I’ve always liked Dick Cheney. Anyone so tough he shoots his friend in the head is my kind of vice president. I mean, imagine how that made al-Qaeda feel! “Oh man, that’s what he does to his friends???” Reminds me of the scene in the film The Long Goodbye where the gangster threatens the hero by smashing a coke bottle in his own girlfriend’s face. Then he turns to the hero and says, “Now, that’s someone I love! And you I don’t even like!” I always felt safer with Cheney in the White House.
But he’s wrong about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency. I saw the vice president on Fox News Sunday recently and he said Snowden was a traitor and the NSA was full of fine, upstanding patriotic men and women who could be trusted to read our private communications without violating our liberties. But that misses the point twice.
First of all, it doesn’t matter who or what Snowden is. As Instapundit Glenn Reynolds says in an excellent USA Today column, the question of whether he’s a good person or not is “the least important question raised by the event.” The Obama administration’s obsession with maintaining secrecy and impenetrable government opaqueness makes me sympathetic to Snowden’s current plight. I hope he manages to avoid the clutches of this sinister White House. But every time he opens his mouth, he sounds like a moral nitwit to me.
Secondly, and more importantly, even if the NSA’s domestic spying has, as Cheney and the agency itself argue, prevented terrorist attacks, it has clearly gone too far and lasted too long — at least without receiving further public scrutiny.
To understand why, we should turn to an expert on the subject of keeping us safe: Batman. You remember the wonderful 2008 film The Dark Knight. At the time of the movie’s release, a searingly insightful and dashingly handsome columnist for the Wall Street Journal pointed out that it was an apologia for the anti-terrorism policies of George W. Bush. “Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.” Specifically, in a clear reference to NSA-type policies, Batman uses a city-wide tracking device to spy on Gotham’s citizens in order to catch the Joker. When the danger is past, Batman has the instrument destroyed.
But that’s exactly what makes Batman different from the NSA. To wit, Batman doesn’t work for the government! The government is less like the Batman and more like the mouse in the brilliant children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff. In one of the best dramatizations of the ratcheting effects of increased government power, Ms. Numeroff memorably writes, “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him a glass of milk, he’ll probably impose confiscatory taxes, threaten your rights to free speech and religion and impose regulatory tyranny that makes a mockery of your rights to life and liberty.” Okay, I’m quoting from memory. But the mouse definitely asks for milk and you can pretty much assume the rest.
Look at it this way. In his May speech to the National Defense University, Barack Obama insipidly declared that the war against international Islamism is drawing to a close: “This war, like all wars, must end.” This is the sort of deep wisdom we’ve come to expect from this idiot, but we can say this about it at least: it’s either true or untrue. If it’s true that the war against Islamism is coming to an end, then the NSA program is no longer excusable. If it’s not true, if the war is going to go on forever, even if it’s only going to last for decades more, then the NSA program is indefensible: we cannot have government agencies spying on our private communications without cease.
Because it’ll only get worse. Vice President Cheney says the guys and girls at the NSA are patriotic and sensitive to American rights. I believe him. But they are a generation who grew up without the power to spy on us like this. The next generation will assume that power is legitimate and permanent and they’ll want more. They will not be sensitive to our privacy at all because they never had to be. That’s how it works. Once you give a government mouse a power and the right to use it in secret, he will ask for more power and more secrecy until he is not accountable to anyone. And hold the glass of milk.
2001 was an emergency. The government responded by granting itself emergency powers. If that emergency has passed — or if it’s going to go on indefinitely — those powers need to at the very least be reassessed in the cold light of day. Edward Snowden did what was necessary to help bring that about, no matter who or what he is.
The only really salient fact of the matter is this: the government will never blow up its own power. Batman is us.