Don’t Trust Power When It’s Trying to Frighten You

Conor Friedersdorf rants against implications by Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers that the United States is less safe from terrorism than it was two years ago. His punchline:

The national-security establishment has really figured out how to sustain itself: If the risk of terrorism decreases, it proves that they ought to be given more power to continue their demonstrably successful policies; and if the risk of terrorism increases, it proves that they need more power to fight terrorists who are more dangerous than ever. Whatever happens, whats needed is to give the the people in charge more leeway and resources to do what they’re already doing.

Down at the level of the infantry battalion, the same logic dominated during my Iraq deployments. If IED attacks were down, we had the enemy on the ropes. If IED attacks were up, the enemy was getting desperate. Always was there cause for self-satisfaction.

Of course what Conor’s warning about isn’t self-satisfaction; it’s power-seeking. Power largely derives from physical force. For this reason, we must default to skepticism when evaluating the threat assessments made by those who seek power (e.g., the chairs of the congressional intelligence committees). In any given case, their assertions may be correct. However, their incentive structure makes it impossible for us to determine this from their words alone.

In this case, I think Feinstein and Rogers’ claims are obviously fallacious. “Terror is up worldwide” says nothing about the security of us in the United States, and it may even be an indication that “terror” has moved onto more permissive pastures. “They’ve now switched to this notion that smaller events are OK” says nothing about the frequency or likelihood or cumulative effect of those hypothetical smaller events, and it may even be an indication that terrorists have resigned themselves to a less permissive environment.

In my experience, those who claim to represent national security interests are often enormously motivated by validation of their importance and their exclusive ability to provide security. I think their body language and choice of rhetoric often speaks volumes in this regard. But such intrinsic motivation is rarely demonstrable beyond the level of intuition. What’s demonstrable is that those who seek power have the extrinsic incentive to inflate national security threats. We should set their burden of proof accordingly.

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