The big scare seems real enough, but only the terminally unobservant would not notice that the timing of it is awfully convenient for the White House and the fans of the security state. Who would put a leash on the National Security Agency now, with all the static, chatter and high anticipation about what mayhem might (or might not) come down on the Middle East?
There’s no evident link between the chatter picked up by the NSA about the big scare, and the cellphone conversations of blue-haired Lutheran grannies in Minnesota, teenage prom queens chattering about their boyfriends in Seattle or good ol’ boys laying down bets on Alabama and millions of other innocents doing innocent things. But the intelligence dudes and their groupies tell us there’s a link, and this is supposed to be the argument-clincher that the NSA and its programs, some secret and some not, must be left alone.
“To the members of the Congress who want to reform the NSA program, great,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who is one of the most easily frightened members of Congress. “But if you want to gut it, you make us much less safe, and you’re putting our nation at risk. We have to have policies in place that can deal with the threats that exist, and they are real, and they are growing.” Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, another Republican fan of NSA snooping, agrees. “These programs are controversial, we understand that,” he says. “They’re very sensitive. They’re what allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter.”
But no one proposes “gutting” anything, or putting the nation at risk, or even curtailing the ability to collect the chatter of genuine evildoers abroad, as the senators know, but if you can frame the argument as all or nothing, most people will vote to stay alive. Only Muslims of a certain ilk get 72 virgins in the dreamy Islamist hereafter, and the rest of us are in no hurry to leave the here and now. Fear works. The easily frightened are prepared to give up nearly everything, beginning with their right to be left alone in the privacy of their homes, for the elusive security of the watched and the monitored.
You can color Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat, as a skeptic. “Do we need to collect all of the phone records of all of the people living in America for five years so that if we’re going to target one particular person, we’re ready to jump on it?” Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, still another Democrat, underlines just this point. There’s no indication, he says, “that the [NSA] program, which collects vast amounts of domestic data, domestic telephony data, contributed information about this particular plot.”
This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, since the NSA snooping on Americans in their homes was authorized by the Patriot Act, enacted almost unanimously in the hysteria after September 11. No Democrat or Republican wanted then to be regarded as an enemy of the state. But the White House has not yet successfully explained how all the snoopery has actually thwarted terrorist plots. They’ll tell us what they think we need to know, that the success of intelligence is hard to measure. (No questions, please.)
“That’s a very difficult question to answer in so much that it’s not necessarily how these programs work,” John Inglis, the deputy director of the NSA, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. “That’s not actually how these programs work. That’s actually not how these programs work. What happens is, you simply have a range of tools at your disposal.” If you think this is argle-bargle, meant to signify nothing, you understand how the system works. This is argle-bargle by careful design.
The Obama administration has been losing the struggle to keep the NSA and the intelligence agencies off-limits to critics, even critics in Congress, and a growing number of skeptics in Congress are asking pointed, informed questions; some of them have proposed legislation to rein in the collection of “metadata” from the telephones of plain Americans.
The White House is entitled to the confidence of the public on this one; if the threat this week is enough to close 21 embassies and hunker down, we must hunker down. But the White House and Congress, which has lied to us, can’t be surprised that almost no one trusts them. Ronald Reagan’s famous admonition applies here, too: Trust, but verify. And hunker down.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.