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The Costs and Benefits of the NSA

The data-collection debate we need to have is not about civil liberties.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Should Americans fear the possible abuse of the intercept power of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland? Absolutely. In the midst of the unfolding scandal at the IRS, we understand that bureaucracies are callous creatures, capable of manipulation. In addition to deliberate misuse, closed intelligence agencies can make mistakes in surveilling legitimate targets, causing mountains of trouble. Consider Muslim names. Because of their commonness and the lack of standardized transliteration, they can befuddle scholars, let alone intelligence analysts, who seldom have fluency in Islamic languages. Although one is hard pressed to think of a case since 9/11 in which mistaken identity, or a willful or unintentional leak of intercept intelligence, immiserated an American citizen, these things can happen. NSA civilian employees, soldiers, FBI agents, CIA case officers, prosecutors, and our elected officials are not always angels. Even though encryption is mathematically easier to accomplish than decryption, the potential for abuse of digital communication is always there—all the more since few Americans resort to encryption of their everyday emails. 

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Pro-Snowden protest in Hong Kong

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But fearing the NSA, which has been a staple of Hollywood for decades, requires you to believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of American employees in the organization are in on a conspiracy. In the Edward Snowden-is-a-legitimate-NSA-whistleblower narrative, it also requires that very liberal senators and congressmen are complicit in propagating a civil-rights-chewing national surveillance system.

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. 

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