Dick Cheney Unintentionally Explains the Dangers of the NSA Surveillance Program

In this recent article, conservative columnist John Fund highlights some interesting comments by former Vice President Dick Cheney:

On Sunday, former vice president Dick Cheney addressed the dilemma many conservatives face in assessing the revelations about the National Security Agency’s data collection. On the one hand, they are suspicious of the federal government. On the other, they often mute such concerns when it comes to anything touching on national security.

Cheney captured the tension perfectly in defending the NSA’s activities. Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace first asked him: “What right do you think the American people have to know what the government is doing?” After a pause, Cheney said: “Well, they get to choose, they get to vote for senior officials, like the president of the United States or like the senior officials in Congress. And you have to have some trust in them….”

Later in the interview, Wallace asked Cheney for his opinion of President Obama. “I don’t think he has credibility,” he said. “I think one of the biggest problems we have is, we have got an important point where the president of the United States ought to be able to stand up and say, ‘This is a righteous program, it is a good program, it is saving American lives, and I support it.’ And the problem is the guy has failed to be forthright and honest and credible on things like Benghazi and the IRS. So he’s got no credibility.” If we are to rely on the people elected to high office not to abuse their authority, what do we do when they do exactly that — as Cheney thinks Obama has?

So Cheney’s view is that the NSA program is justified because we should trust “senior officials, like the president of the United States.” But we can’t trust the current president because he isn’t “fortright and honest” about events that might prove embarrassing to his administration. This view might be defensible if Obama’s flaws were an aberration. In fact, however, many successful politicians are power-seekers willing to bend the truth in order to get into high political office and stay there.

Thomas Jefferson’s approach to such questions strikes me as more defensible than Cheney’s:

[I]t would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights… [F]ree government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power…

In questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.

I realize, of course, that Jefferson didn’t always live up to his own principles. He was a power-seeking politician too. In this case, however, his shortcomings actually bolster his argument.