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  • Introduction:Governing the Security State
  • William Bendix (bio) and Paul J. Quirk (bio)

This special issue addresses one of the great, persistent challenges of American democracy: how to maintain both a safe, stable homeland and a healthy, free society. Over the last fifteen years, since the 9/11 attacks, the war on terrorism has raised difficult questions about the trade-offs between national security and civil liberties. Do coercive interrogation methods yield valuable intelligence, or do they simply lead to human-rights abuses? Has expanded government surveillance helped authorities identify and capture terrorists, or has it led primarily to fishing expeditions and unwarranted investigations of Americans? Should websites frequented by extremist groups be shut down, or would such actions suppress legitimate political dissent? Policymakers have struggled to determine what sacrifices in due process, privacy, and speech rights are necessary for the country’s defense against international terrorism. They have struggled even to consider what sacrifices of convenience or effectiveness for security and law-enforcement operations may be warranted for the sake of individual rights.

Scholars, pundits, and the public have weighed these same issues. The case of Edward Snowden, for example, has sparked a long, unresolved debate over the balance between government secrecy and transparency. Snowden, as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), copied tens of thousands of classified documents on mass surveillance programs and leaked them to several journalists in 2013.1 For the next year, the press published stories that revealed how the U.S. government, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, had secretly spied on the American public without congressional oversight or statutory authority. Of course, the stories also provided terrorists, criminal hackers, and enemy states with detailed descriptions of U.S. intelligence-gathering techniques. According to several polls, most Americans [End Page 399] are unsure whether Snowden should be viewed as a hero for exposing investigative abuses or as a traitor for divulging sensitive national-security records.2 Even some presidential candidates in the 2016 race have taken ambivalent positions on the Snowden leaks.3

The country has sometimes managed relatively thoughtful debates over the values of security and liberty and struck a considered balance between them. But in times of national threat, it has reflexively prioritized defense and set aside constitutional principles. In 1798, as the United States faced possible war with France, Congress passed the Sedition Act and empowered authorities to imprison critics of President John Adams and his administration.4 For both the Civil War and World War II, military tribunals were used in place of criminal courts to prosecute enemy combatants and traitorous citizens. Suspects were presumed guilty, denied access to council, prevented from calling witnesses, and barred from appealing verdicts—even when the verdicts came with a sentence of death.5 During much of the Cold War, federal agents monitored and harassed political activists—including prominent civil-rights leaders—for allegedly being “subversive.”6

Why has American democracy found it so hard to maintain a reasonably consistent, deliberate balance between security and liberty? Many political debates are straightforward matters of conflicting interests or enduring disagreements between left and right ideological camps. The balance of power in such debates is generally stable. By contrast, the question of what are appropriate restrictions on governmental power and constitutional rights is complex and contentious on multiple levels. National-security policy can spark heated, principled disagreements, but these disagreements do not divide policymakers into neat liberal and conservative factions. Because suspicion of executive power is strong on both ends of the ideological spectrum, liberals, libertarians, and small-government conservatives have at times united against expansive state power on a number of policing issues, such as search-and-seizure rules and wiretapping practices. Even before the Snowden leaks, both parties in Congress split their votes on surveillance bills.7 These intra-party divisions have only intensified after the explosive NSA revelations, making it difficult for lawmakers to draft and pass privacy reforms.8

Beyond the ideological disagreements, policymakers must contend with two competing, speculative risks: on one hand, that of catastrophic terrorist attacks on civilians and, on the other hand, that of investigative abuse compromising political freedom or doing other significant harm. The likelihood...


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pp. 399-405
Launched on MUSE
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