8.06.2013

Peggy Noonan on Surveillance: Then and Now

Peggy Noonan, that wistful and eloquent Thought Leader who longs for the days When Character Was King, has found her inner-libertarian. She has come out firmly on the side of Rand Paul in his spat with Chris Christie over what are called anti-terrorism policies. In her Tuesday column for the Wall Street Journal, Noonan expresses "dismay" at Christie over his "manipulative" invocation of 9/11 to defend authoritarian policies and his shameless appeal to "emotion" rather than "logic" and "argument" (recall that this fierce defender of "logic" and "argument" predicted Romney would win the 2012 presidential election in the face of all available evidence because she felt "vibrations" in the air and she saw a lot of Romney yard signs).

Noonan is evidently very concerned about the National Security State:
Our federal government is involved in massive data collection that apparently includes a database of almost every phone call made in the U.S. The adequacy of oversight for this system is at best unclear. The courts involved are shadowed in secrecy and controversy. Is it really wrong or foolhardy or unacceptably thoughtful to wonder if the surveillance apparatus is excessive, or will be abused, or will erode, or perhaps in time end, any expectation of communications privacy held by honest citizens? 
. . . . .  
The concerns of normal Americans about the new world we’re entering—the world where Big Brother seems inexorably to be coming to life and we are all, at least potentially Winston Smith—is not only legitimate, it is wise and historically grounded. 
. . . . .  
Americans don’t want to be listened in to, and they don’t want their emails read by strangers, especially the government.
It's not every day that one finds an establishment Republican warning us that we're all on the verge of becoming Winston Smiths. This must be a real matter of principle for Peggy. The impressive force of her convictions in this column seems to preclude any suspicion that she's just engaging in the usual partisan hackery. I wonder what she thought about invasive anti-terrorism policies before the latest NSA revelations created a useful harmony between attacking the current Democratic administration and opposing surveillance? Did she crusade against warrantless wiretapping under the exquisitely "responsible" President Bush, even though the latter was oozing "guts" and "courage" and most assuredly only authorized spying so that he could Keep Us Safe?

One need not delve into the dark, cringe-inducing world that is Peggy Noonan's Wall Street Journal archive from the mid-2000s to glean what she has traditionally thought about these matters. This January 2013 piece - written before it became politically advantageous to be anti-surveillance - and titled "A Wiretapping Miracle," will do. In it, the libertarian praises wiretapping as "one of the country's most important post-9/11 antiterror tools" and gloats in the face of all those pedantic liberals who whined, in their classic pre-9/11 mode of thinking, that the Bush administration's wiretapping program was "illegal" and "unconstitutional."

Most hilariously, in the January column Peggy dismissed Rand Paul himself as a "civil liberties absolutist," and expressed satisfaction that a "broad bipartisan majority" had defeated multiple amendments aimed at reining in the excesses of the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA). The sarcasm starts pouring:
This is a turnabout from 2007 and 2008, when letting U.S. spooks read al Qaeda emails or listen in on phone calls that passed through domestic switching networks supposedly spelled doom for the American Republic. Democrats spent years pretending that Mr. Bush's eavesdropping program was "wrong" and "destructive," as Attorney General Eric Holder put it at the time, lamenting that "I never thought I would see a President act in direct defiance of federal law."
Yes, the same Peggy Noonan who caustically mocked those who thought warrantless wiretapping might "spell doom for the American Republic" is now regularly writing columns arguing that surveillance under Obama is literally destroying Americans' love for their country and creating over 300 million Winston Smiths. 

Recall that in her latest piece, Peggy expressed concern that the FISA court is "shadowed in secrecy and controversy." In January, she had the exact opposite concern, worrying that the very existence of the FISA court might "compromise U.S. intelligence gathering," and lamenting that Bush was forced to include it in the FISA law as a "concession" in the legislative process.

Read both columns, if for no other reason, then for sheer amusement. This is what it is like to be firmly entrenched in the media establishment. You can say anything, say the exact opposite thing the next day, switch back, sure, whatever. There is no accountability for anyone or on any issue. Fatuous hypocrites like Peggy Noonan have free rein to write anything. She can, in one of the most widely circulated mainstream newspapers in the country, summarily disregard months of empirical evidence and quantitative election data and insist that Romney will win because there are vibrations in the air, in the knowledge that if/when she was wrong, nothing would happen to her. It must be nice.