A Response to Tom Friedman on Spying

For some reason, each day when I sit down at my computer, there is something new — and seemingly increasingly stupid — written about Edward Snowdon, the NSA scandal, and civil liberties. And, as such, I’m compelled to at least say something about it.

Additionally, it’s worth — as a Canadian — being concerned about this, because for the purposes of NSA spying, we probably count as foreigners. When that information is shared with other intelligence services — certainly in the U.K., as for CSIS here in Canada, I’m not certain — this poses grave threats to our own freedoms.

The latest defence of spying comes from the vastly overpraised New York Times columnist Tom L. Friedman.

In his latest, entitled “Blowing a Whistle,” Friedman frets in a roundabout fashion: if the NSA did not mine data, then there would be another terrorist attack, and then Congress would crush our civil liberties as we know them.

In his own words:

I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.

Undoubtedly, if there was another 9/11, there would be a further rollback on American civil liberties. However, does that justify a preemptive invasion of those very liberties?

I don’t think so.

Without reverting to the old quotes from the Founding Fathers about the tradeoff between liberty and security, it seems obvious to me that this sort of justification is a sorry one, and unbecoming to someone as accomplished as Friedman. If there is to be a national debate in the United States on the limits of privacy, it doesn’t really do that much good to hypothesize about future infringements on liberties.

Here, now, on June 12, 2013, there is a clear infringement on civil liberties.

We know that this information has been used in many of the President’s briefings.

What we don’t know is exactly what this information — gathered by mining metadata and monitoring phone conversations — has actually prevented. Were there imminent attacks thwarted? Terrorists scooped up? Terrorist organizations dismantled? Nuclear weapons intercepted?

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of foreign affairs knows that al-Qaeda is on the run institutionally. It is fractured in many parts of the world, and without clear leadership. Affiliates in Somalia, for example, are also on the verge of elimination.

There has been no evidence that these programs have done anything to increase the security of the United States.

There is no way of knowing if the NSA program has prevented attacks — though, in defending it, you’d think the White House could march out at least one example, if it has been even remotely useful.

I haven’t heard of one, and frankly, even if one does exist, is there any reason to think that slightly more old-fashioned methods wouldn’t have yielded the same result?

Each time there is a thwarted attempt, this is used as a justification for further invasions of privacy, more stringent screening and surrender of liberty. That’s a convenient argument, but here, the logical fallacy in Friedman’s argument is that this program is worth preserving, because it will prevent more terrorist attacks, when there is no indication the program has done anything. 

It is, in my view, better to shore up the bulwark of liberty today, and fight for the rollback of a potentially illegal and certainly unethical program.

Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of 9/11. Pardon me if I blow that whistle.

Absolutely … but does granting a free pass to such an invasive system of spying today guarantee Americans’ safety (and, incidentally, Canadians’ as well)? And, if another attack were to happen, acquiescence in a time of relative security (ie. now) does little to offset any further attempts to curtail freedoms.

Best to fight against infringements, both now, and later, unless the government can damn well prove it’s actually doing anything useful.

At the moment, I can’t see any evidence of this.


One thought on “A Response to Tom Friedman on Spying

  1. Yes, Tyler, you are certainly right that there is no ‘evidence’ of imminent threats to the US (and neither will we see such evidence) as a consequence of Snowdon’s courage to expose himself to the powers that be in order to thwart Obama’s programme of spying on the American public. This is because an imminent or future threat does not exist! Except in the realms of propaganda.

    And Snowdon is now suffering the inevitable onslaught one should expect from Washington for having the temerity to challenge corrupt practices which abuse constitutional rights. Sadly, this young man is subject to another political power play by the American government.

    However, he should be commended for his bravery. As for these alleged intellectuals like Geoffrey Stone, they should be ashamed of themselves—not Snowdon— for even engaging with such a question against him: “Hero or Criminal?

    This kind of question—the rhetoric of the beguiled and delusional—simply plays into the hands of the Conservative press and and it’s political masters in Washington. All very worrying and indicative of Washington’s determination to exert complete control over its citizens—ie. the modelling of the police state, the destruction of civil liberties, and its obsession with absolute power. Indeed, the American Dream is slipping into a dystopian nightmare of Orwellian proportions!

    Regards, CC Cairns

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