For those of us that think the NSA is completely out of control and must be reigned in, I think we need to thank our lucky stars that it turned out that Glenn Greenwald is our spokesman. What an incredibly skilled debater he is. I'm constantly impressed with his TV appearances and now the Munk debate, which you can watch here.
You won't be surprised to know I think Greenwald was awesome. He couldn't have done a much better job. The way he handled the spin from Dershowitz was a joy to see, calling out his straw men explicitly, only to have Dershowitz repeat the straw man, which I don't think was fooling anyone at that point.
One thing Dershowitz did was try to reframe the focus of the debate on a side issue. This is a trap I have to be careful not to fall for when I debate, and Greenwald didn't fall for it. Dershowitz wanted to focus on Obama's motives. He said that Greenwald and Ohanian regard terrorism as a pretext for the privacy invading policies that have been enacted. This much is true, and Greenwald accepted that. So Dershowitz expanded on that to say that if you think terrorism is a mere pretext than you have to think Obama is not pursuing these policies with the intent of reducing terrorism, and that's absurd.
Greenwald did the right thing and dismissed the question as irrelevant. We're talking here about what the NSA is actually doing and whether it is wrong. We're not going to try and divine the motives of people we don't really know that well. Dershowitz pressed the point though. If you think terrorism is a pretext you think Obama is some sort of cartoon villain, torturing, droning, and spying just because he enjoys it. Greenwald dropped it and I think that was the right decision with limited time. Don't let this be the focus of the debate, because it's really not the question being addressed.
But I'll say something about the point since I have all the time I want. I just don't think pretexts always come with this level of explicit intention. Take a look at the American colonists. As they came to the Americas, ultimately exterminating tens of millions of people in the largest genocide in the history of the world, what did they believe themselves to be doing? Helping the natives. Take a look at this. This is the Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The native says "Come Over and Help Us." We're here to help the natives, rescuing them from their pagan ways. Is that the real reason the colonists came? It may be what many of them honestly thought, but looking back we can see that what they really sought was full control of their own territories, their own prosperity, the betterment of themselves and their kin at the expense of others who were outside of their tribe. Christianizing was a pretext, even if many of the colonists themselves couldn't see it.
You see similar sentiments with regards to the British colonial action. British management of India led to famines that would kill as many as 25 million people. But they were bringing culture and refinement to these disgusting Indians. If they believed their own lies, so what? They were there to plunder Indian society, extract it's wealth, destroy potential competitors to their textile manufactures, and generally enrich themselves. Their stated goal of bringing betterment to the Indian people is today seen as a pretext, even though they may not have recognized it at the time.
And so it goes. We bombed Vietnam to the stone age because of our benevolent intent, attempting to spare them the ravages of Communism. Of course a lot of people still believe that today, though to me it seems pretty silly. Neoliberalism generally follows the same course. We brought free markets to Haiti, African nations, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, etc, because we just love them so much and want to help them. In fact it enriches the already wealthy in the US, but these wealthy in the US actually believe their own lies. They think they are doing Haitians a lot of good by reducing tariff restrictions, getting the minimum wage cut, etc. We need to save Iraq from Saddam Hussein because we just love Iraqis so much. I'd suggest to Alan Dershowitz that the people that use pretexts such as the threat of terrorism more often than not believe their own lies, so if Obama believes that what he's doing is for the purpose of reducing terrorism we wouldn't be surprised. But as Greenwald pointed out repeatedly, all of the evidence shows it has failed spectacularly, just as the British attempts to "help" Indians did the opposite of helping. In fact they made the situation worse, and so does the NSA. It's a hindrance to stopping actual terrorist threats. So invoking terrorism to expand NSA power is a pretext, whether Obama knows it or not.