Monday, May 12, 2014

Glenn Greenwald debates Alan Dershowitz and Michael Hayden on the NSA

For those of us that think the NSA is completely out of control and must be reigned in, I think we need to thank our lucky stars that it turned out that Glenn Greenwald is our spokesman.  What an incredibly skilled debater he is.  I'm constantly impressed with his TV appearances and now the Munk debate, which you can watch here.

You won't be surprised to know I think Greenwald was awesome.  He couldn't have done a much better job.  The way he handled the spin from Dershowitz was a joy to see, calling out his straw men explicitly, only to have Dershowitz repeat the straw man, which I don't think was fooling anyone at that point.

One thing Dershowitz did was try to reframe the focus of the debate on a side issue.  This is a trap I have to be careful not to fall for when I debate, and Greenwald didn't fall for it.  Dershowitz wanted to focus on Obama's motives.  He said that Greenwald and Ohanian regard terrorism as a pretext for the privacy invading policies that have been enacted.  This much is true, and Greenwald accepted that.  So Dershowitz expanded on that to say that if you think terrorism is a mere pretext than you have to think Obama is not pursuing these policies with the intent of reducing terrorism, and that's absurd.

Greenwald did the right thing and dismissed the question as irrelevant.  We're talking here about what the NSA is actually doing and whether it is wrong.  We're not going to try and divine the motives of people we don't really know that well.  Dershowitz pressed the point though.  If you think terrorism is a pretext you think Obama is some sort of cartoon villain, torturing, droning, and spying just because he enjoys it.  Greenwald dropped it and I think that was the right decision with limited time.  Don't let this be the focus of the debate, because it's really not the question being addressed.

But I'll say something about the point since I have all the time I want.  I just don't think pretexts always come with this level of explicit intention.  Take a look at the American colonists.  As they came to the Americas, ultimately exterminating tens of millions of people in the largest genocide in the history of the world, what did they believe themselves to be doing?  Helping the natives.  Take a look at this.  This is the Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The native says "Come Over and Help Us."  We're here to help the natives, rescuing them from their pagan ways.  Is that the real reason the colonists came?  It may be what many of them honestly thought, but looking back we can see that what they really sought was full control of their own territories, their own prosperity, the betterment of themselves and their kin at the expense of others who were outside of their tribe.  Christianizing was a pretext, even if many of the colonists themselves couldn't see it.

You see similar sentiments with regards to the British colonial action.  British management of India led to famines that would kill as many as 25 million people.  But they were bringing culture and refinement to these disgusting Indians.  If they believed their own lies, so what?  They were there to plunder Indian society, extract it's wealth, destroy potential competitors to their textile manufactures, and generally enrich themselves.  Their stated goal of bringing betterment to the Indian people is today seen as a pretext, even though they may not have recognized it at the time.

And so it goes.  We bombed Vietnam to the stone age because of our benevolent intent, attempting to spare them the ravages of Communism.  Of course a lot of people still believe that today, though to me it seems pretty silly.  Neoliberalism generally follows the same course.  We brought free markets to Haiti, African nations, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, etc, because we just love them so much and want to help them.  In fact it enriches the already wealthy in the US, but these wealthy in the US actually believe their own lies.  They think they are doing Haitians a lot of good by reducing tariff restrictions, getting the minimum wage cut, etc.  We need to save Iraq from Saddam Hussein because we just love Iraqis so much.  I'd suggest to Alan Dershowitz that the people that use pretexts such as the threat of terrorism more often than not believe their own lies, so if Obama believes that what he's doing is for the purpose of reducing terrorism we wouldn't be surprised.  But as Greenwald pointed out repeatedly, all of the evidence shows it has failed spectacularly, just as the British attempts to "help" Indians did the opposite of helping.  In fact they made the situation worse, and so does the NSA.  It's a hindrance to stopping actual terrorist threats.  So invoking terrorism to expand NSA power is a pretext, whether Obama knows it or not.


Paul said...

Hi Jon-

began by writing up a more elaborate comment but then decided to proceed a bit differently.

This could be construed as going slightly off topic but it might help set some foundations for subsequent discussion. So here it goes -

What does a "right" mean to you?
My view point is that a "right" is nothing more than a special priveledge we (society) give ourselves as a social construct.


Jon said...

Hmm, not sure where you're going..but that sounds like it's on the right track to me, though I can't say I've thought much about it. I just looked up a definition in Google. It says "a moral or legal entitlement." So as a human you should have the right to express yourself, to have access essential amounts of water/food/air without force and constraints by others. Our legal system should see to it that you have certain freedoms, certain essential items. The whole idea of a moral system is a human social construct.

Jonathan said...


You catch the frontline pbs documentary on this? It was really interesting. Part 2 comes out Wednesday.

Also, I happen to think that the direction domestic spying has been heading the past decade poses an existential threat to the country. That being said, I wonder if 99% of the people so opposed to the actions of the government would in fact, if placed in the situation of the President, make the same choice if seeing the daily briefing of the potential threats out there. Would you really have the guts to say "yeah, that power you've given me, let's turn that off because it's unconstitutional. Sure, it will raise the chances we miss an attack, but I'm OK with that" Sounds good in theory, not so sure when the chips are on the table how most people would react...

Jon said...

Yes, I did see the Frontline episode. Really great. I was a bit surprised to see the fairly critical picture of Obama they painted. Not as hostile as I would be, but generally pretty hostile. What a tremendous program. Frontline does a lot of good stuff.

You may be right about 99% of the people. I honestly hope it's not that many that would go along. In that Frontline episode they have Bill Keller from the NY Times, the guy that killed the story of the warrantless wiretapping in 2004. I have to admit I did have a bit of sympathy for him as he talked about the pressure he was put under by the White House. "You run this story and people die." He caved. I get that this pressure is incredible.

But on the other hand, look at what the consequences of that reveal in 2005 actually were. Nothing. Even today, you know what the totality of the NSA efforts have produced? As far as I know there's one concrete thing they can't point to. A Sudanese cab driver sent $8500 to a terrorist organization. Pretty minimal. It's like you said. This spying is an existential threat. What is the threat of terrorism? Pretty minimal. Much less than lightning strikes, drowning in your own bath tub, being hit by a coconut falling on your head. Obviously I can't speak about what I'd do if I got certain other secret information that I currently am unaware of, but I'm familiar with the pattern used to justify erosion of our rights. It's always our security, so I'd expect to be fed that line and I'd be skeptical.