In Praise of Chinese Walls

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Colby Cosh makes a compelling point about the congressional intelligence report on the Sept. 11 massacre.

Congress appears rueful that a "wall" was built in the 1960s and 1970s between domestic policing of the American republic and the gathering of foreign intelligence, because it prevented the relevant agencies from coordinating their data and making the connections (INS-CIA-FBI-NSA) that might have saved the World Trade Center. Well, the people who built that "wall" were perfectly aware that it would have the effect of decreasing the efficiency with which the citizenry was protected. They built it because the power to protect is also the power to detect, persecute, and destroy. The wall serves to prevent a police state being created in America. That's important: not lip-service important, but future-of-the-human-species important. If getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth American lives, the continued existence of the wall unarguably is.

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  1. Doesn?t this compelling point work both ways?

    The threats that lie beyond this internal wall in the intelligence community are just as real as the threats posed by Saddam Hussein being allowed to continue his WMD programs.

    Which argument is more immediately feasible, that Saddam and Al Qeada might hate America enough to have concerted their terrorist efforts against the US or that our govt monitoring my library card is going to lead to an Orwellian America?

    Reason has taken the tendentious stance to be so critical of our not acting fast enough in the case of 911 and acting too quickly on the war on terrorism going forward. If this administration had acted properly on the pre-911 information, this very website would have been working overtime writing on the violations of the would be terrorists; racial profiling, invasion of privacy and so on.

    The example that always comes to my mind is the inaction of France when the Nazis moved troops into the Rhineland. Had they acted then of course, Hitler would have been crippled from the start. Then of course, every reality deprived idealist across the world would have condemned the French for their preemptive actions for the same basic reasons the editors here can?t support our war against Saddam.

  2. Screwing over other countries and peoples in service of America, sickeningly, keeps looking better and better.

    This sort of reminds me of The Roman Empire, where wars of conquest were launched often not so much for a desire for a yet bigger empire, but just to keep the military from turning on the leaders and bringing the whole empire tumbling to the ground; here, however, one almost wishes to send the government off in fits of lunacy against other countries just to keep them from turning on the citizenry. Pity that there are such strong pro-government cultural forces of war that are present in America, as it utterly rules out such a strategy from succeeding.

    Ah well, it was a nice though.

  3. Thought – a “nice thought”. Grr.

  4. That’s right Matt. No cost is too great to preserve the Constitution.

    Or Senator Church’s ideas about how things oughta be, for that matter.

  5. That “wall” between the CIA and FBI was around long before the 1970s. What strengthened it was Richard Nixon’s hapless attempt to abuse the CIA by having it warn off the FBI from investigating Watergate.

    The wall also makes sense from the standpoint that most of what the FBI does doesn’t and never has overlapped with what the CIA does. USDA and the National Park Service don’t communicate too well either — they don’t have to. The case is the same here.

    Except it isn’t, in the specific case of an external threat aiming to attack targets within the United States. In this case the wall between domestic policing and foreign intelligence probably made 9/11 more likely. Colby Cosh suggests that this is merely part of the price of liberty, and suggests that the Congressional intelligence reformers of the 1970s would have taken the same view.

    Anyone who has ever worked in Congress or even met more than one or two Congressmen can see how absurd that latter contention is. What about the first one, though, the one about paying the price of liberty and preventing a police state in America? Many libertarians believe this as a matter of faith; for them, Nazi Germany is always just around the corner. For the rest of us, the problem comes down to whether agencies tasked with fighting terrorism — something everyone believes is necessary — can cooperate without that cooperation spreading into subjects that have nothing to do with terrorism. This is the problem of avoiding another Watergate, not preventing a police state; America will always produce Presidents willing to bend the rules to avoid embarrassment, even though it lacks the major prerequisite for a repeat of the Nazi experience (for those new to the subject that would be THE NAZIS).

    That the wall between domestic policing and intelligence will be breached is a question already decided. The relevant question is how agencies in the two fields can be managed and overseen in such a way that they fight terrorism effectively while still performing their other functions and not overstepping their bounds.

  6. Libertarians are supposed to think Nazi Germany is just around the corner? Jeez, my libertoid marching orders tell me to act like it’s already here–must have been a printer’s error. Or, the black helicopters shot mind-control rays at me.

    Kidding aside, and recognizing Zathras’s points, I have to note that I’m completely innocent of Godwinizing this discussion. “Why do people always drag Nazis into it?” is a bizarre reaction to a weblog entry that didn’t mention Nazis. (History would be quite full enough of police states even if the NSDAP had never taken power in Germany.)

  7. I do not accept that the only choices for interagency relations are pre-Church abuses or pre-9/11 bumbling. If we need a new model for how domestic law enforcement and overseas intelligence/covert action interact, it will not be found by looking at 1972.

  8. The problem isn’t the wall but the gatekeepers.

    Neither the Clinton or the Bush administrations are directly to blame as it would have taken a herculean reform effort to rid our intelligence community of the burearucratic indolence that allowed 911. And not foreseeing such an event hardly damns either administration; what seems obvious now was only a Diehard 5 movie before.

  9. Hindsight is 20/20

  10. Here’s another “nice thought,” Plutarck:

    Make it a habit to hit “Preview” first.

  11. The “A” in USDA stands for “Agriculture.”
    The “Park” in National Park Service stands for “Park Tourism.”

    (Your right, Zathras — no relationship there.)

    However …

    The “I” in FBI stands for “Investigation.”
    The “I” in CIA stands for “Intelligence.”

    (Definitely related, don’t you think?)

  12. “History [is] quite full enough of police states, even if the NSDAP had never taken power in Germany.”

    For example the police states of:

    – Alexander the Great
    – Julius Caesar
    – Attila the Hun
    – Napoleon Bonaparte
    – The British Empire

    But since a picture is worth a thousand [historical] words, none of those police states made so lasting an impression on our psyche than did the Nazi regime — primarily because none of them had cameras, Colby.

    The Nazis were sticklers for filming everything, including their atrocities. And thanks to those images, our collective memory is enhanced to a much greater extent.

  13. Calling all of those past nations and empires police states robs the phrase of all meaning. My point was that totalitarianism, in its modern sense, requires totalitarians. America doesn’t have them. Abuses and abridgements of liberty can still occur and must be guarded against, but that is not the same thing.

  14. Zathras is right. It can’t happen here.

  15. You’re right, Zathras. We don’t have police-state actions in this country.

  16. Here?s a thought. Instead of being a bunch of black helicopter fringe types who are always so ready to die on the wrong hill, why don?t Libertarians take up some more mundane causes in their local communities and begin to actually make a difference.

    A local developer somehow manages to arrange a huge multi-million dollar subsidy from the city to attract a Wal-Mart to an abandoned shopping center. Attack that, educate the locals on why this is so wrong instead of falling on the sword of drug legalization.

  17. “Abuses and abridgements of liberty can still occur and must be guarded against, but that is not the same thing.”

    But the “Abuses and abridgements of liberty” can be pretty terrible themselves and can lead to totalitarianism. As Jefferson observed “freedom is rarely lost all at once”

  18. I was on my way to a job interview when I heard about the World Trade Center attack. My first comment to my friend who was with me was, “that’s a price you may have to pay to live in a free society.”

    Yes, you can say that that’s a cold-hearted and quasi-religious (from Zanthras’ ‘matter of faith’ comment) thing to say, that I’m on the lunatic fringe worrying about black helicopters and ‘Nazi Germany being right around the corner’, but as Rick pointed out ‘freedom is rarely lost all at once’, not to mention Franklin’s quote about giving up essential freedoms for a little bit of safety (to paraphrase awfully) – that’s what really inspired my initial reaction.

    Yes, it’s back to the slippery slope arguement, but to me it’s as plain as the nose on my face. Maybe I’m just too much of an individualist for my own good.

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    DATE: 05/21/2004 12:04:01
    Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.

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