Rick Herzberg has an essay in the New Yorker discussing the most recent revelations on the NSA’s data mining programs. To say he shows an astonishing naivete for a guy who has been covering Washington politics, and writing intelligently about it, for as long as he has.
But I truly don’t think we’re living under an encroaching police state. I still don’t know of a single instance where the N.S.A. data program has encroached on or repressed any particular person’s or group’s freedom of expression or association in a tangible way. Nor have I come across a clear explanation of exactly how the program could be put to such a purpose.
Really? You can’t conjur up some plausible scenarios by which the government having access to every single bit of metadata on everything every person in this country does on their mobile phones could be used for a nefarious purpose? You can’t imagine how the government could abuse having access to the substance of nearly every private communication we make with virtually no oversight? Perhaps you should look up COINTELPRO sometime. I bet it’s on the Google.
But even if the program could be misused in that way, for it to happen you would have to have a malevolent government—or, at least, a government with a malevolent, out-of-control component or powerful official or officials. You would have to have a Nixon or a J. Edgar Hoover. But when you have a government or a powerful government official bent on repression and willing to flout the law, there are always plenty of tools at hand. Nixon and Hoover didn’t need data mining to do their mischief—and, again, I haven’t seen an explanation of how data mining would have helped them do worse than they did.
For me, the big unanswered questions are along these lines: Has the N.S.A. program actually worked to uncover and thwart terrorist plots? If so, are there or could there have been alternate means that could have worked about as well or better at less cost—less cost in money and resources, less cost to civic trust and confidence? In what concrete ways does the program invade people’s privacy? Exactly how, if at all, does the program increase the government’s power to do bad things to good people? And how much does it add to the powers the government already has via information-gathering and police-like agencies such as the I.R.S., the F.B.I., and the Homeland Security apparatus? Is the marginal increase in government power that the N.S.A. program represents justified by the marginal increase in safety that it provides, if it does provide such an increase?
Yes, those are all important questions. But how are we to answer them? Who even gets to attempt to answer them? Congressional oversight is pretty much useless, especially with the Senate Intelligence Committee in the hands of Dianne Feinstein. Standing objections and the State Secrets Privilege have rendered the courts almost as useless (and, like Congress, the courts have only themselves to blame; both branches of government have a crucial role to play in our system of checks and balances and both have been AWOL for decades). How do you get those questions answered when the Director of National Intelligence lies to Congress quite brazenly and gets away with it? How are we as citizens to answer those questions when the truth is deliberately concealed?
Sorry, Mr. Hertzberg, but I have a very hard time believing that you really believe what you wrote here. If you do, more’s the pity.