The revelation that US government spooks are collecting truckloads of data has scared lots of people. All of a sudden, it seems, the denizens of the world is acutely aware of the sheer volume of information collected. It is about time: we have been clicking accept, accept, accept, for tons of social media terms and conditions without really reading them and this has been a good wake-up call about the vulnerability of the information we volunteer to the universe via the internet.
Yet there seems to be a lot of surprise about what, exactly, is being collected, and that surprise has turned to outrage. Folks are stamping around complaining about “big data” and how it has intruded on their lives and impinged on their liberty like never before. The newsflash is painfully ironic: there is nothing new.
In the wake of the “Big Data” scandal there has been a lot of blaming the Obama administration for the amount of data and the targets collected from. It has happened from abroad, with several European nations voicing their displeasure. And, it has happened domestically with several politicians and commentators doing the same.
Now everyone seems to have an opinion on “Big Data” and what it means for us and who is responsible for its growth. At a social engagement I recently heard the claim that the increased collection volume of data would not be the case if Obama were not president. It is a grave accusation that needs a well measured response. But, in short, it is one that is ultimately without merit; the question of the amount of information a government collects is not a partisan one and has little to do with who the president is. Recent history shows us this with both the Bush and Obama Administrations engaging in domestically-centered spying programs.
“But surely politics matter” you might say. The short retort is that American foreign policy is decidedly “realist” irrespective of the political party in charge. Realism, used here, is the term employed in the field of International Relations, whereby the world is conceived as being in a perpetual state of anarchy, meaning there is no omnipotent ruler, with each nation-state ultimately acting in what it perceives to be its best interests. Importantly, realism places the focus on the interests of the state as a whole rather than its individual denizens (thus decidedly marginalizing the importance of individual liberty within the context of international politics).
Given that outlook, that the US is a nation-state in a world order where other nation-states always act in their self-interests, it is rational for the US to collect as much information as possible in so that it may make informed decisions in regards to its interests. While allied nations may criticize this behavior as steeped in mistrust, if one does a cursory glance of recent history we see that the behavior has been consistent.
Geo-political tensions in Europe only subsided after the fall of the Iron Curtain. So, if one accepts that current intelligence leaders would have been trained in that setting, and understands that institutional change is slow, it is no surprise that intelligence practices that might be ascribed to a past time remain in use. Moreover, given the nature of intelligence, continuity (and therefore slow change) is important. Like the Federal Reserve, the heads of the US intelligence bodies do not shift in conjunction with every presidential election. Even with the changes in heads, it is unlikely that a massive paradigmatic shift occurs within the intelligence community over the course of a few days, months, or even years.
Considering that the realist foreign relations outlook of a US presidential administration does not depend on the party in power, since neither Democrats nor Republicans challenge the realist foreign policy status quo, it is absurd to think that the Obama Administration acted any differently than the possible alternative. And while many other countries have kicked up a fuss about the US's spying on them and their leaders, they shouldn't be terribly surprised given the realist overtones of US foreign relations policy. The same can be said for the domestic audience, too.
Nonetheless, domestic critics counter that the US prioritizes liberty domestically irrespective of its realist foreign policy and the exponential amassing of information has been categorically anti-liberty. Since this occurred during Obama's watch, they suggest, it is clearly his doing. This claim raises two important points to consider. First, to what extent do the denizens of a state hold the state responsible for protecting them (at least rhetorically)? Second, has the behavior of the US government, in terms of collecting information, fundamentally changed with the Obama administration?
“To what extent do Americans hold the state responsible for protecting them?” is a question which is a central to the idea of the sovereign responsibilities of a nation-state. The nation-state, in short, must attempt to protect its denizens. Part of that question is “at what point has a nation-state fulfilled its sovereign obligation to protect its denizens?” In other words, when, if ever, do a nation-state's denizens legitimate the nation-state's inaction while simultaneously accepting any of the resulting consequences from that inaction as being acceptable?
On first appearances, the answer to that question might be very rarely if ever. Given that the dominant media outlets sensationalize nearly every event which can be construed as as a threat, there seems to be a significant public demand that the US government provide better protection, even if doing so curtails civil liberties. This sentiment was expressly manifested in the passing of the Patriot Act which granted the US government a wider array of powers to collect information and detain individuals. Though the likelihood of one dying in a terror attack, especially undertaken by foreign nationals and especially on American soil, is tiny, Congress felt it necessary to make that likelihood even tinier.
A legitimate question to be asked is “was the security gained by the enactment of the Patriot Act worth the liberties surrendered?” It is a classic question of the balance between total security and total liberty. That topic has been much debated elsewhere. You can read Dan Alati’s piece on the very subject here. Nonetheless, the Patriot Act was passed with bipartisan support to much fanfare in spite of its curbing of liberties. It was what America wanted at the time.
Clearly America is questioning that now. However, it must ask itself to face the following possible scenario: If the Obama Administration forces a cutting of the information gathered, and the resulting void allows a terror attack to occur, no matter how small, is it okay with that? Politically that scenario is a textbook Catch-22. The Obama Administration can cut intelligence but if any threat is mentioned, it takes the blame for reducing security. Alternatively, it can keep the intelligence gathering in place and take the blame for curbing civil liberties. What is clear is that clear and informed public debate that understands the benefits and risks must occur if a reasonable precedent is to be set.
Next week we shall continue by answering our second question: has the behavior of the US government, in terms of collecting information, fundamentally changed with the Obama administration?