A Return to Drones and NSA Surveillance?

After weeks of media obsession with Senator Cruz, the GOP-forced government shutdown, and the impact on public opinion, the Obama administration’s use of drones and the NSA’s vast surveillance efforts are once again gaining some space above the fold. The Washington Post has an interesting piece on the civilian casualties from drone attacks, reviewing the recent findings of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In Yemen, Human Rights Watch investigated six selected airstrikes since 2009 and concluded that at least 57 of the 82 people killed were civilians, including a pregnant woman and three children who perished in a September 2012 attack.

In Pakistan, Amnesty International investigated nine suspected U.S. drone strikes that occurred between May 2012 and July 2013 in the territory of North Waziristan. The group said it found strong evidence that more than 30 civilians were killed in four of the attacks.

Although the White House declined to comment on the reports, it directed attention to President Obama’s May 2013 speech where he said that “drones would be used only against people who pose a ‘continuing, imminent threat’ to the United States and only in cases in which the avoidance of civilian casualties would be ‘a near-certainty.’” Excellent.

Meanwhile, past allegations of NSA interception of phone conversations abroad (in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Germany, Mexico, etc.) were updated with new information about  its interception of French phone calls on a “massive scale.”    Not to worry. A National Security Council spokeswoman explained: “We’ve begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.” Once again, excellent.

None of this has received the kind of attention one might have imagined.  Stop Watching Us is planning a rally in Washington DC on October 26—the twelfth anniversary of the signing of the PATRIOT Act—to “demand the U.S. Congress reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying programs.” The rally has the backing of a broad and diverse set of advocacy groups, ranging from the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Libertarian Party and (believe it or not) the US Pirate Party.

Of course, Tom Watson (Salon) objects to the NSA’s policies, but not as much as he objects to the participation of libertarians in the protest (h/t Reason).   Why object to the libertarians? Because “their own argument for privacy is weakened by the pollution of an ideology that uses its few positive civil liberties positions as a predator uses candy with a child.” Strong stuff, but it gets better:

libertarianism is a form of authoritarianism disguised in a narrow slice of civil liberties. In trumpeting the all-knowing, ever wise wonders of the totally free and unencumbered market, it bestows all the power on those with access to capital. You may say we’re there already, but under a pure libertarian system, things would get much worse.

Watson concludes that for libertarians, “it’s always about the man on the balcony,” making reference to Hayek’s support for Pinochet (for a more nuanced presentation, see an ungated version of a paper by Farrant, McPhail and Berger here). In the end, one might conclude that the odd fear of some future libertarian authoritarianism is greater than concerns about the revelations of the past several years involving the targeted executions of U.S. citizens abroad, the extensive use of drones, and the NSA’s global surveillance efforts. Imagination trumps reality.

One can only hope against hope that the rally is a success and that the media’s obsession with the post mortems on the government shutdown and the daily fluctuations in the opinion polls will leave some space for a more significant debate about civil liberties, one that draws on the broadest coalition possible.

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