06/20/2013 04:44 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

National Security Über Alles?

The controversy over the National Security Agency's gigantic information-gathering and collection programs is sparking a much-needed national debate. And that's a good thing, for a number of reasons. Sure, a lot of this is about the ongoing tension between security and civil liberties. Polls show that the public has been fairly indecisive. But as the full scope of intelligence-agency overreach, the unimaginable enormity of the data involved, the excessive secrecy, and dearth of transparency becomes more apparent, the willingness to accept things solely in the name of "national security" is waning.

That's because the issue is more about the centralization of power than the false zero-sum argument of freedom vs. security. An overly powerful central government is exactly why the framers of the Constitution went to great lengths to create, deliberately, an inefficient federal system and the checks and balances we seem to have taken for granted. Freedom, not security, is the traditional default of our national operating software.

Yet, many in government emphasize how such programs are keeping us safe from terrorists. NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander testified on the Hill that programs like PRISM and the collusion with corporations like Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and others have "protected our country and allies... over 50 times since 9/11," and adding that their activities "have been approved by the administration, Congress, and the courts."

Even the president has insisted that there are "checks and balances" to protect civil liberties such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, which to date has yet to reject a single NSA request for peeking into people's particulars.

In his National Defense University speech last month, Obama challenged the perpetual state of war we've found ourselves in since 9/11: "This war, like all wars, must end... We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us."

Right he is. But in the discussion about "expanded surveillance" and the "difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy" that day, the President totally left out re-examining the Patriot Act or failed to explain how we were going to re-balance all of this, if at all.

Instead, it took Edward Snowden's "leaks" to prompt this emerging national discussion, not the President's speech. Thank you, Mr. Snowden, for your service to our country.

It's likewise taking some former senior members of the NSA, who spent over a decade raising their concerns about the ethics and constitutionality of the NSA's growth in surveillance and collection -- first up their own flagpole, then to federal investigators, then to Congress, and finally to USA Today. Their testimony is evidence that Mr. Snowden's concerns are not an aberration and it's not all as copacetic as many would like us to think.

And it's taking a commentary in The New Yorker, not a government leader, to recommend:

If it is time to reexamine the struggle, then plainly, as Obama implied, it is time to reexamine the means by which the struggle is waged. Calling for a national commission can be the last refuge of the high-mindedly perplexed, but this is one instance when such a commission -- independent, amply funded, possessing subpoena power, and with a membership and a staff deeply versed in both national security and civil liberties -- may be precisely what is needed.

It's doubtless disturbing to think we should go on trusting a government that's been defensive rather than forthcoming about how it looks out for what it thinks is best for us.

But when a government, in a blanket sense, views its citizens as potential or suspected criminals, or enemies of the state as the growth of Boston-like domestic terrorism may portend, then it is in a perpetual state of conflict with its own people. This and our high rate of national resources dedicated to "violence containment" at home as well as abroad may explain much of why the U.S. ranks 99th in the world in this year's Global Peace Index.

It's also disturbing, incidentally, that our most important national intelligence instruments are headed up by people in uniform rather than civil servants, considering that the primacy of civil authority is among our most essential civics.

It's even more disturbing that this latest expansion of the power and reach of the national security and intelligence state we now have is all perfectly legal.

And it's even more disturbing that big businesses -- which the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 have a right to "free speech" in bankrolling election campaigns -- can also have almost unfettered access to our personal space so they can target each of us more effectively for market exploitation than a drone command center can target the Taliban.

But perhaps most disturbing is how our national narrative explains this all away for reasons of "national security" -- a term which for decades has been drawn like a trump card to justify almost any ways and means to protect us from all enemies foreign and domestic.

Our government was founded, first and foremost, to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Since World War II, however, we have incrementally suspended or limited those rights because of the recognition that we faced an existential threat -- now it's national security über alles. The nukes are not the only Cold War relic we should have scaled back.

But 9/11 gave the national security and intelligence state new life, continuing to rise and add layers like Stalin's birthday cake. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, is the greatest consolidation of federal functions in history, bringing in 22 government agencies into a single organization -- all in the name of "national security."

Terrorism may be the new bogeyman, but even in its worst imaginable form, it has never constituted an existential threat to the United States. Unless, of course, we do ourselves in in overreaction, which is exactly what seems to have been at work the past dozen years.

It is not, as Rep. Ruppersberger contended, good intelligence that "is the best weapon against terrorism." It is our applied moral power -- what American stands for. The walk we talk. When we erode the liberties and compromise the values that underwrite our national strength and undermine the greatest reason why our friends respect us and our enemies fear us most, becoming more like that which we have stood against, then the terrorists have won. And we helped them.

We're in a scary place right now: We have an ever-expanding universe of the executive branch of this government while the legislative branch is increasingly mired in partisan dysfunction and gridlock. So much of checks and balances.

If we want to end the state of perpetual war that Sun Tzu and James Madison would call our greatest long-term existential threat, we need to learn to question the language we use to justify it. We need to understand what some of my former colleagues in the Pentagon couldn't get -- that there is something larger and more important than "national security."

It's called peace -- or "peace with justice" as the president just explained to Berliners. It's ironic that he told a people whose history provides all of us an extreme example of a national security state run amok that "complacency is not the character of great nations."

Sounds like we could use a little of that advice ourselves.