Contra George Mitchell, NSA Surveillance Is Not a Minor Issue

The former Senate majority leader suggested that controversies over surveillance, the IRS and Benghazi are distractions.
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In an item yesterday, I praised the considerable accomplishments and reflectiveness of statesman George Mitchell. I also noted that I often disagree with his politics without giving an example. A statement of his that touched on the NSA controversy captures the differences in our perspectives.

Mitchell spoke for a lot of people in this exchange:

Moderator: George, as someone who has weathered many a government crisis ... are things like the IRS controversy, the NSA operation where they're monitoring ... connections that people are making with others, things like Benghazi, do you think that when the press spends a lot of time on these things, are they distractions, or are they things that really continue to undermine the public trust?

George Mitchell: They will undermine the public trust, of course, but in fact, they're minor, secondary issues that have been given dramatic attention by both an anxious opposition and, no criticism, a media which regards much of its task as creating controversy where it doesn't exist and exacerbating it where it does.

I know he spoke for a lot of people because immediately after he spoke those words the audience erupted in applause. But I think his characterization of the NSA controversy is exactly wrong.

The surveillance state is not a minor, secondary issue: the NSA's ability to spy on American citizens cuts right to the heart of the relationship between the government and its citizens; their doing so in secret, while occasionally lying to Congress in its capacity as an oversight body, and misleading the public generally, cuts to the heart of whether our national security policy will be made in a fashion befitting a democratic republic, or by an executive branch that last seized this much autonomy and power in the era when the abuses uncovered by the Church Committee were perpetrated (though many of them wouldn't be discovered until many years later).

Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of the surveillance state, and a robust public debate about how much privacy Americans ought to have, as a matter of Constitutional law, prudent policy, and morality, could scarcely be more important. It is a major issue of the first order, and a moment's historical reflection is enough to conjure up the numerous instances in which giving surveillance authorities too much power with too little oversight led to horrific abuses. Insofar as Mitchell's assessment of the NSA controversy is rooted in trust of the establishment, it is misplaced, a lesson that Americans ought to have learned a half dozen abuses ago.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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