If the NSA suppresses political dissent, why are they so bad at it?

English: First page of Constitution of the Uni...

English: First page of Constitution of the United States Česky: První strana originálu Ústavy Spojených států amerických Español: La página primera de la Constitución de los Estados Unidos de América (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across Barry Eisler’s post Motive, Means, and Opportunity: Why NSA Secrecy Should Worry Us All and I thought he would explain why secrecy was bad for a liberal democracy. Although he never discussed this issue, he did make a more important claim that is more interesting. He claimed that liberal democratic governments, like the United States suppress dissent.

When it comes to domestic dissent, the government always has a motive. It’s just human nature to see ourselves as noble and good and our detractors as malignant.  And indeed, the historical evidence for the proposition that governments tend to view dissenters as the enemy is overwhelming: see CointelproProject Minaret; and Project Shamrock for just a few recent historical examples, or the Obama administration’s unprecedented campaign against whistleblowers for something more contemporary.

Here we begin to see a problem. Mr Eisler is talking about intelligence activities and immediately equating them with suppressing of political dissent. In each of these programmes, we find that the surveillance was authorised by the government. That in itself is not surprising. What is still not clear is how the monitoring turned into suppressing the dissent. Mr Eisler, nor does anyone else it would appear, suggests that these “dissenters” were assassinated or kept from expressing their views. Moreover, the various people on the lists only appear to have been linked because they were on the list not because they were dissenter. We do not know why they were on the list. To put it directly, being on a list is not the same as being suppressed for dissenting.

If we leave aside the problem with confusing an intelligence gathering activity with suppressing political dissent or being on a list with being suppressed, we still have a second problem. The second problem is that Mr Eisler confuses dissenters with whistleblowers.  In most cases, the whistleblower does not hate his government or country or even dissent from the government or the country. Instead, the whistleblower is pointing out something illegal. The dissenter, by contrast, is disagreeing with the policy, procedures, or position of the government and perhaps the country. They are publicly dissenting from either the government’s accepted position or the country’s or both. By equating the whistleblower with the dissenter, we have a specific activity; whistle blowing now being equated with a form of political speech.  The two are rarely the same. The concern for political speech, however, leads us to the third and deeper problem with Mr Eisler’s post.

He suggests that the United States Government suppresses dissent. Yet, if that were the case, why would someone like Glenn Greenwald is allowed to publish his books and travel freely within the country? Why would the Intercept be allowed to operate and publish? We need to move beyond such superficial and obvious points to a deeper intellectual problem with Mr Eisler’s thinking. To understand the contradiction in his position, we need to look to the political theorists who developed the idea of a liberal democracy and what it means. There we find the opposite of what he is claiming. Liberal democracies do not suppress dissent. Liberal democracies emerged and thrived because they are predicated on the idea of protecting freedom of thought and freedom of public speech. The most famous and outspoken proponent of this idea was Baruch Spinoza. He wrote the following, which suggests Mr Eisler does not understand liberal democracy or political dissent.

For instance, supposing a man shows that a law is repugnant to sound reason, and should therefore be repealed; if he submits his opinion to the judgment of the authorities (who, alone, have the right  of making and repealing laws), and meanwhile acts in nowise contrary to that law, he has deserved well of the state, and has behaved as a good citizen should; but if he accuses the authorities of injustice, and stirs up the people against them, or if he seditiously strives to abrogate the law without their consent, he is a mere agitator and rebel. (p.140)

The central point, which Mr. Eisler and others seem to forget, is that liberal democracies will not tolerate acts that seek to overthrow or damage the government or harm the public safety. They will tolerate free thought and free speech and even active public dissent Free thought and speech are fine. Public acts to thwart the law or overthrow the government through violence are not acceptable. What remains is the problem that neither Mr Eisler nor Mr Greenwald can solve. How to respond to public speech or private thought that will be turned into a public act that hurts the public and public safety? If Mr. Eisler could tell us that we would have no need for the NSA. However, he would do well to remember that even theocracies have spy agencies.

Neither the NSA nor the United States government is designed or directed to stop political dissent. To believe that or to argue that is to suggest something that has no evidence. We may disagree with such programmes and the government that directs them, but to attribute something to them which is false is to fall prey to what he dislikes: the Fundamental Misattribution Error. Mr. Eisler has attributed to the NSA behaviour he dislikes. Curiously, though in the final part of his post, he moves from dissent (words) to the possibility of threats (actual deeds).

Here we have a strange situation. Mr Eisler does not think public safety, either in terms of physical safety or economic safety is sufficient to justify a national security agency. I would ask, if those two goals, which are the main responsibility of any decent governments is not enough, what is? What goals should a government pursue if it is not trying to keep its citizens safe and help to maintain prosperity?

We arrive at the curious point where Mr. Eisler apparently dislikes the NSA and the government because they keep its citizens safe and help to ensure the countries general welfare. The general welfare, he would recall, is the central task of the government according to the United States Constitution.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [Emphasis added]

I read his post because I thought I would learn about why secrecy was bad for a liberal democracy. Instead, I found that Mr Eisler does not like a constitutional government and certainly not one that defends itself.




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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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