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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

 
Trust busting

by digby

Here is an interesting post from Ned Resnikoff on the recent brouhaha over alleged liberal double standards. He states that it's reasonable to have trust in Barack Obama's judgement with respect to targeted killings, but that it's a mistake to allow it anyway. He first makes the obvious argument that by codifying the practice it pretty much insures that someone you might not like so much will have similar powers in the future. True that.

But he goes on to say that while it's reasonable to trust President Obama, the bureaucracy that feeds him the information from which to make his judgement as to which human beings are worthy of targeting, is terribly flawed:

[T]rust in President Obama—or any individual actor—has very little to do with how the program is being carried out right now. Words like “Byzantine” are woefully insufficient when it comes to describing the machinations of the modern national security state. (Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest got close to articulating the full extent of the system’s complexity when she wrote, “the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.”) No man, least of all an American president with other demands on his time, is physically capable of sifting through all of the disparate intelligence that goes into making life-or-death security decisions. Instead, President Obama has to rely on a vast bureaucracy, staffed with people who have their own biases and incentives.

The claims these institutions make should be regarded as inherently untrustworthy, regardless of how much we may trust various people to those institutions. In the past 15 years it has become clear that failing to eliminate threats is extremely high cost (everyone remembers that the Clinton administration missed a chance to kill Bin Laden in 1998), while civilian casualties are extremely low-cost (most voters do not seem particularly distraught over the hundreds of civilian casualties from U.S. drone attacks). So from an institutional perspective, the risk of killing civilians means little when weighed against the risk of not killing a potential threat.

That’s exactly why we can’t take Brennan’s claim that targeted killings are “a last resort” at face value. The only way to ensure that the national security state does not abuse its power is to substantially limit its power—or, at the absolute least, to subject it to strict civilian and judicial scrutiny. There is little doubt that the Obama administration would resist that kind of oversight, but whether the man at its head is personally trustworthy is neither here nor there.

I think that's a good argument. But I can't for the life of me see why it shouldn't be applied to presidents too. They aren't priests or saints. None of them. And even the best of them are subject to exactly the same pressures, biases and incentives described above. They are, after all, human beings. And they're human beings we don't actually know, however much we watch them on TV. They sell themselves to us with a carefully crafted image designed to make us vote for them. That doesn't make them bad people or even insincere. But it does make the whole concept of "trust" seem a bit naive. Do we really know these people?

I seem to recall a stale old chestnut about all this by some guy named Madison that goes something like this:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

And I just have to add that as a general rule I tend to mistrust people who insist on keeping things secret, particularly when they evoke undemocratic state secrets laws and use novel constitutional rationales for their behavior. All the presidents of the national security state since World war II have been secretive and the results have been mixed, to say the least. I don't expect that record to be markedly improved by the bipartisan foreign policies of this or any other administration as long as they have the power to act without constraint or accountability. Or to put it another way: the power to act without some "auxiliary precautions."

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