Public Peace, Secret War: The Snooping Scandals and The President’s War Strategy
Published on: June 6, 2013
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  • ljgude

    I think you are making new sense of Obama’s apparent contradictions here in the light of the recent revelations. Support for the founding organization of Islamism – the Muslim Brotherhood – simultaneously with the er..liberal use of deep surveillance and drone attacks. A peculiar combination of Neville Chamberlain and Cardinal Richelieu. Like the former he seems to believe he can bargain with totalitarians, and like the latter he can ruthlessly but covertly consolidate the power of the state.

    • Andrew Allison

      I’m more concerned about the Chamberlain side: we know how that movie ended, and it’s looking increasingly likely that Iran will get its nuclear weapons.

  • Michelle

    Dear Sir:
    I have to take issue with part of your analysis, which is as usual thoughtful and nuanced. Mr. Obama himself has spoken of the risk of measures that erode our basic liberties and values in the name of security, and the surveillance programs he is engaged in at present are a fairly perfect example of that. Ordinary people going about their legal business have a right to be left alone. Surveilling everybody all the time is just by definition Not A Good Thing in a putatively fee and open society.
    It is hard to be on a war footing all the time. But if we’re actually at war, I woudl argue it is better to call it what it is, put our heads down and carry on.

    • Andrew Allison

      Mass surveillance is a blatant violation of the probable cause provision of the Fourth Amendment!

      • Michelle

        At least. Or, as the old joke has it, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you aren’t being followed.

  • rheddles

    I had always assumed that NSA was monitoring everything in the air and on the net. To a certain extent I am disappointed we are disclosing that we are doing so little. Better to keep them in the dark about our capabilities, even at the cost of keeping Americans in the dark as well.

    People need to realize Iran and the Islamists are still in a war with the West, whether we like it or not. If we aren’t going to take Iran out, it will last a long time; cold wars do. The problem is that this will be a tepid war.

    If Obama wants to show unruffled calm to demoralize our foes and calm the public, he should disband the Theatrical Services Authority.

    • Andrew Allison

      Let’s not tar all Islamists with the terrorist brush. As always, it’s the radicals who are the problem. Unhappily, inept US foreign policy has significantly enlarged the radical pool.

    • John Morris

      No, I don’t expect a long drawn out cold war. I wish that were an option, we could survive that. But a cold war requires the iron logic of MAD to make sense to both sides.

      Afraid the mad mullahs in Iran don’t buy it. The Soviets wanted to rule this world, being godless communists they didn’t believe in another. What if the Iranians want the world to burn? Well we will find out very soon, probably before the Kenyan idiot passes the office to his bitter racist spouse.

      • rheddles

        If the Iranians want the world to burn, which I strongly doubt, they’ll get their wish, and before the end to the current President of the United States’ term. That would be a painful blessing in disguise because it would give Washington the cover to dismantle the Blue State Model in the following administration, which will not be run by the current FLOTUS. And the Blue State Model is a much greater threat to the country than Islam.

  • Matt_Thullen

    Pretty good summary of the tensions between these surveillance programs and Mr. Obama’s recent speech declaring the War on Terror to be over and done with.

    One other point–the IRS scandal revelations and the warrants for reporters’ records have done an excellent job in convincing many Americans that the federal government is not to be trusted to do its work in an evenhanded and fair manner. Even those partisans who claim that the IRS misdeeds were no big deal are likely to have some misgivings about trusting the feds with massive amount of data regarding Americans’ purchasing and communications habits.

    And let’s not forget that combining this enormous data set with big data mining techniques can also lead to lots and lots of mischief as well.

    • richard40

      Yes, Obamas campaign had already bragged about their extensive data mining, and now he is getting the biggest mine in history, with the taxpayers paying the bill for it.

  • Lyle7

    I would say America has future problems with Islamism and not Islam. This is a distinction we should start to use going forward.

    • rheddles

      What is the difference?

      • catorenasci

        There really isn’t one.

  • Andrew Allison

    As the essay points out, it’s hard to draw the line between “legitimate” intelligence gathering and intrusion. Perhaps we should look at it (and the entire Homeland Security monstrosity) from a cost-effectiveness standpoint. How many planned terrorist acts have been intercepted and at what cost.
    One would think that any such success would have been trumpeted, and the absence of same is telling.
    “First they came for the terrorists . . .” should be the watchword here.

    • SDN

      “One would think that any such success would have been trumpeted,”

      Thus showing that you aren’t thinking. Once a technique is revealed, the enemy takes steps to neutralize it. For example, when the NYT revealed the details of the program to track terrorist finances, to loud applause from the Copperhead Party, because it was a Republican in the WH.

      • Andrew Allison

        It is you who are not thinking. Disclosing the interception of a plot does not require disclosure of the method, only some evidence.

  • Anthony

    “…come to some kind of public judgment about the limits on government snooping in a digital age…. To stand down from a war footing and build public confidence the President must have excellent intelligence” (public peace and secret war).
    Now, national security programs have been pushed by executive branch, senate, and house after 9/11 (PRISM) and the balance between security and freedom has not acquired priority (security versus civil liberties). Has 9/11 changed our natural state?
    The President’s May 23rd speech may have signaled/revealed what to then has been a twin policy but now public peace and secret war compels political discussion of our ideal American freedoms. The question is can United States fight war on terror and not compromise its creedal virtues (can we engage a 9/10 America with a 9/11 reality) and by implication is President’s public peace and secret war symmetrical/functional?

  • USNK2

    Perhaps we all need a double feature:
    1998 “Enemy of the State” followed by the German film 2006 “The Lives of Others”
    because there is no justification for this invasion of privacy in the land of the free, and home of the brave.
    btw, can we now also assume our cable-channel-flipping is also being monitored?

    • rheddles

      It’s in the air, free to anyone, so I’d assume it is.

      • Grantman

        It’s cable, not broadcast. It ain’t free, and my bill reflects that! 🙂

    • John Morris

      If you have a cable company supplied digital set top box or DVR then the answer is yes. Every channel change is logged. When you playback a recorded program it notes when you did it, whether and where you paused or rewound. Nielson gives ratings for live or viewed within 24 hours, which kinda gives the game away.

      The question is just who has access to your viewing data, the fact of it’s collection is settled.

      I use a MythTV with a cablecard tuner so my cable co only knows when the tuners are in use and what channel is being streamed. They don’t know if the system is recording or viewing live and they don’t know when I play back recordings. But I don’t get access to ‘premium content’ since I don’t want to live in their data silo.

  • jeburke

    I agree with the thrust if WRM’s analysis of Obama’s policies but then there is this;

    “Why then is the NSA tapping every telephone and reading every email in the country?”

    Doubtless, Mead knows that NSA is doing no such thing and is dramatizing how others think about these disclosures, but it’s still irresponsible to feed this wild misperception, as all too many — starting with the Washington Post and Guardian — are doing. We’re at the beginning of another bout of the hysterical, groundless ranting about Bush “shredding the constitution” by “tapping Americans’ telephones.”

    Americans’ telephone or other communications are not be tapped — not without a specific, targeted warrant issued by a court (not incidentally, all wiretap warrants, not just those issued by the FISA court are “secret” since that is thw whole point of police listening to criminals’ conversations). The collection of call register data for national security purposes is neither unconstitutional nor illegal, having been expressly authorized by law and approved decades ago by the Supreme Court. In brief, the Court held that while the content of phone communications is protected from seizure without probable cause, the fact of numbers called is not, basically because there can be no reasonable expectation of privacy since others must know the numbers to connect your call.

    The PRISM program clearly involves collection of foreign intelligence information. For decades, NSA could fairly simply gain access to telephonic communications between foreign targets (eg, it scooped satellite-born calls from the air; in one famous case, it used a Navy submarine to tap and record all calls between the Soviet mainland and Sakhalin Island). After 9/11, it quickly became clear that al Qaeda (and other enemies) were using web platforms to communicate — email, chat rooms, Yahoo groups, internet telephony and later social media. (For example, they would open a Yahoo email account and use it as a dead drop for messages left in the draft box and accessed by someone else with access to the account.) All these communications would exist in cyberspace, pass through ISP infrastructure and be stored wherever Yahoo directed them, regardless of where in the world the AQ guys were located.

    In order to collect legitimate foreign intelligence information — eg, such emails — NSA needed a mechanism to establish the “foreigness” of stuff on the internet and then zero in on the right targets (to thwart espionage or conduct it, as well as combat terrorism). There may be ways to do this without Yahoo and Google’s cooperation, but likely not. In any case, the collection takes place pursuant to law and under the same kind judicial supervision as was the case when NSA was scooping phone calls from the ether. Controls are in place to minimize interaction with anyone located inside the US, not just citizens. To read this comment, NSA will need a specific targeted warrant.

    • wigwag

      Excellent comment!

    • MoReport

      The Obama administration has demon-
      strated its contempt for Law repeatedly.
      Why do you think they will not do worse
      with greater power ?

      • jeburke

        Well, that’s what lefties said ad nauseam about the Bush administration. We have elections, checks and balances, a constitution, laws, courts, etc. I suppose if everyone’s a crook, you can’t run a government, but everyone is not a crook.

        • I seem to remember a certain Senator running against Bush on that platform. And he was elected. And he lied. So guess what: you’re wrong. Everyone IS a crook.

          • jeburke

            Look, this program is, by definition, legal, since it’s set up pursuant to law. The issue of call registers not entailing expectation of privacy sufficient to invoke strict fourth amendment protection has, in fact, been decided by the Supreme Court. This does NOT mean the government can do whatever it wants. It still requires warrants and judicial oversight. As a matter of public policy, some people might not like the fact that this data is being collected, but that’s a matter of judgment and opinion, not timeless principles. So get off your high horse and write your Congressman.

          • “This does NOT mean the government can do whatever it wants.”

            Really? It seems to have a habit of redefining as legal whatever it wants to do (I mean its all “matter of judgment and opinion, not timeless principles”, so why worry about it). Oh, yeah, write my congressman. Good Plan. Wait, I got a better one. Lets elect some guy as president who will campaign on not doing this ever again. Oh, wait, we did. That’s working out real well.

          • jeburke

            In that case, I guess you’ve only got one option left. Move.

          • Actually, my plan is the stay low and wait for the fall. Massive unsustainable bureaucracies coupled with debt so large that the the total displacement tonnage of three Nimitz-class aircraft carriers of gold can’t pay probably wont last much longer. Of course the loss of trust in such a government (apologists aside) does tend to accelerate the journey.

        • John Morris

          Nixon was impeached for attempting what Obama has now been proven to have actually done. And there has been no consequences and there will be no consequences for Obama.

          And our form of government was designed on the assumption that the government was dangerous and not to be trusted more than the minimum required for maintaining the Rule of Law. Distrust of the government is as American as Mom and apple pie. It is the unthinking trust of the State that isn’t American. It is something else.

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s far from clear that, ” To read my email, the FBI or NSA or anyone will need a specific targeted warrant”. The warrants are (routinely) approved to collect metadata, but I doubt that warrants are being obtained in order to look at the content, and even if they are, the fact that “national security” trumps civil rights means, in practice that they would be granted automatically. Allowing “national security” as opposed to specific evidence to justify a warrant is inimical to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..

      • jeburke

        You can think what you want, but they still need a warrant, justified to a court with probable cause, to read your email. NSA can, of course, intercept emails or phone calls of foreign persons outside the US without warrants. That’s spying. To access the content of communications of anyone inside the US, they need a warrant. As a New York Times story today makes clear, the PRISM program does not enable trolling through everyone’s emails. Rather, it creates electronic mechanisms through which the companies can efficiently respond to specific warrants, court-ordered searches with specific targets.

        • Andrew Allison

          The need for a warrant to look at the content is exactly the point I was trying to make. The blanket orders to collect metadata are routinely granted under the “national security” rubric; can we agree that an individual warrant based on probable cause is required to look at the content? The concern is that both the agencies and Congress may be overlooking” this requirement. A credible assurance that such is not the case would put the concern to bed.

  • Alf Sherk

    The IRS revelations contribute to the unease that the public has regarding the integrity of those that possess access to PRISM. Have the NSA capabilities been used to silence or intimidate domestic political opponents. Was PRISM used against David Petraeus for not playing ball on the Benghazi storyline? Was it used to influence SC Justice John Roberts ACA decision?
    There must be a very solid wall between national security and domestic politics. If not both will suffer tremendously.

    • John Morris

      The question isn’t whether the NSA has been politically weaponized like the IRS, EPA, OSHA, ATF, etc. The question is whether the NSA is politically weaponized YET.

      And that is why the government must never have this power beyond brief (months, not years.. and certainly not a decade) exceptions during the most extreme wartime basis. The NSA program represents almost absolute power so it is a certainty that it will corrupt any who wield it. There is no safe hands this power can be entrusted to. George Washington would eventually be corrupted by it. Barack Obama is no George Washington.

  • Lowell Savage

    In the wake of 9/11/01, I thought that the government had a choice. Either crack down on civil liberties at home or go after the bases abroad. Bush chose the latter–for which I am grateful, even after seeing the cost, because I believe the alternative would ultimately be even more costly.

    Obama is choosing the former and WRM’s essay provides one of the best justifications for it. However, I don’t think that either President had or has sufficient trust from the opposite side of the aisle (especially from among the people) to do the former and I doubt that any future President can obtain sufficient trust.

    Bush (“the usurper”–as described by some Democrats) could not have gotten that trust within a year of the 2000 Florida fiasco and Obama can’t get it from the people he derided as “clingers”.

    My personal feeling is that Bush might have been allowed a bit more leeway than he asked for simply because I think that most people, deep in their bones, believed he and his people wanted to go after Al Qaeda first.

    Obama is perceived by his opponents as being more concerned about going after them than going after Al Qaeda, and all the recent scandals have only strengthened that view. From Benghazi, to the IRS, to the AP phone records, to Fast & Furious, the Obama administration has strengthened to impression that it is less concerned about going after Muslim terrorists than going after Americans and their rights. Then you add his and his supporters’ tone-deafness: the “bitter clingers”, the Cambridge police “acting stupidly”, hoping the Boston Bombers were “white”. Do you wonder why people outside the Democrat party wonder if he and his supporters consider them a greater threat than Al Qaeda?

    • richard40

      Good comment, and it is reinforced by the falure to properly follow the boston bombers, partly because of political correctness over muslim profiling. If all those mounds of data wont stop the boston bombers, then what good is it, with the immediate followup being it is very good if you wish to use the gov to intimidate political opponents, as obama has already show he will do in the IRS case.

  • catorenasci

    This administration simply cannot be trusted in anything to do what’s right for the country under the Constitution. The level of surveillance is appalling and unnecessary. And, of course, these enemies of our liberties have politicized everything. Every member of the administration, and probably 3/4 of the civilian federal employees are truly enemies of liberty.

    This is not going to end well.

  • circleglider

    Professor Mead aptly describes the chief security conflict of our day. Yet he is oblivious to the reality that “techniques and weapons that we rightly deny to ordinary police fighting ordinary crimes” must become everyday tools that will regulate everyday behavior of American citizens.

    Once these capabilities have been created, they will be used for domestic law enforcement. Yet the vast catalog of federal crimes will not shrink; the average American already commits three felonies per day. Not only will there be nowhere to hide, anything and everything will be a potential crime.

    The Fourth Amendment used to protect us
    from overzealous law enforcement. Now that it has been judicially eviscerated, we all live under the mercy of prosecutorial discretion. And the IRS has recently proven that bureaucratic discretion can be easily abused.

  • PapayaSF

    Another excellent analysis by Prof. Mead. I am wondering if Obama isn’t caught in yet another trap of his own making, because otherwise the widespread nature of the data collection doesn’t really make sense. Who cares that Sally Smith of Iowa calls her mother every Sunday? The vast majority of electronic communications have nothing to do with terrorism, so why spread the net so wide? Ah, but to focus on (say) the emails of everyone with a Muslim name and people on “Free Palestine” mailing lists would be that terribly evil thing called “profiling,” and according to left-wing ideology nothing good can ever come of it. Besides, narrowing the NSA’s focus might miss a clue somewhere. So, they conclude, better to just snoop on everyone! It’s more “fair” that way.

    Of course, if I were really paranoid, I’d note that the communication records of Republican politicians could be very useful for helping Democrats win elections.

  • vepxistqaosani


    But does it _work_? I know of no
    9/11-class (or even Boston-class) act of terrorism that has been
    thwarted by our intelligence and security establishment. (There have been some thwarted by alert citizens.) And I have the
    strong impression that, had any such success occurred since, say,
    January 2009, it would have been leaked everywhere and immediately. In
    this case, absence of evidence is most assuredly evidence of absence.

    So, if it doesn’t work — and I have just proved it doesn’t — why are we doing it?

  • EscondidoSurfer

    The best analysis of this issue I have read. Clarified what did not make sense. Bravo, Mr. Mead.

  • Wow. Disqus is everywhere.

  • Corlyss

    Personally, I think a coherent policy, of any kind, on any ostensible presidential subject, is too much to expect of this whim-driven, “feel good” administration. They have only real goal: win the House and keep the Senate in 2014. Whatever they have to do to accomplish that, they will do. National Security policy? How does it play in Silicon Valley? International policy? Can it get Markey elected to the Senate? Remember when GHW Bush used to mutter about “the vision thing?” Well, this is the same, piled higher and deeper.

  • richard40

    I feel as if Obama has become a bush clone, but with supervillian like gadgets, and without any ethics or restraint. maybe we dont have a president, but a James Bond type supervillian.

  • teapartydoc

    Mama was right. Fascist is as fascist does.

  • lasveraneras

    The latest IRS and EPA scandals indicate that the administration is actually engaged in a domestic “War On Terror.” Obama has continuously accused conservatives, TEA Partiers and Republicans as being actual enemies of the best interests of the U.S.

    Does anyone, including WRM, seriously believe that this data mining effort from the NSA will not, at some point if not already, focus on obtaining information which will be used to threaten and intimidate regime opponents. I don’t. Obama has amply demonstrated that politics – see the IRS and EPA scandals for illustrations – not national security, comes first.

    Just to put the “terrorist threat” into perspective, here are the statistics related to different likelihoods of suffering death by cause vs “terrorism”:

    You are three times as likely to die falling out of bed.

    You are more than ten times as likely to accidentally drown, and twice as likely to drown in a pool.

    You are twice as likely to suffocate in your own bed and about three times as likely to choke to death on your food.

    You are about as likely to be accidentally electrocuted in your home.

    You are ten times as likely to die in a fire (from either smoke or flames.)

    You are four times as likely to die from a natural disaster (all causes.)

    You are sixty times as likely to die from poisons, medications and similar causes, with more than half of that risk being from narcotics (both legal and illegal.)

    You are more than one hundred times as likely to commit suicide.

    You are 60 times as likely to die due to an assault committed by another person upon you.

    You are 10 times as likely to die due to medical accidents and complications.

    Is it really in our long term interests to sacrifice our Constitutional liberties to protect ourselves from “terrorism,” as defined by the Obama regime. Or do you fear the misuse of this personal information against you since, with 85,000+ pages of Federal Register laws and regulationx you are almost certainly “breaking the law” at least once a day?

    You decide.

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