The Washington Post editorial page under Fred Hiatt has long been a neoconservative bastion rivaling the Wall Street Journal, supporting every war to come down the pike while justifying every intrusion on personal rights as long as it might plausibly be justified on grounds of national security. On July 23rd, the paper’s op-ed page delivered an in-your-face bravura performance with a brace of pieces that supported National Security Agency (NSA) snooping and also advanced the case for United States direct involvement to topple the Syrian government. The reader was asked to prepare for a new war, though this time a "good one," and relinquish privacy rights because doing so makes you safer. If it sounds like a couple of songs we have all heard before, it should be because it was.
The first piece, by Steven G. Bradbury, was headed "NSA phone collection efforts shouldn’t be constrained." Bradbury headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2005 until 2009, meaning that he served under both Bush and Obama. Per the Post, "In 2006, he led the department’s legal effort to obtain initial approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court for the telephone metadata order." That effort, initiated under George W. Bush, was, of course, successful and provided a legal fig leaf for activity that had long been going on anyway under the auspices of the Patriot Act. So one might say that Bradbury is essentially defending a bit of legal malfeasance that he was responsible for in a bid to avoid any kind of accountability for a bad bit of policy that has diminished the rights of every American.
But to be fair to Bradbury, let us consider not who he is but what he has written. He wrote that the debate over NSA "collection of telephone metadata is taking a dangerous turn" possibly leading to "ill-considered constraints on the NSA that would compromise our ability to protect the United States against the next 9/11." He claims that metadata does not reveal content of phone calls and 14 federal judges on the FISA court have approved the process, which does not permit trolling. He cites NSA Director General Keith Alexander who has said that the program "has helped prevent dozens of attacks on the United States."
Bradbury then explains that you have to collect vast quantities of information, i.e. "the entire data base…to track terrorists’ calling patterns effectively." If the NSA can no longer collect such information "Americans will be distinctly less safe…protecting the United States from foreign attack is the core mission of the federal government, and a catastrophic failure in that mission could threaten the liberties we all cherish." He explains – and as I read him there is a tear in my eye and I think I can hear God Bless America being sung softly in the background while a huge American flag is flapping in the breeze over amber waves of grain – "…there is no more self-restrained, professional and patriotic group of federal officers than those staffing the NSA today. We should be proud of the job this agency is doing…"
Sure, it must be true unless you are paying attention to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake. Bradbury’s argument that a secret court set up to prevent unnecessary violations of the constitution in "foreign intelligence" cases is hardly convincing as the court never requires details of what is being done and never turns anything down. In this case it has authorized a huge blanket operation that sucks in everyone’s telephone usage information, which many might consider a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of searches without a warrant based on probable cause. And the program is by its very nature "trolling" or "mining" as it uses linkages to add more phones to its "to do" list, eventually monitoring billions of calls daily. Should any American either desire or expect the NSA to have a detailed record of what numbers he or she is calling? The answer would probably be no, but one has to wonder why Bradbury thinks the answer should be yes.
And then there is the safety argument, which Bradbury repeats twice. Keith Alexander said "has helped prevent" not "did prevent." That means that the NSA program may have provided corroborating information after the fact but it did not actually stop any terrorist action in spite of its enormous cost and its damage to the constitution. And Bradbury’s fear that a terrorist act will cause us to lose our liberties is sheer balderdash. Terrorists are not threatening to take over the United States so even another 9/11 in and of itself cannot make America a police state. The only thing that will do that is people like Bradbury and the other earnest administration lawyers like John Yoo and Jay Bybee that have overpopulated the Bush and Obama administrations. As for the integrity of NSA employees, I will take Bradbury’s word on that, but I would prefer that they not be tapping my phone to prove their loyalty to whichever clown is occupying the White House at any given moment.
The second op-ed is by the normally sane Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman, in a piece called "Syria’s ripple effect," intones that "…Syria continues to spiral out of control, affecting the security of Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Iraq and giving Iran new opportunities." Not surprisingly he comes to the conclusion that there are "clear humanitarian and selfish reasons for the United States to intervene." The humanitarian argument is easy to make as many Syrians have died and been displaced, but one fails to detect in Cordesman’s argument an appreciation that this is a crisis largely caused by outside interference, which suggests that more foreign help, since it cannot be channeled into purely humanitarian channels, amounts to more intervention in a volatile situation which might well inflict still more punishment on the Syrian people.
The selfish reason cited by Cordesman appears to consist of the danger of destabilizing the entire region, which perhaps should have been predictable when Washington began messing around by invading Iraq in 2003. He posits that if Assad wins "Iran will have a massive new degree of influence over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in a polarized Middle East divided between Sunni and Shiite." So Cordesman advocates arming the rebels to give them a decisive advantage and also considers a U.S. created "no fly zone" coupled with a possible veiled threat to actually attack the Syrian air bases. Cordesman concludes that the decisive U.S. role would demonstrate that "there is an alternative to extremism and the Sunni-Shiite conflict."
Cordesman is somewhat selective with both his analysis and his "facts." Syria and its neighbors were stable before some bright spark in Washington decided that regime change was needed. Now those same geniuses think that finishing the job will bring about an actual solution. More likely the removal of a central government will increase instability as we have seen in places like Libya and, increasingly, in Iraq. And Cordesman doesn’t make clear any actual vital interest that would impel the U.S. to get involved in what he concedes to be a civil war. If Assad stays or goes, U.S. influence will still be nil, just as it is throughout much of the region for a number of reasons, including Washington’s tone deaf sponsorship of Israel which has most recently resulted in the appointment of Israel Lobbyist Martin Indyk as chief U.S. negotiator for the latest sham Middle East peace conference.
Iran’s "massive influence" is likewise a joke as an economically struggling Iran would at best be saddled with a couple of expensive client states that would be more a problem than an opportunity, similar to the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact allies in the waning days of communism. And as for a "no-fly zone," Cordesman should perhaps talk to the Pentagon, which has explained just how difficult, dangerous and expensive that would be. Finally, stopping extremism is indeed hard, so hard that there is no clear relationship between U.S. intervention and some kind of magical transformation into a Middle Eastern version of Sweden. Quite the contrary as one might plausibly argued that Washington’s inept policies introduced the radicals to the region in the first place. Iraq was terrorist free prior to 2003. So was Syria. So was Yemen and so was Libya. U.S. intervention has never resulted in an "alternative to extremism" or solved anything anywhere, has it?
So if you want your neocon news straight from the source, the Washington Post is the way to go. It will explain to you why we should be prepared to intervene militarily worldwide and why some bureaucrat reading your mail or reviewing your phone calls is not a bad thing as all that stuff will make you a lot safer. And you can read it online for free to get the same spin as the Wall Street Journal which actually charges you to read its disinformation.