Anti-Terror Surveillance Flip-Flops, Fools, Converts and Heroes

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There has been much ink and pixels spilled about the supposed hypocrisy of Republicans and Democrats in their disparate reactions to the revaluation of far more extensive phone and internet data-gathering by the government than those of us not wearing tin-foil on out heads ever suspected. For example, a recent Pew survey shows this...

Pew survey

Naturally, Republicans and Democrats are calling each other hypocrites, suggesting dishonesty and lack of integrity. There are surely some hypocrites in there, but for the most part, the flip-flopping is neither dishonest nor theoretically unreasonable. Even if we assume that the level of NSA intrusion under Bush and Obama administrations are the same (and to be fair, it appears that the current gathering of all domestic phone records goes well beyond what we understood to be the limited surveillance permitted under the Patriot Act), they are materially different in one key aspect, from the perspective of partisan citizens.

Think about it this way: Let’s say on successive days you discover your best friend and your business rival, both of whom visited your home for various reasons, looking through bills and financial papers on your desk. They did the same thing, but while you might be peeved at your friend, if he had a credible explanation like “I think I can save you some taxes,” you would not view his actions as sinister, and might even be grateful for it. When you found your rival looking over the same private papers, however, you would be furious, suspicious, and justly so. The difference is a matter of trust. You trust your friend, his motives and loyalty; you don’t trust your rival.

The partisan reactions to the surveillance is exactly the same. Republicans are more likely to believe that a Republican administration won’t misuse their private information, so they are more likely to accept even a significant intrusion on their secrecy by those they trust. They do not trust the Obama Administration, though, so the current revelations are frightening, as well as galling, since Obama gained power in part by condemning such tactics and promising to be different. Democrats, however, are the reverse. They didn’t trust Bush. Now their man is in power, and many of them are willing to accept his word that the private information will never be used against them. It makes perfect sense…to them, anyway.

The hypocrites are those who attacked the Bush programs on principle, yet who discard that principle now to support their party. They didn’t protest only about trust when Bush was President; they quoted Ben Franklin about giving up liberty for security, and pronounced the Patriot Act excessive and unconstitutional in broad, absolutist terms. Those critics who have flip-flopped owe everyone an explanation. Exhibit A: Barack Obama , who as Prof Glenn Reynolds wrote, must think Senator Obama was an idiot. Exhibit B: Joe Biden, whose unequivocal condemnation of the Bush program is on display here. What changed, Joe? The threat now is less dire, according to the Commander-in-Chief, who declared the “war on terror” over. So why are you in support of an even more intrusive program of data-gathering on private citizens now than when you were protesting Constitutional breaches as a Senator?

Sen. John McCain and the consistent supporters of secret gathering of communications data under any administration have another problem. Their position has the virtues of integrity, consistency, and fairness,  and the ethical support of utilitarianism, as a trade-off for the greater good.

But their position is irresponsible and incompetent. Why would anyone, after what we have witnessed over the past 13 years and the last several months, trust the government, its personnel, leadership, management, motives, competence, or anything about it, regardless of which party is control? This government gave secrets and access to private data to a strange high-school drop-out tech geek. It allowed I.R.S. agents to discriminate against conservatives. Its Attorney General repeatedly says he doesn’t know what’s going on in the Justice Department. Trusting this or any future U.S. government with information so ripe for misuse at the cost of personal liberty is, in the absence of major reforms, not merely foolish but insane.

Those who supported Bush programs that nicked, sliced and beat up the First, Fourth and Ninth Amendments were wrong. The Bush Administration proved itself incompetent, corrupt and untrustworthy. Those jaded supporters who now oppose the Obama programs are only guilty of paying attention and becoming sadder but wiser.

Meanwhile, those who attacked the Bush programs but now support the Obama programs are either fools, or have sinister motives. There is no reason at all to trust this government, and frighteningly many reasons not to. If the supporters stand with the Administration on the un-American theory that while it may misuse the information to harm other citizens—you know, like the bad, conservative, Tea Party types the I.R.S., bless ’em, went after —the government would never use it against them, their supporters, their allies, their team, so there’s nothing for “good” people to fear.


As for the cynical and ominous calls, from Obama and others, for a “public discussion” about whether we’re ready to give up our rights, we should view them with suspicion. Sure, polls say that a majority of the public will give up freedom for security, just like a majority of the public wouldn’t mind seeing the government confiscate all guns (you know, to save the life of “one child”), and can’t understand why guilty criminals have to have a vigorous defense in the courts, and why we should allow “hateful speech.”  The majority of the public is ignorant, doesn’t think beyond the weekend, and has the attention span of a may fly. That hasn’t changed for centuries, which is why the Founders gave us the Declaration and the Constitution, to protect the public from its own instinct for lazy self-enslavement, as the history of the world has shown. That is also why the American Civil Liberties Union is now heroically  playing its indispensable role in protecting our freedom from government power, guaranteed by the Constitution. The ACLU is suing the Obama Administration over its domestic surveillance. Hurray.

Trust, often misplaced, explains the feckless variations in partisan America’s acceptance of abuse of government power. The ACLU, like its client, the Bill of Rights, trusts the Founders instead, who believed that when our human liberties and rights are at risk, we ought to trust no one.


Sources: Pew, New York TimesDaily Caller

Graphic: Policymic

18 thoughts on “Anti-Terror Surveillance Flip-Flops, Fools, Converts and Heroes

  1. “The majority of the public is ignorant, doesn’ t think beyond the weekend, and has the attention span of a may fly.”

    Bullseye, that’s why all these scandals are being allowed out now, so that public will tire of them and simply change the channel.

  2. Those who supported Bush programs that nicked, sliced and beat up the First, Fourth and Ninth Amendments were wrong. The Bush Administration proved itself incompetent, corrupt and untrustworthy. Those jaded supporters who now oppose the Obama programs are only guilty of paying attention and becoming sadder but wiser.

    Just like all those conservatives who didn’t care about deficits under Bush and care about tthem now are only guilty of paying attention and becoming sadder but wiser?

    I think that if you are a conservative that supported it under Bush and didn’t stop supporting it after the revelations that occurred during his presidency, switching support now that Obama’s president is inherently suspect. The same goes for switches of people who were against it and are now for it under Obama. These people, of course, could also have legitimately changed their minds. It’s just unlikely.

    That you think people are coming over from a clear wrong to a clear right doesn’t mean they’re doing it for valid reasons.

    • That’s just crazy. I count myself in that group—I once said, and maybe even wrote, that it didn’t matter to me if the government read all my e-mails and listened to every phone conversation. I was short-sighted and wrong, and subsequent events made that clear. Realizing that a policy was misguided after ten years is inherently suspect? That’s nonsense—there’s lots of new data. As I said, anyone who was awake the last 10 years or the last three months who trusts the government is an idiot.

      The Obama Administration on the heels of the Bush administration has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the bureaucracy is too big to be managed minimally effectively and safely: too many fanatics find cubby-holes, too many people are either incompetent or demented to give them the power they crave, and the public is addicted to electing incompetent representatives and Presidents.

      And the party is 100% irrelevant.

      Of course, there are other changes too. I much prefer deterrence to “prevention,” and this gang likes the message that we’ll never retaliate if it means boots on the ground, but will put everything into prevention, because its easier breaking the 4th Amendment.

      • . Realizing that a policy was misguided after ten years is inherently suspect?

        I didn’t say that. I said switching support (either way) when we’ve also switched the party in power is inherently suspect. I stand by that statement. If you claim that this switch is not inherently suspect, then you have to give the benefit of the doubt to the democrats who were against the policies under Bush, but for them under Obama. They absolutely could have changed their minds due to additional evidence.

        You assume the best of people who have switched to your current view, and you assume the worst of those who have switched away from your current view. Both groups should be treated with equal suspicion.

    • “Just like all those conservatives who didn’t care about deficits under Bush and care about them now are only guilty of paying attention and becoming sadder but wiser?”

      So if a family buys a luxury car it can’t afford and puts itself in debt, it’s hypocritical for Mom to blow the whistle when dad wants to buy a yacht? Ridiculous. Many, many conservatives complained that Bush insisting on tax cuts while fighting two wars was irresponsible. The cries were muffled, because the economy hadn’t crashed. Greece hadn’t gone bankrupt, and the debt was much, much smaller.

      You sound like someone whose trying to obscure the truth rather than uncover it.

      • You didn’t parallel the situation: If Mom says overspending doesn’t matter, buys a luxury car they can’t afford, continues thinking overspending doesn’t matter, and then changes her mind only when Dad wants a yacht? Yes, that’s incredible suspect. Maybe she did actually learn her lesson, but the switch coming only when it no longer favored her suggests other motives. If Mom had changed her mind after the luxury car and had enforced such on herself, too, then I’d think she actually did learn. To be a better parallel, Mom would have to have purchasing decisions one month and then Dad have purchasing decisions the next. If the Mom’s view changed when she didn’t have the purchasing power anymore, it’s suspect.

        Many, many conservatives complained that Bush insisting on tax cuts while fighting two wars was irresponsible. The cries were muffled, because the economy hadn’t crashed.

        There are conservatives how have been consistent on overspending, but we aren’t talking about them. We’re talking about people who switched views or who didn’t fight against it then, but are fighting against it now. All that increased deficit spending under Bush was pushed by conservatives. Many of them are still around, and now not okay with Obama’s deficit spending (even though he’s actually CUTTING the deficit). That the switch coincided with the power change greatly suggests that the switch is based on the power change.

  3. I tossed in the “left wing radical activist” towel when I read that Pew survey. I said this on Facebook…

    “I knew this would be the general public’s reaction. That’s why I said earlier that it’s check and mate, Government wins. You lose. Still, I salute those of you who fought, and continue to fight the good fight. Me, I’m outta this game for good OR until I see thousands upon thousands of you taking to the streets with NO HOLDS BARRED. Not holding my breath for that scenario. Buh-bye now!”

    A day earlier I posted this…

    “I think, that in a day or so, I will stop posting anything of a negative nature concerning the u.s. government, the banks, the corporations, the supreme court, etc. For, you see, this country is fast approaching end game status. They won. We lost. I need to devote my energies elsewhere.
    Sorry we missed our chance. But hey, we (some of us, anyway) tried our very best. And for that reason alone, I salute you.”

    Today I backtracked on my pledge. Everywhere I go now I wear a whistle around my neck.

    Time and again I have described Obama as King of the Merkins. I believe the description fits to a tee, and it also applies to the U.S. Congress.

    (Definition – Merkin is a pubic wig. Merkins were originally worn by prostitutes after shaving their genitalia, and are now used as decorative items, erotic devices, or in films, by both men and women.)

    And I really love the image – I’m hoping/waiting for someone to photoshop it for Obama and friends.

  4. There is, of course, another way to look at your analogy. It’s the way I’d look at it, and I think it’s likely to entail more cognitive consistency in most people.

    When you find a business rival looking through your private papers, you are furious. When you find your friend looking through the same papers, you are more furious, because you trusted your friend. You never trusted your business rival, so although he’s violated your privacy and autonomy, he hasn’t betrayed the trust that you hadn’t offered him in the first place. Why on Earth would you retain faith in such a friend’s motives and loyalty after he’s been caught in the midst of wrongdoing? Isn’t your trust in a friend based on the assumption that he won’t wrong you, and not on the assumption that when he does, it’ll be for a good reason?

    • We’re not looking at our friend/enemy doing something bad to us specifically. We’re looking at them doing something bad to a group.

      When you catch your friend being an ass to a group of people you’re in, you forgive him. When you catch your enemy being an ass to that same group, you want him to roast. It’s clicking. It’s group identity.

      It’s not good that we think this way, but it’s what happens.

      • Right, I understand that it happens, but it’s not as though that’s a necessary truth. Not everyone thinks that way all the time, and I still think it’s cognitively inconsistent. If your moral standards change based on group identity, you hardly have standards at all.

        I’m probably an ass in familiar groups, myself, but if I’m violating general standards of behavior I expect my acquaintances, and not just my enemies, to call me out on it. Bonus: I’m more likely to listen to chastisement from friends than from enemies.

  5. The way I figure, there were a lot of people with grave misgivings when Bush started these programs. The little bit we knew about sounded concerning, but (barely) palatable. We were assured this was as far as it would go. We believed it. We were lied to.

    Now Obama came in, winning by trashing those policies. And then we not only discover that he is continuing the ones that we were unsure about, but is also continuing the ones that we would have gone up in flames over.

    Should Bush have started these programs? No. If they had come out when he ws president, I would be just as upset about them. But Bush is not in power at the moment, and has no authority to end them any more – Obama does. And he is not, and will not. No point getting angry at Bush for starting them when he has no power to end them now.

    Funny, I just don’t see the same working the other way around, how outrage can become mere wariness – not without the administration indicating in at least SOME way that they are trustworthy. What can folks point to that shows how much we should trust the government with this much authority, and rest secure that they will not abuse it? I don’t see anything, and I don’t think that’s just because I’m a partisan, tea-party right-wing lunatic.

  6. I see this as round three of the electronic eavesdropping on America. Round 1 was Carnivore and that should have shown everyone how untrustworthy and incompetent the intelligence community is when it comes to privacy. If you remember, Carnivore was evaluated by a team of ‘impartial’ experts to see if it unnecessarily infringed on people’s rights, then published a redacted version of the report in .pdf format. Luckily for us, the NSA thought the blackout font was a security feature, so people could view the redacted material by changing the font. It showed the all the ‘impartial’ faculty evaluators were NSA contractors.

    Carnivore occurred during the Clinton administration. What we should have learned at that time is that none of these people can be trusted with this power. They will not restrain themselves and they are not competent to handle this information anyway. Remember when they found that the FBI would wiretap entire cell towers for months because they had a warrant for 1 person near each tower? Remember when Clinton let the college interns read the FBI background files on Republican congressmen? Why would we expect that type of behavior to change under Bush or Obama or the next president?

  7. Yeah, good summary and I may borrow points when speaking to mayflies. I got alarmed when I heard about Carnivore and that opinion hasn’t changed. it’s why I try to keep various sites unconnected and refuse things like interconnecting services like google and FB. It’s MY data. If they directly ask me something I might share part, but it should be explicitly given, not stolen.

    Funny thing with all this tapping, crime and terrorism hasn’t disappeared. It affects regular people’s freedoms more. I don’t think regular people need assault rifles any more than they should have a nuclear bomb, but I’d rather have those than lose the bill of rights, all of them.

  8. I don’t think the business rivel/best friend analogy holds water, because those are not positions which predictably change hands.

    If you’re a Democrat like me, you know damned well that sooner or later there will be a Republican in the White House. And even if you’re a Republican, you knew damned well, back when Bush was in the White House, that sooner or later there’d be a Democrat. The US’s active voters are split nearly 50/50 between the two parties, so there is no plausible way that either party can expect to hold the White House forever.

    It’s more like if I kept all my most private documents in a bank run by my best friend; but the bank bylaws said that at regular intervals, my best friend will take several years off and my worst enemy will run the bank. In that circumstance, it would be idiotic – and unethical – to favor a rule saying the bank president can go through everyone’s private documents whenever he wants, because I KNOW for a certainty that sooner or later, someone I consider untrustworthy will be bank president.

    I know that no metaphor is a perfect fit. But in this case I think my objection is essential, not just nit-picking; that control of the Presidency frequently switches between the parties is too important an element of our system to not be accounted for.

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