State of the Union

Considering John Kerry’s New Faith-Based Office

When the State Department announced its new office for religious engagement last week, Secretary John Kerry promised that the “separation of church and state” would be preserved. But Salon writer Austin Dacey questioned that statement Sunday:

“Constitutional or not, official interfacing with ‘faith-based organizations’ will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as ‘religions’ and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.”

How much can the state interact with various faith groups without violating the Establishment Clause? Different commentators have contributed to this discussion over the past week. Some said the project will give state officials needed insight into other nations’ religious policies. While the U.S. has always enforced religious/political separation, other states have linked them indelibly. “The U.S. model works in the U.S. because it is a long-established part of the country’s culture, history, and constitution,” wrote Linda Woodhead at Religion Dispatches on Sunday. “Obviously, this is not the case in other countries. Here in the U.K., for example, religious freedom needs to be advanced by going with the grain of existing arrangements, rather than by attempting to start again.”

In their book Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, authors Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson write that “Foreign policy practitioners in the United States … are often inadequately equipped to deal with situations involving other nation-states where their imperatives of religious doctrine blend intimately with those of politics and economics. At times, this has led to uninformed policy choices, particularly in our dealings with countries of the Middle East.” This view seems relevant when considering recent diplomatic difficulties with Egypt, as well as Syria.

Some authors spoke favorably of the attention this initiative will bring to humanitarian crises and religious persecution: “As important leaders of society, builders of social capital, and trusted community figureheads, outreach to religious actors and institutions needs to become a routinized part of U.S. diplomacy across all regional and functional domains,” wrote Peter Mandaville at the Brookings Institution. “Whether we are talking about stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing prosperity to Africa, or achieving democracy in the Arab world, a focus on religion and religious actors needs to be front and center in our diplomacy and development work.”

Is it indeed the State Department’s role to stabilize Afghanistan, bring prosperity to Africa, and “achieve democracy” in the Arab world? How can it achieve such a broad transformation through dialogue with religious leaders who – it must be acknowledged – often disagree, even to the point of violence? Such a political effort may necessitate the sort of government endorsement that Dacey cautioned against.

The U.S. has a long tradition of state/religion separation. We believe the government should not play favorites with various religions or denominations. There is danger that this initiative will encourage such favoritism, despite Kerry’s assertion that it will help religious people “unify for the greater good … without crossing any [Constitutional] lines whatsoever.” In actual practice, one fears that “crossing lines” may be an all-too-easy temptation.

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Parsing the Confederate Constitution

I appreciated Ben Domenech’s takedown of Michael Gerson’s recent efforts at policing the borders of the Republican mainstream, which, according to Gerson, cannot include Sen. Rand Paul.

In defending Paul against the smear that he’s some sort of neo-Confederate, Domenech points out that the actual Confederacy, however briefly it existed, was no friend of liberty, at least as today’s liberty movement defines it:

Gerson’s depiction of the libertarian view of the Confederacy is simply fraudulent. … Paleoconservatives may find much worthy of defense in the Confederate state, but consider: The Confederate Constitution amended the US Constitution to better facilitate technocratic rule. The Confederacy was the first to introduce mass conscription. The Confederacy staged a series of repressions and massacres against local autonomy (east Tennessee, central Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, western North Carolina, etc.). The Confederacy imposed an internal-passport regime for civilian travel later echoed by European autocracies. The Confederate state took over most of its own economy by war’s end. And the Wilsonian “progressives” contained a surprising number of Confederate sympathizers who saw it as a noble experiment and set about applying its principles in the form of the segregating the federal government, fomenting the Klan, and more. …

[F]or those who actually study history, the idea that the Confederacy was a liberty-oriented alternative to Lincoln and the Union is absurd – in many ways, its worst aspects were the forerunner of the modern technocratic top-down state.

This is all to the good. However, if I may, I think Domenech is a bit too harsh on Gerson. This revisionist, they-were-actually-the-opposite-of-what-you think appraisal of Southern ideologues will strike some as counterintuitive because it’s all too easy to confirm the stereotype that apparently exists in Gerson’s mind. (This is why it’s typically been left-liberals who snicker ironically at the antilibertarian legacy of the Confederacy.)

Here, for instance, is Randall G. Holcombe, writing for the Mises Institute in praise of the Confederate Constitution’s signal improvements on the Federal Constitution, with the latter’s “General Welfare” invitation to crony capitalism and pork-barrel spending: Read More…

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Guns, Anarchy, and Leviathan

The University of Wisconsin political scientist Andrew Kydd offers an interesting critique of the spread of concealed carry and stand your ground statutes. Departing from a Weberian definition of the state as a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, Kydd suggests that “[t]he United States is now embarked on an unprecedented experiment, in that it is a strong state, fully capable of suppressing private violence, but it is increasingly choosing not to.” Kydd attributes loosening restrictions on the possession and use of guns to a libertarian fantasy that “the absence of the state will lead to a paradise for individuals.” But he follows Hobbes in predicting grimmer consequences: the replacement of violence under law by anarchic clashes between mercenaries, clans, and vigilantes.

I share Kydd’s concern about the decriminalization of gun violence, which looks to me like a risky solution to an exaggerated problem (violent crime has been falling for years). But his thinking about the relation between violence and the state is too Hobbesian to be convincing. For Hobbes, the “state of war” and the juridical state were mutually exclusive; violence was subject either to monopoly control or anarchic diffusion. For Kydd, similarly, the choice is between, say, the modern UK, in which firearms are very tightly regulated, and Afghanistan, where the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must.

In the history of political thought, however, this is a false alternative. Following Hobbes, Kydd ignores the (small “r”) republican model of organized violence, in which the law is executed by an armed citizen body. The classical republic is not a state in the Weberian sense because it lacks a standing army or regular police force. On the other hand, it is not simply anarchic: citizens who possess the means of coercion cooperate on a relatively informal basis to enforce laws whose authority they all recognize.

The republic, in this sense, has always been more ideal than reality. But it is an ideal that has played an important role in the development of American political culture, particularly in connection with guns. For the republican tradition, particularly as transmitted by the Country party in British politics, a well-armed, self-organized citizenry poses less of a threat to safety and liberty than a strong state. That is the reasoning behind the 2nd Amendment.

There are serious and perhaps insurmountable obstacles to the revival of this tradition today. Apart from technological changes since the 18th century, the republican theory of violence presumes a relatively small, mostly agrarian society with a strong conception of public virtue. The contemporary United States, by contrast, is more like a multinational empire: a political form that has historically required much more coercive practices of government. Even so, the republican tradition reminds us that Leviathan is not the only possible source of order. We can acknowledge its necessity without regretting its evil.


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National Service Programs Have Nothing To Do With Patriotism

Nothing like a “boot camp” or forced labor to bring back that good ol’-fashioned patriotism, says Joe Klein:

We have drifted a long way from civic rigor in this country. We’ve had a period of intense prosperity and intense immigration and intense growth of government programs for those in need, followed by an economic crash. We don’t know each other very well anymore, and it’s hard to trust people you don’t know. Throughout history, civilizations have built a common cause through coming-of-age rituals. But we don’t do that anymore. Maybe we should think about that. It could be something as simple as kids’ cleaning up their schools together, as Bob Quinn did–yes, Newt Gingrich was right about that–or it could be full-blown national service, including boot camp. But unless we start getting to know each other better, our chances of coming to a consensus about the important things we have to do together as a nation are going to be pretty slim.

The co-chairs of the Aspen Institute’s project to expand national service have an op-ed in Politico today calling for the same thing, though they say it wouldn’t have to be compulsory:

What we truly value, we institutionalize. To educate, we build universities. To cure, we build hospitals. To make citizens, we must facilitate the shared experiences that cultivate civic pride and responsibility.

This should mean a period of full-time national service as a rite of passage for every young American, ages 18 to 28. Such service could be military or civilian. Young adults could choose the Army or Peace Corps, Marine Corps or AmeriCorps, the Navy or VISTA. National service would be optional, but expected. Every college admissions officer or employer must start to ask, “Where did you serve?”

Hear that, young people? The Aspen Institute doesn’t think you’re patriotic enough, so they’d like you to lend your labor toward a great patriotic revitalization of nation and soul. And if you don’t want to, you should be relentlessly shamed and denied educational opportunities.

This idea crops up from time to time, and is occasionally endorsed in the pages of our biggest newspapers, mostly because it’s slightly less controversial than drafting young people into the military. John McCain had a memorable story in the Washington Monthly a month after 9/11—never waste a crisis, as they say—in which he more or less said he’d draft you if he could:

The decline of the citizen-soldier is not healthy for a democracy. While it is not currently politically practical to revive the draft, it is important to find better incentives and opportunities for more young Americans to choose service in the military, if not for a career, then at least for a limited period of time.

Most people don’t take reviving the draft or compulsory national service seriously because they’re terrible ideas, and the latter would almost certainly be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Their defenders all share a weak, shallow understanding of patriotism that is better described as something more idealistic, like nationalism. They would have a hard time making sense of Henry James’ great aphorism that “patriotism is like charity—it begins at home.” Our betters at the Aspen Institute and other defenders of national service say the public suffers from a sort of civic ennui. But contra David Brooks, this has less to do with a nation fragmenting along economic or cultural lines a la Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and more with the fact that the civic institutions where meaningful participation is actually possible have been stripped of much of their significance. And not just in the sense that state and local governments have abrogated many of their roles upward, but also because the more mobile a society gets, the less those local affinities matter. As the pluralistic state declines, we’re left with a unitary one, forever in a state of becoming, toward which destiny the labor of young people is demanded.

In the absence of James-ian patriotism, having been replaced by the crude jingo type prone to starting wars, libertarianism may be the idea best equipped to push back. Consider a hypothetical debate between a progressive, a conservative, and a libertarian about reinstating the draft. The conservative is perhaps slightly reluctant about the idea but embraces it because he sees a means toward restoring patriotism and, after all, the price of freedom is compulsory military service. The liberal enthusiastically supports it because it will correct racial disparities in the ranks (as per Rep. Rangel’s nauseating obsession). The libertarian says the draft is slavery.

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Newsweek Ponders Privacy—in 1970

The internet was set abuzz yesterday as Michael Moynihan of the Daily Beast posted an Instagram shot of a 1970 Newsweek magazine cover (back in the days when it was still a print magazine) published under the ominous headline: “Is Privacy Dead?”

In the era of the NSA mass-ingesting all the data that’s fit to send, 1970 almost seems like a golden, innocent age, before the internet, before cell phones, but the illustration is a good time-capsule look back into what appears to be a time-honored national discomfort with the same technologies we eagerly adopt.

To list the players, moving clockwise from the top, we find:

  • Uncle Sam towering over all
  • a microscope trained in
  • a telephone with pad and pencil, taking notes
  • a computer punch-card
  • a telephone cord*
  • a portable (film) camera
  • two media microphones
  • a telescope
  • a reel of computer tape
  • the anthropomorphized computer itself
  • all crowding around a couple, a woman in an orange top and skirt sheltered by a protective man in a business suit, as they both huddle under the spotlight of all the observational attention.

It’s a picture rich in historical detail, but the most striking contrast with today is how physical, and targeted, the privacy endangerment is. The couple is literally under the microscope, in front of the camera, and under the watchful eyes of the government. The computer is digital, literally speaking, but requires instructions and programs to be physically inserted via a punchcard in order to run.

In 1970, the very fact that the NSA existed at all was secret, leading to its nickname, “No Such Agency.” Today, we know the agency’s name, but little more about its operations. Who we are is less important to it than the fact that we are all included in its data stores, and the fact that a wristwatch today may have more computing power than the hulking beast depicted above is but a small indication of just how much privacy we may have surrendered in the interim.

The 1970s that followed this cover saw a pretty successful pushback against the government’s ability to surveil its own citizens. Time will tell if we can do the same.

*Commenter eVade indicates this is in fact a microphone for a personal dictation machine from the period

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Who Can Check the Surveillance State?

“Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” said Secretary of State Henry Stimson of his 1929 decision to shut down “The Black Chamber” that decoded the secret messages of foreign powers.

“This means war!” said FDR, after reading the intercepted instructions from Tokyo to its diplomats the night of Dec. 6, 1941. Roosevelt’s secretary of war? Henry Stimson.

Times change, and they change us.

The CIA was created in 1947; the National Security Agency in 1952, with its headquarters at Ft. Meade in Maryland. This writer’s late brother was stationed at Meade doing “photo interpretation” in the years the CIA’s Gary Powers, flying U-2s at 70,000 feet above Mother Russia, was providing the agency with some interesting photographs.

This last week, through security leaks, we learned that the NSA has access to the phone records of Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. Of every call made to, from or in the U.S., NSA can determine what phone the call came from, which phone it went to, and how long the conversation lasted.

While NSA cannot recapture the contents of calls, it can use this information to select phones to tap for future recording and listening.

Through its PRISM program, the NSA can acquire access, via servers such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and AOL, to all emails sent, received and presumably deleted or spammed. And if the NSA can persuade a secret court that it has to know the contents of past, present or future emails, it can be accorded that right.

Our ability to intercept and read communications of foreigners and foreign governments seems almost limitless. In the Nixon years, Jack Anderson reported that we were intercepting the conversations of Kremlin leaders in their limos, and listening in on Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev. Our capacity today is surely orders of magnitude greater.

Last week, we also learned that Barack Obama, by Presidential Policy Directive 20, has tasked our government to prepare for both defensive and offensive cyberwarfare to enable us to attack whatever depends on the Internet anywhere in the world.

Lately, the U.S. and Israel planted a Stuxnet worm that crippled scores of centrifuges and disabled Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz. If we can do this in Iran, can we not do the same to nuclear plants all over the world, creating two, three, a hundred Chernobyls and Fukushimas?

Is it too much to imagine that, one day, if not already, the United States will be able to cyber-sabotage the power plants, electrical grids and communications systems of any country on earth? Read More…

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Obama Shouldn’t Prosecute Snowden, He Should Hire Him

Like many, I can’t help but be mesmerized by Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing—even if my conclusions are mixed.  To begin, I’ve always assumed the government could read my email. Back in the ’90s, well before 9/11 and the Patriot Act, I was working with a friend on various paleoconservative projects, and he told me that he had been told once by a close mutual friend—who had worked recently at the highest levels of an allied government—that they (the top officials of the allied government) were instructed always to assume the Americans could and did read their email. And listen to their phone conversations. I wasn’t shocked or even particularly surprised, but I have always assumed since that time—near to when I began using email—that if the FBI or someone wanted to read it, they could. Maybe my friend or the friend of a friend was wrong, but I very much doubt it. The distinction between spying on Americans or foreigners has become increasingly meaningless in a world of high immigration, dual citizenships, and multiple allegiances.

Secondly, we internet users are accustomed, or resigned, to the intrusions of privacy that Internet use brings. Lots of private companies know my buying and browsing habits, and let me know with their targeted ads practically every time I visit a website. Does anyone really imagine  that the CIA/NSA/FBI would know less about my browsing habits (if they were remotely interested) than the companies that sell products to those worried about distance off the tee or whatever?  Of course, this knowledge could be potentially used for blackmail—say of a key senator before a vote. And I can’t quite imagine how the world would be if it were understood that no one had any personal secrets. Certainly movies like “Advise and Consent” and “Seven Days in May” would need different plotlines.

Third, I think the Obama administration will have a very difficult time prosecuting Edward Snowden. They can go after Bradley Manning because they have him, in uniform and in prison, and thus shut off from normal communication. Americans are unable to perceive how normal, probably likeable, and how similar to most of us he probably is. But Snowden comes across like everyone’s ideal of a really smart, techie, individualist kid. No high school degree, yet speaks as eloquently as an assistant Harvard professor. Smart enough to rise rapidly in the world without credentials, reminding us vividly computers really are a new frontier, the one field outside of sports and music where classic American Horatio Alger tropes have any continued relevance. If Obama wanted to do something smart, he should thank Snowden and offer him a job as a White House technology advisor.

And then perhaps not take his advice—for I am pretty much persuaded by the argument (made here by Andrew Sullivan) that data mining is the least noxious thing the government can do in the War on Terror.  We do face something of a threat from Sunni fundamentalists. We don’t need to occupy their countries, kill and dispossess hundreds of thousands of innocents; indeed, those tactics are almost certainly self-defeating. But we do need to find out as much as we can.

As a footnote, I was interested to see, in Snowden’s interview, that he enlisted in the Army after 9/11, persuaded by the core neoconservative talking point: that we were going to “liberate” the Iraqis.  He was later turned off when he discovered most of his military trainers were more interested in killing Arabs than helping them. But the detail enhances  respect for the political sensibilities of the neocons: they understood that the war they wanted (for their own strategic reasons, laid out years before) needed to be sold to Americans as an idealistic, freedom-enhancing project. Playing on motives of revenge or racism or Israeli strategic needs wouldn’t attract smart kids like Snowden or millions of others.

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Snowden and Outsourcing

Now that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has outed himself as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor which receives 99 percent of its revenue from the federal government (23 percent from intelligence work), the company’s stock has predictably begun to fall.

The company has released a statement condemning Snowden’s actions as a “grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.”

To put it politely, their homepage at the moment lacks a certain self-awareness:

Screen shot 2013-06-10 at 12.26.29 PM

It’s been pointed out that the bigger issue illustrated by Snowden’s disclosures is the degree to which we’ve outsourced important intelligence-gathering functions to private contractors. From today’s Post:

Snowden was among tens of thousands of private intelligence contractors hired in the unprecedented push to “connect the dots” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They work side by side with civil servants as analysts, technical support specialists and mission managers. An unknown number have access to secret and top-secret material. Several years ago, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimated that almost one in four intelligence workers were employed by contractors.

The growing reliance on contractors reflects a massive shift toward outsourcing over the past 15 years, in part because of cutbacks in the government agencies. It has dramatically increased the risk of waste and contracting abuses, government auditors have found, in part because the government has repeatedly acknowledged that it does not have a sufficient workforce to oversee the contractors.

The Times’ story along the same lines points out Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s—who has blasted the disclosures as “reckless” and dangerous to national security—connection to the firm:

As evidence of the company’s close relationship with government, the Obama administration’s chief intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., is a former Booz Allen executive. The official who held that post in the Bush administration, John M. McConnell, now works for Booz Allen.

“The national security apparatus has been more and more privatized and turned over to contractors,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that studies federal government contracting. “This is something the public is largely unaware of, how more than a million private contractors are cleared to handle highly sensitive matters.”

Indeed, one of the strangest things about this disclosure is how a 29 year-old high school dropout working in IT had access to some of the NSA’s most sensitive intelligence information. But the thing is, as Farhad Manjoo points out, any effort to discredit Snowden reflects poorly on the government, which cleared him to handle this stuff, and the company that hired him.

Look, I despise the explosion of contractors and new agency headquarters that’s shielded the DC region’s real estate market from economic downturn and destroyed Virginia’s electoral politics as much as the next patriotic American, but here are two things worth keeping in mind:

1. There are many problems with the contracting system, but anyone claiming Snowden’s disclosures argue for enlarging the federal workforce is missing something important.

2. As Matt Frost points out on Twitter, whatever Snowden was doing was at the government’s explicit request, and being on the outside possibly made him more likely to leak. And as we’ve learned from Lois Lerner, government employees can be very difficult to fire.

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Can There Be Such a Thing as Civil-Liberties Alarmism?

A decade ago James Bovard warned about additional powers that might be added to the Patriot Act, powers that would increase the scope of federal surveillance of citizens:

Section 101 of the proposed bill, titled “Individual Terrorists as Foreign Powers,” would revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to permit the U.S. government to label individuals who are suspected terrorists—including American citizens—as “foreign powers” for the purpose of conducting total surveillance of their activities. This alteration nullifies all Fourth Amendment rights of the target, allowing the government to tap phones, search computers, and read e-mail—even when there is no evidence that a citizen is violating any statute. If Section 101 becomes law, the more people the feds wrongfully accuse of being terrorists, the more power federal agents will receive.

Americans suspected of gathering information for a foreign power could be subject to FISA surveillance even though they were violating no law and the information gathered did not pertain to national security. The administration’s confidential explanation of proposed Section 102 notes, “Requiring the additional showing that the intelligence gathering violates the laws of the United States is both unnecessary and counterproductive, as such activities threaten the national security regardless of whether they are illegal.” But, as the ACLU noted, “This amendment would permit electronic surveillance of a local activist who was preparing a report on human rights for London-based Amnesty International, a ‘foreign political organization,’ even if the activist was not engaged in any violation of law.”

Prism, the NSA program Edward Snowden has revealed, does not (so far as we know) extend to reading the electronic communications exhaustively cataloged by the agency, but in other respects it vastly exceeds the data-grabbing Bovard described. And Prism is a program that a relatively low-level employee of a government contractor had access to; there’s sure to be much more above Snowden’s pay grade.

Bovard’s own work amounts to citizen surveillance of abusive government, and this seems like a good time to bone up on it, with books Terrorism and Tyranny and Attention Deficit Democracy—as well as Bovard’s Kindle-only memoir, Public Policy Hooligan, my short take on which can be found here.

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Edward Snowden on Why He Exposed the NSA

The Booz Allen Hamilton whistleblower talks to the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald about why he revealed the NSA’s voracious gathering of Americans’ data, and what he expects the consequences will be:

Meanwhile, making the rounds on Facebook is this clip of then-Senator Obama renouncing spying on American citizens who aren’t suspected of crime—though in fact, in praising FISA and only criticizing “illegal” wiretaps, he was already signalling more support for a national-security dragnet than his admirers may have realized:

Read More…

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