Support Denmark, Defend Freedom

Friday, May 12, 2006

uNSAfe at what speed?

[Updated to clarify my intent in separating moral authority from legal authority.]

I have a question for my readers and fellow bloggers of all political persuasions.

At what point, if any, do you draw the line with regards to the government's moral authority during wartime to peek into the private lives of its citizen in the name of national security?

This is not meant as an adversarial question, and I've tried to word it as inoffensively as possible. I think it's a question a lot of Americans are (or should be) wrestling with, and I'm not sure there's an easy answer, though many of you may disagree with me on that.

Please note that the question refers to the government's moral authority, not legal authority, which is a completely different matter.

Also, if you don't classify our current situation as "wartime," please explain how your position would be different if you did, assuming it would be. If it wouldn't be, please note that as well.

Other than that, I'm pretty sure y'all don't need any instructions from me. I think ideally bloggers would answer this question on their own sites, rather than in my comments section, then either trackback to this post or leave a comment with your link and I'll keep an updated list.

Have at it!

PS: I don't kid myself that I'm the most read blog out there (yet), so if any other bloggers - or readers - want to spread that word, that'd obviously be great.

Update: Let me clarify a point that I obviously wasn't clear about. For purposes of this "thought experiment," in separating the moral from the legal, pretend that the legal doesn't exist. In otherwords, the otherwise perfectly reasonable answer that in violating its legal authority the government violates its moral authority does not apply here. Think of the law as tabula rasa, upon which you can impose perfect morality. The law that you would devise in this situation would, in fact, be the line you would draw with regards to where the government's moral authority ends.

Update2: Dean Esmay shares his thoughts here.

Blogger MarchDancer said...

We are at war, be there no doubt about it. Undeclared? Yep. Congress, not one of any of its members of whatever persuasion, has raised any red flags or told the truth about they they did know until very recently.

I'm not too sure about legal authority, and I'm glad you didn't ask me to thoroughly research our Constitution before replying to your post. One point I am very sure about - there is no wartime authority for the president to claim all of the "rights" he's given to himself. I'll leave it there for others to answer or to wonder at my intelligence.

Moral authority? I believe moral authority stops long before lying to Congress, or if must be, lying to the Congressional Committees set up to be aware of any president's activities at all times. The NSA doesn't have to be told; they're merely minions of the president as they were set up.
Congressional committees MUST be told the truth - before the actitities are undertaken that are their purview, and then those same committees must be kept up-to-date as the activities progress. If any activities that Congress should be kept updated upon that overlap, then clear, concise, and complete updates are to be reported to them by the president. Period.

The voters of the United States elect our president, and we elect the members of our Congress. All represent us individually and togetherly. Together. Never separately with secret upon secret, piled one on top of the other.

I'm done ranting.

Blogger Gun-Toting Liberal said...

"Please note that the question refers to the government's moral authority, not legal authority, which is a completely different matter."

Actually, I disagree that they are different matters. It is immoral for the Government to break the law and to ignore the Constitution. Our ForeFathers would have toppled this regime a decade ago if they were alive today. You can call it "Moral Authority" if you want, but I see it as "Tyranny", my friend, as do many others.

Appreche your point of view though, seriously! Just 'cause we disagree on this one doesn't mean we can't find other areas where we agree. Blog ON, brother :-)

Blogger Gun-Toting Liberal said...


I can appreciate where you're trying to go with this question, but the fact is, it IS ILLEGAL, what the U.S. Government is doing, which is very hard for me to get past.

That said, your HYPOTHETICAL question would attempt to dive deeply into my libertarian side, which says Government has a moral, and just about EXCLUSIVE obligation to protect my countrymen and women and it's borders, and to provide a judiciary to oversee that process. In that case, it would definitely be the job of the Government to wiretap us, go through our houses and private records, etc., in order to effective do it's one (Libertarian) function.

However; our ForeFathers SPECIFICALLY forbid this power from being placed into the Government's hands, which when considering your question, brings us back to a circular argument.

It is indeed IMMORAL for the Government to willfully ignore the wishes of our Founding Fathers. What was that little "thing" Benjamin Franklin warned us about again? ;-)

Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...

Here's how to get past the illegalities.

Forget about America. We're talking about GTLand, and you're setting up the laws. You're the Founding Father. There's no constitution in place, there's no history, there's no nothing: you're it.

Now: At what point, if any, do you draw the line with regards to the government's moral authority during wartime to peek into the private lives of its citizen in the name of national security?

(Man, this Bush Derangment Syndrome is tough to get past, bro...)

Blogger Dean Esmay said...

What the government's doing isn't illegal, and doesn't in any way infringe on the Constitution, including the 4th amendment. Nor is there any respectable or reasonable evidence of any "lies" to the Congress about any of this.

Unsurprisingly, though, the commenters chose to go in that direction rather than just answering the question of its own.

I'll have my own answer to this, direct and to the point, in the morning, around 8am Eastern. You probably won't like the answer. ;-)

Blogger MarchDancer said...

"The Cranky Insomniac said...
Here's how to get past the illegalities.

Forget about America. We're talking about GTLand, and you're setting up the laws. You're the Founding Father. There's no constitution in place, there's no history, there's no nothing: you're it.

Now: At what point, if any, do you draw the line with regards to the government's moral authority during wartime to peek into the private lives of its citizen in the name of national security?

(Man, this Bush Derangment Syndrome is tough to get past, bro...)"
Hmmm. I'm the one founder, no constitution, no legalities, only a moral president with certain authorities. I'm the president, I would have to be under this set of qualifications. Okay then. Onward!

I would start with what every organized religion in some form quotes, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Why not? I would be happy and so would most of my constituents. It's a moral line that can of course be crossed.

When crossed, when and not if that eventuality arose, well then laws that I had made for just such an eventuality would need to be followed. However, for this drama, no legalities are to be considered. Therefore, no one would ever cross that moral line in my new country! I love it.

When war strikes my naive new country, as it surely soon would, then the only moral imperative that would change is that the "golden rule" set up could not be practiced against the aggressors or their agents within our country.

The president, me, is morally bound to treat his citizens with the same known courtesy as always. However, our own spies (and they would have been placed in each and every other country for our own sake) would soon have us recognizing enemy agents within our own country. How sad!

As it's always been, those agents would be followed, tricked, turned into counter-operatives, and there would be arrests. As president, I am a student of history, and I'm well aware that if history is ignored it is bound to repeat itself. I am prepared for this terrible war game to be played, but as with my countrymen I have always hoped our treatment of others would bring respect. Now we know it doesn't work that way in world wide politics.

Secret prisons, persons held without anyone knowing their wherabouts, and torture are not moral behavior and would be cause for immediate removal from either leadership of an armed force or from an elected position. Period. Moral countries have no need for such Stalinistic measures. None. Nor do their leaders condone those behaviors.

Blogger Dean Esmay said...

I wonder how you define "torture" and how you define "secret prisons," marchdancer. I also wonder how many of your own citizens you'd allow to die before resorting to measures you find immoral and repugnant--i.e. if you ever think that immoral choices are sometimes morally justified because you have no better choice. (Do you consider lying immoral, for example? Okay, so if you know where the Jews are hiding and the Nazis ask you, do you lie to them?)

But I do admire you for giving a direct and coherent answer.

Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...


I'm not sure how we ended up with secret prisons and torturing in this thought experiment. I'm trying very hard to divorce my question from people's opinion of what's happening in real world America circa 2006, regardless of what that opinion may be.

In response to GTL, I wasn't suggesting that there are "no legalities" in this make believe land, only that a good way to look at this is that YOU are setting up the law so that it perfectly matches your notion of morality. So it's not that there would be no law to follow, it's that the law, as written by you, the founding parent of marchdancerland, would be perfectly moral.

So having said that, under your ideally moral system, what would the law be with regards to the government's authority during wartime to peek into the private lives of its citizen in the name of national security?

You can set up a country in which the government has absolutely no authority to peek into the private lives of its citizens during wartime, you can set up a country in which there are no limits to the government's authority to peek into the private lives of its citizens during wartime, or you can set up something in between.

If it's something in between, the question is where do you draw the line?

That's what I'm trying to get at here, although I'm apparently doing a horrible job of it.

Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...


I'm honestly not even sure what my own answer to my question is. This is the problem with being a libertarian hawk and having your instincts pulled in two opposite directions.

Maybe this explains both the crankiness and the insomnia...

8am is about my bedtime these days, so I'll catch your anwer either right before I go to sleep or when I get up. Hopefully you're posting it over at deansworld, since your readership is vastly larger than mine. (For now....bwahahaha...) I think this is a really important question and I'd love to involve a ton of bloggers and commenters...

Blogger Gun-Toting Liberal said...

Okay, C/I, I think I get it now. Dean thinks I'm dodging the question, but in reality, I simply didn't understand your question like I think I do now.

It's an easy answer. If I were the King of the United States like President Bush is, I'd be all for wiretapping without obtaining warrants from the judiciary beforehand. But since neither President Bush or myself are "kings", and since this isn't a Kingdom, I'd have to say President Bush is a lawbreaker when you take his "oh so moral" actions into consideration under his actual, Presidential powers. Do I think he needs to be tossed into the clink? NOPE. But do I think we need a bit of an "intervention" so he will (hopefully) stop conducting ILLEGAL activites? YUP.

Dean seems to think I'm "waffling", but really, I am not afraid to take ANY question head on if I know exactly what the questioner is looking for. And I think you have already figured out by now, C/I. But I could be wrong. I freqently AM.


Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...


I don't think you're waffling, I just think you're unable to divorce the question from your hatred of Bush, which is what I'm attempting to get you to do.

It's not about being king, it's not about whether or not Bush is a lawbreaker. It's a question of political philosophy, not of politics. If you were making the law and you wanted it to be completely moral, where would you draw the line?

The question really has absolutely nothing to do with America or Bush. It's strictly about what YOU think.

Also, by saying "You can call it "Moral Authority" if you want, but I see it as "Tyranny", my friend, as do many others," you're completely misrepresenting what I said, since at no point did I attribute the words "moral authority" to any actions or positions taken by the Bush administration. For some reason that I can't figure out you seem to think I'm saying that Bush has the moral authority to do what he's doing, when in reality I'm purposely NOT taking a position either way for now.

Anonymous Len said...

In a truly righteous society, legal and moral would be the same thing, the only difference being that a violation of legal laws can be prosecuted while a violation of moral rules cannot (there may be more moral rules than legal laws – the difference should be vast). Len

Blogger PurpleThink said...

Interesting thread. Just like evryone else, I have problems divorcing current circumstances with your "thought experiment." I think that problem in itself gives you some legitimate results for your experiment.

That said, I'll try my best:

Government should not take anything from any citizen by way of deception or force -- my libertarian mantra. Thus, if a duly elected government openly divulges that they will collect phone traffic records of all citizens to determine patterns impacting national security -- it's morally fine in peacetime or war.

To complicate things, a true libertarian would not condone immoral government actions even if they are voted for. Majority rule does not trump individual liberty. Thus, only actions that are universally implemented and with equal impact can be tolerated. For example, government cannot only collect records from Arab-Americans, or impose an exhorbitant security tax knowing only the predominantly White rich could afford it.

Anticipating a retort, I'll admit it isn't that easy, but it is certainly easier than our government is making it today. An example of further complication is to what extent we allow government to lie to its own people (deception) for purposes of national security.

Again, I'll give it a shot:

We don't -- period. The people do not need to know exactly what actions are being taken, but morally the people must broadly know what is fair game and what is off-limits. Phone records: fair game. Contents of specific conversations: off limits unless at least one party is international.

There you go -- shoot away.

Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...


Good post, but I have two questions.

1. You say that the government must divulge what it is doing. What if divulging what it's doing in and of itself threatens national security?

2. You say whatever the government does must be done universally. What if a more targeted search would be more useful? What if the goverment knew broadly that Arabs were planning an attack? Or Jews, or Italians, or white Christians? Would it still have to collect the records of all citizens?

Understand that I'm (still) not taking sides here: I'm just asking questions, with no bias towards what I think are the "right" answers.


Blogger PurpleThink said...

1) Valid question to be sure. I think a broad categorical intent needs to be divulged so the people can voice approval or dissapproval with their vote. For example, the President may look at the War on Terror and say that the 4th amendment will be ignored if a clear and present danger requires it to protect the nation's security. The stage has now been set and the people can react from a position of knowledge. Perhaps the people, through its elected officials, decide to grant this authority but require a retroactive revew of all such 4th amendment violations in order to ensure the nation's security truly warranted the action. This is an example of a compromise that is only possible if the people are not kept in the dark -- yet the specifics of the government activity are kept secret if in so doing the nation is protected.

2) If there is reason to believe that a specific ethnic or religous group is planning a terror attack, then the government needs ot get a court warrant -- period. When there is cause to believe the nation's security is at risk, it is no longer discrimination, but rather acting to prevent a reasonably perceived threat and confirmed by the court. I know we're working tabula rasa, but the FISA court is an example of a fast-moving nearly instantaneous warrant authority when just such instances arise.

Blogger Col. Hogan said...

"....Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed...." --US Declaration of Independence.

This works perfectly well for me. It means that government can have no powers not freely given by the people. It means that government can have no power not possessed by each individual (how can anyone give something he doesn't have?).

Since each of us have have rights equal to those of all Americans, I fail to see how any government agent, including the President, can break into the property of others on a hunch or a whim.

We invent Due Process, to give law enforcement a way to follow an evidence trail to solve a crime. Among other things, Due Process requires a description of the "place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized."

We declare that no individual shall " deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...."

In short, if the federal government followed the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights to the letter, as they are sworn to do, well, we'd still have something about which to complain, since the document is somewhat flawed, but it'd be precious little. And, it contains specified means to allow for correction within itself.

Blogger Dana said...

I should probably think more before answering, as I am in the habit of only getting myself into trouble when I don't. I think I got lost when we moved to GT Land, so I think I'll stick to the US, but on a more general note of basic principles rather than issues specific to the war.

People will always give up some of their liberty in exchange for security. Unfortunately, we often forget that our liberty oftentimes IS our security.

Would this be an issue if our borders were secure? Would this be an issue if the majority of Americans knew how to use and carried a gun? Would this be an issue if the average American felt that their liberty was their personal responsibility?

Blogger Dave said...

First, the gratuitous off-topic reference. If we're at war now, who is the enemy? Exactly who has to surrender for it to be over?

First, I draw the line exactly the same in wartime or in peacetime. The whole point of intelligence is to prevent or warn of conflict with other nations, not simply to enhance the effectiveness of the home team.

Second, the real line must be the informed consent of the citizenry. But that's likely to be taken as dodging, so I'll assume that I'm the only citizen. There's about 100,000,000 just like me (how boring) in Daveland.

I/We declare that the government has the right to identify suspicious individual by their actions, associations and origins. It must also attempt to resolve the ambiguous status of 'suspicious' into either 'dangerous' or 'safe'. Having done so, it must remember this decision and the reasons for it.

To achieve this identification and resolution, the government must establish what acts are crimes and which are not. Passing a note is not a crime. Passing a note to a foreign spy is suspicious. Passing a note to the spy that tells them who works in the nuclear submarine refurbishing yard is a crime.

The person who passed the note is dangerous. His girlfriend who works in the shipyard personel department is suspicious. His son who was just out of the Navy is safe.

To determine the status of the girlfriend, we of course want to know everything we can. But some things are beyond the pale. It is wrong to coopt private businesses and common carriers into reporting all information in bulk on all their customers. It is wrong to make cash illegal to increase the paper trail, or to mandate universal biometric IDs linked to govt databases just to get more information about everyone.

It is acceptable to define suspicious relationships as above and then follow up. For example, if it is determined that much funding for the Vatican Liberation Army and it's campaign of bombing abortion clinics is coming from Angelican churches, it is reasonable to send people into those churches on Sunday to see if this particular church is providing verbal support and defense of the VLA's bombings, if they are passing a collection plate, or if they condemn the bombings.

All individuals attending the churches that defend or collect for the VLA may be legitimately considered suspicious.

This all is probaby either too vague or too specific, but it's the best I can do for now.


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