Unaccustomed as I am to agreeing with Marc Thiessen, hell has frozen over and he’s on the right track about the National Security Agency–leaks nonscandal.
First of all, we pretty much knew everything that has “broken” in the past week. The NSA has been involved in a legal data-mining operation for almost a decade. Its legality was clarified in the renewal of the Patriot Act, which I supported. It has been described, incorrectly, as electronic eavesdropping. What is really happening is that phone and Internet records are being scanned for patterns that might illuminate terrorist networks. If there is a need to actually eavesdrop, the government has to go to the FISA court for permission.
Those who see the federal government as a vast corporate conspiracy or a criminal enterprise — in other words, paranoids of the left and right — are concerned about this. More moderate sorts should also have cause for concern — especially if a rogue government, like Nixon’s, were in power. We have to remain vigilant that the snooping stays within reasonable bounds; that’s why we have congressional oversight committees. And that’s where the paranoid tinge comes in: the FISA court, the congressional committees, the President and journalists like me are obviously incompetent or caught up in the conspiracy. Of course, there has been absolutely no evidence presented that the current parameters are unreasonable. Yes, I expect that some of my phone and e-mail traffic has been picked up in the data trawling. I travel fairly frequently to places like Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, the West Bank and the rest of the region; part of my job is to talk to partisans on all sides — and also to talk to sources in the U.S. military and intelligence communities. I have no problem with the government knowing that I’m doing my job.
I do have a problem with individuals like Bradley Manning divulging secrets that may well put lives in danger; his reckless actions require criminal sanction. I also have a problem with sources within the government who leak news that endangers the lives of U.S. intelligence assets overseas — the leaker or leakers who gave the Associated Press the story about the second undie bomber, for example. That leak compromised a highly sensitive operation that involved the Saudi bombmaker our government considers the most dangerous man in the world. (I think that the Department of Justice hounding the Fox News reporter, or any other journalist, was well over the line, though.)
This is a difficult issue and will become even more difficult in the future as technology becomes more sophisticated. I applaud civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald who draw our attention to it. But it is important to keep it in perspective. Far too many people get their notions of what our government is all about from Hollywood; the paranoid thriller is a wonderful form of entertainment, but it’s a fantasy. The idea that our government is some sort of conspiracy, that it’s a somehow foreign body intent on robbing us of our freedoms, is corrosive and dangerous to our democracy. This remains, and always will be, an extremely libertarian country; it’s encoded in our DNA. We now face a constant, low-level terrorist threat that needs to be monitored. A great many lives are potentially at stake … and our national security is more important than any marginal — indeed, mythical — rights that we may have conceded in the Patriot Act legislation. In the end, the slippery-slope, all-or-nothing arguments advanced by extreme civil libertarians bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the slippery-slope, all-or-nothing arguments advanced by the National Rifle Association.