Standing Athwart History Shouting, 'Okay, Spy on Us Constantly'

The surveillance state is dividing National Review, where some writers don't see that it's incompatible with limited government and the Constitution.
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On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer commented on the FBI's use of surveillance drones in the United States, articulating a coherent position for a conservative: If there's a natural disaster, or a specific, serious crime, like the kidnapping of a child held on a remote property, then using surveillance drones is okay, if there's a court order and a warrant giving permission to deploy the technology. "What I think has to be made clear at the beginning of the entire era of drones, we should never have it up there like a stationary camera in the streets of London," he said, "operating all the time, and having a view all the time of public spaces, or obviously private spaces."

That's a natural conservative position -- constant surveillance of the sort that drone technology enables would be unprecedented, empower the state, and change society in unpredictable ways.

Yet Rich Lowry, National Review's editor, disagreed with Krauthammer. "On the drones, I'm afraid to say that Charles is just a Luddite," he said. "They're an inevitable tool of law enforcement. We have law enforcement that handles all sorts of dangerous things now, including guns, helicopters, and SWAT teams. And it's all about the protocols you establish for using them. But they will be used." 

Notice that the subject here isn't even counterterrorism (which causes so many Americans to irrationally countenance abrogations of civil liberties they'd never otherwise consider). Krauthammer says that we shouldn't have constant state surveillance for law enforcement purposes; and Lowry interjects to say, in effect, of course we should and will!

Lowry's rebuttal is frustrating in every way. For starters, it is non-responsive. Krauthammer suggests that (natural disasters aside) FBI surveillance drones should be used only with a court order and warrant -- and Lowry retorts that he's wrong, because surveillance drones are an inevitable tool, and "it's all about the protocols you establish for using them." What does Lowry think the need to seek a warrant is, if not a "protocol" established to govern the use of surveillance? Krauthammer wants protocols that severely restrict their use -- and Lowry disagrees. 

Not only that, but Lowry disagrees in a way that is flagrantly incompatible with National Review's mission. The magazine "stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it," according to its mission statement. Seeing its editor defend constant, eye-in-the-sky surveillance by the feds is frustrating enough. Interjecting on behalf of drones because the new technology's adoption is supposedly inevitable is incoherent for a man with Lowry's avowed beliefs. What are National Review conservatives for if not speaking against seemingly inevitable changes that are certain to expand the federal government's power and severely shrink the sphere of privacy-from-the-state? You'd almost think, based on Lowry's retort to Krauthammer, that conservatism's task is to act as an apologist for expansions of state power by making them seem like a foregone conclusion.

Little surprise that Lowry has also defended President Obama's spying on American citizens through the NSA. "Invested with responsibility for keeping the country safe and, no doubt, informed of potential threats in hair-raising terms on a daily basis, he jettisoned his innocent civil libertarianism," Lowry wrote in National Review. "In light of what were dire and real threats to our security, he had no choice but to use the surveillance powers of the government to foil them."

National Review has been an interesting read since Edward Snowden's leaks were made public*. Some of its writers, like Charles C.W. Cooke and Mark Steyn, understood immediately that a pervasive surveillance state, especially one built and operated in secret, is corrosive to a constitutional republic and incompatible with limited government. They saw its obvious potential for abuse and the threat it poses to liberty. Alas, another group of writers at National Review -- many of them former federal employees -- insists that we must trust the state when it acts to keep us safe from terrorism. If the libertarian-leaning faction loses to John Yoo again in the battle for the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party keeps going down the road Obama has been paving (as Hillary Clinton certainly would), Americans will get to choose whether they want Democrats or Republicans spying on them in secret with wildly insufficient oversight. 

Is that what William F. Buckley would've wanted? One wonders. He wrote, upon the release of the Church Committee report, that "the FBI and the CIA appear to be as capable as any other bureaucratic agency of Parkinsonian excesses -- at the expense of the presumptive right of American citizens to privacy." Then again, he founded an ideological movement that's always less eager than usual to defend liberty or the Constitution when it requires criticizing people with badges.

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*This is, I should add, to Lowry's credit.

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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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