01/22/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

The Doubt Goes to the Benefit

President Obama's long-awaited roll-out of national intelligence surveillance and data collection reforms last week has drawn lukewarm to skeptical reaction from a public whose trust in the government in general and in the President in particular is at a low-point. Prior to his speech, a Quinnipiac University poll revealed 57% said the bulk data collection program was too much of an intrusion of privacy, while Americans were split on whether the program was necessary to keep them safe.

This past Monday, even more of those who heard his speech disapprove of all the overreach. According to a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll, 73% think his proposals won't make much difference in protecting people's privacy. Most experts on either side of the heightening civil liberties vs. national security debate are critical - one side thinks the Chief Executive didn't go far enough while the other posits he went too far. That in and of itself may be an indication that Mr. Obama has struck a balance.

It's obvious that we're still very much at the front end of this discussion, which the President himself acknowledged, and while we may not be sure whether Edward Snowden's disclosures have helped or harmed the public interest, we can still thank him for stirring this pot, even though Obama did point out that about three weeks before the "avalanche of unauthorized disclosures," he stressed at the National Defense University that the country "needed a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty."

Going forward from here, there are a few things to consider. Among them is that terrorism no longer looms as large a threat to Americans as it perceived during what the Pentagon has called a Decade of War or David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy dubs a "Decade of Fear." For one, the latter poll shows that 70% Americans do not think they should have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism. That's because Americans are starting to figure out that they are more likely to die on the Interstate or win the lottery than get killed by a terrorist. Rather than giving the government the benefit of the doubt, we are also beginning to doubt the benefit of all this overprotection.

It may explain why the narrative from Washington that justifies national security intelligence related programs and activities has shifted from terrorism to cybersecurity. FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress last year that cyber-attacks from foreign sources, often including terrorist groups, had surpassed traditional terrorism as the single most worrisome threat to the United States. The President, in his speech, seemed to lump them all together, noting that "we have real enemies and threats and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them."

We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyberthreats without some capability to penetrate digital communications, whether it's to unravel a terrorist plot, to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange, to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts. We are expected to protect the American people; that requires us to have capabilities in this field.

Fair enough. But what's been largely missing from this discussion, at least until now, is what exactly are the threats to the United States that require such an extensive national capability to be the world's private investigator, if not the world's policeman, let alone what benefits we derive from it. Shouldn't these darker capabilities be commensurate to the even darker forces that pose existential or immediate threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for the citizens of the United States?

There is more reason to believe, as John Mearsheimer lays out in an extensive assessment in The Nation last month, that this country is "the most secure great power in world history [and] has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history." Rather than during the Decade of War and Fear, "the world was far more perilous during the Cold War," when it faced the overwhelming threat of nuclear annihilation.

Of course, this puts a damper on defense as well as intelligence zeal, as the American public, reflected in the many pieces coming out from one think tank after another, is showing no appetite for interventionism, especially of the martial variety. Even former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on last Sunday's Fareed Zakaria GPS, made it clear that among the advice he would give any president or defense secretary going forward is that "absent an immediate threat to the United States, the use of military force should be a last resort, not a first option. We need to be much more careful."

But he disagrees with Comey on what constitutes the greatest threat to our national security. It's neither cyberthreats nor even the national debt. It's - you guessed it - "the paralysis in Washington and the uncertainty with respect to defense programs, uncertainty about what kinds of military capabilities we're going to need for the future, where our [intelligence community's] record in predicting where we will use military force next is perfect over the last 40 years. We've never once gotten it right." As Mearsheimer adds: "If you look at America's performance over the past twelve years in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, it is batting 0 for 5."

I'm not advocating isolationism by any stretch. However, what I am saying is that we need a more serious discussion about the tremendous investment we habitually make in the instruments of national security and intelligence and, perhaps even more importantly, how, when, and for what purposes we go about using them - and when we do use them, how they lead to something other than just "security," whatever that may now mean. We can longer blithely accept "national security" as the catch-all reason for any or all of this any more than we can simply give the government the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the right thing for us from health care to campaign finance reform.

On the contrary: What this really means is that the issues of our day and the world in which we find ourselves no longer allow us to enjoy our splendid isolationism from the world at large and politics in particular. Even if most of us agreed with what the President proposed, that doesn't simply fix the problem so we can return to the shopping malls and sitcoms. We now have to pay more attention to these ongoing issues because they affect us more than ever, lest we continue to surrender the collective decision-making process to the few on behalf of the many. That's not democracy, by the way. That's an oligarchy. If you want responsible government, you have to provide responsible citizenship.

One thing that is also curbing all the enthusiasm for security über alles is the effect it's having on business. Internet companies and associated corporations are beginning to express concern about lost clientele as faith and trust in the U.S. cybermarket, which sets the standard for much of the rest of the world, has been compromised, reducing American competitiveness. Many European and other advanced countries now enjoy higher standards of virtual privacy and personal data protection - from either the government or corporations. Moreover, Americans see universal access to and freedom of movement on the internet as a 21st century birthright, in line with our national character.

That because it's what we are about that makes us what we are, not what we are afraid of - our national value of personal freedom, not how secure we are, is the measure of our greatness. Indeed, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of both, which makes both governance as well as citizenship difficult to say the least. As the President duly noted: "No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account."

So all of this dispute and division is a good thing. Without contraries, there's no progression. "When you cut through the noise," Obama summarized, "what's really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed. Whether it's the ability of individuals to communicate ideas, to access information that would have once filled every great library in every country in the world, or to forge bonds with people on the other side of the globe, technology is remaking what is possible for individuals and for institutions and for the international order."

We have, as he said, "weathered every type of change because we've been willing to defend [the Constitution] and because we've been willing to question the actions that have been taken in its defense." That difficult standard of self-governance requires constant public engagement. We can't simply balance the doubt and the benefit and call it a day.

The benefit, first and foremost, is freedom more than security. Neither governance nor citizenship can be a tradeoff, as Benjamin Franklin advised: "They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."