Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Framing the Debate on the Surveillance State

There are moments that come along where it is important to highlight the framing of an issue that is prevalent in the corporate media. These discussions can help us understand the limits that are placed on such conversations and perhaps more importantly, these discussions can illuminate important viewpoints and data that are often left out of the prevailing narrative.

I had one of these moments in reading Glenn Greenwald's recent entry on how the corporate media often pits a debate between "keeping Americans safe" and "protecting our privacy/civil liberties". His whole piece is very illuminating and I encourage you to read the entire entry in full. I will provide a few snippets that demonstrate the foundation of his argument:

Every debate over expanded government surveillance power is invariably framed as one of "security v. privacy and civil liberties" -- as though it's a given that increasing the Government's surveillance authorities will "make us safer." But it has long been clear that the opposite is true. As numerous experts (such as Rep. Rush Holt) have attempted, with futility, to explain, expanding the scope of raw intelligence data collected by our national security agencies invariably impedes rather than bolsters efforts to detect terrorist plots. This is true for two reasons: (1) eliminating strict content limits on what can be surveilled (along with enforcement safeguards, such as judicial warrants) means that government agents spend substantial time scrutinizing and sorting through communications and other information that have nothing to do with terrorism; and (2) increasing the quantity of what is collected makes it more difficult to find information relevant to actual terrorism plots.


The failure of the U.S. Government to detect the fairly glaring Northwest Airlines Christmas plot -- despite years and years of constant expansions of Surveillance State powers -- illustrates this dynamic perfectly. As President Obama said yesterday, the Government -- just as was true for 9/11 -- had gathered more than enough information to have detected this plot, or at least to have kept Abdulmutallab off airplanes and out of the country. Yet our intelligence agencies -- just as was true for 9/11 -- failed to understand what they had in their possession. Why is that? Because they had too much to process, including too much data wholly unrelated to Terrorism. In other words, our panic-driven need to vest the Government with more and more surveillance power every time we get scared again by Terrorists -- in the name of keeping us safe -- has exactly the opposite effect.


The problem is never that the U.S. Government lacks sufficient power to engage in surveillance, interceptions, intelligence-gathering and the like. Long before 9/11 -- from the Cold War -- we have vested extraordinarily broad surveillance powers in the U.S. Government to the point that we have turned ourselves into a National Security and Surveillance State. Terrorist attacks do not happen because there are too many restrictions on the government's ability to eavesdrop and intercept communications, or because there are too many safeguards and checks. If anything, the opposite is true: the excesses of the Surveillance State -- and the steady abolition of oversights and limits -- have made detection of plots far less likely. Despite that, we have an insatiable appetite -- especially when we're frightened anew -- to vest more and more unrestricted spying and other powers in our Government, which -- like all governments -- is more than happy to accept it.

When a new terrorism related incident unfolds (like the failed Christmas Day bombing) we also tend to see plenty of comments advocating policies that are based in reactionary fear. Not only are policies floated to expand the security state like Glenn mentions above, but we see figures come forward to advocate profiling and expanding military action against other countries. Another element that emerges and is also stomach-turning, is when politicians use these incidents to not only be reactionary but to use it as a political opportunity. Take Rep. Peter King (R-NY) on ABC when he is asked what President Obama could specifically do to improve counter-terrorism efforts. King responds that Obama should use the word "terrorism" more often:

Perhaps an appropriate follow-up would have been to ask King how using that word would specifically save lives.

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