Why liberals should learn to stop worrying and love the NSA.
- By Michael A. CohenMichael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
One year ago today, an article popped up on the website of the U.S. edition of the Guardian: "NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily." It was a blockbuster story that would presage a year of drip-drip leaks about the inner workings of the National Security Agency. Almost immediately, a toxic political narrative was born (or, perhaps more accurately, pushed by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald): The NSA was an agency out of control, the Constitution was being ripped to shreds, and America was on the path to becoming an Orwellian surveillance state.
Today this narrative remains dominant, even if it also remains an exaggeration. A strange pair of political bedfellows has bolstered it: libertarians and liberals. The former is not surprising. Fearing the concentration of government power is a basic ideological premise of libertarianism. The reaction of liberals was something else. While there has been a long-standing wariness on the left toward law enforcement and the national security state, writ large, liberals have traditionally been more trusting of government institutions. Yet many of the left’s loudest voices, from the New York Times editorial page (which famously called for Snowden to receive clemency) to the Nation, from a host of liberal commentators to the ACLU, from civil liberties groups to Internet privacy organizations, have adopted this narrative.
But rather than fearing the NSA and its intelligence-gathering programs, liberals should be embracing it. For all its faults — and the NSA, like any government institution, is far from perfect — the kind of signals intelligence gathering (SIGINT) done by the NSA is one of the most effective and least kinetic national security tools that the U.S. government utilizes in the fight against terrorism. It is perhaps the best antidote to the many counterterrorism policies — from military intervention to torture — that liberals, often quite rightfully, despise.
One of the many ironies of the Snowden story is that the modern legal infrastructure that regulates the actions of the NSA is a significant liberal accomplishment. The FISA Act of 1978 — which in the wake of the Church Committee sought to regulate domestic surveillance — was an idea pushed and promoted by liberals.
What we’ve learned over the past year is, in key respects, a validation of those efforts to place greater restrictions on how law enforcement agencies utilize electronic surveillance. By and large, the system, as imperfect as it may be, has worked. Contrary to popular opinion, the NSA is not listening to your phone calls, not reading your emails, and not, as an act of policy, violating your privacy. Indeed, there is really no evidence to suggest that the U.S. government is systematically violating the privacy rights of Americans. If, as Greenwald has warned, "you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing," perhaps he could clue us in on all those secret prisons housing those who loudly proclaim the government is spying on them.
That doesn’t mean liberals shouldn’t be gravely concerned about the potential for abuse by the NSA, or that a secret court is in the business of making secret law. It also doesn’t mean that legal opinions on the use of metadata shouldn’t be updated or that the benefits of NSA’s domestic data gathering are worth the costs (they likely aren’t). Just because what the NSA is doing what is legal and blessed by the FISA Court doesn’t mean it is right.
But, at the same time, we should be honest about what the NSA is doing. The oft-heard charge that the NSA is breaking the law — or, as Snowden put it last week, violating the Constitution on a "massive scale" — is simply not true.
Such assertions further erode confidence in public institutions and bolster the conservative/libertarian argument that a federal government, with access to the private information of Americans, puts the nation on a slow road to tyranny. It was particularly striking that in Michael Kinsley’s recent controversial review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, almost no attention was paid to his casual accusation that the Snowden leaks exposed "lawbreaking." It is now just part of the narrative.
The politics of the NSA leak story are, however, only part of the issue. There is also a critical policy element. The NSA is an inordinately effective counterterrorism weapon. First, it allows the government to track terrorists, listen to their phone calls, read their emails, actively disrupt how they communicate with each other, and break up their plots.
Second, it might be the most efficient deterrent to future terrorist attacks. By its very ubiquity, the NSA creates enormous hoops that terrorist groups must jump through before they can do actual harm to Americans.
America is never going to eliminate every terrorist, nor should it try. But if the United States can make it harder for them to plan attacks — and minimize their ambitions — that’s hugely beneficial.
From that perspective, the very fact that the United States conducts aggressive foreign intelligence gathering is crucial. Indeed, one of the advantages of the Snowden leak was that it was a reminder to terrorist groups of just how sophisticated and advanced the NSA’s capabilities are. The flip side, of course, is that knowing how the NSA operates makes it easier for terrorists to evade the agency’s surveillance dragnet, which is what makes so deceptively wrong the oft-heard notion from Snowden fans that "the terrorists know we’re listening."
While it might seem counterintuitive, such eavesdropping creates a smaller U.S. footprint overseas and puts fewer lives at risk (more analysts at Fort Meade are most certainly better than troops on the streets of Baghdad) and is more defensible (both legally and morally) than many of the counterterrorism tactics utilized since September 11.
If liberals (correctly) don’t like invading foreign countries, don’t support indefinite detention, abhor torture, and disagree with the flagrant use of drones, then it begs the question: What steps are they willing to take to fight terrorism? Unless one believes that the threat from terrorism is simply nonexistent, what’s the affirmative liberal counterterrorism strategy? The fact is, the more America adopts a law enforcement approach to terrorism (a famili
ar liberal demand) the more it must rely on SIGINT.
To be sure, the benefits of SIGINT are more than just fighting terrorism — SIGINT is elemental to a liberal internationalist foreign policy. It allows U.S. policymakers and diplomats to be that much better informed about the world and ensure adherence to international rules and norms. Understanding the leadership intentions of Iranian diplomats in the run-up to nuclear talks or Russian leaders as they plot their next moves against Ukraine or whether Chinese provocations in the South China Sea are bluster or evidence of a broader military effort are critical nuggets of information. It’s also a pretty good way to avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that have led to conflicts in the past.
Of course, liberals should not be indifferent to how the NSA does its job. Over the past year we’ve learned of many reasonable foreign intelligence-gathering activities, from spying on terrorist groups to keeping tabs on Pakistan’s nuclear program. But we’ve also learned that the NSA in tapping the phones of friendly foreign leaders, weakening encryption standards, and engaging in bulk metadata collection — pushing the envelope of what is defensible. Better political judgment and a more thorough weighing of costs versus benefits appear to be much-needed reforms in Fort Meade — and liberals should be the loudest voices making that call. At the same time, they can make the push for even greater privacy protections — both at home and abroad.
But liberals who have so often been right about the excesses and mistakes in the war on terror need to also uphold and defend the intrinsic value of foreign intelligence gathering. It would be a mistake for them to discard the baby with the bathwater or to sit mum as others with less altruistic views of the federal government are allowed to dominate the public debate. As odd as it may sound, liberals need to learn to stop worrying and love the surveillance state.