Consequences and NSA spying: a moral algorithm
I’m one of those immoral serfs who think that secret government spying on Americans can be fine. For example, I applaud the FBI use of wiretaps and informers to go after the Aryan Nation and other racist drug gangs. In fact, I think they should be spying on those wackos more. It would be ridiculous to demand that the names of the brave FBI agents who infiltrate those gangs or the specifics of FBI efforts to spy on them be made public. In fact, I realize it would be absurd to have open court proceedings to approve warrants because that information would warn criminals (or alleged criminals). What? You approve too? Welcome fellow approver of secret government espionage against its own citizens - you are just as bad as me. But wait, you want checks and balances?
Me too. I think Congress needs to carefully set rules for those kinds of operations and should stay on top of it and that Judges should have to approve. That’s why when I see a judge approved court order for Verizon meta data and hear from Al Franken that he has been carefully monitoring and these operations are legitimate anti-terrorism operations that do not damage our rights to privacy, I’m inclined to not worry too much.
Here’s a confession though, I find assurances from Al Franken about an operation under President Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice much much more confidence inspiring than I would find similar assurances from Linsdey Graham, George W. Bush and Condaleeza Rice. I think that the good intentions and judgment of the one set of politicians is more reliable than those of the other set. I don’t think all politicians are the same even though I know all of them are far from perfect. Some are bad people who will take a clearly written law forbidding torture and try to redefine torture in a bad faith way. Others won’t. That’s why elections are so important and why the people who keep telling us elections don’t matter and all politicians are the same are peddling a dangerous and often deliberately deceptive message. I don’t think that there are any procedural guarantees that can prevent people like Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Gonzales from wholesale rights violations. People like that don’t care about law or precedent only about power.
The laws and regulations governing covert government spying are far from good. The Patriot Act and FISA court do not have tight enough procedural safeguards or enough transparency. Furthermore, the “intelligence” agencies themselves are too big, too unsupervised, too expensive, too insular, and way way too dependent on outsourcing. Hell,even the director of the NSA is really unhappy about how his agency is so completely dependent on computer/network contractors like Booz-Allen. I’d prefer civil service employees with well defined bureaucratic protections that allow them to report unauthorized or unconstitutional spying to ombudsmen and Congress or the press if that fails (Oh noes, I’m pro-bureaucracy too! ). And I’d like to have more rights to know who has data about me and what’s in it as well as a process for challenging errors in that data. But all that is the domain of practice and tradeoffs. I can’t make sweeping statements about how all government spying is wrong or about how everything should be public. Once you agree to the government spying on the Klan or Imams who preach war on infidels or Baptist Ministers who call for assassination of abortion providers, you lose moral purity and are in the mud with the rest of us excusers of state violence and secrecy. And you have to know that such capabilities will always be subject to abuse.
If men were angels, we’d have no need of government. I think Madison said that.