Why Would Anybody Distrust The Spies? Ben Wittes on the “Intelligence Legitimacy Paradox”

Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institute has a new article on the popular security blog Lawfare in which he worries that the intelligence project has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

No kidding.

Wittes argues,

the threat environment America faces is growing ever more complicated and multifaceted, and the ability to meet it is growing ever-more-deeply dependent on first-rate intelligence. Yet at precisely the same time, the public has grown deeply anxious about our intelligence authorities and our intelligence community is facing a profound crisis of legitimacy over its basic authorities to collect.

He ascribes this to “technology”, but technology is not the reason for public skepticism here. The immortal Marcy Wheeler over at Emptywheel correctly points out that bringing the nation into war based on false intelligence may just have played a role in public skepticism. Trevor Timm would probably add that lying to get cases dismissed should create further public skepticism about intelligence agents’ claims. However, there’s a still larger question raised by the article.

Let’s talk about the “complicated and multifaceted threat environment”.

A realistic assessment of the threats to American national security today, relative to 25 years (1989), 50 years (1964) or 75 years ago (1939), would be as follows.

America faces today no major threats to its way of life.

It’s exactly the absence of a major threat that makes the remaining, exceedingly minor, threats so “complex and multifaceted.” If you’ve run out of major enemies, but are still spending over $700 billion a year on your military, you go out and find new threats to squash, no matter how many or minor they may be; you make a solitude, and you call it peace. It’s what empires do.

In truth, we should be blessing ourselves every goddamn morning that we no longer have the specter of Mutually Assured Destruction hanging over our heads; that we’re not locked in a life-or-death struggle with an Axis of militarily powerful industrialized countries propagating theories of race-based extermination. There are no other powers or combination of powers currently able to field a military that could even invade America, much less conquer it, which is why it was stupid to try to remake Red Dawn with North Korea as the enemy in 2012. Before 2040, there is no realistic rival even on the horizon.

So why are intelligence employees harping constantly on the many and severe threats we face? Because the deep state’s freedom to surveil depends crucially on there being an external enemy. If there in fact isn’t one, then they’re really just spying on everybody for the sake of their own power over the rest of us. And then we might try to stop it.

The most interesting paragraph to me that Wittes writes is this:

The paradox seems to me irresolvable unless we are maturely willing to live with either heightened risk or with robust intelligence authorities. Sometimes we do respond to new technologies by shrugging off risk; for example, we choose to live with ubiquitous guns despite the risks to innocents of a pervasively armed society—and we have for a long time. It may well be that we have to accept both more risk and more surveillance in the current environment.

The public is rightly skeptical of the authority of the intelligence community to collect all that it does on us. The public does care about effectiveness, independently of how much they may care about constitutional rights. The defenders of mass surveillance have so far been able to identify precisely one case where mass surveillance thwarted – well, not a terrorist attack, but the wiring of $8,500 to the vicious East African fundamentalist group al-Shabaab. So for every $1 they successfully diverted, the intelligence services have spent perhaps $10 million, diverting funds to spying from more socially beneficial uses. If we’re going to be “mature” about this, then we should be demanding a better rate of return.

Wittes rightly points out that even if mass surveillance does decrease mortality risk, that doesn’t end the discussion; we do live with the heightened mortality risk of “ubiquitous guns”, because of enforcing the Second Amendment. He does not mention the possibility of collectively making a similar tradeoff and choosing to enforce the Fourth, as I, and many others, would willingly choose to do. But the fact is, that’s not a tradeoff we actually have to make, because there’s no evidence that mass surveillance does in fact reduce the risk of attack.

We’re no longer in a world where we can accept at face value the mere word of deep state employees that mass surveillance does us good. Their continued insistence that we should just accept mass surveillance and not ask why, shows that they have no decent reason for it that a free people would accept.

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