Resolved: The benefits of domestic surveillance by the NSA outweigh the harms.
For part 1 of this analysis, click here.
Can Pro Win?Back in August, our local debate camp ran a topic very similar to the present NSA domestic surveillance topic. There was a general "feeling" this topic would appear sooner or later in 2013/2014. At that time, we heard several practice debates by novices and a few varsity teams and I was struck at how speculative the debates were. Snowden had been grant asylum only a few weeks prior to the camp and much of the information about the nature and extent of the domestic surveillance was "fresh" to say the least.
Let us consider for a moment, the proponents of the two opposing sides of this debate. On the Pro side, we mostly have government officials telling us how successful the NSA programs have been in stopping terrorism, yet we have subsequently learned that perhaps 54 thwarted terror attacks was a bit overstated. On the Con side of the debate we have the "Guardian" newspaper and reporter Glen Greenwald who broke the NSA story on June 5, 2013 and the Guardian has continued to push the momentum and sell papers. Since Edward Snowden first leaked his information to the Guardian, it is the source of much of the wide-spread anti-surveillance reporting today. Somewhere between the Pro and Con with all of their potential overstatements and exaggerations, the truth may exist. In reality, many years from now, we may be able to look back on this period of history and decide whether the NSA programs where beneficial or detrimental to .. uh .. whatever our framework suggests we should use as a basis for our decision.
At this point, since the popular media and much of academia seems to be reacting in accordance with the Con side of the debate, I have to wonder, is it possible for the Pro to win? As it turns, out, I think the fact there is so much blow-back against the NSA may actually be leveraged to the advantage of the Pro. Here's how.
Never Ending StoriesWords posted on the internet take on a life of perpetuity, even after being discredited. It is the reason email and Facebook campaigns seem to constantly be recirculated long after the information claimed in the message has been discredited or proven false. If the NSA is casting a wide and indiscriminate net over the privacy of individuals and scrutinizing the personal conversations, texts, and status of U.S. citizens, it is the kind of information that weighs heavily in favor of the Con unless there is some significant benefit to be gained from the loss of privacy. There may even be some legal basis for voting Con since the Supreme Court has historically taken a dim view on any violation of fourth amendment principles for US citizens. However, if Pro can show the problem is not as wide-spread as the Con claims, the Con case is discredited and soon the Pro can cast doubt on all of the Con claims. It is a very common tactic in the courtroom; discredit the witness or show one instance of the witness being dishonest and we can question how one can believe anything the witness says. If some of Con's evidence is exaggerated or dishonest, perhaps ALL of Con's evidence is exaggerated or dishonest.
The "Back" StoryOf course, Con will tend to favor those "in your face" stories which tout governmental and specifically NSA abuse of your personal information. However, often, conflicting or revised information is later revealed, but these stories may not make it on page one.
"Yesterday, the Washington Post reported a shocking story about how the FBI and National Security Agency had partnered with Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies to spy on the tech companies' hundreds of millions of users. The government agencies, the Post said, were "tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time. ...And now, 24 hours later, after more denials and questions, the Post has made at least two important changes to its spying story. First, the Post has eliminated the assertion that the technology companies "knowingly" participated in the government spying program. Second, and more importantly, the Post has hedged its assertion that the companies have granted the government direct access to their servers. The latter change is subtle, but important. In the first version of its story, the Post stated as a fact that the government had been given direct access to the companies' servers. Now, the Post attributes the claim to a government presentation--a document that has been subjected to significant scrutiny and skepticism over the past day and that, in this respect, at least, seems inaccurate. In other words, the Post appears to have essentially retracted the most startling and important part of its story: That the country's largest technology companies have voluntarily given the government direct access to their central servers so the government can spy on the tech companies' users in real time."
Unfortunately, during the Snowden affair, many news outlets have spent more time examining ways the government could abuse the information it has access to while giving scant mention to the lengths to which the intelligence community goes to protect privacy. We have spent enormous amounts of time and effort figuring out how to disaggregate the important specks from the overwhelming bulk of irrelevant data. This is done under tight and well-thought-out strictures. I witnessed firsthand the consequences of breaking the privacy rules of my former organization, the National Counterterrorism Center.
Dilanian & Demick 2013:
But analysts said that Snowden seems to have greatly exaggerated the amount of information available to him and people like him. Any NSA analyst "at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere," Snowden told the Guardian. "I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email." Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the NSA and CIA, called the claim a "complete and utter" falsehood. "First of all it's illegal," he said. "There is enormous oversight. They have keystroke auditing. There are, from time to time, cases in which some analyst is [angry] at his ex-wife and looks at the wrong thing and he is caught and fired," he said.
Impeach the WitnessIt could be, in the future, when we look back at this period of history one of the main lessons we can extract is the value of good reporting and perhaps how it imploded in the early part of the 21st century. I suggest that Pro can indict the press which rushes to "break" the story often without fully vetting the facts as a strategy for impeaching the witness. Once the sources of the story are discredited in small details, the large details are called into question.
My problem isn’t that the [Washington] Post got the story wrong but that they didn’t more prominently update their readers on their new understanding of the facts as it evolved. It’s unreasonable to expect papers to sit on breaking news for days until they’ve tripled-checked the facts. But if we’re going to accept that instant reporting means frequently getting it wrong, then it stands to reason that we should also expect instant updating so that the ongoing reporting is as right as it can be. Compounding the problem are the complexities of this particular episode. First, as I’ve been noting all along, the Top Secret subject matter means that there’s an incredibly sophisticated apparatus working to hide the truth from the public. Second, the highly complex nature of the technical enterprise means that most of the people reporting and commenting on the story—yours truly absolutely included—don’t fully understand what they’re talking about even within the true facts at their disposal. Third, while Greenwald is both a dogged reporter and scrupulously honest in his reporting, he’s also an unabashed activist with a not-at-all-hidden agenda. He fundamentally opposes the national security state, the war on terror, and even the notion of classified information. While he would never knowingly publish false information, he’s eager to run with credible-seeming information that shows the national security state run amok.
The Washington Post Has Now Hedged Its Stunning Claim About Google, Facebook, Etc, Giving The Government Direct Access To Their Servers; Business Insider
Henry Blodget Jun. 7, 2013
NSA Surveillance Threat to Privacy Being Exaggerated, Former CIA Official
Andrew Liepman, August 11, 2013
Apple, Google, Microsoft, And Facebook Deny Involvement In Massive Government Spying Program; Buisness Insider
Jay Yarow, Jun 6, 2013
Analyst overstated claims on NSA leaks, experts say; Los Angeles Times
Ken Dilanian and Barbara Demick, June 10, 2013
NSA Bombshell Story Falling Apart Under Scrutiny; Key Facts Turning Out to Be Inaccurate; The Daily Banter
Bob Cesca, June 08,2013
The real story in the NSA scandal is the collapse of journalism; ZD Net
Ed Bott, June 8, 2013
NSA PRISM Story Overhyped; Outside the Beltway
James Joyner, June 9, 2013