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January 30, 2006

The Price Of Security

I'm currently enjoying John Lewis Gaddis' short history of the Cold War, "Surprise, Security, and the American Experience" on the recommendation of a friend. At first blush you might not expect such a book to have much to do with current events but Gaddis begins, strangely enough, with September 11th and ties our reaction to that 'day that will live in infamy' to the one which preceded it: December 7th, 1941.

At any rate, Gaddis explores several ideas that have occupied my mind of late; among them the concept that the means by which we gain security and the measures which tend to make us comfortable morally and ethically are by no means compatible. As the old saying goes, "Desperate times call for desperate measures". My Dad sent me an interesting book review from the WaPo (another book I shall have to order once I finish this and one more I have in the queue): this one written by Rich Lowry. The book in question, The Case for Goliath, was, oddly enough, not written by a conservative; yet it makes the case that the exercise of American power on the global stage is not altogether a bad thing in world affairs:

The Bible story primes us to root for the guy slinging stones at Goliath, rather than the overdog giant. In today's international environment, that is a mistake, according to Mandelbaum. He rejects the label of "empire," the charged term favored by some celebrants and detractors of American power. "The United States," he writes, "does not control, directly or indirectly, the politics and economics of other societies," the classic characteristic of empires. Instead, he argues, "America acts as the world's government." At first blush, government is a more problematic term even than empire. On second blush too.

Mandelbaum acknowledges the rather fundamental objections to this idea of America's role in the world. For starters, government is the tool of a state -- that is, a sovereign entity controlling a given territory -- and the international system has no state. Furthermore, as Mandelbaum himself concedes, "In the society of sovereign states the United States does not have a monopoly of force and does not practice the kind of coercion that domestic governments routinely employ." If there's no state and no monopoly of force, there's not much government either.

What Mandelbaum's argument comes down to is that the United States provides "public goods" -- security, economic stability, etc. -- to the world in much the same way a government provides these things to its citizens. Which is true, as far it goes. But Mandelbaum contrives to fit U.S. behavior into his "government" paradigm in unconvincing ways. War in Europe, he argues, has come to be considered as undesirable as an infectious disease; therefore, in acting to prevent it, the United States has become a kind of "public health service." That's quite a stretch.

But the core of Mandelbaum's case -- that U.S. power is so important to the world that the international order would badly fray without it -- is provocative and valuable, given how pervasive the notion has become at home and abroad that the United States is the world's parasite, or predator, or both. Strained analogies aside, Mandelbaum's analysis is generally sure-footed and often original.

The United States does indeed provide many public goods: "reassurance" to Europe and East Asia, in the form of the U.S. troops and security guarantees that keep countries in these regions from fearing attack by their neighbors; a check against nuclear proliferation, through the U.S. nuclear umbrella extended to other countries and U.S. support for anti-proliferation agreements and organizations; and the security, currency, free trade and consumer demand on which the world's economy depends.

The U.S. global role is buttressed by the international consensus in favor of that Wilsonian triad of peace, democracy and free markets that makes American power -- identified with all three of these values -- welcome in most circumstances. The U.S. government isn't necessarily popular overseas, but neither has it prompted the sort of "political and military combination" that threatened states have formed to oppose other overwhelming powers of the past. This is what checked the hegemonic ambitions of France in the 18th and 19th centuries and those of Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th. Today, some of the loudest critics of the United States are the same countries that benefit from U.S. public goods, often with no attempt to pay for or otherwise assume their fair share of the burden. Mandelbaum, always temperate, is as scornful as he ever gets about this: "To accept benefits without paying for them and simultaneously to complain about the way they are being provided shades over into hypocrisy." Indeed.

These are important concepts for two reasons: first, it seldom acknowledged these days that the exercise of American power has ultimately been more a stabilizing and positive force than a chaotic and repressive one. And secondly, despite the alarmist cris du coeur of the "free rider" EU states (who are busily dismantling their own militaries wholesale, secure in the knowledge that the United States can be relied upon to provide adult supervision when they squabble, as in Kosovo), America has no imperialist ambitions. Where is our far-flung empire, our vast network of tributary states, our strictly-enforced pax Amerikana? The legacy of so-called American imperialism is easy and the "burden" generally consists of a lucrative influx of foreign aid dollars and a democratic government that is turned back to the people.

Interestingly, the same arguments used to attack the exercise of US power abroad are invoked against security measures on the domestic front. Here again, hyperbole reigns supreme and oversimplified and partisan mischaracterization replaces objective, fact-based analysis of the risks of inaction versus the benefits of various security measures. The NSA surveillance story involved listening to conversations of known terrorists even if they happened to end up talking to parties inside the US, but the media rapidly dubbed it the 'domestic spying' story, as though pre-9/11 anti-terrorism intelligence was so ruthless and efficient that we need to apply the brakes before it overheated and turned America into a police state. To hear various media figures and pundits tell it, our most pressing need in the wake of an attack that killed almost 3000 innocent civilians is to discourage law enforcement from taking too much of an interest in US citizens who receive phone calls from thugs who hijack commuter jets and fly them into buildings, such interest being deemed downright hazardous to our national health.

In that bizarre alchemy that seems to have occurred since the Bush Dynasty "stole" the White House in 2000 over the Al Gore's vociferous protests, FISA, once damned by liberals as a sinister creation of the fascist state, has now inexplicably become the only thing standing between Joe SixPack and the Constitutional Crisis of the Century - lauded by some as inexplicably more important even than the President's Article 2 authority. But as Philip Bobbitt comments, FISA itself is outdated and in need of revision:

IN the debate over whether the National Security Agency's eavesdropping violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, we must not lose sight of the fact that the world we entered on 9/11 will require rewriting that statute and other laws. The tiresome pas de deux between rigid civil libertarians in denial of reality and an overaggressive executive branch seemingly heedless of the law, while comforting to partisans of both groups, is not in the national interest.

Owing to the globalization of telecommunications, many telephone calls between parties in foreign countries or with an American at one end are routed through American networks. By analyzing this traffic, the National Security Agency has been gathering clues to possible terrorist activities.

The N.S.A. is our most important intelligence agency. Typically, about 60 percent of the president's daily brief comes from its intercepts. But the agency was created during the cold war to collect against enemy countries, and that war, indeed that kind of war, has now been superseded. Signals intelligence in the 20th century meant intercepting analog signals along dedicated voice channels, connecting two discrete and known target points. In the 21st century, communications are mostly digital, carry billions of bits of data, are dynamically routed in packets to be reassembled and are globally networked.

Consider that on Sept. 10, 2001, the N.S.A. intercepted two messages: "The match begins tomorrow" and "Tomorrow is zero hour." These were not picked up through surveillance of suspected individuals but from random monitoring of pay phones in areas of Afghanistan where Al Qaeda was active. Not surprisingly, these messages were not translated or disseminated until Sept. 12th.

Nor was the fact that we knew the identities of two of the terrorists sufficient to thwart the attack the next day. But had we at the time cross-referenced credit card accounts, frequent-flyer programs and a cellphone number shared by those two men, data mining might easily have picked up on the 17 other men linked to them and flying on the same day at the same time on four flights. Such intelligence collection would not have been based on probable cause, and yet the presence of the hijackers in the country would have qualified them as "U.S. persons."

Clearly, "random" information is likely to be useless when it is not linked to surveillance focused on an individual, while that focused intelligence is much less useful when it is not linked to data mining collected in broad surveillance of "U.S. persons."

If we agree that the National Security Agency now needs to trace and analyze large volumes of phone and Internet traffic looking for particular patterns and to cross-reference leads, then it seems clear that traditional, specific warrants may sometimes not be appropriate.

Furthermore, not only are there presumably conspirators within the United States, but conversations between two foreign persons could be routed, via the Internet, through American switches to give the appearance of a domestic-to-international connection. It is difficult to imagine getting warrants now in such situations, because the standard of probable cause to conclude that the target is a terrorist cannot be met.

Indeed, trying to determine just who qualifies as a terrorist agent is the point of the unfocused cross-hatching collection work of the security agency. In such a world, we will need new techniques to protect the identities and privacy of innocent people here and abroad.

The author makes the point, several times, that the traditional standard for getting a warrant: probable cause, CANNOT BE MET and most likely is not appropriate in the case of random monitoring of this type.

And it is very important to understand why warrants were traditionally required at law. They were required because evidence seized could be used in a court of law to deprive a person of their liberty or property. There is a critical distinction between surveilling in order to stop an activity and surveilling in order to gather evidence to be used in a criminal prosecution.

In the military, search and seizure is commonly allowed in several circumstances, provided that the materials seized cannot be used in court. The purpose of the search is to stop or discourage an illegal activity rather than to gather evidence, and so greater leeway is afforded the authorities. The same standard is reasonable here, and moreover we need to be fairly reasonable regarding what is known as "fruit of the poisoned tree" evidence. For instance, if by means of a warrantlessly taped conversation we apprehend parties in the act of committing a terrorist act, we don't want to extend the chain of causality so far backwards that we invalidate subsequent evidence simply because the initial tip-off was obtained without a warrant.

There is such a thing as cutting your nose off to spite your face, and Americans are in danger of doing this with warrantless wiretapping. Too many of our politicians conveniently overlook past abuses like Clinton's warrantless physical searches of public housing residents to declaim violently over far less intrusive random monitoring of known terrorists just because they incidentally involve parties in the United States. One wonders what other kind of surveillance of our country's enemies they would expect to "waive off" just because a U.S. citizen happened to step into the picture?

The painting of our government as an enemy worse than al Qaeda and possible (but so-far non-existent and hypothetical) abuses as far worse than the very real attack we suffered on September 11th is not only not grounded in reality but actively counter to our (and the world's) best interests. Though some politicians in Congress like to paint every American foreign policy initiative as a brutal hegemonistic thrust at the heart of world peace, the truth is far more nuanced, as John Kerry would say, than that. The world is full of brutal dictators and spineless politicians who find it convenient to appease them. And despite the barbs of our critics, al Qaeda will not start strapping daisies to their vests instead of bombs if we retreat into some sort of 21st Century Jeffersonian isolationism. Throwing roses at our enemies has never been taken for anything except an admission of cowardice: anyone who doubts that need only listen to the words of Osama bin Laden, who was not appeased by Clinton's withdrawal in the nineties but only emboldened by it:

... when tens of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American Pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you. Clinton appeared in front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but these threats were merely a preparation for withdrawal. You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear. It was a pleasure for the "heart" of every Muslim and a remedy to the "chests" of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden and Mogadishu.

We are constantly in danger of forgetting the lessons of our own history. Awash in the flood tide of the 24/7 news cycle, we become blinded to our own place in history and are all too often unduly disconcerted by what are only really repeating patterns, like ripples in the sand of history; only we, unconscious of the larger patterns, see the instantaneous ripple and think it a brand new mountain - something never before seen: unprecedented. One of my favorite anecdotes in the Gaddis book occurs in a Texas classroom where he's watching another tutor lecture about the Mexican War. A student asked the Professor (Samuel Flagg Bemis) whether the Mexican War had not been an atrocious act of aggression by the United States:

"Yes", Bemis acknowledged with unexpected mildness, "it certainly had." Then he added, much more emphatically, with the sweep of an arm that seemed to encompass, not just the entire classroom, but the entire university, indeed the entire state: "But you wouldn't want to give it all back, would you?"

Gaddis goes on to say that most of us would probably answer, "No, we wouldn't want to give it all back". He comments:

All of which suggests a disconnect in our thinking between the security to which we've become accustomed and the means by which we obtained it. We've tended in recent years to condemn the methods even as we've continued to enjoy - and now seek to extend - the benefits. Can we have it both ways? Well, maybe: F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the sign of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in one's mind at the same time. but the essays in which he made this observation were entitled, rather discouragingly, The Crack-Up.

The better approach, I think, is to acknowledge the moral ambiguity of our history. Like most other nations, we got to where we are by means that we cannot, today, in their entirety, comfortably endorse. Comfort alone, however cannot be the criterion by which a nation shapes its strategy and secures its safety. The means of confronting danger do not disqualify themselves from consideration solely on the basis of the uneasiness they produce. Before we too quickly condemn our how our ancestors dealt with such problems, therefore, we might well ask ourselves two questions, both of which follow from the one I heard Bemis ask four decades ago:

What would we have done had we been in their place then?

And, even scarier, how comfortable will our descendants be with the choices we make today?

All of which, perhaps, can be summed up in an old maxim: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Perhaps the maintanence of our freedoms requires that we skirt the edge of things that make us, as ethical and moral beings, profoundly uncomfortable. But if we, as John Adams once said, go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy, the price is perhaps that we must do what is needed and yet be eternally watchful that we do not become that which we most fear.

Posted by Cassandra at January 30, 2006 08:26 AM


This was from my homeschooling list:

I was born in Dominican Republic. While my family was living there, there was a dictator named Trujillo. He was horrible and killed our doctor and my sister's nurse. My brother was in a cab when some of his men stopped the cab and murdered the cabbie in front of him. Trujillo was murdered and his body was found in a car trunk across the street from us. Then came civil war and the Americans came to help settle things down. We moved to Jamaica then. From there we moved to New Mexico (my dad was a miner) and I lived in Grants, Las Vegas NM, Albuq. NM, Las Cruces NM then Las Vegas NV. Came here for jobs. I was a single parent of daughter, now 23. That's my story. Not as interesting as many but I have seen many sides of the economic spectrum. Oh yes, the people who owned the house where the car with Trujillo's body was found in front of, the ones across the street, they were family friends with kids our age and they dissapeared and were never seen again, even though they most likely had absolutely nothing to do with his murder. I am a very, very patriotic American who tells my kids over and over how lucky we are to be here. And when I see things like the war in Iraq, I think how those people will be living in a better place. Sorry, that's my soapbox.

Posted by: Crckt [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 10:30 AM

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