Thursday, December 22, 2005

When David Brooks Is You

Let's play "You're the columnist." Let's put you in the media bubble and see what kind of columns you write in real-world circumstances.

Because you are a columnist, you are expected to be brief about terrorist threats and other issues in this country. This brevity makes you as psychologically complex as an episode of "24," with descriptions of specific bad guys and their activities.

This has had a cumulative effect on your psychology. While many of your fellow citizens have relaxed as 9/11 has faded into history, you don't have that luxury. Your brevity, and the terrifying false alarms you hint at to the public, keep you in a perpetual state of high readership.

You know that one of the few advantages America has over the terrorists (other than military, economic, intellectual and numerical superiority) is technological superiority. You make it sound sure that the president should use every geek, every computer program and every surveillance technique at your disposal to prevent a future attack. You acknowledge that existing FISA laws enable and regulate intelligence gathering. You deem it a pretty good process. You acknowledge that the system works quickly and even, when you deem it appropriate, retroactively.

But you fail to point out that FISA's shortcomings are inescapable consequences of a governing system predicated on keeping power in check. First, you claim that FISA is predicated on a division between foreign and domestic activity that has been rendered obsolete by today's mobile communications, without mentioning the fact that the division between foreign and domestic activity was predicated on the desire to prevent the executive branch from gaining excessive power to monitor American citizens on American soil. Second, you isolate FISA as involving cumbersome paperwork and bureaucratic foot-dragging, neglecting to point out that the current president's has had four years to reduce or eliminate both not just in the FISA process but in every aspect of defense and homeland security, rather than maintain these problems as scapegoats to justify increases in his power. Finally, you remind people that FISA's premise of case-by-case surveillance does not easily address new information-gathering technologies, which could allow the federal government to access private information about its citizens on an indiscriminate, wholesale basis.

Over time, you've become convinced that these new technologies are run by National Security Agency professionals who are shielded from political influence. You cite the self-serving claim that these new surveillance techniques helped foil an attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, without questioning whether physical structures are the only American features worth defending. The question you assume the president asked himself is, How do you regulate the new procedures to protect liberties?

You claim there are only three options. First, you say the president can ask Congress to rewrite the FISA law to keep pace with the new technologies. This has some drawbacks, you helpfully point out. How exactly do you write a law to cope with this fast-changing information war, you ask, as if the president would know how to write any law to cope with anything, and as if the U.S. Congress were not the most qualified legislative body in history, with a staggering array of resources, to address precisely this task as it has addressed other issues involving national defense and fast-changing information technology. Even, you ask, if the president could set up some sort of procedure - such as an electronic-mailing account, perhaps -- to get warrant requests to a judge, how would that judge be able to tell which of the thousands of possible information nodes is worth looking into, or which belongs to a U.S. citizen? You pause to congratulate yourself on the construction of this quandary, which is rendered unsolveable by the helpful absence of any case-specific details that would have generated and accompanied an actual warrant request. Swamped in the alleged data-fog that you have stipulated, you assert that the courts would just become meaningless rubber-stamps, blatantly exposing your utter lack of irony. Finally, you claim without any possible quantifiable methodology, there is at least a 50.01% chance that some member of Congress would leak details of the program during the legislative process, which you claim without explanation would destroy the program (as if the NSA has given up on warrantless wiretaps now that the cat's out of the bag).

Your second option is to suggest that this executive branch could plausibly consider itself qualified to self-police anything, with or without the Justice Department or the N.S.A.'s inspector general. This option, too, you allow, has drawbacks. First, it's legally dubious, or, as other columnists more committed to brevity might say, illegal. Second, you say, casting unfounded aspersions on the whistleblower, it's quite possible some intelligence "bureaucrat" -- damn those serving-their-country pencil pushers! -- will leak information about the program, especially if he or she is crazy enough to think voters should know which laws the president breaks before they vote. Third, you reiterate your baseless claim that exposure of this program will not only destroy the program, you predict -- and lament -- that executive power might actually be curbed as a result.

Your third option is to suggest what you might call informal Congressional oversight. You could congratulate your readers by pulling them into your fantasy and saying: "Look, given the allegedly fast-moving nature of this conflict -- which has lasted four years despite its allegedly fast-moving nature -- there is no way we can expect politicians to follow rules about what is permissible and impermissible. Instead we can trust them to trust each other with matters of national security and work out disagreements in a responsible manner."

These are your three options, Mr. columnist, and these are essentially the three options David Brooks limited himself when he hacked out his latest column last night. (He chose all three.) But before you decide, let me tell you one more thing:

But before you decide,
These are your three options, Mr. President, and these are essentially the three options George Bush faced a few years ago. (He chose Option 2.) But before you decide, let me tell you one more thing: Options 1 and 2 won't work, and Option 3 is impossible.

Options 1 and 2 won't work because your readers, the American people, know better than to scrap the legislative process that has served us so well for more than 200 years. Option 3 is impossible because your readers, the American people, know that the executive branch and members of Congress keep national-security secrets all the time, and they won't yield to your self-serving pessimism just because you suggest that they'd be sophisticated to do so. We don't have that kind of mistrust in America today.

That leaves you with Option 4: Face the fact that you will not be using your best thinking to address how we ought to use our best technology to monitor the communications of known terrorists. Face the fact that the odds of an attack on America will always be higher than they could be if we were willing to sacrifice all the principles that make us America.


Anonymous said...

Um, does anyone know what the hell this article is about?

Jon said...

David Brooks's recent NYT op-ed piece left me rabid, too. (You could clean it up a tad.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know about that David Brooks, but that James L. Brooks who helped create The Simpsons is really talented.

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