Who watches the watchers?

All new threats entail huge uncertainties. Then, as now, there was a pronounced tendency to assume the worst, and for the government to claim enormous discretion in protecting the American public. The Bush administration has consistently argued that it needs to be protected from Congressional oversight and media scrutiny. An example is the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of telephone traffic into and out of the United States. Rather than going to Congress and trying to negotiate changes to the law that regulates such activities, the administration simply grabbed that authority for itself, saying, in effect, ‘Trust us: if you knew what we know about the threat, you’d be perfectly happy to have us do what we’re doing.” In other areas, like the holding of prisoners in Guantánamo and interrogation methods used there and in the Middle East, one can only quote Moynihan on an earlier era: ‘As fears of Communist conspiracies and German subversion mounted, it was the U.S. government’s conduct that approached the illegal.”

Even if we do not at this juncture know the full scope of the threat we face from jihadist terrorism, it is certainly large enough to justify many changes in the way we conduct our lives, both at home and abroad. But the American government does have a track record in dealing with similar problems in the past, one suggesting that all American institutions — Congress, the courts, the news media — need to do their jobs in scrutinizing official behavior, and not take the easy way out of deferring to the executive. Past experience also suggests that the government would do far better to make public what it knows, as well as the limits of that knowledge, if we are to arrive at a balanced view of the challenges we face today.

Francis Fukuyama via NY Times, via Bruce Schneier

We do.

5 thoughts on “Who watches the watchers?”

  1. If .02% will die without a mandatory vaccination program and .01% will die with it, then I am good with the mandatory one. It is also not true that only unvaccinated people will get the disease, some times vaccinations fail, and an unvaccinated person may become a carrier, infecting mass others.

    Actually, I think I am fairly strongly in favor of the individual. I oppose mandatory helmet laws. I am in favor of ending the government monopoly on education.

    Those are things I am opposed to on the merits, because I think they harm individual freedom without giving much, if any, benefit to public security. I expect that I would chose the more libertarian position in 9 out of 10 issues. I’m even for drug legalization.

    However, I don’t view liberty as the only good end. Liberty for me is primarily a means to other good ends, including security. In most cases, I think we are more secure if we have more liberty.

    What I don’t have any patience for is the proposition that liberty must always and at all times trump anything else. I also dislike the notion that everything is a slipperly slope, and if we take one step wrong we are DOOMED to FACISM. That is patently false, and our historical record shows that we can navigate back and forth quite well. One aspect of this belief is the all-or-nothing view of politics that so frequently poisons political discourse and justifies any means to an end.

    I expect that even on security issues you and I would agree almost all the time on the correct course. The difference would be in how we structured our arguements, not what we actually agreed on. I would look at what will be most effective and necessary while you would look at if it harmed liberty or not.

    One reason though that I am in favor of ‘more security’ (or as I prefer to think of it, sufficient security) is that without a secure environment liberty absolutely cannot and will not prosper. I don’t believe in the anarchist utopia, it is not something that will ever happen. Trying to put it in place, will result in totalitarianism like all the other utopian schemes.

  2. <blockquote>I would generally hold that it is a persons right to get, or not get medical treatment. They should have a lot of liberty in that regard. However, vaccines for comunicable diseases, especially highly contagious and life threatening ones can present a security challange, and in some case the Government, ordering mass vaccinations and reducing individual liberty in that regard is the right balance.</blockquote>

    And what about the .01% of people that have toxic reactions to those vaccines? And – if most everyone <strong>is</strong> vaccinated, only the unvaccinated with get the disease, and it was their choice to not get the vaccine..

    Would you support a government ban on Windows, because the lax security impacts internet performance? (you know, botnets, worms, etc..)

    How about a mandated government ban on alcohol consumption and smoking? Each are very bad for your heath – and smoking can effect others, after all.

    I agree that security is a laudable goal, however we need to ascertain who we are securing ageist (ourselves? outsiders?).

    It is a balancing act. However, I think that you and I have different views of where the balance point is… I tend to favor the individual, and I think that you are in favor of more security?

  3. I don’t see a whole lot of people saying, ‘hey, this change might be a bad idea it could set a bad precident or cause some trouble, or perhaps it is not as just as we would like.’ What I mostly see is people saying ‘Bush has ended civil liberties as we know them!’

    (I am not necessarily talking about you here)

    Part of the problem is probably that extreme, excitable voices that are obviously not grounded in reality are drowning out sober discussion on these issus. The exitable loud voices make it really hard to see any real problems that might exist.

    I will say that I am not sure what you mean by the ‘moment’ we start down the path to totalitarianism exactle. I have always held that liberty and security are somewhat of a balancing act and promoting either at the cost of the other is a mistake. As circumstances change, the balance changes as well.

    As an example that is not WOT terror related, I would generally hold that it is a persons right to get, or not get medical treatment. They should have a lot of liberty in that regard. However, vaccines for comunicable diseases, especially highly contagious and life threatening ones can present a security challange, and in some case the Government, ordering mass vaccinations and reducing individual liberty in that regard is the right balance.

    Some would say that this is starting down the path to totalitarianism.

    So I would say that rather than worrying about the ‘moment’ we start down the path, we should pay attention to the area on the path where the no u-turn signs appear. Free Speech and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms are big ones for me in that regard. There might be others we should pay attention to as well.

  4. We have made mistakes in the past – and what I took from this is not that the sky is falling, but rather that we (as the people of this great nation) need to do our part of the job. We need to question, and make sure that the actions of our government meet our individual moral compasses. When those actions do not, we need to bring that out in the light and examine it.

    That is one of the big differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We, at this moment, are free to disagree with, question, and generally oversee our government. The <b>moment</b> that we start down the path of totalitarianism, the people should rise up and demand to change course.

    Some feel that we are started down that path right now. I do not know if I agree with them or not, but there have been some troubling changes to the laws , as well as some power grabs that I don’t think that I agree with. It bears much reflection and discussion…

  5. I will certainly agree that Congress has been quite lax in the whole thing, doing too little, too late. And I will agree that the Bush administration has relied on that, and even perhaps encouraged it.

    It particular, I think that the detainee laws, which were recently passed should have been done in 2002, not 2006.

    That is one reason I don’t worry so much about a democratic takeover of Congress. Divided government is its own check on this sort of thing.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the characterization that the American Government has a poor track record in dealing with this, or at least that it has a poor track record in comparison with anything other than a platonic ideal of perfection. While certainly nothing has been perfect, and certainly people suffered who didn’t deserve to, on the whole our institutions have done quite well, avoiding excesses that other nations haven’t and recovering quite quickly from mistakes.

    I am absolutely sure that we have, and will, make a variety of mistakes in the war on terror. Things will be handled poorly. An assumption though that our government will go totally off the rails at the slightest provocation isn’t really warrented however, and I think it just as likely that worse things will happen if we are too skeptical and fight too hard against needed changes than if we are too complacent and trust too much.

    Balance is key, and part of that balance is understanding that every change doesn’t mean the sky is falling.

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