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Preach It, Brother Tim

February 15th, 2008 · No Comments

Tim Lee, writing over at Cato, absolutely explodes a profoundly moronic defense of the Senate FISA bill. Seriously, programmers working on compression algorithms should study this article; it is a work of nearly miraculously dense mendacity, with a ratio of falsehoods to pixels approaching unity.

What I really want to second here, though, is not the evisceration of this one ignorant article, but Tim’s broader point that the way this whole debate has conducted is really quite exceptional, almost mindboggling, for how disconnected it has become from basic, checkable facts. I mean, I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life essentially picking public policy fights for a living. There are plenty of issues where (obviously) I thought the other side had very weak arguments, or was grounded in brute value judgments that couldn’t be very well explained or defended, or was even incoherent in some sense.

But I really can’t think of any other issue where I’ve just watched gape-jawed as the other side constructed an argument based completely on bald-faced lies. (“Iraq”? I hear you cry. But I think there was genuine uncertainty about the state of Iraq’s weapons programs, and ultimately a judgment call to be made about how to deal with that uncertainty—however badly I think our leaders exercised that judgment.) Both partisans and putatively objective journalists—paging Joe Klein—have just repeatedly gotten one elementary fact after another wrong. And, to the horror of someone normally fairly sanguine about the power of the marketplace of ideas over time, it never quite seems to matter. The same falsehood is rebuffed one day, and shows up on another op-ed page the next.

Trying to write about the debate for various outlets, though, has made it clear that the problem is that the issue may just be too byzantine to even frame properly for a casual reader in any kind of reasonable space. Of course, almost every matter of public controversy is too complex to be adequately discussed in a few thousand words, never mind an 800-word op-ed. But normally at least the basics can be laid out, with the devil lying in the details. I find that even my attempts at straight news ledes on new developments here come out like mangled Proust. What percentage of the people taking public positions on this out in punditland can accurately describe, even approximately, the key distinctions between the Judiciary and the Intel Senate bills? Between either of those and the RESTORE Act? The more informed may know how FISA treats radio and wire communications differently; how many of those know the legislative history behind that distinction? What is the difference between legislative language that exempts certain kinds of electronic surveillance from the FISA warrant requirement, and language that redefines “electronic surveillance” to exclude certain kinds of wiretaps? What, precisely, does it mean for a particular wiretap to be “directed at” or “targeted at” someone?

I broach these questions not as some kind of high-handed “shut-up” to anyone who doesn’t know all the answers, but to point out that the crucial differences here really aren’t reducible to big, familiar conflicts like “liberty versus security” that subsume the legislative details. Everything is details. That may explain why so much of the debate has focused on telecom immunity, which can at least be discussed in terms of broad competing values: The rule of law versus exigency and “flexibility” in time of crisis. (Insofar as a period of five years can be regarded as an ongoing “crisis,” anyway.) So comforting as it might be to believe White House apologists are all arguing in bad faith, the truth is probably more prosaic: We have a misleading debate because the real one won’t fit in an op-ed.

Tags: Privacy and Surveillance



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