Spy On Me, I'd Rather Be Safe

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The NSA collects data on billions of phone calls and internet communications per day. Are these surveillance programs legal? Do they keep us safe? If not for the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, most Americans would be unaware of the vast amounts of information their government is secretly collecting, all in the name of national security. But whether you believe leakers are heroes or traitors, an important public conversation has finally begun, and we should ask ourselves: What tradeoffs are we willing to make between security and privacy?

As Benjamin Franklin might have asked, "Are we giving up essential liberty to purchase temporary safety, and thus deserving of neither?"

Presented in partnership with The McCain Institute for International Leadership.  Learn more at mccaininstitute.org.

  • Baker90px


    Stewart Baker

    First Asst. Secretary for Policy, Dept. of Homeland Security

  • Falkenrath90px


    Richard Falkenrath

    Principal, The Chertoff Group & Former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor

  • Cole90px


    David Cole

    Professor of Law, Georgetown Univ. Law Center

  • German90px


    Michael German

    Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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For The Motion

Stewart Baker

First Asst. Secretary for Policy, Dept. of Homeland Security

Stewart Baker practices law at Steptoe & Johnson, covering homeland security, cybersecurity, data protection, encryption, lawful intercepts, intelligence and law enforcement issues, and foreign investment regulation. He is the author of Skating on Stilts – Why We Aren't Stopping Tomorrow's Terrorism, a book on the security challenges posed by technology, and he writes on cybersecurity and privacy law at www.skatingonstilts.com. From 2005 to 2009, Baker was the first assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. During 2004 and 2005, Baker served as general counsel of the WMD Commission investigating intelligence failures prior to the Iraq war. From 1992 to 1994, he was general counsel of the National Security Agency, where he led NSA and interagency efforts to reform commercial encryption and computer security law and policy. His book on these topics, The Limits of Trust: Cryptography, Governments, and Electronic Commerce, analyzes encryption and authentication laws in dozens of countries.

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For The Motion

Richard Falkenrath

Principal, The Chertoff Group & Former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor

Richard Falkenrath, Deputy Assistant to President Bush and former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor, has held a range of leadership positions in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The principal author of the National Strategy for Homeland Security, he served as Senior Director of Policy and Plans within the Office of Homeland Security after 9/11. From 2006 to 2010, he served as the New York City Police Department's Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism, where he strengthened the city's overall effort to prevent, prepare for, and respond to terrorist attacks. Falkenrath is now Principal at The Chertoff Group, a global security and risk-management advisory firm; an adjunct senior fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations; and a contributing editor at Bloomberg News.

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Against The Motion

David Cole

Professor of Law, Georgetown Univ. Law Center

David Cole is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, a volunteer attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, the legal affairs correspondent for The Nation, and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. He is the author of seven books, including the American Book Award-winning Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism. He has litigated many significant constitutional cases in the Supreme Court, including Texas v. Johnson, United States v. Eichman, which extended First Amendment protection to flagburning, and, most recently, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which challenged the constitutionality of the statute prohibiting “material support” to terrorist groups, which makes speech advocating peace and human rights a crime. Cole has received numerous awards for his human rights work, including the inaugural Norman Dorsen Prize from the ACLU for lifetime commitment to civil liberties.

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Against The Motion

Michael German

Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington

Mike German is the senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, where he develops policy positions and pro-active strategies concerning national security and open government. Prior to joining the ACLU, he served for 16 years as a special agent with the FBI, where he specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations. He also served as an adjunct professor for Law Enforcement and Terrorism at the National Defense University and is a senior fellow with GlobalSecurity.org. German’s first book, Thinking Like a Terrorist, was published in January 2007. He has a B.A. in Philosophy from Wake Forest University and a J.D. from Northwestern University Law School.

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Declared Winner: Against The Motion

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Voting Breakdown:

59% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes 16% voted FOR twice, 38% voted AGAINST twice, 5% voted UNDECIDED twice). 41% changed their minds (7% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 3% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 2% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 1% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 10% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 18% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST). Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link Unkown Thursday, 03 March 2016 15:35 posted by Unkown

      HI i think there should be NO spying on us

    • Comment Link Hugh Ganus Wednesday, 20 May 2015 12:39 posted by Hugh Ganus

      Finally an interesting topic on this program.
      Unless people think that what we eat is more important than domestic terrorism.
      Commonly, people do not always realize the dangers that come from counter terrorism.
      Keep on truckin'.

    • Comment Link Jessie Wednesday, 08 April 2015 13:51 posted by Jessie

      I have an idea. What if, in order to look at the data that they've gathered, the government needs a warrant, like how police officers need probable cause and a warrant before they can search somebody's house?

    • Comment Link Dani Tuesday, 18 November 2014 11:58 posted by Dani

      Why does anybody want to spy? It's ludicrous.

    • Comment Link Selene Monday, 16 December 2013 16:25 posted by Selene

      Although peripheral to the spying/security discussion,
      what very obviously would have kept US citizens safe from Islamic jihadists, would have been, and is now, to withdraw militarily from Arabian peninsula and Afghanistan, as well as remove military and contracting "security" from Iraq.

      US support of certain regimes, such as the Saud family, were instrumental in arousing sever ire.
      Avoiding military support to either shi'a or sunni and instead using diplomacy, is another obvious answer.

      The US problem is the use of violence to attempt to achieve political/corporate ends.

      Internal problems such as disaffected ex-military bomber-terrorists like McVeigh, is a more difficult subject, but the US govt (especially its paranoid and excessive FBI agency) must realize that Occupy movements, environmental movements, animal welfare organizations and others, are NOT, in their very nature, violent, and are NOT terrorists.

      The absurd mislabelinig and targeting of these groups for surveillance, aside from being unConstitutional and unjust, infringing upon the right to dissent, is a colossal unwarranted spying goal. Because of this rabid pursuit of dissenters and paranoid labeling , the US government has gone far astray of the principles upon which the nation is based.

      Your money is being wasted, the justice system perverted by this mindset and response.

      Our excessive military (57% of the entire budget!) could them be brought down to a size which would avoid currency devaluation and a host of other fiscal ills.

      The obscene relationship of politicians with corporate money and lobbying must be ended, Constitutionally would be the most effective. Then false targeting by intelligence agencies and personnel and contractors could then be dismantled, undoing the trend toward a violent coercive, totalitarian state, which is already now upon us.

    • Comment Link Mark Willett Saturday, 14 December 2013 14:23 posted by Mark Willett

      I'm split on this. Yes you have to have trust that people will do the right thing in regards to security. The info is out there. ( 3rd party ). But to many times I have been burnt. There things I don't think people, security people, should be privy to. Cole said the plot in Colorado was a direct result of this. Could the intel be gathered without the phone sweeps or computer sweeps?

    • Comment Link Zireaux Wednesday, 04 December 2013 05:05 posted by Zireaux

      Astonishing that all the debaters -- for the entire duration of the debate -- interpreted the word "safe" as "safe from terrorists" and not, say, "safe from corporate hedge fund criminals," or "safe from predatory bankers." Which outlaws, after all, should really concern the American public? Who's the bigger threat to American security?

    • Comment Link Coleen Rowley Tuesday, 03 December 2013 18:14 posted by Coleen Rowley

      Former FBI agent and now ACLU Legislative Counsel Mike German and Georgetown Professor David Cole WON the debate handily! Over twice as many people voted that the NSA (and other US covert agency) spying is not keeping us safe but is having the opposite effect.

      And this excellent result was in spite of the fact that the original question was framed as a false trade-off premise: "Spy on me, I'd rather be safe" which NPR changed to "Does Spying Keep Us Safe" to be more neutral. But German wisely began by explaining how spying on innocent people actually makes it harder for the NSA et al to keep us safe.

      Debates like this are very beneficial if the participants are competent and knowledgeable.

    • Comment Link george Subt Wednesday, 20 November 2013 18:14 posted by george Subt

      It takes monitoring millions of private messages per traveler stopped getting on an airplane? waste of time and money. get a job.

    • Comment Link Markus Laumann Monday, 18 November 2013 14:21 posted by Markus Laumann

      If the funding for these NSA projects had been spent on a quality healthcare system infrastructure, a smart power grid, internet for everybody, or not spent at all, we would be much better off.

    • Comment Link kathleen Berger Monday, 18 November 2013 14:10 posted by kathleen Berger

      The very first statement just about sums it up..."Whether the current government is trustworthy and acts with good intentions is irrelevant. Building the capacity to collect and store the communications of every American is a capability open for abuse." and abuse it those that will, will! I for one am quit sure that it will get more use by those who want to abuse the system than not!

    • Comment Link Jack Ryan Thursday, 14 November 2013 15:42 posted by Jack Ryan

      They don't have the capability to evaluate the data they have in their possession right now.

    • Comment Link Daniel R Martin Wednesday, 06 November 2013 04:06 posted by Daniel R Martin

      I'm voting against the motion on grounds of COST. The enormous costs are way out of proportion to the benefits of electronic surveillance.

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