Why is @WeeklyStandard Leading Conservatives Astray on NSA Monitoring?

The more you struggle to justify something, the more likely the odds that the subject is inherently unjustifiable. As such, it’s disappointing that the June 24 issue of The Weekly Standard spends so much time trying and failing to reassure conservatives that the recently disclosed monitoring activities of the National Security Agency constitute a “nothing to see here, move along” moment.


  • In The Scrapbook, we learn that “[g]iven the choice between impersonal surveillance, and a repetition of 9/11, most Americans understand what’s at stake.” Because, apparently, there are no options between impersonal surveillance and a repetition of 9/11.
  • Bill Kristol’s lead editorial — titled “IRS Bad, NSA Good” — is a veritable piñata of fallacies. He cites “two leading libertarian legal thinkers, no friends to intrusive government” who support the NSA’s activities and who are quoted, without a hint of irony, as suggesting that we “can’t cite a single case” of government abuse of NSA data. Apparently, Kristol hasn’t surveyed the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the program within the pages of Reason (the propaganda arm of the modern libertarian movement) or considered that perhaps the NSA (like the IRS or EPA) doesn’t actually disclose its abuses. After deploying the libertarian red herring, Kristol devotes half a page to an odd paean about conservatives being able to “walk and chew gum at the same time” before concluding with the non sequitur that … well, I’m not sure. The entire second half of the editorial is as perplexingly off-topic as a Krugman column.
  • Stephen F. Hayes, in “Our Disappearing President,” tell us that since Congress authorized NSA monitoring, and the four top Congressional overseers of the intelligence community are peachy-keen with things, that the only real scandal here is that President Obama hasn’t been more forceful in defending the NSA.
  • We then learn from Reuel Marc Gerecht, in “The Costs and Benefits of the NSA,” that the document leaker, Edward Snowden, is “a serious flake” and that “[c]ivil liberties after 12 years of the global war on terrorism are actually as strongly protected in America as they were in 1999.” A proposition that will come as a surprise, no doubt, to anyone who’s ever passed through a TSA screening checkpoint. Then Gerecht tells us that it’s more likely for civil liberties to be violated by “smaller organizations — the FBI, the CIA or the Secret Service” than by the presumably larger NSA. What a relief! And, by the way, someone should tell political scientists that there’s a direct positive correlation between the size and ethical integrity of a given bureaucracy. We are also invited to trust, on Gerecht’s assertion alone, that the NSA “would probably break down bureaucratically if it attempted to shift gears from foreign observation to domestic surveillance in any threatening way.” Because, of course, it’s apparently impossible to replace people from the old regime with members of the new.

So what do we take away from all of this reassurance?

First, TWS resorts surprisingly often to ad hominem attacks against Snowden and we see many more false-binary and straw-man arguments on this subject than I’m accustomed to seeing from this otherwise intellectually solid magazine. This rhetorical approach hints at an ideological meta-narrative: The writers cannot paint a principled conservative argument in favor of a wide intel dragnet, so they rely on insinuation, assertion and misdirection to arrive at a semi-plausible but logically sketchy conclusion that does comparatively little institutional violence to the muscular interventionist worldview the magazine did so much to promote during the George W. Bush administration. Perhaps the editors adjudged it better to defend the NSA, albeit imperfectly, than to acknowledge honestly that civil liberties really can be (and potentially are) a casualty in the Global War on Terror.

Second, the tack followed by TWS tracks the course charted by leaders in Congress and within the intelligence community — that without the kinds of surveillance presently underway by the NSA, America stands at risk for another 9/11.

It’s not so much that Washington leadership asserts, without proof, that surveillance has averted terror attacks. It’s not even the “trust me, there are no abuses here” line that gets tossed about with reckless abandon. Rather, the problem is the paradigm, the Hobson’s choice that our options are either to accept the surveillance or risk death by terrorist.

America may plausibly pick from any combination of anti-terror initiatives on a very long list of options. The policy currently favored in Washington indicates a bunker mentality: We’ll collect everything, everywhere, and sort things out retrospectively. We’ll hide behind a wall of security, like TSA screenings, that serve more as theater than effective deterrent. We’ll do something comparatively bloodless, like electronic surveillance, instead of risking boots on the ground or deploying human assets in global hotspots.

But why can’t we deal with terror networks in a manner that’s less disruptive to civil liberties? Why can’t we aggressively attack terror cells where they are, and hold accountable the states that harbor them? Why can’t we engage in behavior-based profiling, like the Israelis do, instead of watching TSA agents search the colostomy bags of disabled WWII veterans? Why can’t we invest in a more robust eyes-and-ears intelligence network instead of relying disproportionally on signals intelligence? Why must the emanating penumbra of the Constitution guarantee my privacy, but only about sex?

There’s a wide range of effective policy decisions between “surveillance state” and “unattended borders.” Conservatives must evaluate the risk/reward matrix for national counter-terrorism activity as part of a broader policy formulation. Is the risk of a massive loss of privacy sufficient to guarantee, for any individual citizen, a miniscule reduction in the already miniscule odds that he’ll be a victim of a terror attack? We need a national conversation about whether the benefits are worth the cost. The real scandal here is that the public hasn’t been engaged in that conversation — that the key choices have been made in secret, by people with a vested interest in building a surveillance state. That it took Snowden’s leaks to disclose a program that President Obama said shouldn’t have been all that secret, speaks volumes.

Personally, I would rather risk another 9/11 while maintaining my freedom of obscurity, than to surrender that freedom for the illusion of safety. I have no conspiracy-laden fear of the NSA or of surveillance, per se. I do object to the mindless aggregation of data that serve no useful purpose, but which one day, when an abuse does occur, puts my freedom at some small but non-zero risk.

There’s no such thing as true risk avoidance. The best you can do is balance different strategies to arrive at an optimal cost-benefit ratio. America really hasn’t addressed the cost-benefit ratio — not yet, anyway. What a shame that The Weekly Standard seems content to short-circuit the debate with a “nothing to see here” issue that proved short on substance but long on misdirection. The conservative movement deserves better leadership than this.

Wisdom and The Law

Many moons ago, I half-justified to a friend a particular deviation from Catholic moral theology by arguing that as long as he understood the rationale behind the Church’s prohibition, he could live according to the real moral truth (imperfectly encapsulated by a behavioral norm) despite his superficial non-conformance with the letter of the law. The subtext of that somewhat Gnostic argument? That much of the thou-shalt-not discipline of Scripture and Tradition was intended to provide concrete guidance to the great unwashed masses who lack the intellectual wherewithal to properly adjudicate complex ethical problems.

We, the wise, however, ought not to labor under such crude restrictions, better suited to toddlers than adults. Ergo, as long as we could tease out a logical superstructure of principle beneath those crusty old rubrics, we could live as enlightened souls who didn’t obsess over compliance with rules intended to shepherd the children around us.

Interesting, then, to read Aaron Rothstein’s review of Steven Weitzman’s Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom published in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. Rothstein — a medical student at Wake Forest — offers a refreshing insight into the interplay of wisdom and spiritual humility:

The rabbis conceived of gezeirah, alternatively known as building a fence around the Torah. One places certain restrictions on lifestyle in order to (in Rabban Gamliel’s words) “keep a man far from transgression.” … In other words, if we understand the secrets of why we do certain things or why certain laws exist, we remove the barriers that prevent us from breaking more serious laws. Solomon’s downfall, then, demonstrates the danger of too much understanding — a biblical version of the Faustian tale.

Put differently: Laws, both secular and religious, serve as markers that delimit acceptable behavior. In many cases, those markers sit very far away from grey zones, in order to protect people from the confusion reigning at morality’s twilight. When we, the wise, treat those markers as rules for the unenlightened — when we decide that our own wisdom is sufficient to light our way through that twilight — we risk missing the next set of markers, hidden in the darkness, roping off the point of no return. Ethics becomes tautology: A given act is acceptable because I believe it’s acceptable. QED. And the wisdom inherent in the original placement of those universal markers fades from public consciousness.

Having decided that I have ascertained the real lesson of the rules that govern everyone else, I can then presume to know when those rules may safely be broken. And what’s true of one’s private life — e.g., out-thinking biblical dietary norms — works in one’s public life, too. Anyone want to wager whether all the best and brightest at the National Security Agency will always elect to follow domestic-surveillance laws, enacted in messy and haphazard fashion by a dysfunctional Congress, when the intelligence analysts think they’ve got a compelling case to skirt them in service to their version of the public good?

We break laws with impunity when we think we understand the law’s purpose and decide that some other, higher, purpose ought to trump.

Therein lies the risk. Humility — a trait that often comes easier to men of intellectually modest means — helps us to acknowledge that the law’s markers serve a valuable purpose and were erected with foresight. When we lack that humility, we treat those markers as speed bumps, yet we rarely acknowledge that some wisdom superior to our own may have played a part in setting them.

Solomon fell because he out-thought the Torah and God decided to remind him that mere wisdom isn’t a license to disobedience. Today, we see case after case after case of men out-thinking both statutory and natural law, and we must ask: Are we really that wise, after all?