Ron Radosh

Balancing National Security and Civil Liberties: A Guide to the Debate

The more one learns, the harder it is to reach a conclusion on the vital issue of what trade-offs we should support when it comes to protecting our national security while keeping our civil liberties intact.

It was so much easier in the early days of the Cold War. The forces of the American Left ludicrously charged that America had gone fascist because the Truman administration had created an employee security program that set up loyalty boards to inquire whether government employees belonged to the Communist Party or any of its myriad front groups. Scores of government employees resigned to avoid being questioned, and others were dismissed after hearings.

There were abuses of the program, but one point had been made. The U.S. government did not owe anyone a job, and those who were enemies of our country had a right to be fired. The disputes were over whether or not those who were innocent were subject to dismissal only because of their opinions.

John B. Judis writes about his own FBI files at, discussing how his public writing put him under constant surveillance by the FBI and other agencies of the government — although everything he did was public, peaceful, and protected by our constitutional rights. The intrusions he suffered, “which to this day may or may not have had something to do with my politics, certainly make me sympathetic to the rightwing groups who were barraged by inquiries from the IRS — whether or not these inquiries were directed by higher-ups in the administration.” Hence Judis worries that the government has learned little, and is targeting all citizens without real reason. As he sees it, the Cold War era has lessons for today.

In our own day and age, the issues have become far more complex. Should we support an ever-larger national-security state that allows our government to adopt programs that could, now or at some future time, impinge on our rights? Is it necessary to have the NSA meta-mine our phone and Internet data in order to find the terrorist cell that might exist or the one individual planning to do us harm?

Where do conservatives and liberals line up on this issue?

First, let us look at the libertarians. A few months ago, Rand Paul released a video explaining his fear that our country has reached the conditions spelled out in George Orwell’s classic Cold War novel 1984. Having reached this conclusion before the current brouhaha, it is not surprising that Paul has introduced legislation that would curb the NSA’s current programs. Paul speaks coherently and sincerely about his fears, and his realization that Orwell’s predictions, meant to convey the reality of totalitarianism that existed in the Soviet bloc, now speaks to our predicament. Whether he is exaggerating his conclusion is up to viewers to decide.

A more restrained and responsible argument has been made at Reason by Mike Riggs, who argues that keeping our surveillance programs totally secret negates the very power of our democracy: “In the event that they have doubts that the American people will support a program they believe is necessary to national security, they are obligated to bring that program up for debate, not classify it and hope no one finds out.”

Second, let us turn to the arguments of the defenders of the Obama administration’s program. In today’s Washington Post, Marc Thiessen develops the view that the leaks by former Booz Allen consultant Edward Snowden “are incredibly damaging to national security.” To Thiessen, the arguments of Paul and company are downright ridiculous. The NSA programs, he writes, are “lawful, constitutional and absolutely vital to protecting the country.” It is simply a matter of gaining material so that dots can be connected and a potential terrorist attack can be stopped in its tracks. Thiessen believes that it is done with a warrant, approved by a federal judge in the FISA court.

Agreeing with Thiessen is the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Criticizing “self-styled civil libertarians,” the editors argue that if the meta-mining is stopped, it is likely to harm more individual rights than if it did not exist, since the NSA is searching for algorithms and patterns, and not targeting individuals per se. As for PRISM, the other program exposed by Mr. Snowden, the editors argue that it targets only foreigners and does not impinge at all on American citizens. “What our self-styled civil libertarians should really fear,” the editors write, “is another successful terror attack like 9/11, or one with WMD.”

Also writing on its editorial page is Michael Mukasey, the U.S. attorney general from 2007 to 2009. Arguing that the data collected is neither pervasive nor unlawful, Mukasey writes that those who see the “specter of George Orwell” in the NSA programs are essentially crazy. Always yelling “1984,” Mukasey writes, these critics on both the left and right ignore the fact that we know one terrorist attack in New York City was prevented by the program. Mukasey concludes that those who think the programs are perverse and dangerous are “downright irrational.” As for Snowden and his releases, Mukasey says they indeed did real damage to our nation, since “every time we tell terrorists how we can detect them, we encourage them to find ways to avoid detection.”

Turning to Edward Snowden, there are those who see him as a hero and martyr for free speech, and those who see him as a homegrown traitor. Writing at Contentions, Max Boot writes: “Far from striking a blow for political liberty and freedom of expression, he is unwittingly helping the most illiberal individuals in the world — jihadist terrorists — to more effectively attack us.” In the pages of the Los Angeles Times, Boot defends the NSA programs in their totality, arguing that the programs have safeguards to prevent our government from becoming Big Brother. Both the mining and PRISM were approved by Congress on a bi-partisan basis, have been effective in stopping terrorist attacks, and have not abused anyone’s civil liberties. Moreover, Boot is angry that the press, particularly the British Guardian and the Washington Post, are themselves harming our national security by letting terrorists know about our intelligence-gathering capabilities. What Boot fears is not any violations of our rights, but that curbing the existing programs would only embolden the terrorists and possibly allow them to become successful.

So, is Edward Snowden a whistleblower, or a traitor?

While the Left and Glenn Greenwald even defend Bradley Manning as a hero, most people view him as a traitor, given that he put his data on the internet, and did so while he was a soldier in the U.S. Army. Snowden was a civilian contractor working for Booz Allen when he leaked NSA secrets. Thus, even some who do not defend Manning view Snowden as a hero.

Predictably, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, also writing in the Guardian, calls Snowden’s material “the most important leak” in our nation’s history, more so than the Pentagon Papers he released during the Vietnam War. Ellsberg says the U.S. is not yet an Orwellian police state — on this he is more moderate than Rand Paul — but he writes: “Given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state.” Ellsberg argues that Snowden did not release any damaging data, and that the NSA program is both “unconstitutional in its breadth and potential abuse.” In his eyes, the U.S. intelligence agencies are worse than the old East German Stasi, an analogy that, if anything, shows how off-base Ellsberg is. In the eyes of the left, both in the old days and at present, the U.S. is the worst police state, more so than the most repressive of the old Stalinist regimes.

So, the NSA program is either dangerous and unconstitutional, or necessary and legal. Once again, leftists like Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Ellsberg join libertarians and conservatives like Rand Paul and a few others in making the same argument.

At Slate, William Saletan takes an in-between position. “Big Brother isn’t watching you,” Saletan writes, “but he does want your records in the database so that if any number you called later surfaces in a plot, he can look back through history, spot the connection, and check you out.” Yet Saletan worries that the checks other people cite, such as the FISA court, do not count for much. After all, he notes, the court always approves a government request, and does not in reality function as any kind of check on governmental power. So he suggests realistic, sensible restrictions that would prevent abuse and yet allow the NSA programs to continue. So, Saletan concludes, “if we can’t trust the government to manage surveillance data through publicly understood procedures that inhibit abuse, we won’t let it have the data to begin with.”

Also at Slate, technology columnist Farhad Manjoo has a witty and biting column about Snowden. Why in all heavens, he asks, did the NSA even trust this guy with access to all its top secrets? For that matter, why did Booz Allen hire him as an employee? After all, we’re talking about a 29-year-old high school drop-out with minimal computer expertise, and even a cursory examination of his record would have revealed him as a contributor to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. What he is, Manjoo writes, is a hardly accomplished IT person with little real experience. And for this he earned $200,000 a year!

And yet, Manjoo writes, “he was accorded the NSA’s top security clearance, which allowed him to see and to download the agency’s most sensitive documents. But he didn’t just know about the NSA’s surveillance systems — he says he had the ability to use them.”  The government that hired him gave him total access to the most classified programs and did so without any sound reason. He concludes: “The scandal isn’t just that the government is spying on us. It’s also that it’s giving guys like Snowden keys to the spying program. It suggests the worst combination of overreach and amateurishness, of power leveraged by incompetence.”

Jeffrey Goldberg writes at Bloomberg: “One reason I doubt these latest disclosures will move many people into the libertarian column is that the source, a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden, has washed up in Hong Kong, where he has been railing against the ‘omniscient’ power of the U.S. government. Most Americans understand intuitively that a person who believes that a city-state under the ultimate authority of the Chinese Communist Party is superior to the U.S. in its protection of freedom isn’t fit to comment intelligently on the state of privacy in the post-Sept. 11 world.”

The NSA, he argues, does a good job in collating data that can prevent terrorism. At the same time, Goldberg says with wit and understatement, the NSA “apparently didn’t understand, or care, that a disaffected, self-aggrandizing 29-year-old libertarian had seemingly untrammeled access to some of its most highly classified programs. How can the White House assure us that they’re protecting the country from terrorism if the NSA can’t protect its own secrets?”

Before you leave, check out a piece at by Robert Chesney and Benjamin Wittes, and another article very critical of Snowden by Marc Tracy, who points out he may have endangered other CIA covert operatives working abroad.

If anything, the issues involved are complex and difficult, and there are no easy answers. So where, dear readers, do you stand? Is the NSA program that Snowden revealed necessary and limited, or overbearing and dangerous? It’s up to you, and to all of us, to think carefully and to let our leaders in Congress and especially the White House know.


WaPo Quietly Changes Key Details in NSA Story