Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Peggy Noonan on the Surveillance State

In yesterday’s comments section Tip drew our attention to Peggy Noonan’s blog post about the current debate between liberty and security.

Noonan’s post is thoughtful and incisive. It is well worth some serious reflection.

Opening her article with an observation on the anxiety politicians feel about terrorism, Noonan writes:

The thing political figures fear most is a terror event that will ruin their careers. The biggest thing they fear is that a bomb goes off and it can be traced to something they did or didn’t do, an action they did or didn’t support. They all fear being accused of not doing enough to keep the citizenry safe.

Surely, this is slightly cynical. Isn’t it possible that at least some politicians are motivated by a desire to protect the people they are sworn to protect?

The responsibility to protect people is part of governance. It is part of being a parent. Isn’t there more to it than the interest in evading responsibility in case something bad happens?

Even if we accept that government should be able to do what is necessary, within prescribed limits, to protect the populace, it is also true, as Noonan says, that the power will inevitably be abused.

Witness, Edward Snowden.

In Noonan’s words:

So if we have and develop a massive surveillance state, it will be abused. And that abuse will, down the road, do damage not only to individuals but, quite probably, to the nation’s morale, to its very vision of itself.

But it will make us – or allow us to feel — physically safer. And it may help break real terror networks bent on real mayhem.

As always, the choices are not clear cut.

The surveillance state missed the Tsarnaev brothers, even after it had been told by Russian intelligence that they were dangerous. And it missed the Fort Hood shooter, who had advertised his intentions in public.

Is it something like: be careful whom you vote for. Does the potential for abuse increase or decrease when we have a new president? Does an administration create an atmosphere where surveillance is more or less likely to be abused?

Noonan also debunks the notion that Congressional oversight can rein in the excesses and abuses that must occur.

Congress is too small and too underfunded. It is too full of people who do not have the time and the inclination to become Darryl Issa. Thus government employees have been abusing their power and their authority, with impunity. Noonan points out that very few of those who were committing the most egregious breaches of trust were in any way scared of Congressional oversight.

When Noonan asks whether this state of affairs is forever, she intimates that government, once given powers, is unlikely to give them up without a fight. In part, this devolves from the fact that government employees organize to elect candidates who favor their interests. But then again, most politicians are unwilling to stand up to the bureaucracy.

It is also true that we have the surveillance state because of the threat of Islamist terrorism. As long as this threat exists, there would be good reason for surveillance. There might be better reason for more competent surveillance, but the need is a function of the threat.

As of now, it doesn’t look as though Islamist terrorism is going to end any time soon.

Unless, of course, you are sufficiently foolish to take President Obama at his word. Remember, Obama declared that the War on Terror is over, and that the surveillance state should limit itself to finding homegrown terrorists … like Major Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers.


Rondo said...

Barry Rubin chimes in


Sam L. said...

"Remember, Obama declared that the War on Terror is over, and that the surveillance state should limit itself to finding homegrown terrorists … like Major Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers."

He lied. That's NOT multi-culti!