NSA Defender Argues That Too Much Transparency Defeats The Purpose Of Democracy

from the oh-really? dept

Paul Rosenzweig, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at Homeland Security, was supposed to testify for the House Intelligence Committee about NSA surveillance. The hearing was postponed and Rosenzweig can't make the new date, but he's posted the testimony he intended to give, in which he makes this incredible claim:
Transparency is good. Too much transparency defeats the very purpose of democracy.
The details of this claim are, obviously, a lot more nuanced, but it seems like it's built on a false premise: that people are seeking absolute and complete transparency in everything that the government does. While that may be true in some cases, it's a very extreme minority. Most people are merely arguing that there are specific things that the government does in our name, which (often by law or Constitution) require significantly more transparency. But, Rosenzweig sets up this strawman to suggest that those arguing for greater transparency don't recognize that there can be any secrecy.
Madison understood that transparency was not a supreme value that trumped all other concerns. He also participated in the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, the secrecy of whose proceedings was the key to its success. While governments may hide behind closed doors, U.S. democracy was also born behind them.
Right, but at the end of that process, it was made very, very public. Not so with NSA surveillance. So this is a total red herring. Imagine if the US Constitution were not just written in secret, but then kept that way? Furthermore, in retrospect, it's difficult to see why it even made sense for the Constitutional Convention to have been secret in the first place. There's really no reason why the negotiations and debates couldn't have been done publicly.
In the new domain of dataveillance, the form of oversight should vary depending upon the extent to which transparency and opacity are necessary to the new powers authorized. Allowing some form of surveillance is vital to assure the protection of American interests. Conversely, allowing full public disclosure of our sources and methods is dangerous – identifying publicly how we conduct surveillance risks use of that information by terrorists and, in turn, draws a roadmap of which threats are not known. Thus, complete transparency will defeat the very purpose of disclosure and may even make us less secure.
This is the only place where Rosenzweig seems to come close to actually defending his initial statement that "too much transparency defeats the very purpose of democracy," and it's a very, very weak sell. If his initial premise is true, then he appears to be arguing that "the purpose of democracy" is to "protect us from terrorists." That's not true. It's a fundamental error in his analysis. In fact, it can be very strongly argued that the opposite is true: we've long agreed that trading lives for freedom is part of the American Way. Patrick Henry argued "give me liberty or give me death." He didn't argue that we needed to give up liberties to protect him from death.

Furthermore, it's patently and obviously false that public disclosure of how surveillance is conducted makes those surveillance methods useless. For decades it has been public knowledge that law enforcement can wiretap phone lines. And yet it remains a useful surveillance tool. Yes, some terrorists will figure out ways around it, but (as many people noted), most terrorists were already well aware that any electronic communication could and would be tracked, and they were careful to use other means when possible. Furthermore, the goal of a free society should not be to stop terrorists from any possible way of communicating in secret, but to recognize that this is going to happen no matter what, and to focus on alternative means of policing, intelligence and law enforcement to do our best to protect against it.

In the end, I have to think that Patrick Henry's rallying cry of "give me liberty or give me death" is a hell of a lot more American that Rosenzweig's surveillance state apologism of "too much transparency undermines democracy." We should be living in a country that stands behind the first statement and rejects, wholeheartedly, the cowardice and shamefulness of the latter.

Filed Under: democracy, nsa, nsa surveillance, paul rosenzweig, transparency


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Oct 2013 @ 2:36pm

    Re: Re: Trading lives for freedom is part of the American Way

    IF it was matter of lives or liberty, that would be one thing. However, it seems to be a matter of die under tyranny or live with liberty. Easy choice.

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