Opinion

Newspeak for a new milennium

Adam Bates Policy Analyst, Cato Institute Project on Criminal Justice

Wednesday’s oversight hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee vindicated civil libertarians skeptical of the surveillance state, but it also deserves to be remembered for the Obama Administration’s introduction of a concept so absurd and Orwellian that we can only conclude that the national security apparatus has jumped the shark.

First, the vindication. Gen. Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency, finally admitted what astute observers of the American counter-terrorism apparatus have been arguing for months: the claim made by the Obama Administration that the NSA’s domestic spying program foiled dozens of terrorist plots was egregiously untrue. Under pressure from Sen. Patrick Leahy, Gen. Alexander was forced to acknowledge that the number of terrorist plots foiled by domestic spying program may be as high as “one or two.”

That estimate is a far cry from the 54 plots the NSA claimed to have foiled with the same program only a few months ago. A cynic might believe that impressively fudged figure was invented out of whole cloth to push back against Rep. Justin Amash’s efforts to have the domestic spying program defunded after contractor Edward Snowden revealed its existence. If not for Gen. Alexander’s fib, perhaps Congressman Amash’s amendment might have received the seven additional votes it needed to pass.

Amazingly, neither the revelation that the NSA’s domestic spying program has netted nothing but a trail of shredded Constitution, nor the implication that the Obama Administration fudged the numbers to keep it running, were the most damning things to come out of the hearing. For that, we turn once more to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who has already lied to Congress once.

Director Clapper exhorted Americans to ignore the fact that the NSA domestic surveillance program has accomplished none of the objectives cited as a justification for its existence and limitless authority, and focus instead on the “peace of mind” the program provides.

In other words, the Obama Administration would like us to believe that even if this monstrous, obviously unconstitutional domestic surveillance regime fails in every conceivable way to stop or even inconvenience terrorists, we should still support it for the “peace of mind” it engenders.

It was not entirely clear from Director Clapper’s statement whose peace of mind is at issue here, but neither of the two possible answers is remotely acceptable. If Director Clapper is referring to the peace of mind of himself and the intelligence community, then I would suggest that spending billions of dollars a year to destroy any semblance of privacy just to prove that there is nothing going on is a bit too large a price for the American people to pay so he and Barack Obama can sleep easy at night.

The other possible beneficiary of this “peace of mind” is the American citizenry. Does the knowledge that the government is watching your every move, storing the information for every call, and collecting your every email make you warm and fuzzy inside? Do the pages of 1984 warm the cockles of your heart? If so, then James Clapper is your man.

For those of us who believe that a counterterrorism apparatus that does little more than foil its own terror plotssteal our money, and hand our unfiltered private data to foreign governments is a bad thing, however, the suggestion that an omnipresent Obama Administration should engender “peace of mind” is a bit horrifying.

Ironically, it’s obvious that the Obama Administration itself completely rejects the concept: Consider its treatment of Edward Snowden, the man responsible for this “peace of mind” we all feel about the program.

The only way we can derive any peace of mind from the perpetual yet benevolent gaze of Uncle Sam is if we know the surveillance program exists. And the only reason we know that the program exists is because Edward Snowden teamed up with Glenn Greenwald to tell us about it. Shouldn’t Mr. Snowden be lauded for his contributions to our national peace of mind rather than hunted on charges of espionage? Shouldn’t Mr. Greenwald be cheered by the Obama Administration instead of having his partner shaken down at Heathrow?

Even more vexing is that the man advocating we accept this program for our peace of mind is precisely the same man who brazenly lied on the floor of the U.S. Senate to keep the domestic spying program in the dark. Why would James Clapper attempt to cover up a program that would provide so much peace of mind to the American people?

None of this is terribly surprising of course. This is, after all, the same administration that tried to replace “war” with “overseas contingency operation,” that substituted “man-caused disaster” for “terrorism,” and that attempted to recast “tax hikes” as “spending reductions in the tax code.” But the fact that we’ve come to expect such grotesque semantics from our representatives is sobering in its own right.

In what world can an administration admit that it lied to keep its utter failure of a program more palatable while in same breath exhorting its constituents to find peace of mind in the existence of the same failure?

These paradoxes make the world a scarier place, and not because of some remote threat from Pashtun tribesmen on the other side of the earth. They make the world a scarier place because they demonstrate that the people in charge of the most powerful and violent institution on earth have no respect for logic, the rule of law, or the intellectual capacity of the people they supposedly protect.