Eavesdropping isn’t a matter of good and evil, but of rules. America is in a temporary legal vacuum. As of yesterday, when the law allowing extensive wiretapping expired without a stopgap, it looks as though the National Security Agency doesn’t have any work to do. Is that good or bad?
The principal dilemma between contemporary America and Europe unfolds from the answer to this question.
For Europe, the NSA’s unplugged computers are an unequivocal good. America had to stop its snooping. Condemnation of that snooping is inherently part of global consensus. Europe, Russia, China and North Korea agree. More earthlings agree on this than on the assertion that FIFA is riddled with corruption and that Sepp Blatter should throw in the towel. But in the U.S. itself, only a handful of libertarians defend this position; in Congress, almost no one but Senator Rand Paul. This barricade in opinion between America and Europe is more intriguing than the fact that the NSA will shut down its machines for a couple of days.
Years ago, Europe looked forward to Barack Obama putting a halt to the abuses once he got to the White House: He would close Guantánamo, cut out the snooping, and stop deploying drones. None of that happened. So Obama should now rejoice in his convincing bass that, with the law’s expiration, the snooping is over. Instead, he chides senators over partisan skirmishes and dreads out loud what might happen if information leading to a real threat should sound in the ether while the wiretaps are turned off.
The U.S. as the World’s Policeman
CIA Chief John Brennan says the same thing. Why is that? Has the entire U.S. gone crazy? Gimme a break. It’s simply that the whole country has segued to a new digital-era consensus: If we bear the lion’s share of accountability for the safety of the West — the world — and we bring our soldiers home, then we have to replace them with another instrument well-adapted to the information-age zeitgeist — best of all, wiretaps for everyone.
Europe would be pleased if America were to give up its deployment of forces (the role of the world’s cop), its drones (the role of Terminator), and its eavesdropping (the role of the spook). You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t give up troops, drones and eavesdropping and at the same time take the main responsibility for security. Those who think in terms of “eavesdropping = Orwell = evil,” find the idea unacceptable. But they offer no effective alternative.