Friday, June 07, 2013

Why would the president say no?

In a ritual that's got to be 50 years old by now, journalists bemoan and ridicule poorly targeted pitches sent by PR people. You're a Bloomberg "healthcare" reporter covering, say, large hospital chains.  You get press releases urging you to inform your readers about a promising new skin cream. What cretin would send you such drek?

Good PR people do constantly hone, refine and update their media contact lists. But they winnow down only to a point.  Those lists are initially generated by media database screening software: you punch in, say, print publications with circulations over 200,000 and reporters covering "healthcare" and get a list of, say, 700 names. You might shrink that list to half its size, but probably not to a point of perfection, because a) the "negative" work of shrinking a list is time-consuming, and b) the cost (to your potential work result) of leaving out someone who might respond is higher than the cost of leaving in people who won't.  The costs to credibility of sending poorly targeted email are incremental and cumulative (unless you're featured in James Fallows "The Glamorous Life of a Journalist" series); the cost of striking someone off of a list who might have responded to your pitch is potentially high.

The risk of failing to contact a reporter who might have picked up your story is of course trivial in the grand scheme of things. Not so the risk of failing to pick up a cluster of phone calls that might have been obtained  from people plotting a terrorist attack. We can talk about how much risk of leaving such plotting undetected we're willing to tolerate in the interests of restraining government's access to data that might be abused.  But as long as we collectively remain on a hair trigger, ready to blame our elected officials and security services every time an attack succeeds, we have to consider their incentives, and recognize that those charged with "keeping us safe" will never willingly relinquish any tool that might conceivably help them meet that responsibility.

In general, no president is disposed to limit powers that have accrued to the office, because every president is frustrated by the lack of power attached to the office -- the degree to which Congress, the courts, and the bureaucracy, not to say the world at large, can thwart a president's chosen course of action.  More certainly, no president is going to relinquish any accrued power that may help him or her avert any blow to the security or domestic tranquility of the United States. Only Congress or the courts can do that. And Congress generally won't, because if they do, the blame for any resulting or conceivably resulting breach will be laid on their heads.

Of course, in living memory Congress did rein in the power of the presidency and the national security apparatus. That was only because the threat to liberty and rule of law made real by Nixon's abuse of power loomed larger for a season than then-current threats to national security.

This is not to say that we are right, collectively, to empower the executive branch and security/intelligence services to vacuum up all-but-unlimited torrents of metadata.  But we did allow it (and "we" includes Senator Obama, who was better positioned politically if not operationally to help put a check on that power than President Obama). And short of overwhelming evidence that collecting that metadata is pointless, we really can't expect Obama or the heads of our intelligence services to abjure it.

Update: David Simon, creator of The Wire and onetime Baltimore police reporter, asserts our collective responsibility for the current state of surveillance more aggressively:
But those planes really did hit those buildings.  And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon.  And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy.  And for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks.  After all, we as a people, through our elected representatives, drafted and passed FISA and the Patriot Act and what has been done here, with Verizon and assuredly with other carriers, is possible under that legislation.  Indeed, one Republican author of the law, who was quoted as saying he didn’t think the Patriot Act would be so used, has, in this frantic little moment of national overstatement, revealed himself to be either a political coward or an incompetent legislator.  He asked for this.  We asked for this.  We did so because we measured the reach and possible overreach of law enforcement against the risks of terrorism and made a conscious choice.

Frankly, I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their shit together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication.  For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse.  We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing.  Of course we do.
For Simon, the time for alarm is when the government abuses personal data, not when it collects comprehensive meta-data. I do think that to some extent he glosses over (though acknowledging) the question of to what extent collecting what's been collecting enables, or even makes eventually inevitable, abuse of it. I, for one, would not presume to judge how effective the metadata gobble-up is in preventing terrorist attacks. When I read intelligence officials' assertions that it's essential, I flash to similar assertions -- which to my mind had no credibility because no specific example cited held up to scrutiny  -- that torture was essential.

Simon has been quite eloquent about, and has deep knowledge of, the injustices and depravities in our criminal justice system. So his defense of the metadata haul has a certain Nixon-to-China credibility.

Update 2: I think Kevin Drum's point here is congruent to mine:
Basically, Obama's record on national security and civil liberties issues has been crystal clear for a long time: He falls squarely into the mainstream of the elite, bipartisan, Beltway consensus on this stuff. He always has, just like every president before him. This isn't the fourth term of the George Bush presidency, as so many people like to put it, but more like the 16th term of the Eisenhower presidency.
One caveat: it's not just DC-think that drives presidents together on national security. It's the responsibilities of the office. And come to think of it, a second caveat: there has indeed been something of a foreign policy consensus among presidents since Truman, with one exception: George W. Bush. Other presidents may have opened the metadata floodgates. Most would not have instituted a torture regime, or invaded Iraq in
response to 9/11. 

And of course, part of the "consensus" is this: it's very hard for one to roll back the excesses of a predecessor.  And it's rare for Congress to do it.

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