NSA ‘Reform’: The Limits of Legislation

The push for "reforming" the National Security Agency is on, with a number of bills in the congressional hopper, notably a joint effort by Senators Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, Mark Udall, and Richard Blumenthal that sets a legislative marker for the civil libertarian agenda. The Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act would:

  • End the bulk collection of Americans’ phone, email, and other records.
  • Close the "backdoor" searches loophole that allows the government to spy on Americans’ without a warrant.
  • End the secret FISA "court" star chamber and let both sides be heard in a legal proceeding the Founders would recognize as constitutional.
  • Make the NSA and other government snoops answerable for their actions in the federal courts.

This is all well and good, and the Senators are to be commended for their strategic sense in putting maximum demands out there. That sets the tone of the debate. I’m afraid, however, that Sen. Wyden is right when he predicts a faux "reform" effort aimed at conducting business as usual. The idea is to dress up and codify the most egregious violations by tweaking the rules around the edges without any really fundamental change in policy and procedures.

Furthermore, I would add, the success of this phony "reform" effort is virtually assured, since the conditions that led to the NSA’s usurpation of the Constitution have yet to be ameliorated, or even widely understood.

The official response to the revelations of Edward Snowden, as reported by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and others has been, as Greenwald puts it: "THE TERRORISTS!!!" Twelve years have passed since the 9/11 attacks, an entire generation has grown up in the shadow of endless war, and yet waving the bloody shirt is still effective enough to ward off attempts to rein in the Surveillance State. That’s because hanging over even the most convinced civil libertarian in the Senate is the looming question of what happens if another 9/11-type attack occurs, perhaps on an even greater scale. In that event, if the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act passes – an unlikely outcome, see below – won’t its supporters be blamed for purportedly blinding the NSA to the next incoming threat?

That such threats are constantly incoming is undoubtedly true, just as the NSA’s defenders tell us: it doesn’t matter that their eavesdropping hasn’t had much to do with intercepting and preventing them, except perhaps in one or two cases – and even that much is far from clear. That the threat does indeed exist cannot be denied, however, even by the most consistent civil libertarian. Thanks to our foreign policy, there is indeed an inexhaustible supply of those who would do as much damage to us as they can, and are determined to do so. As long as the US government continues to wage war against much of the rest of the world, imposing its will hither and yon without regard for the consequences, the supply of would-be martyrs will be plentiful enough to ensure their eventual success.

This faces US policymakers with two choices: 1) Give up America’s self-appointed role as the world’s policeman, stop the droning, the bombing, the regime-changing campaigns that open us up to retaliation from the victims of those policies, or 2) Accept as our task what Greenwald defines as the goal of the US surveillance state, which is "to make sure that there is no such thing as actual human privacy, not just in the United States but in the world."

Such a goal is surely madness, but even madder is the necessity that underlies it: for if the imposition of a "world order" – or, as the elder Bush once put it, a "new world order" – is American policy, then the abolition of privacy on a world scale is an absolute must. For such a global system will naturally be bitterly opposed by nations and non-state actors of all kinds, not only "the terrorists" but also those old-fashioned countries insistent on the archaic principle of national sovereignty. These "rogue states" and stateless renegades will stop at nothing to weaken the system and strike back at its defenders: thus the need to know what they are planning.

In short: if your goal is world domination then access to all the world’s communications is a prerequisite – we must have access to the whole "haystack," as House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Military Industrial Complex) put it. It’s the only way to ensure the political class enjoys some reasonable degree of safety as their killer drones search out and destroy our perceived enemies, pulverizing wedding parties and children in the process. And when the sons and daughters, the mothers and fathers of the fallen come after us, in wave after wave, who and what will stop them? How can we survive this tsunami of rage?

Writing in 1956, Garet Garrett, the Cassandra of the old "isolationist" Right, foresaw our predicament with preternatural clarity:

"How, now, thou American, frustrated crusader, do you know where you are?

"Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.

"To thine own self a liberator, to the world an alarming portent, do you know where you are going from here?"

Garrett wrote those words in the first years of the cold war era, when a far more credible global menace than a bunch of mujahideen squatting in a cave stalked the earth. Since the fall of that mass-murdering nuclear-armed enemy – which fell victim to self-dissolution, not our 70-year-long anti-communist crusade – Washington has done its best to appropriate the methods and even the language of our old Soviet adversaries.

We not only bug our own citizens’ communications, and take lessons from the former KGB on techniques of torture, we call our invasions "liberations" with the same unselfconscious absurdity of Leonid Brezhnev. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s to prop up the failing government of their Commie proxies, they called it a "liberation" and hailed their progress in educating women, eradicating the drug trade, and uplifting ordinary Afghans into the paradise of modernity. George W. Bush touted the invasion of Iraq in similar terms: Iraq was "liberated," women were "empowered," and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" augured a "global democratic revolution." Today, the US organizes and arms gangs of local fifth columnists to carry out "regime-change" much as the Soviets did in Eastern Europe and throughout the "Third World." One can almost hear the strains of "The Internationale" rising in the background.

The American nomenklatura has a material and psychological interest in their imperial project: our political class has always modeled itself after its British forebears. The postwar era saw the baton of empire passing from the exhausted and penniless Brits to their more vigorous – and certainly far richer – American first cousins. This is why official Washington – with its princelings and power-princesses, partisan sycophants, and their echo chamber, a.k.a. the "mainstream" media – resembles a royal court. The dead giveaway: an official government agency devoted entirely to the affairs of the "First Lady," i.e. the Queen.

Whichever party is in power, the "internationalist" consensus that permeates elite opinion dictates our foreign policy well in advance of Election Day. Employing different marketing techniques and packaging, the leadership of the two state-sanctioned "major" parties are selling the same foreign policy: endless entanglements in the affairs of other nations, which are, properly speaking, none of our business.

In the world of the Washington know-it-alls, however, nothing is none of our business.

Regime change in Libya? Check!

More of the same in Syria? Check!

An attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi? Call out the troops!

The world is Washington’s oyster. No matter now that we’ve exhausted ourselves, and, like Britain, are sinking into penury: our political class lives in a bubble, a gated community of mind that refuses to believe in the limits of American power – or, more precisely, in the limits of their own power.

It’s only natural that a political class corrupted by ambition and unrestrained by a dormant constitutional order would assume its "right" to impose a system of universal surveillance, a veritable Panopticon that spies not only on the American people but on everyone, everywhere, all the time. The sheer hubris of such a possibility is irresistible to our lords and ladies of the Beltway, whose conceit defies all boundaries.

Short of setting up a guillotine and disposing of these unrepentant Bourbons the old-fashioned way, there is no short term solution to the problem of the Surveillance State. Every foreign policy adventure provides another rationale for sifting through Americans’ emails in search of "terrorists." Every incursion into our liberties is justified in the name of "security."

We are told there is no contradiction between security and liberty, but as Garrett reminds us, there is no security at the top of the world. We can have neither liberty nor security as long as we insist on presiding over an empire.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].