Why Does Anyone Trust the National-Security State?

A lack of transparency and oversight has led to abuses time and again, in every era. 
More
Reuters

The ongoing debate about the national-security state's conduct drills down, for many participants, to this question: How much do you trust the people in charge? Do you believe they'll reliably uphold the laws and norms of a free society? Or do you think that, permitted enough secrecy, they'll break U.S. laws and violate rights?

For me, it isn't a close call.

The United States needs protection from the people protecting it, always has, and always will. The character of the president isn't the issue. Neither are the individuals running the FBI, CIA, NSA, JSOC, or the Department of Homeland Security. It wouldn't matter if the national-security state was staffed from top to bottom with people I could hand select based on my esteem for their character.

Letting them operate in secret would still be dangerous.

That conclusion isn't something I've derived in the abstract from political philosophy. The best reason to mistrust the national-security state is its track record. Abuses at the FBI, CIA, and NSA go back a long way, as any student of the J. Edgar Hoover era or the Church Committee report can attest in shocking detail. There's no reason to think that generation was more prone to misbehave than ours. But one needn't look to past generations to find good reasons for mistrust.

The War on Terrorism is full of them.

Right now, as the NSA debate proceeds, Americans are asked to believe that threats to national security would never be hyped to empower a faction in government. It is considered an insult to suggest that American elites would think of such a thing. Yet all of us who lived through the run-up to the Iraq War remember that hyped threats can absolutely drive policymaking in Washington, D.C. 

Senator Dianne Feinstein assures us that, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she keeps a close eye on the NSA. This is the same woman who voted in favor of the Iraq War, later claimed that the Bush Administration misled her about weapons of mass destruction, and years later complained that the CIA misled her about torture. Now we're supposed to trust her to spot and call out NSA misbehavior? Her record suggests she lacks the capacity to perform reliably. 

The NSA keeps assuring us through its spokespeople that it engages in only lawful surveillance and would never dream of violating the privacy rights of Americans. Yet it is the same agency that violated the law and privacy rights during the Bush Administration, most famously during the warrantless-wiretap program. Once NSA collaborators from that era were given retroactive immunity for their lawbreaking, even as whistleblowers were persecuted by successive administrations, why would Americans ever again trust the secretive agency to behave?

And how many times has the government made claims about the damage done by the public disclosure of classified information that turn out to be wildly exaggerated? It is only rational to mistrust the claims made about the Snowden leaks.

Many Americans are averse to thinking poorly of the people trying to keep them safe. But one needn't think poorly of national security professionals to want them watched. For one thing, a very small faction of bad apples can do grave damage. 

More importantly, the fact that the national-security state transgresses against the law and ethical norms over and over again—here and abroad—suggests that the bureaucracy itself is what bears constant scrutiny, not whoever is staffing it right now.

Jay Stanley of the ACLU makes this point well, asking, "How can smart, ethical individuals form dumb, amoral government agencies?"

I live in Washington and am friends with many government workers who are excellent, thoughtful human beings. But when you gather many human beings into an institution, that institution tends to take on a life of its own. Most of the individuals who make up the gigantic national security state are reasonably intelligent, and many of them no doubt are exceptionally so. But when you aggregate thousands of intelligent human minds together in a bureaucratic organization, the ironic result is that the collective is sometimes dumber than its individual parts.

By the same token, there is no particular reason to think that bureaucracies attract a disproportionate number of amoral or immoral individuals—they surely form the same bell curve as any other group of humans when it comes to characteristics such as empathy, sensitivity, and conscience. But the collective set of such humans can exhibit a marked quality of amorality, as exhibited for example by the willingness of security bureaucracies to do horrifying things such as continue to detain people at Guantanamo who are known to pose no threat to the United States.

Americans ought to be on constant guard against horrifying behavior from the national-security state, since they've witnessed it time and again. Yet there is still a substantial faction in this country that believes we're better off letting these agencies operate with just the sorts of secrecy and autonomy that enabled past abuses. 

Why?

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

Social Security is the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In