Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Weapons Of Mass Detection

Via Laura Rozen comes this Jeff Stein piece which describes how former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby once requested NSA intercepts and raw FBI files in order to target one of his political enemies. It's not a particularly earth-shattering revelation, but it goes to the heart of why unwarranted domestic wire-tapping poses such a threat to our notion of civil liberties.

The common argument in support of expanded surveillance powers is that if you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about. It's an argument that's based on an idealized vision of government whereby the State has only the interests of its citizens, and none of its own, at heart. By and large, the American government has proven comparatively deserving of such an indulgent view.

But there are two problems with the argument. First, the State does have particular interests, ranging from the banal tendency of bureaucracies to satisfy their appetite for expansion to the more threatening tendency of government to satisfy its appetite for power. Second, while the State in its abstract might indeed be a benign or even benevolent actor, the government in practice is comprised of people. Honest-to-goodness human beings, with moral weaknesses and character flaws like the rest of us.

Recent Congressional shenanigans have revealed a bevvy of them. Duke Cunningham had a weakness for money; for Larry Craig and John Vitter it was illegal or indiscrete sex. The first corrupts government; the second demeans it.

Richard Shelby, on the other hand, was willing to abuse the access his position afforded to stick it to one his political enemies, and that represents an existential threat to a free society. Because it doesn't take a lot of imagination to come up with scenarios where the target might not be a Washington insider, and the motive no longer political in the insitutional sense but political in the ideological sense. Shelby's not the first, and he surely won't be the last, which is why the NSA surveillance program is so ill-advised.

The logic of warfare is that when a weapon exists, it will be used. Data banks full of NSA intercepts on American citizens are the information equivalent of weapons stockpiles, just as the executive's claims to the right to detain and torture represent operational ones. Throughout America's relatively short history, men and women of character have filled the breach in each of its moments of constitutional peril. It would be a dangerous mistake, though, to confuse that good fortune with destiny or entitlement.

As the brokerage firms like to say, Past performance is no guarantee of future success. You don't need any broad conspiracy theories or a particularly pessimistic vision of government to recognize that once intelligence is gathered, there's no telling who might eventually get their hands on it nor what their motives might be.

Those who argue that the NSA program is justified by national security concerns have placed their bets on American exceptionalism. Me, I'll take human nature every time.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Politics   

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