Obama says that the NSA isn’t listening to your calls:
But Conor worries that our system of checks and balances is useless in the era of deep state:
Congress cannot act as a check on the executive branch in the way the Framers intended when hugely consequential policies it is overseeing are treated as state secrets. The Senate, intended as a deliberative body, cannot deliberate when only the folks on the right committees are fully briefed, and the Ron Wyden types among them think what’s happening is horribly wrong, but can’t tell anyone why because it’s illegal just to air the basic facts. Our senators have literally been reduced to giving dark hints.
Walt believes this situation “gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats”:
When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: “Ah, but if you knew what I know, you’d agree with me.”
And so the circle continues: An exaggerated sense of threat leads to energetic efforts to shape events abroad, even in places of little strategic value. These efforts inevitably provoke backlashes of various kinds, some of which (e.g., 9/11) do genuinely harm Americans. Because it is deemed unpatriotic or worse to even ask what might have led others to want to attack us, officials merely declare that they “hate our freedoms” and launch new efforts to root out enemies. The result is more surveillance, more secrecy, and even more global intervention (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, drone wars, etc.) in an endless attempt to root out all sources of “evil.”
Reihan is conflicted about the expanding powers of the NSA:
I have two clashing instincts: a skepticism of concentrated power (milder than most of my libertarian friends, but still there) and a post-9/11 sense that small networks of hyperempowered individuals can pose a real threat, and that it is appropriate to use technological tools to mitigate such threats. The problem with the latter view, which has definitely been going out of style in the public if not in the national security bureaucracy, is that when the bad guys realize that mobile phones are not the best way to go (as the more formidable of them have long since realized), they will turn to some other, harder-to-detect means of communication. It is inevitable that the NSA will want as much information as it can possibly get, and I’m glad that they’re getting some pushback.
That’s roughly where I fall out too. And Mike Konczal imagines a better surveillance state:
What would a democratic surveillance state look like? Balkin argues that these states would be “information gourmets and information philanthropists.” A democratic surveillance state would limit the data it collects to the bare minimum. Meanwhile, maximum transparency and accountability across branches would be emphasized. Congress and the public would need to be far more involved.
A democratic surveillance state would also place an emphasis on destroying the data that the government collects. Amnesia used to be the first line of defense against surveillance. People just forgot things with time, giving citizens a line of defense against intrusion. In the age of digital technology, however, amnesia no longer exists, so it needs to be mandated by law.
A democratic surveillance state would also require public accountability for the proper conduct of private companies that deal and sell in private information. It’s easy for people to be cynical about not being able to control their privacy when it comes to the government when they also feel powerless against private agents as well.