AMERICA NEEDS TO ASK ITSELF: At What Point Does The Extraordinary Measures Taken To Protect A Free Country Render It No Longer Free?


THE ATLANTIC: consider these ways in which our current “national-security complex” is more dangerous to democratic survival, and more difficult for President Obama to roll back, than in times past:

1. The national-security complex was charged after 9-11 with this credo: “Never Again.” This is a mission so absolute that it permits no cost-benefit analysis of any kind.

2. Throughout the Cold War we understood that the enemy was roughly as afraid of being wiped out by nuclear weapons as we were—hence the “mutually assured destruction” doctrine … Deterrence does not work well against terrorists.

3. The War on Terror can have no logical ending because there can be no Gorbachev who can credibly surrender. We can never be sure that any leader speaks for all terrorists. And it only takes one determined terrorist to do immense damage.

4. The surveillance-state apparatus—which as you point out is the greater danger to democratic survival than the direct casualties from any act of terrorist violence—creates a chilling effect on the very sort of democratic activity that is prerequisite to its dismantling.

Someone who writes an email similar to mine to you, for example, would not need to be diagnosably paranoid to give at least passing consideration to questions like these: “Do I want the NSA to put an asterisk beside my name?” “What repercussions might that have for my life?”

And Obama’s Justice Department has used the anti-espionage statutes to treat investigative journalism in the national-security field as akin to treason. The things the Founders put in place to allow us to self-correct are caught up in the trap.

5. President Obama—even assuming he were personally inclined to lead the charge to rein in the overreach of our national-security apparatus—is uniquely disadvantaged in doing so. He has been called a “liar” by a GOP Congressman on national television. I actually know Republicans who believe he is, if not an actual comforter of terrorists, at least a Muslim.

While the President must surely realize that History will judge him more harshly rather than less for letting concerns of this sort color his supervision of the national-security apparatus, from a human standpoint, it’s easy to understand why he might feel that he “is not the right president” to take this on. Can you imagine what Lindsay Graham would say if the President took the position that the “Never Again’ mission should be ratcheted down a notch?

I will close with one final note on the strange politics of this. I am a liberal Democrat who has supported this President in two elections. The only issue on the horizon that might cause me to vote Republican in 2016—the only conceivable one—is the need to rein in the national surveillance apparatus. What it would take for me to take such a previously inconceivable vote would be for a credible libertarian—a Rand Paul for example—to convince me that putting the NSA back in its box is his priority one. While I would grieve for the damage to Medicare and Social Security that this would surely entail, it’s more important to me that we remain free, that it remain easier for citizens to keep watch over those who work for us in government than it is for the government to keep watch over us. MORE