtle. (Most common inquiry from the Lubbock tactical-britches supply sergeant: “Does this come in dust?”) Radley Balko’s excellent Rise of the Warrior Cop is a terrifying compendium of everything that goes wrong when you blur the line between law enforcement and the military. Short version: Keep telling them they’re fighting a war, and they’ll act like they’re fighting a war.

Things are bad on the police front, but they’re even worse on the national-security front. There has always been a tacit understanding that organizations such as the CIA are inescapably in the moral-compromises business, and that they would occasionally do things that were unsanctioned. In a perverse sense, the whole point of the CIA is to sanction the unsanctioned — we create a limited license while keeping those necessary acts of coloring outside the lines contained in an intelligence community that could be counted upon for its discretion, professionalism, and competence. We created a monster, probably a necessary monster, and put it on a leash. That leash was not a body of laws so much as a tradition of good judgment: When the lines of demarcation are murky, we must perforce place our trust in the judgment of men rather than in codes and statutes. The assumption was that they were good men who were good at what they did.

Both of those assumptions have been put to the test in recent years. The real scandal of the Bradley Manning affair is that the mighty, mighty national-security and intelligence apparatuses of the United States and our allies were circumvented by a nobody private first-class and some oleaginous self-promoter with a website. Likewise, the Edward Snowden affair suggests very strongly that the cloak-and-dagger gang simply is not very good at what it does these days. A competent intelligence community would not see its secrets splashed across the pages of the New York Times quite so often. We probably would be willing to forgive our various spook agencies a great deal if we thought they were good at their jobs. But they don’t seem to be.

As for whether we can trust their moral judgment, the fact that we now have a national policy of carrying out extrajudicial executions of U.S. citizens without anything so plebeian as a vote in Congress on the matter means that the judgment of everybody from the president on down is in question. We have been assured that nobody ends up on the federal hit list unless he’s a really bad guy, but we’re also told that police aren’t supposed to shoot confused elderly people in the course of raiding the wrong house, or to continue ransacking a home after discovering — oops! — that they’d hit the wrong address. They aren’t supposed to anally probe you eight times because they don’t like the cut of your jib when you are pulling out of a Walmart. We’re told that the IRS isn’t suppose to target you because of your political views and that the NSA isn’t supposed to engage in sexual blackmail because it doesn’t like your Facebook posts.

But the facts are otherwise.

Today the police, military, and intelligence worlds are closely interconnected. And they are, collectively, a menace. The Soviet Union was a much more credible geopolitical threat than Islam-in-arms will ever be, but during the Cold War, we met allegations that Americans were working with Communist insurgents — and some of them were — with hearings, investigations, and trials. We did not assassinate them. But between the so-called wars on drugs and terror, we have let that monster off the leash, or at least given it a leash so long as to be practically useless.

And it doesn’t stop there: We’re about to throw some wedding-cake bakers in jail because the government doesn’t like their politics. The omnipresent state is not just a matter of cops and taxmen, soldiers and spies, but also of judges, regulators, managers, and busybodies of every description. Conservatives are by inclination well-disposed toward the police and the military, but it is worth keeping this in mind: When the order comes down to put the outlaw confectioners in prison, the only questions the police are likely to ask are whether they get to break out the armored vehicles, and which pattern of camouflage will best protect them among the sprinkles and fondant.

Nothing Is beyond Our Reach. It was funny when we trusted you. It isn’t funny any more.

— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.


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