‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Ronald Reagan famously described these as “the nine most terrifying words in the English language.” It may be time to propose a two-word corollary.
In the end, underneath the geek-speak of encryption, electronic intercepts, forward-looking infrared thermal imaging, satellite surveillance, and sundry collection technologies, that is what the government is really saying when it comes to national security: “Trust us. The intelligence collection we do is important — is essential – to keeping you alive. Oh . . . and don’t ask a lot of questions. You know, can’t discuss that — methods and sources, etc.”
I don’t think that’s going to cut it this time.
Before 2017 is out, we are going to have a brawl over FISA — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Specifically, over FISA section 702, on which much of the sprawling American intelligence enterprise is now based. It will lapse if not reauthorized by Congress.
We ought to be headed into that brawl with a sense of how dangerous the world has become: Competitive great-power geopolitics has reemerged, yet international jihadism remains as threatening as ever.
Instead, foremost in our minds will be how readily the government’s awesome intelligence capabilities can be abused. That is the real significance of the controversy over Obama-administration spying on the Trump campaign and transition.
The scandal that CNN is hell-bent on ignoring brings into sharp relief the very abuses the media, echoing civil-liberties activists, have warned against for years: pretextual uses of intelligence-collection powers to spy on political opponents and dissenters. As a national-security conservative with no illusions about government, I’ve acknowledged these concerns. I’ve countered, though, that the powers are, yes, essential to national security. The abuse of power is thus a reason to get rid of the abuser, not the power.