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.”