Security, legality, and the least untruthful untruths

I’m really having trouble with the argument that to be safe, we need to violate our own rights, and that we should just trust the government to do it.

As Ben Franklin said in 1775, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

If it is so essential to our security as a nation for the government to spy on us, shouldn’t we be treated to a public discussion of the pros and cons, rather than being told the matter is too secret to be talked about, even in Congress?

There is no doubt about it, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied in a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on March 12, 2013. That’s not just what I think; here is the editorial page editor of the New York Times:

Making Alberto Gonzales Look Good
By ANDREW ROSENTHAL, New York Times, 6/11/2-13

Government officials employ various tactics to avoid actually saying anything at intelligence hearings, mostly by fogging up the room with references to national security and with vague generalities. It’s part of a dance, which the public and the media may grumble about but which we also expect.

Outright lying is another matter.

On March 12, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, testified at an open congressional hearing. Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, asked him whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”

His answer: “No sir.” Then he added: “Not wittingly.”

It was a lie, as everyone now knows from the articles about the N.S.A.’s data-mining program.

Mr. Wyden knew it wasn’t true at the time, since he is on the Senate Intelligence Committee and is privy to secret briefings from people like, well, Mr. Clapper….

Check out the video at that site. Talk about body language! Clapper looks so uncomfortable, slumping forward, fidgeting with one hand, and stroking his pate with the other, that you almost feel sorry for him. I guess lack of smoothness in lying is the best we can ask for from someone in his position.

Here is the heart of the wording, from Glenn Kessler, “James Clapper’s ‘least untruthful’ statement to the Senate,” Washington Post, 6/12/13:

So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Director of National Intelligence JAMES CLAPPER: “No, sir.”

SEN. WYDEN: “It does not?”

DIR. CLAPPER: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

It’s good that Senator Wyden asked the question; but it’s too bad he didn’t have the guts to say: “You lie, sir!” and that we had to wait three months for Edward Snowden to reveal that the head of the NSA is a liar.

People caught in lies rarely take responsibility. In the area of mendacity rhetoric, surely one would have to give an award to Mr. Clapper’s self-justification, quoted from the same Washington Post article:

I responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least untruthful manner, by saying, ‘No.’”

Where is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he of the “unknown unknowns,” when we need him, to talk about the “least untruthful untruths”?

Ah, some people say, but Snowden violated the conditions of his employment, and that’s the real issue.

Well, others say, but how else could he let us know that a high government official was publicly lying to our highest elected officials? And that’s the issue.

Ah, the first people say, but what you post on Facebook and blogs is public anyhow.

Fine, the others say, but how about telephone calls and private emails? That’s where the real invasion is.

I note that “NSA leaker Snowden is lying, say leaders of House Intelligence Committee” (article by Mike Lills in The Hill, 6/13/13). Whatever the merits of the “this one’s lying — no, that one’s lying” discussion, let me point out again, that isn’t the issue. Spying is the issue.

We’d never be in this mess if Al Gore had been allowed to be president–at least, today’s Al Gore, who might or not be the same as president Al Gore would have been.

As we learn from the UK-based Guardian, which seems the best way these days to find out what is happening in the US:

“Al Gore: NSA’s secret surveillance program ‘not really the American way,'” The Guardian, 6/14/13

Former vice-president – not persuaded by argument that program was legal – urges Congress and Obama to amend the laws

The National Security Agency’s blanket collection of US citizens’ phone records was “not really the American way”, Al Gore said on Friday, declaring that he believed the practice to be unlawful.

In his most expansive comments to date on the NSA revelations, the former vice-president was unsparing in his criticism of the surveillance apparatus, telling the Guardian security considerations should never overwhelm the basic rights of American citizens.

He also urged Barack Obama and Congress to review and amend the laws under which the NSA operated.

“I quite understand the viewpoint that many have expressed that they are fine with it and they just want to be safe but that is not really the American way,” Gore said in a telephone interview. “Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that those who would give up essential liberty to try to gain some temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Since the 2000 elections, when Gore won the popular vote but lost the presidency to George W Bush, the former vice-president has tacked to the left of the Democratic party, especially on his signature issue of climate change.

Gore spoke on Friday from Istanbul where he was about to lead one of his climate change training workshops for 600 global activists. Such three-day training sessions on behalf of the Climate Reality Project are now one of his main concerns.

Unlike other leading Democrats and his former allies, Gore said he was not persuaded by the argument that the NSA surveillance had operated within the boundaries of the law.

“This in my view violates the constitution. The fourth amendment and the first amendment – and the fourth amendment language is crystal clear,” he said. “It is not acceptable to have a secret interpretation of a law that goes far beyond any reasonable reading of either the law or the constitution and then classify as top secret what the actual law is.”…

Read more there, and see links to other sources.

For my earlier thoughts on this, see “‘US declassifies phone program details after uproar,'” June 7.

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About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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2 Responses to Security, legality, and the least untruthful untruths

  1. Pingback: More US complaints about China | politicswestchesterview

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