The mass shooting at the magazine Charlie Hebdo has prompted outrage around the globe. Predictably enough, it is also being eagerly exploited by politicians. Perhaps the most cynical of all, as Greg Sargent reports, are those trying to use the attacks to prevent reform of the surveillance state.
The argument is that with terrorism so obviously still a threat, now is not the time to be fiddling with the NSA or other agencies tasked with monitoring the terrorists. Here’s former NSA Director Michael Hayden basically saying the French now really wish they had the U.S.'s capabilities:
The French are going to come to us and ask us in that ocean of metadata, do these new numbers that we've just associated with these people, do these new numbers show up and what have they been doing and with whom have they been in contact? [Newsmax]
Notice the howling error of logic here? The whole point of the dragnet surveillance program is it is supposed to “keep us safe.” So why isn’t a successful terrorist attack a huge black mark against the program?
NSA apologists are completely heads-we-win, tails-you-lose about this. Any passage of time in which a terrorist attack does not happen is held up as unquestionable proof that dragnet surveillance is necessary to keep people from being massacred. When there is a massacre, then dragnet surveillance is touted as unquestionably necessary to track down the perpetrators.
That, of course, does not rule out the possibility that some form of surveillance might be of assistance in tracking down the perpetrators. But it doesn't change the fact that NSA apologists have constructed an impenetrable rhetorical fortress around the program that should make us wary of anything they say. Since any and all terrorist activity and non-activity is automatically cast as evidence for a bigger dragnet, then there’s simply no reason to believe them when they assert it is keeping us safe.
As Sargent says, the Patriot Act is coming up for reauthorization this year (which may or may not be necessary to keep operating the dragnet). It would be relatively straightforward to design an NSA reform (or better yet, a top-to-bottom reorganization of the whole intelligence community) that preserves the ability to surveil genuine suspects while protecting innocent Americans’ constitutional rights. Indeed, there is a strong case that doing so would improve the quality of their work.
But when that debate happens, don’t listen to the inevitable carping from the pro-dragnet corner. Their opinions are completely predetermined.