State of the Union

Captain America Skips Politics, Stays Personal

Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Marvel Studios
Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Marvel Studios

This review contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind Marvel’s movies, said that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a chance to expand the range of comic book movies, since the sequel would really be “a ’70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie.” But, despite the clear references to the overreach of the NSA’s surveillance state and the CIA’s unauthorized abuses, little in the movie treated man (or superman) as a political animal.

Although Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is warned by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that he should trust no one, the movie never forces the squeaky-clear hero into the same kind of suspicious attitude that characterizes his enemies.

The grand conspiracy isn’t revealed through an act of deduction or infiltration, but through the monologue of a very accommodating villain. When the organization that Rogers has served turns out to be tainted, there’s no attempt at investigation or truth and reconciliation. The heroes just leak all the classified files and disband S.H.I.E.L.D. altogether. And, when they infiltrate the base of their erstwhile allies, Captain America has a very simple heuristic for distinguishing friend from foe:

Falcon: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Captain America: If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!

Charlie Jane Anders, reviewing the film for io9, argued that Captain America’s greatest power isn’t his superstrength or his shield, but his certainty.

[Y]ou reach a point where you realize that’s Captain America’s true superpower — he makes things simpler, for everybody. Everybody else in the movie changes, at least in part because of their connection to Steve Rogers. He’s a catalyst, as well as a leader. This film is simplistic because Steve Rogers’ worldview is simplistic. And if you only let him, Steve Rogers will allow you to live in his world where everything is black and white.

Usually, when Americans are characterized as thinking in black and white, it’s because we’ve divided the world or just our nation into “us” and “them” and are out to get rid of them as in President Bush’s statement, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  But when Captain America divides the world into light and dark, he has more in common with John Winthrop, who referenced Matthew 5:14 to tell his fellow colonists that the eyes of the world are upon them, and they must shine out, as a city on a hill.

The forceful optimism that Captain America exemplifies is most moving when the stakes of the movie get lower. When Captain America faces his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, who has been transformed into the robotic Winter Soldier, he offer Barnes his weakness, not his strength. Rogers drops his shield and stops putting up a fight. He’s asking his friend to show mercy, instead of removing the choice, and it’s easy to for the audience to hear echoes of a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”

That makes it all the stranger that, in order to make his way to Barnes, Captain America punches his way through approximately fifty mooks. Maybe he was carefully doing non-lethal damage, but, more likely, the film didn’t expect us to care, since it had already told us that all of Rogers’s antagonists were fanatics and Nazi-collaborators. There were limits to the movie’s mercies.

But Winter Soldier would have been a stronger film if it had taken a lesson from a different blockbuster franchise and admitted that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” In order to be a political thriller, instead of an interpersonal one, we need to see how Cap’s idealism scales up.

What are the limitations on charity and compassion when it’s expressed through an institution, instead of an individual? What sacrifices can Rogers choose for himself, but not the nation? The Winter Soldier, with its simplistic plot, doesn’t have any serious critique of American policy, but Steve Rogers still offers a powerful call to small-scale heroism to the American people.


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New Leaks Show CIA’s Contempt for Congress

An interrogator isn’t just focused on extracting information, but on controlling it. When a closer sits down with a prisoner, she wants her prey to be entirely dependent on her for information about possible sentences, news of the outside world, or even the time of day, so she can manipulate or bargain with the truth as serves her needs.

As revelations from the Washington Post show, this is precisely the relationship that the CIA has been cultivating with Congress throughout the War on Terror. The recent allegations that the CIA hacked into the computers of Congressional staff and tried to erase damaging documents is only the latest salvo in the agency’s war of obfuscation. The CIA has overstepped its authority and then lied to Congress, to prevent the people’s representatives from reining the operatives in.

Current and former U.S. officials spoke anonymously to the Washington Post about the content of the classified report that the CIA has tried to sideline. Although the report on CIA detention and interrogation was completed in 2012, it has been tied up in bureaucratic red tape, and not one page of the 6,300 has been declassified. The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to vote this Thursday to recommend that Obama declassify the executive summary of the report.

Until then, judging by the leaks, it looks more and more like the CIA was engaged in unlawful practices. Not just the morally unlawful practice of waterboarding, which was nevertheless approved from on high, but other forms of torture that had no official sanction. The Washington Post describes the CIA’s treatment of the nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed:

At the secret prison, [Ammar al-]Baluchi endured a regime that included being dunked in a tub filled with ice water. CIA interrogators forcibly kept his head under the water while he struggled to breathe and beat him repeatedly, hitting him with a truncheon-like object and smashing his head against a wall, officials said.

This practice of near drowning and beating has never been authorized as an interrogation procedure. But, according to the Human Rights Watch, other prisoners at the same secret prison received the same treatment. CIA doctors stood by during these abuses, carefully checking the health of the prisoner, but serving the interests of the agency, helping the torturers push the bodies of their prisoners as far as they could go without killing anyone, presumably to avoid paperwork and oversight.

These acts of abuse did not result in useful intelligence. The Congressional report makes it clear that some prisoners were waterboarded after giving up useful data, and, although the brutal treatment produced no new information, the original revelations were used as evidence for the necessity of the technique. According to one of the Washington Post‘s anonymous sources:

“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

The CIA might be able to claim it concealed the full scope of its activities from the American people due to national security reasons, but it’s very hard to believe that briefing Congress honestly would give terrorists an edge.

The evidence suggest that the CIA has gone rogue—imprisoning and torturing suspects, misleading their superiors, and trying to hide the evidence. The declassification of Congress’s report can’t come soon enough, so we can assess the damage the agency has done, and decide how to keep it under proper supervision and surveillance.


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The NSA’s Overreach Breeds Enemies

There’s new evidence that Obama lied when he said, “that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security.” According to the latest Snowden disclosures, the NSA has a program, code-named MYSTIC, that allows the agency to record and store all calls made within an undisclosed country, including those made by American citizens.

If this program were going to be leaked at all, the NSA might prefer the information was dribbled out this way. When the disclosures are so vague, it’s hard to know how to respond. There’s no single country that can act the victim or rebuke the United States, as there was when we got caught tapping Angela Merkel’s phone or grounded the Bolivian president’s plane though it wasn’t even within U.S. airspace. With no clear victims, there’s not enough information for a Rand Paul-style class action suit.

But even if there were, author Cory Doctorow believes we can’t keep using an oil-spot strategy to address NSA overreach and abuses. Doctorow argues that information security should be treated like a public health problem, not an individual responsibility:

If I had just stood here and spent an hour telling you about water-borne parasites; … if I had explained that our very civilisation was at risk because the intelligence services were pursuing a strategy of keeping information about pathogens secret so they can weaponise them, knowing that no one is working on a cure; you would not ask me ‘How can I purify the water coming out of my tap?’”

Because when it comes to public health, individual action only gets you so far. It doesn’t matter how good your water is, if your neighbour’s water gives him cholera, there’s a good chance you’ll get cholera, too. And even if you stay healthy, you’re not going to have a very good time of it when everyone else in your country is stricken and has taken to their beds.

Doctorow is hoping web services could switch to something like end-to-end encryption, which would make NSA taps worthless. Any information they’d retrieve from a man in the middle attack—intercepting surreptitiously from the wires directly or by subpoenaing the companies—would just be gibberish. The data would only ever be decrypted on the user’s own computer or phone. We would sacrifice some convenience, but a MYSTIC-style dragnet would be impossible.

Governments object to these countermeasures, since they limit spies’ ability to eavesdrop on the really dangerous people. Australia’s spy agency is currently petitioning its government to expand its powers, as technology and leaks are making it easier for people to understand and evade their current methods.

This kind of response by states puts citizens into an antagonistic, arms race relationship with their government, where ordinary citizens’ only defense is encumbering their systems with proxies and other obfuscation.

It would be better if the president and the NSA could prompt a kind of detente by acting like responsible police officers, subject to oversight and limits, not vigilantes who view any objection or obstruction as potentially treasonous. Cops police better when they wear cameras, and have their authority safeguarded by their accountability.

The Australian spy agency, is, at minimum, requesting power through democratic channels, and thus ahead of the NSA, which has appropriated new powers and whose director allegedly lied under oath about their use. But these requests, when made by any nation, should be paired with better attempts at transparency and oversight, so that citizens can place some measure of trust in their government, rather than exclusively in their choice of encryption.


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CPAC Debates Snowden’s Cause

John Solomon, the editor of the Washington Times, opened the privacy panel at CPAC with a clip of Edward Snowden, and the question, “Is he a traitor?”

Bruce Fein, a lawyer hired by Snowden’s family, replied, “Snowden is more of a patriot in Thomas Paine’s sense: someone who saves his country from his government.” Solomon stuck to the theme by asking Fein, “If he were a traitor, how would you defend him?” Fein pushed back on the appropriateness of these questions, saying it made no sense to let a discussion of laws Snowden broke eclipse the discussion of “the lawlessness of the government that he exposed.”

Fein added, that, if the government was so keen on the rule of law, it had no need of extradition to prosecute the National Director of Intelligence, James Clapper, for perjury before Congress. Arguably, he said, Clapper’s offense and the overreach he covered up was more serious since, “When the government becomes a lawbreaker, it invites every man and woman to become a law unto themselves.”

The fear of governmental lawlessness was a central concern for Charlie Kirk, the executive director of TurningPoint USA. After allegations that the IRS selectively audited conservative groups, he said, it was impossible to hear the president promise that these programs target “enemies foreign and domestic” and be confident that the kinds of groups and people in attendance at CPAC weren’t in danger of increased scrutiny as retribution.

Former Governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who served as a U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent, said that Snowden’s disclosures put the country at unacceptable risk. When spy programs go too far, he said, they should be opposed through official channels, not subverted through broad, illegal disclosures. Gilmore had opposed the Total Information Awareness program, he pointed out, and he didn’t put anyone’s lives in danger to do it.

Fein replied that the secrecy of these NSA programs made them hard to oppose using conventional means. He pointed out that Rand Paul’s class action lawsuit against the NSA could never have been filed, but for Snowden’s leaks. Without access the specific details Snowden revealed, Paul’s lawsuit would have been thrown out as speculative.

As the audience weighed the tradeoff between liberty and security, Gilmore drew applause when he argued that intelligence operations are needed to defend national security. But when the moderator asked the attendees to raise their hands if they felt safer as the result of NSA surveillance, barely twenty or so hands were visible in a room packed more than two hundred strong. The lively crowd booed Gilmore when he called Snowden “a coward as well as a traitor,” and one attendee yelled “You lie!” when Gilmore said, “I understand pretty well what the Fourth Amendment is about.”

Fein spoke up against appeals to 9/11 and said that terrorist attack shouldn’t necessarily be answered by giving the government new powers. According to Fein, “People are saying the laws prior to 9/11 didn’t work, but that’s like saying that our laws against murder don’t work, since there are still murders.” Ultimately, he concluded, an increased risk of attacks is the price America pays for liberty.


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How Droning American Citizens Damages Our Laws

Abdullah al-Shami may be about to achieve a very strange kind of victory through martyrdom.

So far as we know, Al-Shami isn’t on the verge of a suicide bombing or self-immolation. If he dies in the coming weeks, it will likely be at the hand of another. Well, hand might be putting it strongly, since the hand that presses the button that looses the missile from the drone that kills him may be halfway across the globe. But if the bomb lands true, al-Shami will be the fifth American citizen assassinated by his government in the War on Terror.

The location of the person killing him will be as mysterious as his own origins. Although it is now public knowledge that the Obama administration is debating whether the man known by this nom de guerre meets their own classified criteria for assassination, al-Shami’s real name, place of birth, and biography to this point have all been kept secret. The most the New York Times was able to cobble together about his life is this:

The F.B.I. investigated Mr. Shami and determined that he had been born in the United States, but that he had left as a young child and had not maintained any ties to the country. In the years since then, Mr. Shami worked his way up the ranks of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, his ascent aided by his marriage to the daughter of a top Qaeda leader. Last year, he appears to have risen to become one of Al Qaeda’s top planners for operations outside Pakistan, including plots against American troops in Afghanistan.

“We have clear and convincing evidence that he’s involved in the production and distribution of I.E.D.’s,” said one senior administration official, referring to improvised explosive devices, long the leading killer of American troops in Afghanistan.

Improvised explosive devices are intended to kill American troops. They’re deployed either tactically, for the sake of frustrating the objectives of an enemy force, or cathartically, out of the desire to wound and destroy, regardless of whether it advances a military objective. President Bush would often characterize al-Qaeda as motivated by a desire to destroy our freedoms and ideals. Stretching our laws to permit the droning of American citizens would seem to do more damage to American ideals than an entire shipment of IEDs.

While the armed forces and the C.I.A. have systematically picked off high-ranking leaders in al-Qaeda, to the point where nationalist factions blithely ignore the orders of their higher ups, civil liberties law at home has been subject to a barrage of Justice Department memos, FISA court opinions, and executive orders, many of them kept as secret as any military operation, on the same justification: we can’t afford to tip our hand to the enemy.

According to the Times, the debate over al-Shami’s death has been driven as much by logistical concerns as by ethical or legal scruples. Obama has been working to hand over responsibility for drone assassinations to the Pentagon. This would put drone program under a few more legal restrictions, but free the United States to claim responsibility for strikes and make other disclosures that the CIA can’t.  However, the Pentagon has no authority to kill anyone in Pakistan, where al-Shami is rumored to be hiding.

If the President makes an exception to allow the CIA to conduct this strike, it will be yet another jury-rigged change to our legal system, meant to secure the short-term objective of killing the enemy, while possibly endangering the security and trustworthiness of the government we are defending from men like al-Shami.


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Cyberattacks on Syria Put the Homefront in Danger

NSA Headquarters Trevor Paglen / cc
NSA Headquarters Trevor Paglen / cc

The United States has struggled to find a way to support Syrian rebels without putting American lives at risk, and President Barack Obama has repeatedly rejected proposals to shift from arms dealing to cyberwar. He’s making a prudent choice.

Instead of targeting enemy soldiers, cyberwar targets enemy infrastructure. Just as your own computer can be damaged by being infected with a virus, enemy computers can be compromised with targeted malicious software, but, instead of stealing your credit card number or wiping your hard drive,  these attacks can steal battle plans and disable or even destroy weapons systems and infrastructure.

Cyberwar is a tempting option, since it keeps our boots off the ground and out of enemy airspace. One Pentagon plan would have reportedly grounded President Bashar al-Assad’s missiles, preventing him from launching airstrikes without the inconvenience of setting up a no-fly zone or a shield system.

However, the safety Obama would win for our troops abroad could be outweighed by the danger he’d expose us to on the homefront. The very remove that makes cyberwar tempting makes it more likely that, if this kind of conflict is normalized, battles will spill over into the infrastructure of our daily lives. And that’s a theater of operations we’re ill equipped to defend.

Cyberwar favors the smaller side. Developed countries have the most to lose, responsible as they are for power grids, secure databases, banking systems, etc. A digital insurgency is agile and light, with nothing to protect but its own files. Some struggling countries even have even lucked into their own defenses by lagging behind. According to the New York Times

[Cyberattacks were] considered during the NATO attacks on Libya in the spring of 2011, but dismissed after Mr. Obama’s advisers warned him that there was no assurance they would work against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s antiquated, pre-Internet air defenses.

But this strategy is better suited to self-interested despots like Qaddafi or science fiction like Battlestar Galactica than to a modern nation. The United States will never be in a position to sacrifice prosperity and progress for security through technical regress.

Right now, the United States doesn’t just have weak cyber defenses, but, once a breach occurs, our infrastructure isn’t resilient enough to weather the damage. A recent sniper attack on a California power plant raised concern because our power grid is so delicately balanced that compromising just a few power stations, physically or electronically, would give an attacker the ability to induce a massive blackout, even worse than the one that struck the Northeast in 2003. Read More…

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Guantanamo Bay’s Hidden CIA Hotel

JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes
JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes

Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the AP revealed yesterday the existence of a previously unknown secret CIA facility at Guantanamo Bay, tasked with turning captured terrorists into double agents. Set up along with the makeshift prison facility as prisoners flowed into the American base in Cuba, the secret CIA outpost was best known by the Beatles-inspired name “Penny Lane.”

Candidates were ushered from the confines of prison to Penny Lane’s relative hominess, officials said. The cottages had private kitchens, showers and televisions. Each had a small patio.

Some prisoners asked for and received pornography. One official said the biggest luxury in each cottage was the bed, not a military-issued cot but a real bed with a mattress.

The cottages were designed to feel more like hotel rooms than prison cells, and some CIA officials jokingly referred to them collectively as the Marriott.

In contrast with the prison conditions, Penny Lane appears to have been practically a luxury resort. Indeed, cottages in the Caribbean are a hotly sought after commodity. The great, cruel irony of the Penny Lane program’s perks, however, is that they were obviously unavailable to prisoners without any actual terrorist connections. As Goldman and Apuzzo note, Bush administration officials at the time characterized Guantanamo detainees as the “worst of a very bad lot,” in Vice President Cheney’s words, or “among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth,” as Donald Rumsfeld described them.

In reality, many were held on flimsy evidence and were of little use to the CIA.

While the agency looked for viable candidates, those with no terrorism ties sat in limbo. It would take years before the majority of detainees were set free, having never been charged. Of the 779 people who were taken to Guantanamo Bay, more than three-fourths have been released, mostly during the Bush administration.

Those swept up in the heat of battle and spirited across the globe remained in their cells as some of the true terrorists were wined and dined by a CIA seeking their cooperation. The AP notes that “infiltrating al-Qaida has been one of the CIA’s most sought-after but difficult goals, something that other foreign intelligence services have only occasionally accomplished,” increasing their eagerness to set up shop and obtain what sources they could. They did have some successes, as “some of the men who passed through Penny Lane helped the CIA find and kill many top al-Qaida operatives, current and former U.S. officials said,” though “others stopped providing useful information and the CIA lost touch with them.”

As the years dragged on, however, and the detainee’s contacts faded in freshness, the program dried up, closing altogether by 2006. So today, the Guantanamo Bay prisons still stand, with what prisoners remain. Five years after Barack Obama took office pledging to close the prison, it stays open. And Penny Lane’s cottages, though empty, still stand.


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How a Shopping Mall Becomes a Killing Zone

This really is frightening.

Terrorist incidents tell us nothing new about human nature. We already knew that people are capable of horrendous violence, especially when they have come to regard some other subset of human beings as unworthy of full human status. It’s not surprising, then, to see the terrorists of Somalia’s loathsome al-Shabaab movement violating all laws of humanity by slaughtering innocent victims of all ages. People can become monsters, and they did in the Nairobi mall attack that began on September 21.

What really is alarming, though, is to see terrorists create a radical new tactic against which there is no obvious response or defense. There was nothing surprising, for instance, in the idea that terrorists might hijack airliners, but only in 2001 did we realize that hijackers might use them for suicide attacks, turning those aircraft into deadly missiles. Nairobi has just shown us another horrible innovation. It might be that we won’t realize how effective this could be against the U.S. until we face yet another day when we are counting the dead in their hundreds. We have to confront this issue immediately.

Think about it. How would one attack a shopping mall, whether in Nairobi or Minneapolis? Presumably a number of pickup trucks draw up in the parking lot, and 20 or so armed men and women get out, carrying their weapons and ammunition. Then they enter the mall and begin killing until they can do no more harm. They are strictly limited by the number of bullets and grenades they can carry. When police and military forces arrive, the terrorists might hold out for an hour or two before being eliminated.

That’s one way to do it, but it’s clearly not what happened in Nairobi, where firefights were still in progress several days after the initial assault. Even more amazing, terrorists were still putting up resistance against strong Kenyan forces, reputedly trained and assisted by British and Israeli special forces.

How on earth did the terrorists do it? Why, they rented a store. Read More…

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Egypt Needs a Political Solution, for the Copts and the Brotherhood

Andrew Doran’s article in National Review last week rightly notes the brutality undergone by the Copts in the aftermath of Egypt’s coup. He even compares the brutality with Nazi persecution of the Jews:

 The Muslim Brotherhood’s systematic and coordinated attacks against Christians in Egypt are reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938, when Nazi paramilitaries systematically vandalized Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues and murdered scores of Jews in a disturbing foreshadowing of the fate of European Jews over the next few years. It is no accident that many Jews, including Barry Rubin and Jeffrey Goldberg, have been quick to raise the alarums over the persecution of Christians: They recognize the dangerous signs. “They have hatred in their hearts,” says Thabet of the Brotherhood, echoing observations commonly made of the National Socialists in 20th-century Germany.

But the Copt’s persecutors are not a well-organized military force, with a charismatic and powerful leader. Rather, they are a hurt and angry mob, with a rapidly dwindling leadership. Their acts of aggression against Coptic Christians seem less a calculated ruthless policy than the raged revenge of a hurt and angry people. Of course, this is not to excuse those horrendous actions. However, it does change the way in which we seek a solution to the problem.

In Egypt, the mob and the military are not unified; rather, their very friction has helped instigate and foster this persecution, more or less. More military crackdown only seems to result in more Coptic persecution. Thus, a foreign military strengthening Egypt’s military arm is not likely to fix the problem. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has been weakened significantly in recent weeks; this, as Eric Trager argued in The New Republic, makes the group even harder to control and direct in a peaceable manner. And this does make sense: without leadership with whom to reason, the group will become more and more unreasonable:

… By disorganizing Egypt’s most cohesive Islamist group, the generals have turned hundreds of thousands of deeply ideological Muslim Brothers into free radicals, who will no longer listen to their typically cautious leaders. Many younger Muslim Brothers, in particular, lean towards Salafism, and their upbringing in the Brotherhood—whose motto concludes with the phrase “death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations”—has made them willing to die for Islamism, and possibly willing to fight for it as well.

In addition, one cannot exempt the military from blame in Coptic persecution: John Storm, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday that “For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Coptic Christians of a role in [Morsi’s] ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them.”

Read More…

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Why the NSA Debate Will, and Must, Continue

The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing. (Wikimedia Commons)
The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Obama’s decision to close embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa has added yet another twist in this summer’s NSA revelations saga. Lawmakers who have been briefed on the terror threat are calling it credible, specific, and alarming, according to the Washington Post.

But civil libertarians are alarmed that these threats will create a climate of fear in which the debate about the NSA’s vast data collection will be scuttled.

Glenn Greenwald, the reporter-activist who has served as a megaphone for revelations about and criticisms of U.S. government surveillance activities, went so far as to suggest that the embassy closings could be an effort to distract from the heightened scrutiny. He told Democracy Now,

Here we are in the midst of one the most intense debates, and sustained debates, that we’ve had in a very long time in this country over the dangers of excess surveillance, and suddenly an administration that has spent two years claiming that it has decimated Al-Qaeda decides that there is this massive threat that involves the closing of embassies and consulates throughout the world.

Even if we trust that the embassy closures are well-justified, we should still protest loudly when the specter of terrorism is used to distract from a vital civil liberties debate. Conspiracy or no, the embassy closings provide an all-too-easy way for NSA defenders to cudgel surveillance skeptics. That’s the real scandal, and it’s one we’ve seen before.

“These [NSA] programs are controversial, we understand that,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “But they are also very important … If we did not have these programs, then we simply would not be able to listen in on the bad guys.”

He was just one of several Congressional supporters of the NSA making the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the NSA.

Granted, not all lawmakers painted in as broad strokes (“these programs”) as Chambliss did. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) admitted that one of the more controversial NSA programs, the collection of cell phone metadata, was not necessarily involved in detecting the Al Qaeda plot. “You have to be careful how much you represent that any particular program has contributed to our security,” he told CNN.

Even if the NSA’s vast surveillance powers helped us “listen in on the bad guys” to prevent an attack, this fact should not weaken any truly principled concern about government snooping. The question has never have been, “are the NSA programs intrusive and useless?” but rather, “even if they are useful, how much privacy are we willing to sacrifice for the security they bring?”

Rep. Justin Amash, to his credit, pivoted directly from the embassy threats back to Constitutional liberties:

“It’s precisely because we live in this dangerous world that we need protections like the Fourth Amendment,” he told Fox News. “The framers of the Constitution put it in place precisely because they were worried that you could have national security justifications for violating people’s rights.”

“Chatter” is the word of the week—it refers to intercepted Al Qaeda messages. But it also describes our degraded conversation about civil liberties, in which the first hint of danger can shut down any scrutiny of the national security state.

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