The Corner

The Power and the Power Wielders

In the latest NSA surveillance controversies, there are two major, inseparable issues: (a) Is the awesome power to collect information essential for national security in light of our current threat environment, and (b) even if it is, should we trust the government to wield this power both lawfully and prudently?

The problem national security has at the moment is that, in the public debate, the “yes” answer on (a) is a lot less clear than the “no” answer on (b).

My pal Jed Babbin provides more grist today at TAS.

Most out front for the Obama administration on NSA questions has been James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. Mr. Clapper, you’ll recall, is the official who famously testified to Congress that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “largely secular” organization — an averment so patently ridiculous that he had to disavow it within hours of floating it. So, like the administration he serves, he doesn’t exactly come with a ton of credibility. Which is too bad because the statements he has issued on both the NSA’s metadata collection (which was the subject of my weekend column) and on the foreign intelligence surveillance computer system known as “PRISM“ (which, unlike the metadata collection, actually does involve the seizure of communications content) have actually been very informative. 

Unfortunately, Clapper seems to have taken one too many lessons at the Eric Holder School of Congressional Testimony. As Jed points out: 

In a March 12 hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

To which he answered, “No, sir.” His questioner followed up. “It does not?” Clapper said, “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”

Now, as even those of us who defend the data collection acknowledge, there is absolutely no question that the NSA, for years and quite intentionally, has been collecting “data … on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” The counterargument against those who claim the Constittuion is being shredded is that (a) the information in question is not protected by the Fourth Amendment, and (b) there is a difference between collecting information for retention purposes and sifting through it for surveillance purposes — and the NSA is not permitted to do the latter without satisfying a court that it has grounds for particularized suspicion (i.e., it is not permitted to sift through the data, as critics claim it must be doing). But to say the NSA is not “wittingly” collecting this information is as far from the truth as insisting the Muslim Brotherhood is “largely secular.” And mind you, Clapper has been running around for days, since the NSA programs leaked, telling people that a big part of the reason they can trust the NSA programs is because there is congressional oversight. How are Americans supposed to rely on congressional oversight to keep the administration in check if the administration misleads Congress about what it is doing?

National security should not be nearly as partisan an issue as it has become since the Bush years. As we’ve seen, Obama has adopted most of the Bush program. That is because Bush/Cheney counterterrorism is not ideological; it is about doing the things necessary to protect Americans from sneak attacks by mass-murderers — the task for which Obama is now accountable. Yet, while national security has not traditionally been politicized, it has always been a matter of trust.

If politics were logical, we would say: “It is necessary to have awesome national security powers but they can only be trusted in the hands of honorable officials; since the officials we have cannot be trusted, we need to get new officials.” But politics is not logical: It is a lot easier to slash the powers we need than the officials we don’t. That is where this is headed, and I fear we’ll regret it.  

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