Policy: National Security

Privacy and counterterrorism

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein,National Security,Surveillance

My colleague Tim Carney’s latest column uses the current controversies over government surveillance as a jumping-off point to make the case for the importance of protecting privacy. You should read his column, as always, but I’d like to take issue with his concluding paragraph.

Carney starts off with a 2009 quote from Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” After making the case for privacy rights, Carney concludes: “If Presidents Obama and Bush have something they don’t want people to know, as Obama’s pal Schmidt puts it, maybe they shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The problem here is that Carney is conflating two separate issues. In many cases, presidents oppose the disclosure of information simply because it would prove politically embarrassing to them. That’s unequivocally wrong. But in many cases, presidents have very good reasons for opposing the disclosure of something — namely, it is important for national security purposes for it to remain secret. Following Carney’s point to its logical conclusion would be pretty absurd: Should FDR have not done the Normandy invasion because he wouldn’t have wanted people to know operational details prior to June 6, 1944? Does the secrecy surrounding the Bin Laden raid mean that Obama shouldn’t have authorized it? Obviously, no. So, the question really is something different.

There are some who would argue that the sort of data mining operation being carried out by the NSA should be illegal no matter what — regardless of whether it’s helpful in thwarting terrorist attacks. That’s a philosophical position. But for many people, the debate is one of application. And that debate is much more difficult to have, because we don’t know enough about whether government stepped beyond mere data-mining and whether these actions were necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. Some are inclined to believe that the government didn’t cross the line into tapping lines or wantonly reading emails of American citizens and that what was done saved lives. Skeptics are more likely to assume that Americans can’t trust their government with this data and that any national security justifications are bogus. But the problem I’ve had with the current debate, as with many of the national-security-versus-civil-liberties debates that have occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks, is that they’ve taken place within an informational vacuum. Many people are making arguments based on their own biases and suspicions rather than actual information.

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