America’s wise men defend the government’s surveillance programs

Summary: Our reaction to the revelations about the NSA spying on us reveal much about America. Here we review some of the more interesting ones. See our New America in the mirror.

Fake but good quote!
Fake but good quote!



  1. The usual suspects defend the government against us
  2. Our best & brightest defend the government, not us
  3. A real hero replies
  4. Our best & brightest respond to heroism
  5. Rebuttals to the President’s remarkably weak defense
  6. For More Information

(1) The usual suspects defend the government against us

An Editorial in the Wall Street Journal, in which they pretend not to know that governments can collect information on a far greater scale than corporations, and have police powers to use the information to maintain political power:

The critics nonetheless say the NSA program is a violation of privacy, or illegal, or unconstitutional, or all of the above. But nobody’s civil liberties are violated by tech companies or banks that constantly run the same kinds of data analysis.

The folks at Lawfare automatically side with the government against its citizens, making up reasons as needed. Brian Jenkins of RAND, an expert in terrorism, gives a rebuttal (posted by Fred Kaplan) at Slate — saying we have created “The Foundation of a Very Oppressive State”.

(2)  Our best and brightest defend the government against us

In The Best and Brightest, David Halberstam showed that the Vietnam War resulted not just from the aspirations of aggressive generals and war-mongers, but equally so from the support of well-meaning liberals. This is the story of our time, and a major driver forcing American politics to the Right since WWII (starting with Truman’s signing the Loyalty Oath act).

Here are examples of reflexive support for the powerful from two of our best and brightest; many more could be cited.

(a)  Steven Metz,

He is Director of Research and Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, where he specializes in insurgency. Follow his Twitter feed here.  My replies are in italics. I’ve edited my replies for greater clarity; the interesting part is his analysis.

Steven Metz

Advice from our national security experts: FEAR!

No heroism by the American people in our actions since 9-11

I’m not advocating anything. Just saying we can’t have it both ways: pre-terrorism levels of privacy and safety.

Without qualifications your remark is just a naked appeal to fear enemies of dubious power using tools of unknown value. DoD & national security experts have fired many barrages of fear propaganda since 9/11. They won: Constitution shredded; public doesn’t care; no evidence that we’re safer.

Do you have the information to conclude that they are of “unknown value”? I don’t.

Logic FAIL. If you don’t have information to show value of government actions, then they are of unknown value. I am confident that you already know this.

If the US government believes it is of value, it is obligated to demonstrate that to the public in advance? I find the assertion a little far fetched that this is of no value and the government is doing it just for kicks.

First, that is a strawman rebuttal. Who says the government does this “for kicks”? Government surveillance expands their power and limits public ability to push back.  Second, the history of US government lies warrants skepticism of their claims: bomber gap, missile gap, the Gulf of Tonkin, Saddam’s WMDs. You know about all this better than I.

Not sure those are relevant. Plus, in the Verizon case, there were checks and balances in place.

Why is this “not relevant”? These are examples of government’s serial lies since WW2. Also, what “checks & balances”? Courts approved almost every request since 9-11 (some with minor changes). Rubber stamps from a Soviet-style court.

Third, if the US public believes it to infringe on our Constitutional rights, should we blindly accept government’s assertions?

I’m not sure the public believes that these programs infringe on their constitutional rights. That’s open to debate.

Agreed. As I said, they don’t care; that’s why it is a government win. See John Sides (Prof, Pol Sci, GW U) post about this.

So I’m not saying automatically trust everything government does or says. But also don’t automatically distrust.

Logic FAIL. The government gives no evidence; they just say “trust us”. You say not to automatically trust or distrust the government, and ignore past lies. It appears that you de facto quietly assent to the ever-growing government surveillance programs.

It’s not that simple. Unfortunately, the Founders didn’t delineate the limits on cell phones and ISPs.

Fourth Amendment:  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Explicitly quite broad in its coverage, and even more so in its intent. It should not and did not specify every type of information covered.

The public has consistently indicated that it will surrender some degree of privacy — with checks and balances — for security

MT: “The public has consistently indicated they will surrender some degree of all privacy without checks or balances for the illusion of security.” As for checks & balances, those are illusions.  For details see The Idiocies of “Oversight” & “Accountability” by Arthur Silber.

One can’t derive “everything the government says is a lie” from “the government has on occasion lied.” Checks & balances

Another strawman rebuttal. Asking for evidence to justify surveillance is not saying that “everything govt says is lie”. The usual advice is “trust but verify”. You are capable of doing better than this.

Again, the government provided evidence to Congress and the judiciary. Just not to you. Which I consider reasonable. I’m in favor of concern and debate but not hysteria.

You accept the evidence given to Congress & Judges, don’t need to see it yourself, and don’t care about the history of government lies.  What is the basis for debate?

If the system needs adjusted, let’s do it. But prior public disclosure of programs, sources, and methods is absurd.

During 10 years of writing about this trend, I always wondered when experts like you would begin to worry. Now we know: too late. Perhaps not even then. What is your red line, beyond which we should worry (AKA “hysteria”)?

The law seems to provide useful red lines.

So there is no problem as we continue to get a series of Patriot Acts plus aggressive implementation by the security services and lax review by Courts and Judges? No worries, no fear in New America.

If the law is misguided, it should be changed using the processes in place to do so. Hence there are elected officials and judges who do so.

We all took 5th grade civics. I asked when you’d worry, not when you would start a revolution. We can’t review programs we don’t know about. No basis for consent. You must know your rebuttals are absurd.

(b)  Michael Cohen.

A regular columnist for the Guardian and Observer on US politics, he is also a fellow of the Century Foundation. See his Twitter feed here. His contribution to the debate:

Michael Cohen

This is the viewpoint of most of our best and brightest. As income and power concentrates in our society, life as a courtier becomes a more attractive career path — and a critic of government less so. Defending the powerful is the path to success; defending the underdog a route to obscurity and poverty.

Here Cohen sides with the government. Not that he can cite a writer denying the “rule of law” in this case. He defends the government’s view: that the key is to find and punish the leaker. The revelations are to be minimized, then forgotten.

Tom Tomorrow

(3)  A real hero replies

Here the words of a real hero, from Glenn Greenwald’s article in which the leaker reveals his identity:

In a note accompanying the first set of documents he provided, he wrote: “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions,” but “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.”

In an interview he said:

Q: Do you think you are probably going to end up in prison?

A: “I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison. You can’t come up against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk. If they want to get you, over time they will.”

Q: How to you feel now, almost a week after the first leak?

A: “I think the sense of outrage that has been expressed is justified. It has given me hope that, no matter what happens to me, the outcome will be positive for America. I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want.”

(4)  Our best & brightest respond to heroism

Twitter is aflame with our best & brightests’ hatred to the whistleblower; much less so to the information he revealed.

Steven Metz

Steven Metz

(5)  Rebuttals to the President’s weak defense of extensive NSA spying on citizens

“{Bush Jr’s} Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom.”

Candidate Obama’s speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, August 2007

Obama continues his core policy of extending and deepening the initiatives of the Bush Jr. Bush Jr was one of the few transformative Presidents in US history; making this so will be Obama’s primary legacy.

(5)  For More Information

The one-shot summary: Tom Tommorow explains The Five Stages of Living In A National Surveillance State.

For links to some of the best articles about the NSA revelations see the “For More Information” section of Saturday’s post.

Posts about the NSA story:

All you need to know to see America’s future (unless you decide to change it):



6 thoughts on “America’s wise men defend the government’s surveillance programs”

  1. piedmonthudson

    Excellent review.

    On top of all this is the fear of those in power who fear they could be accused of not doing enough if something bad happens. So they play to the “do everything” hand so they will have a cya defense when something bad does happen.

    John Lounsbury

    1. “On top of all this is the fear of those in power who fear they could be accused of not doing enough if something bad happens”

      Perhaps so. But this “fear” does not seem to motivate them to do much to prevent other — more severe — domestic problems. Such as reduce gun violence, traffic deaths. Nor, looking ahead, address our rotting public infrastructure before it kills many people.

      An alternative explanation is they feed and exploit our fear in order to boost the government’s power, developing its ability to influence Americans — and retaliate against leakers (ie, maintain internal discipline among government employees).

  2. “An alternative explanation is they feed and exploit our fear in order to boost the government’s power, developing its ability to influence Americans — and retaliate against leakers (ie, maintain internal discipline among government employees).”

    Yes, this is, in its ultimate consequences, the masonry on which dictatorships are built.

    I wonder what would have happened to Daniel Ellsberg today …

    Mazzel & broge, Evert Wesker

  3. I find that many things which appear to be conspiracies from the outside, could just as well be explained by numerous independent actors, each working toward personal goals, each in a relatively independent fashion. This is much like an avalanche, where it’s not as if each piece of snow is consciously working toward a grand agenda.

    Groups, governments, and countries do not act together with one single mind. America is not a person, the government is not a person, and the NSA is not a person, although imagining so might allow for a simpler analysis. Each of these abstract groups is the result of the cumulative actions of many separate real people.

    When I try to imagine the thought process behind the specific people who work in the government spying programs, I can’t imagine anyone intentionally orchestrating the sort of grand conspiracy against the public that Fabius Maximus describes on his website, a plan by the nation’s elite to make the American people emotionally docile and easy to control. I can’t imagine this, simply because I can’t think of any one person who might benefit from such an eventuality on any timescale that’s typical of the human planning process.

    I could be wrong of course, but it is very difficult to visualize people in such large bureaucratic organizations being able to see past their small personal motivations toward some grand agenda that might take years (or decades) to manifest.
    I think the people in the NSA, as well as those in other branches of government involved in this apparent conspiracy, would have very personal motivations for what they do, and not much more:
    – Money, either in the form of Congressional budget appropriations, or in specific salary raises
    – Career growth by accomplishing something big and impressive
    – Power, again largely determined by Congressional budget appropriations
    – Feel like they’re doing good, catching the bad guy, fighting the good fight, or whatever

    I think individual liberties can erode just as quickly from the cumulative actions of uncoordinated self-interested actors as they can from the actions of one very powerful ruler trying to fortify his hold over his subjects. Both situations appear very similar from the outside, and both are bad, of course, but each requires a very different solution. That’s why it’s important to properly identify what sort of problem we face. The first sort of problem is solved by systemic and cultural change, which would likely be a long and difficult process due to the multitude of entrenched parties and opinions. The second problem is solved by a simple seizure of power, a coup or other more direct action.

    Sorry if this is tldr, but I think it’s important not to get lost in abstractions, and to remind ourselves that these issues are always caused by real people just like you and me, just trying to live their lives.

    1. Interesting long analysis.
      What we have is either a cumulative cultural phenom or an amalgamation of personal phenoms.
      It really matters not.
      What we are seeing and living with are a set of deep character flaws manifested in daily life of assembled individuals.

      There is terrific ignorance.
      Overwhelming Inattention, uncaring for the reality we create with how we live with the other.
      Many of us do not deserve to be trusted as we do Not live as if we can be trusted.
      We bend our own moral rules to get ahead, pander to those who can allow us entry to more.
      Many of us are not good people and so we cannot create good results within our worlds or through our actions.
      We have failed marriages, our parenting skills produce ruffians, tell little lies often and cheat whenever we can.
      There was a time when such was not so predominant.

      The State of America today should not be so surprising.

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