By: Peggy Noonan
I can’t shake my dismay at Gov. Chris Christie’s comments, 12 days ago, on those who question and challenge what we know or think we do of the American national security state.
Speaking at an Aspen Institute gathering attended by major Republican Party donors, a venue at which you really don’t want to make news, Christie jumped at the chance to speak on the tension between civil liberties and government surveillance. He apparently doesn’t see any tension.
Christie doesn’t like seeing the nature and extent of government surveillance being questioned or doubted. He doesn’t like “this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now.” In fact, it reflects “a very dangerous thought.” He said: “These esoteric, intellectual debates—I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation.” Those who challenge surveillance programs may come to regret it: “The next attack that comes, that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate and wondering whether they put—” Here, according to Jonathan Martin’s report in the New York Times, Christie cut himself off.
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The audience—again, including GOP moneymen, at the tony Aspen Institute—was, according to Martin, enthralled. They loved it.
Libertarians and many others did not. I did not.
Stipulated: Christie was speaking off the cuff, not in a prepared address that had been thought through but in Q&A in front of a supportive audience. Politicians can get goosey in circumstances like that.
But Christie seized on the topic, as Martin noted, addressed it colorfully and bluntly, and knew what he thought. And in the days since he hasn’t walked it back.
So you have to take seriously what he said.
To call growing concerns about the size, depth, history, ways and operations of our now-huge national-security operation “esoteric” or merely abstract is, simply, absurd. Our federal government is involved in massive data collection that apparently includes a database of almost every phone call made in the U.S. The adequacy of oversight for this system is at best unclear. The courts involved are shadowed in secrecy and controversy. Is it really wrong or foolhardy or unacceptably thoughtful to wonder if the surveillance apparatus is excessive, or will be abused, or will erode, or perhaps in time end, any expectation of communications privacy held by honest citizens?
It is not. These are right and appropriate concerns, very American ones.
Consider just two stories from the past few days. The Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Valentino-Devries and Danny Yadron had a stunning piece Friday that touches on the technological aspect of what our government can now do. The FBI is able to remotely activate microphone on phones running Android software. They can now record conversations in this way. They can do the same with microphones in laptops. They can get to you in a lot of ways! Does this make you nervous? If not, why not?
Reuters has a piece just today reporting that data gathered by the National Security Agency has been shared with the Drug Enforcement Administration. The agency that is supposed to be in charge of counterterrorism is sharing data with an agency working in the area of domestic criminal investigations.
Luckily Lois Lerner is on leave, so the IRS isn’t involved yet.
The concerns of normal Americans about the new world we’re entering—the world where Big Brother seems inexorably to be coming to life and we are all, at least potentially Winston Smith—is not only legitimate, it is wise and historically grounded.
And these concerns are not confined to a group of abstract intellectuals debating how many pixels can dance on the head of a pin. Gallup in June had a majority of Americans, 53%, disapproving of NSA surveillance programs, with only 37% approving of the NSA’s efforts to “compile telephone call logs and Internet communications.” And the poll found the most intense opposition to the programs coming from Republicans, who disapproved by almost 2 to 1.
Rasmussen, at roughly the same time, asked the following question: “The government has been secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Americans for national security purposes regardless of whether there is any suspicion of wrongdoing. Do you favor or oppose the government’s secret collecting of these phone records?” Fifty-nine percent of respondents opposed the collecting telephone records of individuals not suspected of doing anything wrong.
A Fox News poll had 61% disapproving how the administration “is handling the government’s classified surveillance program that collects the phone and Internet records of U.S. citizens.”
So Christie is wrong that concerns and reservations about surveillance are the province of intellectuals and theorists—they’re not. He’s wrong that their concerns are merely abstract—they’re concrete. Americans don’t want to be listened in to, and they don’t want their emails read by strangers, especially the government. His stand isn’t even politically shrewd—it needlessly offends sincere skeptics and isn’t the position of the majority of his party, I suppose with the exception of big ticket donors in Aspen.
And Christie’s argument wasn’t even…an argument. It was a manipulation. If you don’t see it his way you don’t know what 9/11 was—you weren’t there, you don’t know how people suffered. If you don’t see it his way you don’t care about the feelings of the widows and orphans.
It seems to me telling that he either doesn’t have a logical argument or doesn’t think he has to make it.
Here is a practical reason conservatives especially should be concerned about the national security state. People who work for the government, including inevitably those who work in national security, will not decide their powers are too broad. They can’t—they’re focused on a real foe, they have a mission and it tends to leave them in time thinking their powers aren’t broad enough. They will not declare they need more civilian control or oversight—those dizzy, self-serving politicians just gum up the works. They will not decide to limit their use of the capabilities at their fingertips, especially when the stakes seem so high.
It is up to the people in the country, to citizens, to control and limit government surveillance, to the extent they can and in accord with true national-security needs.
That is what a conservative, with all his inherent skepticism toward groups of humans wielding largely unaccountable governmental power, would want to do. What is surprising here is that Christie is so quick and sloppy with his denunciation of conservatives who are acting like conservatives. It is odd because he, too, is a conservative.
His remarks were bad in another way, and it is connected to the word manipulation.
His comments on surveillance were an appeal only to emotion, not to logic and argument and fact, but emotion. This is increasingly the way politics is done in America now. It’s how they do politics at the White House, where the president usually doesn’t bother to make a case and instead just tries to set a mood. But it’s not how Christie normally approaches public questions. In speeches and appearances in the past he’s addressed the logic of the issue at hand, whether it’s spending or the implications of pension promises, or union contracts, or tax rates. That’s part of why he’s been so popular—he’s blunt and logical, has an argument to make and makes it clearly.
Maybe he’s using emotion and special pleading here because he was speaking on a national issue, not a state one, and felt insecure. If this is the best he can do he should feel insecure.