Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: PRISM, The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, Civil and Human Rights

There has been understandable concern over reports that leaked last week which tied the US government to the collection of peoples personal phone and internet records through a sweeping government program known as PRISM. One questions brings about more questions. Are whistle-blowers hero’s or traitors? Is PRISM a necessary component of national security or an infringement of civil rights? Has PRISM actually been effective in stopping terrorist attacks? Has the leak compromised America’s national security? Perhaps due to still murky details, American’s are still largely divided on these issues.

The New York Times editorial board was particularly one-sided in its assessment of the programs; such a response is not surprising, as a major representative of news Media, the New York Times ability to produce meaningful content relies on civil rights.

“Perhaps the lack of a broader sense of alarm is not all that surprising when President Obama, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, and intelligence officials insist that such surveillance is crucial to the nation’s anti-terrorism efforts.

But Americans should not be fooled by political leaders putting forward a false choice. The issue is not whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists. The question is whether the security goals can be achieved by less-intrusive or sweeping means, without trampling on democratic freedoms and basic rights. Far too little has been said on this question by the White House or Congress in their defense of the N.S.A.’s dragnet.

The surreptitious collection of “metadata” — every bit of information about every phone call except the word-by-word content of conversations — fundamentally alters the relationship between individuals and their government.”

Tracking whom Americans are calling, for how long they speak, and from where, can reveal deeply personal information about an individual. Using such data, the government can discover intimate details about a person’s lifestyle and beliefs — political leanings and associations, medical issues, sexual orientation, habits of religious worship, and even marital infidelities. Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School and a privacy expert, likens this program to a Seurat painting. A single dot may seem like no big deal, but many together create a nuanced portrait.

The effect is to undermine constitutional principles of personal privacy and freedom from constant government monitoring. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, challenging the program’s constitutionality, and it was right to do so.

The government’s capacity to build extensive, secret digital dossiers on such a mass scale is totally at odds with the vision and intention of the nation’s framers who crafted the Fourth Amendment precisely to outlaw indiscriminate searches that cast a wide net to see what can be caught. It also attacks First Amendment values of free speech and association.”

It should be noted that the open and multifaceted discourse relating to these leaks is hard evidence that our first amendment rights continue to be upheld despite government surveillance–sometimes you just have to look up to see that the sky isn’t falling.  

The ACLU is perfectly within its rights to file a lawsuit, but I believe the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold the constitutionality of PRISM. It is true that PRISM violates the 4th Amendment , in that the government is indiscriminately collecting “metadata” on Americans phone and internet data. The American people want answers. The European Commission wants answers (further complicating US-Euro Free Trade talks). And it seems answers we will get, although perhaps not all the answers we desire:

” The director of the National Security Agency said on Thursday that he would release more information about the top secret programs that sweep up vast quantities of communications data on people here and abroad, and vowed to clear up what he said were inaccuracies and misperceptions about how the programs work.”

“”We have pledged to be as transparent as possible,’ he said after emerging from a classified briefing with House members. “I think it’s important that you have that information. But we don’t want to risk American lives in doing that. So what we’re being is very deliberate in this process so that we don’t end up causing a terrorist attack by giving out too much information.’”

“Among the inaccuracies he said he wanted to clear up was that the N.S.A. is listening to Americans’ phone calls.”

“Mr. Rogers stressed that grave damage was done by the disclosure of the programs, which involve a huge database of the logs of nearly every domestic phone call made by Americans, and the collection of information from American Internet companies like Google without individual court orders if the request is targeted at non-citizens abroad.”

We will get answers, hopefully answers that shed light on previous  terrorists acts thwarted by PRISM. But it is also clear that we will not get answers that compromise national security.

The Constitution was drafted as a living document, a foundation upon which our nation could grow upon. There is no possible way our forefathers could have foreseen modern security risks–in revolutionary times wars were fought with single shot muskets! Reading into any document too literally, be it a legal or religious document, is likely to lead to extreme conservative values which ultimately restrict human rights. For these documents we’re written in different times, and need to be amended to remain relevant today. As a legal document, the Constitution was understandably focused on civil and political rights and liberties. 

The Declaration of Independence, as a more general declaration, was based on what are now known as human rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…”

Subsequent constitutional amendments have been aimed at expanding the universality of civil rights (3/5’s compromise revoked, women’s and minority rights). It was never the intention of the founding fathers for civil rights to constrain the government from upholding basic human rights–such as the right to personal security. In fact, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” referred to in Declaration of Independence are almost identical to Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ,”Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

I would argue that America was founded not only on the principles of civil rights, but on the principles of human rights (which include civil rights). The idea government is responsible for providing the services and resources necessary for personal freedom and happiness is 100% consistent with human rights law. That these rights come before the power of government, and with the power to overthrow a government that does not fulfill these duties, places human rights even ahead of constitutional rights (as overthrowing the government would in effect render The Constitution null, but the legitimacy of such action is upheld right there in the Declaration of Independence).

Enough about 200+ year old documents; it is interesting to interpret the wording (many people have made careers out of it, our own President Barack Obama was a professor of Constitutional Law the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious law schools in the world), but I would like to set my sites on something a bit more modern–the NYT editorial attack on the PRISM system.

The issue is not whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists. The question is whether the security goals can be achieved by less-intrusive or sweeping means, without trampling on democratic freedoms and basic rights. Far too little has been said on this question by the White House or Congress in their defense of the N.S.A.’s dragnet.”

Of course there are other means of achieving our security goals; we have been actively attempting them for the past 12 years. The problem is that fighting wars is incredibly expensive and often counter-productive. We do not have to live within the constraints of colonial times in our legislation or our military conduct. Technology has evolved since the 18th century, allowing us to change the ways in which we protect our national security.

Expensive wars have compromised the ability of the government to pay for basic goods and services. Inequality of opportunity and social mobility are huge problems facing modern American society. Our civil and political rights cannot come at the cost of our economic and social rights. If gathering intelligence keeps American safer, and does so in a way that relies less on military expenditure, then the resources saved have to factor into societies C-B analysis at some point. 

The tangible benefits of reduced military expenditure should not be dismissed due to unfounded fear of government intrusion. The government has been collecting this data for years already. Has it changed the way people go about their lives? No, until a week ago we had no idea the program existed (although I am sure people have speculated) . Is there even one example of the government using personal information for nefarious or deviant purposes? Not that I have heard of.

The absence of evidence may not be the evidence of absence; but in America everyone is still innocent until proven guilty, and the government has yet to be proven guilty of misusing personal data ascertained via the PRISM program.

It would be nice if the government could be more transparent about its national security programs, but information travels to easily in today’s digital world–there is no way to release America’s national security information to Americans while not allowing anyone else to see it.

This is not 1776, the threat of tyranny is not a real one. In order to use our national resources in the most efficient way, we must focus them on containing real threats (terrorism, and general deterioration of equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and social mobility which is hurting America’s long run economic growth potential and compromising the “American Dream” itself), not hypothetical violations of our rights. 

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The (Real Beginning of the) End of Team America World Police Part 3(? 4? 5?, I’ve Lost Count…)

I started my narrative on this topic with a two-part political and economic analysis of current U.S. Defense Policy. I then wrote a piece on the true cost of the war on terror, and more recently a piece on how Europe’s shrinking military expenditure is hurting it’s credibility as a meaningful security partner to the United States. Current U.S. military policy has long been an issue affecting America’s fiscal space, constraining resources for social programs which compromise our future growth prospects and social mobility, thereby perpetuating rising inequality in America. At the heart of the matter is the uneven proportion of Global Security expenditure that America pays. Today, President Obama signaled he is of similar mind on the subject.

“Taken together, the president’s words and deeds added up to an effort to move the country away from the perpetual war on terrorism envisioned by his predecessor, George W. Bush, toward a more limited campaign against particular groups that would eventually be curtailed even if the threat of terrorism could never be eliminated.

‘Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.’

Mr. Obama rejected the notion of an expansive war on terrorism and instead articulated a narrower understanding of the mission for the United States. ‘Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,’ he said.

‘Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,’ Mr. Obama added. ‘We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.’”

“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Mr. Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

“The changes reflect a conclusion by the White House that the core of Al Qaeda has been decimated by years of strikes and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But in the speech, the president said that the threat had evolved in a complicated mosaic of dangers from affiliated groups and homegrown terrorists, like the bombers who attacked the Boston Marathon.”

As is to be expected, Republicans were critical of Obama’s realistic, transparent, straightforward and even-handed speech:

“Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, issued 10 questions to the president in reaction to previews of his speech. “Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda?” he asked. “If you are scaling back the use of unmanned drones, which actions will you be taking as a substitute to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat? Is it your view that if the U.S. is less aggressive in eliminating terrorists abroad, the threat of terrorist attacks will diminish on its own?”

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, was sharper in reaction. ‘The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,’ he said. ‘Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.'”

First to address Senator Chambliss, are you sir a moron? how could the winding down of the war on terror have “no clear operational benefit”? Does making a military mission less costly both in dollar terms and American lives have no effect on the operational benefit of The War on Terror? Not to mention the impact on public opinion of the U.S. abroad (which is directly related to terrorism). Or do you not consider the costs of an operation unless the money is going to those lazy “takers”? (i.e. any social program the G.O.P. will fight tooth and nail). If anything, we should have much sooner reconsidered the operational benefit of the War on Terror in the first place (which has been marginal at best, as highlighted by recent sectarian violence in Iraq).

Speaker Boehner’s questions are more substantive; I have actually grown to like Senator Boehner, I almost pity him for the impossible job he has of trying to legitimize the current cluster-fuck of ridiculous soundbites and indefensible policy advocacy that has come to define the G.O.P. I’m sure Mr. Boehner did not imagine his constituents would be so unrealistic and uncompromising that his time as House Speaker would be marked as a period of historically low congressional approval ratings.

But back to Congressman Boehner’s Questions. Questions 1 and 2 (“Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda?” he asked. “If you are scaling back the use of unmanned drones, which actions will you be taking as a substitute to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat?”) were already addressed by President Obama in his speech:

“But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”  

Obviously Al-Qaeda would be considered a “network that poses a direct danger to us”, probably the primary of such networks. One has to question whether John was not sleeping through the President’s speech with questions like those. And to expect a President to openly discuss his defense strategies, probably our most important national security secret, is not exactly proposing a reasonable question.

President Obama also alluded to the answer to Speaker Boehner’s 3rd question in that very same breath. Mr. Boehner asked, “Is it your view that if the U.S. is less aggressive in eliminating terrorists abroad, the threat of terrorist attacks will diminish on its own?”

The answer to that is, of course not. The President stated he planned to “make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold”, but what exactly does that mean? It could only mean putting more resources into preventative peace-building and diplomacy efforts, as I have advocated for here at NN.

Conflict resolution theory tells us that the majority of todays armed conflicts are “Protracted Social Conflicts”. This means that their roots are in human rights violations, which almost always involve inadequate service delivery and security being provided by a country’s government. In situations like this, conflict is likely to break out. When conflicts break out, there is no military to keep terrorist activities at bay (assuming the regime in power is not allied with extremist groups to begin with).

Terrorist groups seize onto this absence of government human rights “duty bearers” and begin to provide services and security themselves. People on the ground, having no other option other than living in extreme poverty and extreme discomfort, welcome these terrorists in with open arms. Terrorists are able to buy goodwill, gain footholds for their operations, and attract a new generation of young Jihadists.

The only way the President can prevent new terrorist groups from forming is to scale up the capacity of strong, democratic governments in developing countries around the world (or factions within countries that do not have democratic governments). If America undertakes this much more noble pursuit, we can build sustainable relationships that foster greater economic and security alliances, rather than destroying nations and then attempting to build them back up from scratch, which is costly in money, time, and lives.

We must remember that building these relationships is not easy. Transitions to democracy and a higher standard of living take time, and the process is not always linear. Vested interests will never give up easily, as they have so much to lose as society reaps the benefits of modernization, and more resources are invested into basic infrastructure as well as physical and human capital.

Though we face an uphill battle, we must never falter in our fight to promote peace, security, and mutually beneficial and environmentally sustainable economic relationships. Only through cooperation and coordination can the global community confront and overcome the issues we collectively face in the 21st century and beyond.

And we must always remember we are not alone in this fight. Our Allies around the world remain committed to the same vision as us. Institutions such as the UN, NATO, WB, IMF, WHO and countless other international, national, and regoinal institutions, alongside non-governmental organizations, charities, and civil society organizations join our ranks. The day when extreme poverty and human rights violations are no longer a threat is just beyond the horizon, and I look forward doing whatever I can to work towards that future.