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“We’re All Journalists Now”: No, Glenn Greenwald Cannot Be The One Who Decides What Stays Secret

This Sunday, The New York Times Book Review will finally print Michael Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, two and a half weeks after the review was published online and provoked a polarizing debate involving Greenwald, the Times‘ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, Kinsley again, and countless commentators who promptly took sides in the dispute about government secrecy and freedom of the press.

Some readers, including Sullivan, objected to Kinsley’s smart-alecky tone and psychological sketches of Greenwald, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange, which these critics saw as bordering on ad hominem attacks. But there were also more substantive criticisms levied by Sullivan and many others, most of them boiling down to the claim that it was simply outrageous of Kinsley to deny journalists an absolute right to print classified material passed on to them by leakers.

Here is the most controversial passage from the review:

It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald. [The New York Times]

Some objected to this passage because they thought it contradicted another line of the review in which Kinsley called the Snowden leaks a “legitimate scoop.” But for most critics, the issue was far more fundamental: How dare anyone suggest, and in the pages of America’s newspaper of record no less, that the government, and not an intrepid journalist like Glenn Greenwald, should get to decide, while wielding threats of prosecution and imprisonment, what information is secret and what is not?

Clearly, the critics implied, Kinsley was expressing a deep-seated sympathy for authoritarianism that no self-respecting American citizen, let alone a journalist professionally and existentially devoted to the press freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment, could possibly endorse.

There’s just one problem with this objection: Kinsley was almost certainly correct.

In the ensuing debate about the review, The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf made the strongest and most concise case against Kinsley’s position. When we look at the competing track records of the government and journalists in deciding what should be kept secret and what should be made public, Friedersdorf argued, it is clear that journalists have done a far better job. For that reason, journalists, and not the government, should get to decide.

Friedersdorf also made a point of stipulating that this does not imply blanket permission for leakers to divulge to journalists any information they wish. In Friedersdorf’s words, “The least-bad system is one where leakers can be charged and punished for giving classified secrets to journalists (which isn’t to say that they always should be), but where journalism based on classified information is not criminalized.”

That sounds like a perfectly reasonable compromise — at least until you think it through.

Permitting journalists to publish anything and everything that gets leaked to them, under no possible threat of prosecution, would make it nearly impossible to prosecute a leaker, since the harmlessness of the leak would automatically be demonstrated the moment a journalist makes the decision to publish the classified information. After all, in Friedersdorf’s least-bad system, it’s journalists who decide what can and can’t be made public, based in part on their assessment of the likely public harm. This means that as soon as classified information gets published by a journalist, the leaker would instantly be exonerated.

To which many will no doubt respond: So what? That’s exactly how it should work!

Except for one additional consideration, which Kinsley raised in his original review. In the age of blogs, portable audio and video recording, instant messaging, and social media platforms, “it is impossible to distinguish between a professional journalist and anyone else who wants to publish his or her thoughts.”

We’re all journalists now.

In such a world, Friedersdorf’s rules produce a situation in which any leaker who leaks any information to anyone willing to publicize it is automatically absolved of any crime.

In such a world — a world completely lacking in disincentives to leak classified information — government secrecy would be rendered impossible.

“But no,” I imagine Friedersdorf objecting. “I mean real journalists, working for established, recognized media companies. Only they should be given the power to decide what to publish.”

To which the proper reply is to repeat Kinsley’s line that making such a call — deciding who is and who is not a “real” journalist — is impossible. Sure, we can agree that a journalist employed by The New York Times or The Atlantic is an authentic journalist entitled to make the hard calls on secrecy. But what about a reporter working for BuzzFeed? Or a reporter working for BuzzFeed six years ago, when it had little politics coverage and was known primarily for its cat-photo click-throughs?

And what about self-employed blogger Andrew Sullivan? Is he a journalist? If someone leaked classified information to him, should he have blanket authorization to decide whether to publish it?

What about someone who runs a blog with a tenth of Sullivan’s traffic and journalistic experience? A hundredth? A thousandth?

We seem to have a problem. Either anyone or everyone gets to make the call, rendering state secrets impossible, or we need some independent authority to decide who is and who is not empowered to make the call. Government licensing of journalists? That’s where Friedersdorf’s “least-bad system” leads us, I’m afraid.

Which means that Friedersdorf leads us right back to Kinsley: “Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.”

Pace Friedersdorf, the least-bad system is the one we have right now: Government (elected officials, appointees, and judges) deciding what gets and stays classified. In that system, both leaking and publishing classified information are treated as crimes, albeit crimes for which leakers and journalists are rarely punished, with the benefit of the doubt usually swinging in their favor.

This system isn’t perfect. Free speech absolutists don’t like it, and understandably so, because it makes government secrecy the legal principle and press freedom an exception dependent on the prudential judgment of prosecutors and judges.

But in a world where secrets are necessary, this may be the best that a democracy can do.


By: Damon Linker, The Week, June 6, 2014

June 7, 2014 Posted by | Journalists, Media, National Security | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What Glenn Greenwald Gets Wrong”: Every Man His Own Director Of National Security

Earth to Glenn Greenwald: if you write a book slamming The New York Times, it’s naïve to expect favorable treatment in the New York Times Book Review. Been there, done that. Twice as a matter of fact.

On the first go-around, the NYTBR reviewer — a Times alumnus— described mine as a “nasty” book for hinting that name-brand journalists don’t always deal off the top of the deck. No inaccuracies cited, only nastiness.

Next the newspaper located the most appropriate reviewer for Joe Conason’s and my book The Hunting of the President in its own Washington bureau — the original source of the great Whitewater hoax our book deconstructed. That worthy accused us of partisan hackery on the authority of one of the few wildly inaccurate Whitewater stories the Times had itself actually corrected.

If you think we got a correction, however, you’d be mistaken.

So when Greenwald complains that his book No Place to Hide, detailing his and Edward Snowden’s exciting adventures in Hong Kong before the Boy Hero flew off to Moscow, got savaged by NYTBR reviewer Michael Kinsley, it’s easy to feel sympathetic. It’s no fun getting trashed in the only book review that really matters.

Kinsley’s biting wit and withering cynicism can be hard to take. But for all that, the review wasn’t entirely negative. It never denied the importance of Greenwald and Snowden’s revelations about government snooping, nor did it question the author’s journalistic integrity. “The Snowden leaks were important—a legitimate scoop,” he wrote, “and we might never have known about the NSA’s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them.”

True, Kinsley’s tone is far from worshipful. “His story is full of journalistic derring-do, mostly set in exotic Hong Kong,” he writes. “It’s a great yarn, which might be more entertaining if Greenwald himself didn’t come across as so unpleasant. Maybe he’s charming and generous in real life. But in No Place to Hide, Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss.”

Alas, anybody who’s experienced Greenwald’s dogged ad hominem argumentative style can identify. I’m rarely mistaken myself, but I do try not to impute evil motives to everybody who disagrees with me.

However, contrary to the army of syntactically-challenged Greenwald fans who turned his essay into an Internet cause célèbre, Kinsley never said the man should be jailed. He wrote that being invited to explain why not on Meet the Press hardly constitutes evidence of government oppression.

Indeed, also contrary to the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, Kinsley nowhere “expressed a belief that many journalists find appalling: that news organizations should simply defer to the government” in deciding what secrets to reveal. He wrote that “the process of decision making—whatever it turns out to be—should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I do think the newspaper’s public editor should be more capable of fair paraphrase—an important journalistic skill.

However, what Kinsley’s provocative essay did very effectively was to question how seriously the author (and Edward Snowden) had thought through the logic of their position that when it comes to government secrets, it’s every man his own director of National Security.

And the answer seems to be, not too seriously at all. But then my view is that the Greenwald-Snowden revelations about NSA “metadata” hoarding made for exciting headlines and a Pulitzer Prize but little or no practical difference to people’s actual lives.

So that when Greenwald writes that “by ordering illegal eavesdropping, the president had committed crimes and should be held accountable,” I’m inclined to ask if he knows the meaning of “eavesdropping.”

It doesn’t mean storing phone and Internet records in a giant database; it means listening in on conversations or searching people’s hard drives, and to date there’s no evidence of that being done without court-ordered search warrants. I’d add that if Americans feel politically intimidated, they’ve got awfully noisy ways of showing it — especially those jerks swaggering around with assault rifles daring the feds to make something of it.

George Packer makes a related point in Prospect: “A friend from Iran who was jailed and tortured for having the wrong political beliefs, and who is now an American citizen, observed drily, ‘I prefer to be spied on by NSA.’”

So which of the two million-odd documents Edward Snowden swiped from the National Security Agency should end up in the newspaper, and who gets to decide? On that score, Kinsley’s otherwise crystal clear argument gets foggy. His point is that in a fallen world the government has legitimate secrets to protect: classic example, the date and location of the D-Day landings.

“In a democracy,” he writes “(which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.”

Hence misunderstanding. Had he simply specified “Congress and the courts,” there would have been lot less hyperventilating.

Where’s an editor when you need one?


By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, June 4, 2014

June 6, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“His Own Worst Enemy”: The 13 Most Bizarre Things From Edward Snowden’s NBC News Interview

While watching Brian Williams’ interview with Ed Snowden, I actually agreed with Glenn Greenwald about something. Back in 2012, Greenwald referred to Williams as “NBC News’ top hagiographer,” using “his reverent, soothing, self-important baritone” to deliver information in its “purest, most propagandistic and most subservient form.”

It’s worth noting at the outset that Greenwald flew all the way to Moscow specifically for the NBC News interview, and he appeared on camera with Snowden and Williams, answering questions from this so-called “hagiographer.”

Now, I’m not a Brian Williams hater. I think he’s a fine news anchor. But his interview with Ed Snowden was yet another in a long, long line of deferential, uninformed, unchallenging genuflections before a guy whose story and motivations are more than a little specious. But it’s not a stretch to presume that Greenwald, the man who once aimed all of his wordy, caustic vitriol in Williams’ general direction, referring to him as possessing “child-like excitement” over gaining access to a source, probably loved every minute of it. However, don’t break out the champagne just yet, NBC News, Greenwald will immediately shift gears sometime very soon and continue to indict any and all mainstream news outlets, including NBC, as being impotent, pernicious, drooling shills for President Obama and the D.C. elite.

So what about the telecast itself? Here are the 13 most bizarre things from Snowden’s NBC News interview.

1) Snowden claimed he has “no relationship” with the Russian government and that he’s “not supported” by it. That’s odd, given how the Russian government has twice offered him asylum and one of his lawyers, Anatoly Kucherena, is an attorney with the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB (formerly the KGB). Tell me again why anyone should trust this guy?

2) “Sometimes to do the right thing you have to break a law.” So it’s really up to each of us individually to decide whether our own interpretation of “doing the right thing” necessitates breaking the law? A lot of awful things have occurred with that exact justification. Also, what if NSA feels the same way, Ed?

3) Snowden said that no one has been harmed by his disclosures. Yet. Already, though, one of his documents escalated tensions between Australia and Indonesia, and another document endangered lives in Afghanistan to the point where Greenwald refused to publish the name of that country. It’s only a matter of time, sadly.

4) Early on, Snowden said, “I’m not a spy.” Later he famously confessed to being “trained as a spy.” Huh?

5) Snowden said he destroyed his documents before going to Russia. This is really strange. I have no idea whether he really destroyed his NSA files, but he did in fact meet with Russian officials in Hong Kong, when he reportedly celebrated his birthday at the Russian consulate. Did he still have his documents at that point? Earlier, he said his goal was to fly to Latin America, so why did he anticipate being in Russia to the point where he destroyed his documents to prevent Russians from acquiring them? These are all follow-up questions that a journalist who was informed about the details of Snowden’s timeline would’ve asked. Williams was not and therefore did not.

6) NSA can “absolutely” turn on your iPhone, which is “pretty scary.” This section was like whiplash. Snowden started out by sounding reasonable by defining that NSA only acquires data when “targeting” drug dealers or terrorists. And then, BLAM!, this shitola about NSA being able to turn on your phone. If true, why hasn’t this been disclosed from Snowden’s NSA documents?

7) Snowden said that by googling the score of a hockey game, NSA can find out whether you’re cheating on your wife. Someone’s been wearing his tinfoil hat a wee bit too tightly.

8) NSA can observe people drafting a document online and “watch their thoughts form as they type.” Let’s assume for a second this is true. Reading your thoughts (IEEEEE!!!) is a hyperbolic internet-age method of essentially describing a wire-tap. A police detective can get a court order to have a suspect’s phone tapped and listen to that suspect forming thoughts on the phone, too. But to call it a “wire-tap” is too ordinary and familiar, so Ed went with mind-reading.

9) Snowden didn’t deny turning over secrets that would be damaging or harmful. He only said journalists have a deal with him not to do it. Just a reminder: we really have no idea how many reporters or organizations have copies of the documents or the total number of documents (it’s a Greenwald/Snowden secret), but we do know that Snowden documents have been reported by so many publications that the question arises: who doesn’t have Snowden documents?

10) Snowden’s watching HBO’s The Wire. The second season, he said, isn’t so good. He’s right.

11) Snowden said he can’t speak out on Russian issues because he can’t speak the language. Hey Ed, here. Free shipping, too. You’re welcome.

12) “People have unfairly demonized the NSA to a point that is too extreme.” Why is Snowden an apologist for the surveillance state? Drooling! Vast!

13) Snowden said he can “sleep at night” because of his actions. Well, good for him.

Ultimately, Snowden is his own worst enemy and his ongoing ability to say crazy things in a calm, collected voice continues. What’s abundantly clear at this point is that no one will ever land an interview with Snowden who will be as adversarial against the former NSA contractor as Greenwald has been in his own reporting in defense of Snowden. It’ll never happen.


By: Bob Cesca, The Huffington Post Blog, May 31, 2014

June 3, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security, National Security Agency | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“I Am Unmoved”: Edward Snowden’s NBC Interview Revealed His Ultimate Arrogance

Let’s give Edward Snowden his due: He did himself a lot of good in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, which aired last night. He presents well, coming across as earnest, thoughtful and intelligent. There is no manic gleam in his eye, no evident hatred of his country. He is well-spoken and articulate. He presents his own case more compellingly than does Glenn Greenwald, who speaks with a barely-suppressed rage much of the time—and an altogether unsuppressed hostility all of the time. Snowden, by contrast, is cool and measured, his affect cerebral. Where Greenwald and Julian Assange talk about NSA as an evil monolith, Snowden talks about how he misses his former colleagues, whom he regards as good people. He gamely objects to their vilification. I have no doubt that his performance will move many viewers, who will see—as he clearly does—nobility in his sacrifices, purity in his motives, and honor in his decision to defy the law in some larger defense of morality as he sees it.

Yet I was unmoved by Snowden’s performance.

My stony indifference to his earnest self-account was not because his interview was insubstantial. It wasn’t. Indeed, Snowden raised at least two important factual matters that warrant clarification by his former agency—one of which NSA addressed today. The first is that NSA has repeatedly described Snowden as a former systems administrator, a kind of tech-support guy who helped manage computers for the agency. Snowden, by contrast, describes himself as a cyber-spy, a claim Greenwald also advances in his recent book. The disparity is at least a little bit important as it goes to the question of exactly what sort of person did this. Was the problem one of a disaffected support staffer who took matters into his own hands or was it that NSA was betrayed by one of its own operatives? It also goes to the question of how much Snowden can reasonably claim to know about the agency’s substantive work—whom it targets, how, and why. And it thus goes also to the question of credibility. Is the government downplaying Snowden’s role to diminish his credibility or is he padding his resume to enhance it?

Second and more importantly, Snowden in this interview directly challenged NSA’s claim that he had never raised his concerns internally. This claim has been crucial to the government’s dismissal of Snowden as a legitimate whistleblower. Yet Snowden says he raised his concerns by email more than once. The government announced that it had found only one such email, which it released today and which does not remotely suggest whistleblowing. The exchange, rather, reflects a routine inquiry about the relationship between executive orders and statutes—one to which a lawyer responded appropriately. Again, one side or the other is going to emerge with egg on its face. If this brief email exchange—which took place long after Snowden was already exfiltrating documents from the agency—is what Snowden means by raising his concerns internally, his effort was laughable. On the other hand, if more material were ever to turn up that actually supported Snowden’s claims, it would seriously undermine the government’s credibility concerning his internal behavior before he left Hawaii.

However important these questions are, they are not ultimately the matters that will determine what we should think of Snowden. And on the more important issues, Snowden—earnestness and all—utterly failed to explain certain stubborn, inconvenient facts that make it hard to accept him as the figure he claims to be. Some of these facts he did not challenge at all, as they are too clearly true to brook contest. Some he challenged only weakly. And some Williams did not bother to ask him about at all. The result is a haze over the noble portrait the fugitive paints of himself.

Let’s start with the fact that Snowden ran. Greenwald spends a good deal of space in his book (which I reviewed the other day) describing how deeply at peace Snowden was with the likelihood of spending a very long time in prison. The early church martyrs were not more blissfully resigned to their suffering than was the Snowden of Greenwald’s book—a man whose freedom, indeed, whose very life, was as nothing compared with the public’s need to know the government’s interpretation of Section 215 and its compromise of Angry Birds. Yet Snowden did not, after all, return to face the consequences of his stand. He has evaded law enforcement for a year. And his explanation of that evasion is, well, hardly that of a brave man.

You see, Snowden explains in the interview, the law he violated doesn’t allow the defense he would want to put on. So he’d likely be convicted and serve a very long prison sentence—to which we learn he is not quite so eager to subject himself as Greenwald once admiringly thought. Snowden, of course, explains that he has an entirely selfless reason for not wanting to spend decades in prison. It’s not that he fears it, you understand. But it might scare other whistleblowers out of following his example. Whatever the reason, when push came to shove, Snowden chose not to martyr himself but to flee.

And where did flee? He ran to Moscow. On this point, Snowden’s explanation is particularly obtuse. Ask the State Department why he’s there, Snowden suggests. He was just trying to transit through Russia. It wasn’t his fault that he got stuck in Moscow; this happened because the U.S. government revoked his passport.

The passport revocation is not, in fact, why Snowden is stuck in Moscow. For one thing, the government revoked Snowden’s passport before he ever left Hong Kong. Moreover, it does not mean that he must stay in Moscow. It’s at most the reason why he has a choice between remaining in Moscow and coming back to the United States and facing arrest and lacks the option of finding non-Russian safe haven. Hechooses, in other words, to remain in Moscow because he prefers the protection of the dictator there to trial at the hands of his own government.

We should add that he treats this dictator with remarkable kid gloves for a foe of tyranny and surveillance. The words “Ukraine” and “Crimea” do not pass his lips in this interview. Nor do the words “Pussy Riot” or the names of any dissidents who face real repression at the hands of his hosts. Nor, for that matter, does he dwell on Russian surveillance practices, though he notes the professionalism of the Russian intelligence services. He acknowledges that it’s a little uncomfortable to be in Russia at this particular time, but his only specific criticism of his host government is a relatively bland one about the country’s new blogging law.

Snowden, to be sure, denies that he has any kind of relationship with Russian intelligence. He did not bring any documents to Russia, he insists, and he has no access to his stash remotely. He is not paid by Russian intelligence. And he has never been interviewed by the FSB. Even if all of this is true, his larger point is not. He is, at this stage, not a free agent but a tool of Russian intelligence—and of Putin himself—even if he doesn’t know it. He is in the country because his presence embarrasses the United States and because his disclosures serve Russian interests. He is doing things there that help Russia and he is refraining from doing things that offend his hosts. People without some kind of relationship with the security services simply don’t find themselves calling in and throwing softball questions to Vladimir Putin on Russian television. And people without some kind of relationship with the security services also don’t tend to have as their lawyers for asylum Kremlin loyalists who also happen to be members of the FSB’s oversight board.

And then there’s Snowden’s denials that he did any damage. Show me the evidence, he protests, that anyone was really hurt by anything he did—and Williams does not call him on the point. But it’s a mug’s game to acquit oneself of doing harm by simply defining all of the harms one does as goods. If one calls democratic debate and sunshine the blowing of sensitive intelligence programs in which one’s country has invested enormous resources and on which it relies for all sorts of intelligence collection, the exposure is of course harmless. If one regards as a salutary exercise the exposure of one’s country’s offensive intelligence operations and capabilities to the intelligence services of adversary nations, then of course that exposure does no harm. And if one regards the many billions of dollars American industry has lost as merely a fair tax on its sins for having cooperated with NSA, then sure, no harm there either.

Snowden is too smart to actually believe that he did no harm to the U.S. What he means, rather, is that he regards harms to U.S. intelligence interests as good things much of the time and that he reserves for himself the right to define which harms are goods and which harms are real harms.

And this brings us to Snowden’s ultimate arrogance, the thing that makes his calm certainty finally more infuriating than anything else: He believes he is above the law. He believes he should get to decide what stays secret and what does not. He believes that he should get to decide what laws he can and cannot be tried under. He believes he gets to decide what rules should govern spying. And he not only believes he should get credit for civil disobedience without being willing to face the legal consequences of his actions, he believes he should get credit for courage as though he had done so as well.

As I say, I am unmoved.


By: Benjamin Wittes, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution; The New Republic, May 30, 2014

May 31, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“In The Name Of Freedom”: How To Spot A Paranoid Libertarian

In a recent essay in the New Republic, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz contends that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange reflect a political impulse he calls “paranoid libertarianism.” Wilentz claims that far from being “truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors,” they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Wilentz gives credit to Richard Hofstadter for the term “paranoid libertarianism,” but he is being generous. Although Hofstadter wrote an influential essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he didn’t call special attention to its libertarian manifestation. Wilentz has performed an important public service in doing exactly that.

Most of Wilentz’s essay focuses on Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, and he offers a lot of details in an effort to support his conclusions about each of them. But let’s put the particular individuals to one side. Although Wilentz doesn’t say much about paranoid libertarianism as such, the general category is worth some investigation.

It can be found on the political right, in familiar objections to gun control, progressive taxation, environmental protection and health care reform. It can also be found on the left, in familiar objections to religious displays at public institutions and to efforts to reduce the risk of terrorism. Whether on the right or the left, paranoid libertarianism (which should of course be distinguished from libertarianism as such) is marked by five defining characteristics.

The first is a wildly exaggerated sense of risks — a belief that if government is engaging in certain action (such as surveillance or gun control), it will inevitably use its authority so as to jeopardize civil liberties and perhaps democracy itself. In practice, of course, the risk might be real. But paranoid libertarians are convinced of its reality whether or not they have good reason for their conviction.

The second characteristic is a presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials — a belief that their motivations must be distrusted. If, for example, officials at a state university sponsor a Christian prayer at a graduation ceremony, the problem is that they don’t believe in religious liberty at all (and thus seek to eliminate it). If officials are seeking to impose new restrictions on those who seek to purchase guns, the “real” reason is that they seek to ban gun ownership (and thus to disarm the citizenry).

The third characteristic is a sense of past, present or future victimization. Paranoid libertarians tend to believe that as individuals or as members of specified groups, they are being targeted by the government, or will be targeted imminently, or will be targeted as soon as officials have the opportunity to target them. Any evidence of victimization, however speculative or remote, is taken as vindication, and is sometimes even welcome. (Of course, some people, such as Snowden, are being targeted, because they appear to have committed crimes.)

The fourth characteristic is an indifference to tradeoffs — a belief that liberty, as paranoid libertarians understand it, is the overriding if not the only value, and that it is unreasonable and weak to see relevant considerations on both sides. Wilentz emphasizes what he regards as the national- security benefits of some forms of surveillance; paranoid libertarians tend to see such arguments as a sham. Similarly, paranoid libertarians tend to dismiss the benefits of other measures that they despise, including gun control and environmental regulation.

The fifth and final characteristic is passionate enthusiasm for slippery-slope arguments. The fear is that if government is allowed to take an apparently modest step today, it will take far less modest steps tomorrow, and on the next day, freedom itself will be in terrible trouble. Modest and apparently reasonable steps must be resisted as if they were the incarnation of tyranny itself.

In some times and places, the threats are real, and paranoid libertarians turn out to be right. As Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Societies can benefit a lot from paranoid libertarians. Even if their apocalyptic warnings are wildly overstated, they might draw attention to genuine risks, or at least improve public discussion. But as a general rule, paranoia isn’t a good foundation for public policy, even if it operates in freedom’s name.


By: Cass Sunstein, The National Memo, January 30, 2014

January 31, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Government | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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