I have not written about the New York Times story on the NSA published last Friday until now – in part because it falls somewhat outside my area of expertise, and in part because I don’ t think we’ve heard the full story yet. I’ve been reading commentary around the web on both sides of the issue since the story broke, trying to figure out what I think.
On one hand, I yield to no one in taking seriously the existential threat that America faces from radical and messianic terrorism today. I don’t shrink from the statement that we are “at war” with the terrorists, and I know that they obey no boundaries or rules in their behavior and intentions, a fact that requires the United States to respond in a manner that is often unlike previous wars and conflicts.
But I also believe that we can win this war – we have to win this war – without debasing core American values and liberties, and without having to throw out the Constitutional checks and balances in our system.
Not because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Because it’s the better strategy.
Perhaps we benefit in a short-term and tactical sense from activities that are inconsistent with American values. But tactical “short-cuts” are not sustainable in a democratic society. It’s an illusion to think that things like unsupervised wiretaps and extraordinary renditions to countries that are known torturers can ever be kept secret as tools in a globalized and decentralized war, in the same way that nuclear launch codes and maps of Soviet bases were kept secret during the Cold War.
The result of these short-cuts: long-run strategic setbacks that have undermined the war on terror, including the alienation of would-be allies, the radicalization of the broader Islamic populace, and (now potentially) an overboard domestic reaction against legally-vetted security measures.
The tactical short-cut of circumventing FISA might very well have had short-term security benefits. I’ll give the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt. But the long-run effect of this “short-cut” could very well be less leeway for this administration and future administrations to prosecute the war on terror. If a post-9/11 “Church Commission” responds to prosecutorial excesses in the war on terror with overzealous constraints, and throws the baby out with the bathwater, then the nation will be facing new and unnecessary risks.
Finally, the “blame the messenger” strategy in response to the story is very disheartening. The New York Times is not aiding and abetting our enemies. It is doing its job. One of the key lessons I learned from the Cold War is that an open society is inherently stronger for its openness. That is still true today.