Chris Christie vs. Rand Paul on national security

Two of the big names from the list of likely Republican contenders in 2016 have launched an escalating war of words over libertarianism, privacy rights, and national security.  The first strike came from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, as reported by the New York Times:

“This strain of libertarianism that’s going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought,” Mr. Christie said on a panel with other Republican governors here.

Asked if he was alluding to [Senator Rand] Paul, a potential Republican presidential rival, Mr. Christie spoke in deeply personal terms about the impact of the 2001 terrorist attacks on his state.

“You can name any number of people and he’s one of them,” Mr. Christie shot back before referring to the more than 600 New Jersey families who lost relatives in the attacks. “These esoteric, intellectual debates — I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, because that’s a much tougher conversation to have.”

Christie went even further, before apparently deciding he had gone too far:

Staking out terrain on the hawkish right ahead of a potential White House bid, Mr. Christie, in remarkably stark terms, warned those advocating a crackdown on the surveillance programs — instituted under President George W. Bush and now being carried out under President Obama — that they would regret their positions.

“The next attack that comes, that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate and wondering whether they put. …” said Mr. Christie, before cutting himself off.

Christie got a bit of support from another Republican governor who might get involved in the 2016 presidential race, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who said that instead of a grassroots libertarian uprising against aggressive government surveillance measures, “I see a few loud and vocal people talking in Washington, and I don’t think that necessarily reflects where the party is.”

Senator Paul’s people were not amused to hear him pre-emptively held guilty as an accomplice to the future murder of thousands of Americans.  (Speaking of “looking back” and holding people accountable for the path to a massive terror strike, what are your thoughts on the culpability of Bill Clinton and permanent government fixtures like Jamie Gorelick for the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Christie?)  A Paul adviser started making an off-the-record response… and then decided to put it on the record, with his name attached.  That’s a sure sign of elevated blood pressure in Washington.

A senior adviser to Mr. Paul initially sought anonymity to criticize Mr. Christie. But Friday morning, the adviser, Doug Stafford, put his comments on the record — and invoked New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen to add an additional jab at Mr. Christie.

“If Governor Christie believes the constitutional rights and the privacy of all Americans is ‘esoteric,’ he either needs a new dictionary, or he needs to talk to more Americans, because a great number of them are concerned about the dramatic overreach of our government in recent years,” Mr. Stafford said. “Defending America and fighting terrorism is the concern of all Americans, especially Senator Paul. But it can and must be done in keeping with our Constitution and while protecting the freedoms that make America exceptional.”

Concluded Mr. Stafford: “In the words of the governor’s favorite lyricist, ‘You know that flag flying over the courthouse, Means certain things are set in stone. Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.’”

Senator Paul himself said via Twitter on Friday morning, “Christie worries about the dangers of freedom. I worry about the danger of losing that freedom. Spying without warrants is unconstitutional.”

Contrary to Governor Walker’s dismissal of the surveillance controversy as a “few loud and vocal people talking in Washington,” this is a robust and widespread debate about liberty and privacy versus security, and it crosses partisan lines.  The cause of the heated exchange between Christie and Paul was the Amash-Conyers amendment to curtail NSA collection of cell-phone metadata, which only failed by 7 votes in the House.  It’s true that Republicans were opposed to the measure overall, while Democrats supported it, but the vote totals were such that neither party can dismiss either side of the question out of hand.  No matter which side you come down on, you should be able to see this as a conversation we need to have, and will probably never stop having, as Information Age technology makes new forms of surveillance and data mining possible.

Judging by both Congressional votes and polls, it would seem fair to say that Americans currently favor the security side of the scales that balance liberty and security.  But the concerns of the other side are not trivial.  This particular Administration has proven itself uniquely untrustworthy with confidential data.  President Obama’s defense against scandal is to describe the problems as systemic and rooted in the bureaucracy that predated him, and will continue after his departure.  He’s decidedly uninterested in doing anything to resolve the problems, describing them as “phony distractions” from his agenda.

No one should be surprised that a healthy segment of the Republican Party finds all of this deeply disturbing.  And it would be a mistake to satisfy ourselves with the eventual departure of a scandal-plagued Administration as the permanent solution to the problem.  Government’s powers should be limited in a way that preserves the freedom of American citizens even when a bad Administration is running the show.  “Don’t give the government any powers that Barack Obama could not be trusted with” is a decent motto for the libertarian-minded Republican.  Conversely, if a program is truly essential to national security, we should not dismiss it as rubbish because of who currently sits in the White House.

To put it mildly, it’s unfair and illogical for Christie to drag the widows and orphans of 9/11 into a debate about privacy and security in 2013.  It doesn’t speak well of his confidence in the strength of his arguments that he would resort to that.  (I speak as someone generally willing to settle close calls between liberty and security in favor of security, especially in the era of asymmetrical warfare, where intelligence about terror threats is of paramount importance.)

I would also point out that the government did detect the 9/11 hijackers in a variety of ways, but it willfully chose to ignore them.  The same can be said of the Boston Marathon bombers.  All these dazzling high-tech data mining operations, in which surveillance data on all Americans is stored forever in mighty terabyte vaults, doesn’t count for much if the government deliberately chooses to ignore certain threats, for reasons ranging from ideology to bureaucratic inertia.  The Daily Caller has a post up today, detailing how the FBI spent years studiously ignoring “warnings about the radical origins and nature of the mosque frequented by the Tsarnaev brothers.”

We constantly see stories about how low-tech traditional sources of intelligence are ignored, even as the government spends millions on the new high-tech systems it uses for blanket data harvesting.  As I recall one wag observing after reports of Russian warnings about the Tsarnaev brothers surfaced, our security apparatus was given a credible warning about a particularly threatening individual, and the response was “Don’t bother us, we’re busy watching everybody.”

On the other hand, firm accounts of threats actually prevented by the programs that have libertarians nervous are thin.  We are told this is because the documentation necessary to tell those success stories is classified.  That response may be defensible, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that critics find it unsatisfying.

None of this should be framed, by either side, as a binary choice between total surveillance and deadly vulnerability.  It does not strike me as a question that can be easily or permanently settled, so I’m naturally suspicious of those who claim otherwise.  But after all we’ve learned about the government’s abuse of confidential data in 2013, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable when I see another gigantic federal data trove piling up, even when I hear decent arguments for how it can be used to fight terrorists.  I can’t stop thinking about what else it could be used for.