With increasingly credible revelations about illegal surveillance within the United States, the general concern I’ve felt for years about the present administration is becoming progressively more acute. To be fiscally reckless and socially crusading is one thing. To authorize actions that blatantly violate international law (in the case of torture, rendition, and the indefinite detention of noncombatants) as well as domestic law (by disregarding constitutional safeguards and checks on power) an administration shifts from being simply unappealing to actually being criminal. You can’t just throw away the presumption of innocence and probable cause while maintaining the fiction that the foundational rules upon which a lawful society is based are not being discarded.
Perhaps the most worrisome of all the recent developments are the actions and statements being made against the press. I don’t know if there is any truth to the claim that the phones of ABC reporters are being tapped in hopes of identifying confidential sources, but the general argument that wide-ranging governmental activities must be kept secret for the sake of security is terrifying. If history and the examination of the contemporary world reveal anything, it is that protection from government is at least as important as protection from outside threats. As I wrote in the NASCA report (PDF):
Protection of the individual from unreasonable or arbitrary power – in the hands of government and its agents – is a crucial part of the individual security of all citizens in democratic states. While terrorists have shown themselves to be capable of causing enormous harm with modest resources, the very enormity state power means that it can do great harm through errors or by failing to create and maintain proper checks on authority.
Harm to citizens needn’t occur as the result of malice; the combination of intense secrecy and the inevitability of mistakes ensure that such harm will result. Anyone who doubts the capability of the American government and administration to make mistakes need only think of their own explanations for the Hurricane Katrina response, Abu Ghraib, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and all the rest.
Three of the NASCA report’s recommendations speak to the issue of secrecy and accountability specifically:
- Security measures that are put in place should, wherever possible, require public justification and debate.
- The perspective of security as a trade-off should be pro-actively presented to the public through outreach that emphasizes transparency.
- With regards to domestic defence planning, military practice reliant upon secrecy should always be subsidiary to civil and legal oversight.
People both inside and outside the United States would be safer if such guidelines were followed. When even Fox News is opening articles with statements such as the one that follows, something has gone badly wrong.
The government has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter.
A legitimate government cannot operate under a general principle of secrecy. While there are certainly cases where secrecy serves a justifiable purpose – such as concealing the identity of the victim of some forms of crime, or the exact location of certain kinds of military facilities – a democratic government cannot retreat from accountability by its citizens by claiming that oversight creates vulnerability. The lack of oversight creates a much more worrisome vulnerability: worrisome for America, and worrisome for everyone who has faith in the fundamental values of democracy and justice upon which it is ostensibly founded.