As the controversy over government surveillance unfolds, much of the debate crosses party lines: On this issue, President Barack Obama has passionate detractors on the left and defenders on the right. This is not about Republican vs. Democrat but about freedom vs. security -- a debate in which there will never be a final answer, only a search for a better balance.
Complicating the issue, information on what the newly publicized surveillance programs did, what they targeted, and how they were run remains fuzzy. Does the collection of telephone records lead to eavesdropping? How likely is it that the monitoring of foreign online communications will sweep up Americans in its net? The lack of information is, of course, a major part of the problem: None of us knows where, when and why our private data might land on some federal employee's desk. That's disconcerting.
For many Democrats, the unease is compounded because Obama ran for president in 2008 as an outspoken critic of George W. Bush-era security policies that were assailed as threats to privacy and individual rights. Yet most of these policies continue with minor alterations.
You might see this as confirming a belief common on the left and the libertarian right: that both major parties are committed to maintaining a too-powerful, too-intrusive national security state. But another possible explanation is that this system survives with bipartisan support because, for all its flaws, it exists for a reason. Obama is almost certainly the strongest critic of the war on terror we could have had in the White House. Perhaps the fact that he has left so much of the counterterrorism system intact makes him less a hypocrite than a realist.
Unfortunately, detractors of the system tend to have a blind spot when it comes to the terror threat. Some see it as largely a fiction made up by a power-hungry ruling clique to justify imperialism abroad and authoritarianism at home. That seems to be the view espoused by Glenn Greenwald, the American attorney and writer who disclosed the telephone records collection program in the British newspaper, The Guardian, last week. In April, Greenwald argued that classifying the Boston Marathon bombing as terrorism was a rush to judgment, even though evidence of the suspects' links to Islamist extremism had already emerged.
Others believe our response to terrorism is an overreaction, given that even the casualties from the Sept. 11 attacks were far below the annual death toll from road accidents.
But the idea that we should adjust to the unpredictable threat of deadly violence by individuals and groups at war with our society the way we adjust to the manageable threats of daily life disregards human nature and common sense. Libertarians -- whose critique of government overreach is right in many ways -- must remember that if another large-scale terrorist attack on American soil succeeded, the backlash would almost certainly create a very dangerous environment for civil liberties. Far better to take limited measures that can help prevent such attacks.
And yet too much trust in government inevitably leads to the corruption of power. Which is why -- agree or disagree with their attitudes toward American power and security -- those who have exposed the surveillance programs have performed a vital service. Despite congressional oversight, more public accountability is needed. Libertarians provide our best checks and balances for the national security state.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.