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Russ Moore: Langevin’s Mature Approach To Domestic Surveillance

Monday, September 16, 2013


Although U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin's decision to vote against an amendment to defund the NSA may not have been popular amongst his constituents, his approach to national security has been measured and effective.

As a journalist, there’s probably nothing more important to me (outside of friends and family) than civil liberties.

So I sympathize with folks who support the so-called “Amash” amendment that failed to pass Congress by a 205-217 vote—quite a tiny margin. The Amash amendment, introduced by Justin Amash, a Republican Michigan Representative in Congress (M-03), would’ve stripped the National Security Agency (NSA) of funding to collect the telecommunications records of American citizens. Those records are then used to detect suspicious behavior that could lead the authorities to potential terrorist plots. (The program, does not, for the record, collect the content of calls or emails.)

But the amendment would’ve made Americans less safe and stripped the government of a powerful tool to track and prevent terror plots. Sure, the amendment would have given Americans a greater sense of privacy, but is that really a good tradeoff if it leads to more American lives lost thanks to senseless brutality? I think not.

We’ve got to be mature, reasonable, and deliberate about such important issues as security. Nobody should forget that we live in a post September 11, 2001 world. It would be naive and irresponsible to ignore the fact that there are evil terrorists who are hell bent on killing innocent American citizens. Therefore, we’ll do ourselves quite a favor if we stop acting like the government doesn’t have the responsibility to do everything it can to protect citizens from the evil of terrorism.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Therefore, Congressman James Langevin (D-02), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, did the right thing when he voted against the Amash amendment earlier this summer. The vote certainly provoked relentless ire from some of Rhode Island’s progressive community. But I have to give credit to Langevin for taking a stand that he thought was right, albeit unpopular with some of his constituents from the far left (and right) of the political spectrum.

Here’s something I’ll ask my progressive and libertarian friends to consider: the state department and the NSA have thwarted at least 12 terrorist plots thanks in large part to the domestic surveillance program—all of which would’ve taken place on US soil. One of those attacks was plotted against the NY Stock Exchange in 2009.

Are you really comfortable with the notion of one of those terror plots becoming a reality just so you’re certain the government doesn’t know you communicated with your girlfriend or Aunt Millie?

Unfair Criticisms

Some of the criticism of Rhode Island Representative James Langevin (D-02) can only be described as overkill. Yes, he voted against the amendment, but he never said that it’s a dead issue or didn’t need more study.

To the contrary, Langevin called for Congress to take a long, serious look at how the government can balance the needs of security and privacy. Langevin suggested the Congress take steps to study whether bulk metadata telecommunications collections programs sufficiently protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans including whether the program could be tailored to better protect civil liberties; if the surveillance program is being implemented within the parameters of the Congress’ intent; if the FISA court could be made more transparent, and if the court itself needs any other changes.

The only thing that should be considered, in addition to Langevin’s suggestions, is the implementation of a strict penalty system for government officials who abuse their authority. In other words, we should have a mechanism in place to severely punish government officials who use the program against political adversaries or in any way that the program is not intended to be used for that matter.

A Sensible Approach

I could be wrong, but it seems like Langevin is taking a very moderate, reasonable, and cautious approach to the issue of balancing the needs for security against people’s rights to privacy. To see some people make him out to be some type of “big brother” type is a bit over the top.

The point here is that Langevin didn’t want to do was to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I’m sorry, but to throw out the whole Surveillance Program that’s saved American lives after about 20 minutes of debate would’ve been irresponsible and completely reactionary. We can do better than that.

Again, none of this is to say that Amash and his supporters don’t have valid points or that we shouldn’t have a national conversation about the need to balance privacy and security in a world complicated by technology and an increasing tendency for bad guys to do evil. But we need to tread lightly.

Fortunately, Langevin understands this truth and had the foresight and leadership to act accordingly.

A native Rhode Islander, Russell J. Moore is a graduate of Providence College and St. Raphael Academy. He worked as a news reporter for 7 years (2004-2010), 5 of which with The Warwick Beacon, focusing on government. He continues to keep a close eye on the inner workings of Rhode Islands state and local governments.


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