Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Charles Krauthammer's Defense of the 'Victimless' NSA

In conservative quarters, telling Charles Krauthammer he’s wrong is like giving the Pope a noogie. As a graduate of Harvard Medical School, a board-certified psychiatrist, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist, Krauthammer is rightly revered as the most brilliant participant in modern political debate.

Unseemly though it may be for a plebian like me to take crayon in hand and write that Krauthammer is mistaken, in his defense of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program, he is.

Krauthammer is the most prominent among a number of conservatives who, while advocates of limited government in other spheres, have defended the NSA’s collection of Americans’ phone records and electronic data as essential to national security. A recent tack, which both Krauthammer and Senior Political Analyst Brit Hume have articulated on Fox News Channel, is to state that not a single victim of abuse under this program has been identified.

The spectacle of such respectable public commentators advancing a defense so specious burns the eyes and sears the soul.

By its very nature, the NSA program is secretive, such that citizens cannot know if their communications are being read by government operatives. What we do know is that all phone records and emails are collected, and it is the scope and opacity of the system that offends freedom-minded people.

Perhaps we cannot yet point to someone whose Pier 1 card was cut up before his very eyes because a disgruntled public servant opted to futz with his credit rating (although we know that NSA officers have used their positions to spy on love interests – are those people not victims?), but officials have admitted to “minor” abuses of the database. By and by, we can expect more to emerge.

It has been less than a year since the general public learned of this nefarious undertaking, and new revelations of its scope appear daily. Every step of the way, the government has admitted to as little as possible, while outright lying when it could. As Tony Stark observed of intelligence agencies that fear intelligence: “Historically, not awesome.”

Contemplating President Obama’s recent speech on the NSA, Krauthammer concluded that there would be no practical change to the program, and ended his analysis with, “If I were a lefty, I’d be really upset.” Usually, Krauthammer’s meaning is clear, but I admit to being puzzled by this cast-off remark. Having never been accused of leftism, yet disquieted by the NSA program and the president’s unwillingness to curtail it, does Krauthammer contend that I and millions of Americans who object could only do so as a reflex of modern liberalism?

He may see an inconsistency at work, whereby conservatives who have been hawkish in years past betray their principles by weakening our anti-terror apparatus.

I submit that the greater contradiction, which has more profound implications for the republic, is represented by erstwhile champions of personal sovereignty and individual freedom, like Krauthammer, advocating ubiquitous government surveillance in the name of “security.”

Almost as unsettling as Krauthammer’s departure from good sense is the gentlemanly, previously prudent Hume defending the NSA thusly: “This program threatens no one unless it’s abused.”

Exactly. About how many government programs, or even household objects, could one say the same? The IRS threatens no one, unless it decides to. The police are no danger, unless they opt to be. That waffle iron is no threat, unless you close your hand in it. And so on.

As a matter of pure semantics, perhaps Krauthammer, Hume and others are correct. When you have no privacy or space of your own, when you have no expectation that your personal communications will not be monitored by the authorities, you are less a victim than a slave.

In free societies, governments ought not to have this power. Personal privacy is a codified, self-evident right of citizens, and the burden of proof is upon those who wish to compromise it, not those who seek to maintain it.

In previous, rare instances in which my conclusions have differed from those of Dr. Krauthammer, I have assumed that the mistake was on my side. But brilliance and bad judgment can occupy the same space, and some of the most profound, perspicacious thinkers can be very wrong on big issues (the late Christopher Hitchens’ ardent atheism comes to mind).

A breathtaking resume, impeccable reasoning, and scholarly intonation are no match for common sense. In this case, the mass surveillance of citizens by their government is anathema to a free country, and the brightest among us, Charles Krauthammer included, ought to see that.

Theo Caldwell is an author, investor, and a former Member of the New York Stock Exchange, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the American Stock Exchange and the Kansas City Board of Trade.  He can be reached at theo@theocaldwell.com