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Should Americans Read Other Americans’ Mail?


During the 1920s, the American government secretly funded the “black chamber” to crack codes used by foreign governments. Upon hearing of the program, President Hoover’s new Secretary of State Henry Stimson famously proclaimed, “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail”–and ended it. Stimson was not the only leader of his era determined to pretend the international arena was the domain of gentlemen: just one year earlier representatives from 62 nations (including the United States) signed the Kellogg-Briand pact, agreeing not use war to settle “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.”

Seventy-five years later, the starry-eyed are still among us, albeit mugged by competing unrealities.

Edward Snowden and his sympathizers want to transcend the modern “Orwellian” nation-state and establish a hyper-individualistic new world order made up of billions of peaceful cosmopolitans. As Snowden put it in his Thoreau-like Christmas message: “Privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.” Christmas itself, of course, belies such a claim to radical autonomy. But leaving that aside, the most oppressive impositions on privacy do not come from government surveillance programs, at least as we’ve experienced them, but from enemies of peace, foreign and domestic–the very enemies such programs are meant to stop.

Snowden’s most vocal critics know this and strenuously defend the NSA’s actions, claiming that no (documented) harm has been done by the American government’s domestic surveillance. While they may be critical of abuses like the recent IRS-Tea Party scandal, they see no evil in metadata gathering or the metadata gatherers. Most of them would agree with Madison’s Federalist 51 observation that “government itself” is “the greatest of all reflections on human nature.”

Why then should we exempt NSA analysts from liability to the same faults and failings that make government necessary for the rest of us? Surely we know enough not to fall for the Hobbesian noble lie that a sovereign bureaucratic class can be educated to protect and serve the people–all the more if it is as little of and by the people as possible.

The president’s panel on NSA reform gives us the worst of both of these worlds. Consisting of three progressive professors and two high level national security careerists, the panel made forty-six recommendations.

The headline-grabber was its proposal to end NSA cell phone metadata collection. However, they recommended that the same data be stored for the same period by the phone companies or (more probably) a new agency–one (short) arm length away. If the data is useful, this makes it less so; if it is dangerous, putting it in different hands makes it no less so.

But, as with most presidential panels, the real point is to get the headline that cuts the administration’s political losses and make the issue go away. Meanwhile, the story at the bottom of page B17 will be continued dysfunction, bureaucratic recycling, and collateral damage to American national security and the American citizenry alike.

One non-careerist, non-progressive, non-invitee to the panel (and former teacher of the authors of this essay), Angelo Codevilla, has summed up this year’s NSA controversy in this way:

Intelligence, by its very nature, is information that you can do something with or about. It is not about reveling in secrets. Trying to learn about secrets apart from plans for action amounts to voyeurism. Worse, intelligence as a giant “fishing expedition” for secrets detracts from focusing on getting information, regardless of source, to accomplish specific objectives. Unfortunately, the very reason why US intelligence in general and NSA’s COMINT in particular gather all they can is that US officials don’t really know what they are doing and foolishly expect intelligence to prompt them.

As Codevilla has argued in more than one book, intelligence gathering is valuable only to the degree that it is administered intelligently. Success usually requires that one has a keen idea of what one is looking for. Failure usually amounts to an inability to see things for what they are. Minus political acuity, men are rarely able to translate sight properly into intelligibility.

Intelligent renderings of intelligence gathering are of greater value than reading 300-page Blue Ribbon Commission for Dummies reports to identify what ails our national security regime.

The first mention of espionage in the Bible occurs when Joseph calls his brothers, who had sold him into slavery, spies.

The first mention of espionage in the Bible occurs when Joseph calls his brothers, who had sold him into slavery, spies. He knew who he was looking at, and what he was looking for; his brothers, who could not imagine Joseph as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, had no clue. The difference mattered.

Intelligence gathering also requires being able to overcome one’s own blind spots. This is well illustrated by the folly of the Persian emperor Xerxes prior to the Battle of Thermopylae, who believed a few thousand free Greeks could never defeat his enormous (and enslaved) army.

As both ancient examples and our contemporary troubles indicate, intelligence gathering, like the use of all instruments of politics, requires that statesmen have the ability to connect means and ends. More than most other political instruments, however, intelligence gathering is conducted along the razor’s edge: an essential element of national security at its best and a grave threat to that same security (as well as liberty) at its worst, whether from incompetence or nefarious competence.

Not surprisingly, then, Americans since the founding era have prudently (and sometimes not) sought to ensure that the nation’s military was a menace to the enemies of American freedom and security rather than themselves. One of the most common and violent objections to the Constitution was that it allowed for a standing army in time of peace. Alexander Hamilton responded to this objection in several essays, most sardonically in Federalist 24.

Contrary to the impression one might gather from the anti-federalist press, the Constitution does not establish, but only allows, a peacetime military–and that under the strict control of a Congress (not the arbitrary control of the executive) empowered “to raise and support Armies” with the stipulation that “no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.”

Since these provisions also conformed to the principles of all but two of the state constitutions and were at least as strict as the parallel passages in the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton’s concludes his reflections with a “sigh for the frailty of human nature” and a wish for a more rational debate.

A rational debate over the role of the NSA should begin the same way: with a clear-eyed, realistic assessment of the most significant threats to our security and a reasonable enumeration of the means necessary and available to address those threats.

Hamilton initiates such a debate by showing why a modest standing army, under the controls enumerated above, was necessary for the security of early Americans, with a British (Canadian) empire to the north and northwest, a Spanish (Floridian and Mexican) empire to the south and southwest and Indian tribes all about, each of which was more likely to be an enemy than a friend. Hamilton, in other words, sought to connect the specific threats to American security in his day with instruments rationally adapted to counter those threats.

A rational debate over the role of the NSA should begin the same way: with a clear-eyed, realistic assessment of the most significant threats to our security and a reasonable enumeration of the means necessary and available to address those threats. The indiscriminate gathering of Big Data is no more such a means than random invasive searches of air travelers. But neither will the indiscriminate transpolitical disavowal of Big Government encourage citizens of one of the world’s best political hopes to demand better of its regime.

Today’s concerns about the NSA, then, should not lead us to “sigh for the frailty of human nature,” so much as to desire for greater transparency, accountability, and congressional oversight for the programs involved. Getting the best from the concerns of both Snowden and his critics means understanding human nature better than each–and requires a different sort of intelligence from an American public that in turn demands the same of its elected leaders.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter orFacebook.