Noted for June 14, 2013
Liveblogging World War II: June 14, 1943

Do Tom Friedman and David Brooks All by Themselves Make the New York Times Op-Ed Page a Value-Subtracting Proposition--One That We Would Be Better Off Without?

Dan Drezner makes the case with respect to Tom Friedman:

Man, the State and trust: Thomas Friedman captures the sentiments of a lot of the foreign policy community with today's column.  This passage in particular pretty much sums it up: 

Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11…. If there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.”… That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime….

Friedman's… at least he's straightforward…. That said, here's what I worry about:

  1. Friedman allows that these surveillance programs are vulnerable to abuse but says that, "so far, [it] does not appear to have happened."… The last time I trusted intelligence bureaucracies and political leaders that the system was working was the run-up to the Iraq war.  Never again. 

  2. The traditional ways to constrain government bureaucracies in a democracy -- transparency, legislative oversight and political control -- are weakened when we move to national security questions. The traditional way to compensate for this is to develop a strong organizational culture and powerful professional norms…. Fort Meade… is an organizational culture where the boss feels it within his prerogative to flat-out lie to Congress.  So no, I really don't trust the NSA's organizational culture. 

  3. Based on what happened in the wake of the Boston bombings, I'd wager that Friedman's logic about public attitudes doesn't necessarily hold up….

I don't think I'm naïve about the threats against the United States… [but] a major personal legacy of 21st century American foreign policy f@$k-ups is that I can't give these agencies or their political masters the benefit of the doubt…. As Ron Fournier put it (link via Matt K. Lewis): 

The response is predictable: Don't be naive! Discussing secret national security programs will tip off the terrorists and make the United States vulnerable! I don't buy it…. It's possible to start an open and honest conversation about drone warfare, domestic surveillance, and big data in general terms that don't expose cherished "sources and methods."… It's done all the time… when transparency suits a White House's political agenda…. Virtually every unauthorized leak, including the most recent ones about the prying eyes and ears at the National Security Agency, is followed by the release of classified information (an authorized leak) that supports the administration's case against leaks…. These institutions keep failing Americans. Why should we trust them? 

I reluctantly agree.  And if this gets me kicked out of the Respectable Foreign Policy Pundit Club, so be it.

And Scott Lemieux on BoBo:

The Authoritarian BoBo: Amy Davidson’s comprehensive demolition of Brooks’s strange assertions about American society and constitutionalism. I especially liked this part:

That comes across in another item on [BoBo's] list of Snowden’s offenses: “He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.” Or maybe they will realize that they can’t lie with impunity; maybe the next time James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, is asked a direct question in a Senate hearing, he will wonder, before offering a blatant falsehood in response, if he might get caught….

The failure of the Senate hearings, despite Wyden’s best efforts, brings us back to the issue of what, exactly, Snowden was supposed to do. Brooks says he “self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability,” and wonders if what he knew was really “so grave” as to be worth contributing to “the corrosive spread of cynicism.” Snowden, he said, “is making everything worse.” His choices only make sense, according to Brooks, “if you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society.”

Brooks’s argument that Snowden should have continued to trust checks and balances that were transparently failing to work reminds me of one of the most specious arguments in the United States Reports: Felix Frankfurter’s argument that the only appropriate remedy for citizens disenfranchised by malapportionment is for the disenfranchised to seek redress from the legislatures in which they aren’t represented (Brooks must regret not having been around to attack the rootless cosmopolitanism of Baker v. Carr.)… Secrets are sacrosanct in Washington until officials find political expediency in either declassifying them or leaking them selectively. It doesn’t really matter which modern presidential administration you decide to scrutinize for this behavior, as all of them are guilty.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

But consensus is that Friedman makes the case against himself more effectively than anybody else with his description of his June 20 Thomas L. Friedman's The Next New World Conference. Few people will (a) say that they have been writing about the wrong things for decades, and then (b) attempt to run a conference on those very things about which he knows little. And the phrase "an electronic, digital, mobile plumbing system that is the real lasting story of the moment" is marvelous:

When scholars write the history of our moment 20 years from now, what will they say was the most crucial development? Will it be the housing bust and the collapse of the banking industry? The stalemate over budget cuts in Washington? The continued effort of Islamic terrorists to plot attacks from remote parts of Pakistan and Yemen?

Thomas L. Friedman argues that while we were focused on post-9/11 and the subprime crisis/recession, something very big happened: we have built a whole new infrastructure for the world — an electronic, digital, mobile plumbing system that is the real lasting story of the moment.

In this one-day conference, Mr. Friedman and his speakers and panelists will spend the morning session describing and analyzing “What World Are You Living In?” In the afternoon session, Mr. Friedman and David Carr will interview a number of leading tech C.E.O.s who are doing business in this new world.

Throughout the day, the 400 invited guests — themselves drawn from the C-suite, from banking and Venture Capitalists, from government and think tanks — will come to understand the particular dynamics (social, technological, political, psychological) of a world that we are all being forced to respond to but which few of us fully grasp.