The Corner

Not Contra Goldberg

Yeah, I know, I’m agreeing with someone who argues that I’m at least half wrong. But I think Jonah’s column this morning strikes exactly the right note — on the NSA phone records controversy, skepticism is what is called for. 

I’ve mainly focused on the part of the argument that involves why, under the applicable, law, the surveillance is something government may do, and why it shouldn’t be conflated with the other Obama scandals because — at least as far as we know at the moment — it is basically a continuation of what’s been done since the Bush days (the court orders reportedly go back to 2006). But Jonah is right to observe that just because something can be done legitimately does not mean doing it, particularly to the extent the government is doing it, is wise. It might be, but that depends on whether (a) the program really is contributing to our security in a meaningful way, and (b) there is no practical way to get the same degree of security if the program is less robust — which is to say, if the program proceeded more along traditional lines, which call for government to have a particularized suspicion and to tailor its surveillance accordingly. 

Those of us inclined to be supportive of the program have not made a compelling argument, at least not yet, on this aspect of the controversy. Those who follow our debates here know I am no fan of big, centralized government. I’ve always held firm, though, that national security is the principal task of the federal government and that the framers, quite intentionally, made its powers awesome in this regard. So while I agree with Jonah that it’s appropriate to skeptical, I’ve always been willing to cut the feds more slack on national security matters — both because national security is something we need the government to attend to and because the need to protect our security secrets from our enemies makes it hard for the government to make a full-throated defense of what it is doing. All that said, though, it’s fair to say we need to know more about what this NSA effort achieves and why it has to be done the way it’s being done.

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