Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-CA) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence committees respectively, went on CNN’s Sunday talk show yesterday to put fear into the hearts of Americans. They told us we are in more danger now than ever and the obvious corollary to this is that Americans need to take their fear of government and redirect it to nameless and faceless terrorists who are out to destroy us.
“There are new bombs, very big bombs,” Feinstein warned, “that go through (metal-detecting) magnetometers.” She advised us of “huge malevolence out there.” This puts “enormous pressure” on our intelligence community, Rogers added, which means Americans have to lay off the NSA because they “are not the bad guys.”
In other words, the NSA is not your enemy. Really, it isn’t. The government is just protecting us from foreign bogeymen that are the real danger.
There is an obvious reason for this kind of rhetoric. Feinstein has been using this script for a long time. A couple months ago she published a piece in the Wall Street Journal making the argument that if we had the NSA’s current surveillance structure in place prior to 9/11, we could have prevented the attack.
The Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez wrote in response that Feinstein’s argument “is simply an attempt to exploit the tragedy of 9/11 to deflect criticism of massive domestic surveillance that would not have been any use in preventing that attack.”
At the end of October, to give another example, reporter Jason Leopold acquired documents through a FOIA request that revealed an internal NSA memo advising officials to cite the threat of another 9/11 attack as justification for the mass surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. These suggested talking points had an explicit propaganda utility, as one heading in the document was titled “Sound Bites That Resonate.”
The reality is that we are not in more danger now than we were in before. The government’s own statistics contradict the claims from Feinstein and Rogers. A major study, published by the Department of Homeland Security last year, found that the threat from terrorism (using the government’s definition) is significantly less now than it has been in more than 40 years.
I have repeatedly cited on this blog the Foreign Affairs piece by Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen which argued that while foreign threats from terrorists or rival states have gone way down, threat inflation is on the rise.
“Warnings about a dangerous world also benefit powerful bureaucratic interests,” they explain. “The specter of looming dangers sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government — defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments.”
People like Feinstein, Rogers, Gen. Keith Alexander, James Clapper, and President Obama inflate the threats we face because it breeds blind trust in government and a willingness to hand over our liberties and resources to the national security state unquestioningly. They hate all this added public scrutiny of the formidable post-9/11 powers they have usurped. Public knowledge of and opposition to their dramatically expanded control is a nuisance and a threat to their burgeoning bureaucracy.
As Less Antman, speaking at the 2012 Libertarian Party’s National Convention said, “Drowning people in fear is the key to power.”