The WHY Question — Why the National-Security Right Is Gradually Losing the NSA Debate

An amendment proposed by libertarian Congressman Justin Amash (R., MI) that would effectively have killed the NSA surveillance programs was just barely defeated last week. In the battle’s wake, a consensus seems to be growing that conservatives must have an intramural debate over national security. This is healthy, or at least it could be if we could stick to facts, law and policy. The discussion will not be advanced by trading barbs that libertarianism is a “dangerous thought”; that those justifiably worried about an abusive surveillance state are “isolationists” whose concerns are sheer “madness”; or that the national-security right has gone “statist.”

A better model for the debate was featured on the Blaze Monday morning: On his radio program, NSA naysayer Glenn Beck invited Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R., MN), a staunch NSA defender, for a civil but spirited discussion about the program. Glenn and Michele are friends – of each other and, for what it’s worth, of mine. They began by conceding each other’s good faith in wanting what was best for the country in terms of the proper balance between liberty and security. Nevertheless, they disagreed sharply over the NSA’s collection of “metadata” (i.e., records, but not the content, of Americans’ phone and email communications), as well as the agency’s monitoring of the communications of hostile foreign agents situated outside the U.S. (an effort the libertarian side sees as a pretext for eavesdropping on the communications of Americans).

I am a proponent of the NSA programs, and a member of the national-security right who has long feared that our camp was frittering away its influence – by associating with the “Islamic democracy” experiment and by uncritically supporting some excessive investigative measures that stoked controversy while not improving security. Thus, it will come as no surprise that I believe Congresswoman Bachmann has the better of the argument. As Glenn conceded, Michele sits on the House Intelligence Committee; she is in a better position than are we who don’t to know both what the government is up to and what threats it is responding to. Still, Glenn illustrated weaknesses in the national security right’s case. If they are not shored up in a hurry, Amash & Co. will not be denied next time around.

On the plus side for the national-security right, Glenn appeared to acknowledge that, in the main, his concerns are about potential abuse. Michele maintained that she devotes a large chunk of her time to the intelligence committee’s work, has studied the NSA programs closely, and has found no pattern of abuse. As she explains, the NSA is collecting metadata, but – under statutory and court-imposed procedures – it does not peruse this data or identify particular people, absent a showing of reasonable suspicion to the court. The NSA is also recording the communications of foreign agents situated outside the U.S. – an effort that should not require court authorization at all but does under the 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. There is no eavesdropping on U.S. citizens – at least not intentionally – unless the government obtains a judicial warrant based on a showing of probable cause that the target is acting as a foreign agent.

Glenn did not seem to dispute these safeguards or Michele’s earnestness in believing they’d been followed. But he posed two pointed questions:

(a) Why should we trust that the government will not abuse these programs – i.e., in light of the Obama administration’s track record of abusing executive authority, why should Michele, and the rest of us, trust what she is being told by NSA officials?

(b) If the government is really not spying on us, why does it need a massive amount of storage space in Utah – i.e., why is it going to the enormous effort and expense of storing information unless it is using it, or at least intends to use it?

These questions do not arise out of farfetched conspiracy theories but proven instances of executive branch abuse of power. I believe there is a very convincing answer on the first question. There may also be one on the second, but it has not been advanced as of yet – not compellingly. We on the national-security right are kidding ourselves if we think these programs can be sustained for much longer without winning the argument on these two points.