Partisanship and politics is getting in the way of solid security strategy

As long as this partisan foolishness continues, Americans won't trust America's leaders. That makes it almost impossible for Americans to trust potentially intrusive, yet necessary security measures.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Life is filled with tough choices. I know that sounds cliche, but we all know it's true. If life for each of us individuals is filled with tough choices, imagine how challenging some of the choices are at the national governance level.

A young person has to choose what course of study to pursue, even though he doesn't really know what he wants to do in life, and can only afford one shot at school. A young parent may have to decide whether to focus on career or family. A couple may have have to choose whether or not they're going to have kids at all. These are all tough choices, and yet each of us has to make tough choices all the time.

At the national level, our leaders have tough choices, too. Do we send our troops into war, where some of our kids are certain to die? Is it better to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or to potentially let millions more die in conventional ground conflicts?

Do we spend tax money that might help suffering families or do we spend it to prevent bridges from collapsing? Or do we not spend it at all, and thereby reduce the tax burden on our citizens?

Great Debate: Do democracies really need to spy on their citizens?

These are all huge choices. They're very different, yet there's one common factor among all of them: there is no one right answer. There are many ramifications to each choice, and those of one ideology may lean one way while those of another ideology may lean another — but there's still no one right choice.

This is at the heart of politics. Because national policy choices are based on so many factors, it's virtually impossible to get everyone to agree on one single option.

Take climate change, for example. Scientists the world over are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that we're experiencing substantial climate change. And yet, even in the face of scientific evidence, there are deniers. Some deny out of ideology and some deny out of simple orneriness (if the other side is for it, I'm against it). Still others fight against the concept because they don't want their companies to be subject to regulations if climate change becomes an accepted theory and laws are enacted based on that premise.

Politics is important, because in a democratic nation, we all have the right to a voice. But politics can get in the way of finding the best answer, the best practice for a given situation. Politics is often fueled, not just by concerned citizens' voices, but by enormously powerful lobbies, often representing clients whose missions are at fundamental odds with the best interests of the nation as a whole.

The problem with politics is that it can often derail wisdom in favor of the most moneyed special interests. A single viral sound-bite or video clip can derail best practices if it's got stickiness or resonates -- even if it's based on faulty logic or misleading messaging.

Lobbying firms play this game for keeps. That's how we got SOPA and PIPA, truly heinous bills that did their darndest to leave our fair use rights at the digital door.

This, then, is the fundamental problem of politics: it erodes the public's confidence and trust in our leadership.

Our leaders are faced with enormously difficult decisions each day, decisions that are needed to keep our economy running, decisions that are needed to keep us healthy, and decisions that are needed to protect us from terrorist and lunatic attack.

This leads me to the Edward Snowden story and the NSA. Violet Blue and I just completed a Great Debate on the question, Do democracies really need to spy on their citizens? Violet said "no" and won the popular vote by a wide margin. Respondents were clearly influenced by a lack of trust of government.

I argued "yes," and won the moderator's vote for best argument. That's because I looked at the issue as a management problem and not an emotional one. I looked at how we protect our citizens from attack, what we actually would need to do, not what we wish we could do.

Every weekday, the New York City subway system gives just about 5.5 million rides to New Yorkers. In 2009, one Najibullah Zazi was recruited by al Queda to deliver a bomb to the New York subways system and commit suicide by detonating the bomb himself. That bombing never happened, reports CBS in New York City because aggregate analysis of phone records led the FBI to Zazi before he could carry out his mission.

General Keith Brian Alexander, the current director of the NSA, reports that more than 50 Zazi-like attacks were foiled due to NSA's active surveillance programs.

In other words, without the very sorts of programs that most people are up in arms against, there would, almost undoubtedly, have been horrible consequences.

This is why 62 percent of Americans, reports Politico approve of national security surveillance.

Americans understand tough decisions.

The problem is, Americans also understand politicians. Where Americans have difficulty is telling the difference between when a leader is making an expedient decision for the benefit of the nation or, more likely, is making a politically expedient decision for the benefit of his or her backers and lobbyist cronies.

This is where the system breaks down. It's not the NSA surveillance of aggregate phone data. That's actually a pretty smart strategy. It's the politicians who have, for so long, betrayed our trust with political shenanigans that we just can't tell when they're making a good decision or selling us out.

This then, is my warning to our politician readers (and I know you read this, because you write me relatively regularly): stop with the political crap. America has serious problems to solve, we all have to work together to solve them, and we're going to be locked in gridlock together if you people in Washington and the various state capitals don't start focusing on your jobs instead of your reelection campaigns.

For America to be united in its fight against enemies foreign and domestic, we must first be united as a people. We are the United States. This should be a given.

It's time for our politicians to behave like leaders instead of like entitled creeps, and put the nation first. Then, if we have to take extraordinary precautions to protect our citizens, our citizens will know its in their best interests.

Right now, this whole NSA surveillance thing isn't making Americans feel more secure. Violet made good points. She mentioned the AP spying incident and the IRS attacks against Tea Party nonprofits. As long as this partisan foolishness continues, Americans won't trust America's leaders.

They'll just worry about when the shoe will drop on their heads.

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