On the other side of the equation, we have Edward Snowden himself, who
expressed his scepticism earlier today in an online chat:
Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to acheive that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.
If gutting the fourth amendment would forever put an end to bathtub tragedies, would you favour it? Last week, Conor Friedersdorf of the
Atlantic made a similar argument at length:
Of course we should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism. But consider some hard facts. In 2001, the year when America suffered an unprecedented terrorist attack—by far the biggest in its history—roughly 3,000 people died from terrorism in the U.S.
Let’s put that in context. That same year in the United States:
71,372 died of diabetes.
killed by guns. 13,290 were killed in drunk driving accidents.
That’s what things looked like
at the all-time peak for deaths by terrorism. Now let’s take a longer view. We’ll choose an interval that still includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history: 1999 to 2010.
Again, terrorists killed roughly 3,000 people in the United States. And in that interval,
roughly 360,000 were
killed by guns (actually, the figure the CDC gives is 364,483—in other words, by rounding, I just elided more gun deaths than there were total terrorism deaths). roughly 150,000 were killed in drunk-driving accidents.
The thrust of this argument is simple: terrorism is such a minor threat to American life and limb that it’s simply bizarre—just stupefyingly irrational and intellectually unserious—to suppose that it could even
begin to justify the abolition of privacy rights as they have been traditionally understood in favour of the installation of a panoptic surveillance state. Would Americans give up their second-amendment rights if it were to save 3000 lives? Well, it would, but we won’t. Surely the re-abolition of alchohol would save more than 3000 lives, but we’re not about to discuss it. Why not? Because liberty is important to us and we won’t sell it cheaply. Why should we feel differently about our precious fourth-amendment rights?
This argument seems somehow glib, doesn’t it? Why is that? This is a profoundly interesting and important question, because the argument is in fact perfectly sound, and the fate of American liberty may depend on wider recognition that this is so. That so many of us find this argument somehow silly and immaterial surely has something to do with the way terrorism (whatever that is) rattles our
sense of safety far beyond reason. But why does it do that? Because it injures our national pride, and Americans are too insecure to countence that sort of insult against ego? Because we are in the grip of deep-seated but erroneous belief that hegemony buys total security? It’s a bit mysterious to me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that certain people benefit enormously from an irrational fear of terrorism.
If you haven’t heard of him by now,
Keith Alexander is a four-star Army general, director of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service, and commander of the United States Cyber Command. “As such, he has his own secret military, presiding over the Navy’s 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force, and the Second Army”, adds James Bamford in in an extremely useful . Who knew of the semi-independent Keith Alexander branch of government? I didn’t. Anyway, Mr Alexander is reportedly set to “release details of cases where the programs have stopped a terrorist attack”. As Wired profile CNN reports, “Over the weekend a three-page document on the NSA programs was released to congressional intelligence committees and states the plots were thwarted in the United States and more than 20 other countries”.
It’s touching to hear that the NSA is concerned with the welfare of people in other countries, but what will this really come to? How many American lives have actually been saved specifically by the programmes in question? What do these programmes actually involve? I feel sure Mr Alexander is not about to imperil his omnipotence by giving us the straight scoop. Certainly, it would be incredibly naive to trust the man.
Suppose the CEO of Exxon were to promise us that there are absolutely no adverse environmental effects of fracking? On the contrary; it’s great for the environment! Would you believe him? Now, suppose it were
illegal for anyone not specifically authorised by Exxon to publish any details about how fracking works, or about fracking’s effects. You would be a fool to trust him, wouldn’t you? I don’t see why Mr Alexander’s grudging disclosures merit more credence.
If it weren’t for the monumental credulity of America’s spy-loving public, the NSA might find itself in a bit of bind. Acts of terror against Americans are by all known accounts exceedingly rare and, as we have seen, they pose relatively little real danger to public safety. If the NSA actually has foiled more than a few serious, terrorist plots against Americans in the past decade or so, saving more lives than are lost through bathtub falls, then we must ask why terrorist plots have become so much more common since the inception of the “war on terror”? If they have become more common, we’ll need to ask whether the war on terror itself helps explains this increase in terrorist conspiracy. If it turns out that America’s security apparatus is thwarting plots that it is itself through its other activities inspiring, a long, detailed list of authentic, thwarted plots may tell us only that America’s overweening security apparatus has so far successfully neutralised its own predictable dangers. This sort of “security” can’t justify the loss of even a little liberty. So, even if it were not foolish to trust Mr Alexander, the revelation of heretofore unknown foiled plots tells us little of real use about the costs and benefits of the NSA’s unprecedentedly comprehensive snooping. Only much greater transparency can possibly serve the needs of a substantive democratic discussion. If the only conclusion the public will be allowed to entertain is that it’s all worth it, then the public’s verdict cannot in the end confer real moral legitimacy on the dubious activities of Mr Alexander’s covert minions.