Snowden’s Legal Adviser on the ‘Religion’ of National Security

On the evening of Donald Trump’s first day as president-elect, Ben Wizner, principal legal adviser to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, spoke at an event at Columbia Law School and criticized the kind of national security fear-mongering on which Trump centered his campaign.

Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, focused his Nov. 9 talk, “Against ‘National Security,’” on what he called the “civic religion” of national security; not national defense or public safety, but the far more nebulous and elusive category, he said, that rose in the years since President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947. The fear of foreign terrorism has allowed the United States to get away with a great deal in the name of national security, without scrutiny or impunity for government officials, he argued.

“If you do not believe that the terror threat requires us to abandon our core principles, you’re dismissed as weak and naive,” said Wizner.  “We have perpetuated a state of perpetual constitutional exception.”

However, if there were actually many terror threats, Wizner contended, we would know it by now. “This leads us to the very uncomfortable question: How have the leaders and defenders of the security state persuaded the citizens of the most secure society in history that the Huns are always at our doorstep?”

Wizner outlined several (untrue, he claims) baseline assumptions that he says the U.S. approach to national security is organized around. These ideas, which Wizner calls the core tenets of the “national security priesthood,” include: that we live in a uniquely dangerous time with unprecedented threats; that security is our paramount national interest, and we should necessarily do anything that makes us safer; and that we should defer to the expertise of national security officials.

Government information and officials are protected by the courts, and the system that whistleblowers must navigate to divulge information on this topic is “rigged,” said Wizner, borrowing a word from Trump. For this reason, he said, it’s been nice to defend Snowden, who “threw the rule book out the window.”

The event was presented as part of the Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy Faculty Student Intellectual Life Series, and was co-sponsored by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Knight First Amendment Institute. Columbia Law School Professor David Pozen, a leading national security law expert, moderated the discussion.

“This is not the event we expected to be holding, or at least not the atmosphere,” said Pozen, referring to the presidential election results. “[But] it is all the more appropriate to have Ben with us now, because I suspect the work of the ACLU just got even more important.”

Looking to the future, Wizner explained that change requires judicial and legislative oversight, but that the courts and Congress have access only to the information that the executive branch decides to share. With Trump, Wizner said, it’s “almost impossible to know what he actually thinks.”

With a sign reading “Resilience” projected on the wall as his final slide, Wizner ended his address by rejecting political fear-mongering, invoking the national anthem. “‘Land of the free and home of the brave’—they go together,” he said. “You can’t get freedom without courage.”

“What would it look like to have a different kind of politics, that was based more on courage than on fear?,” Wizner asked. “More on resilience than reaction? Is the fear of terrorism as deep-seated as our leaders seem to believe it is? Or is it a language and a discourse that we’ve all just gotten accustomed to? I think there’s reason to believe the public might be grateful for a more honest and contextualized conversation about terrorism.”


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Posted November 15, 2016