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Spying is Killing Us: My Argument to Win Intelligence Squared, “Spying Keeps You Safe”

(To read the entire "The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series, please click here.

A while back, I wrote a post on how I would have argued on America’s greatest Oxford-style debating competition, Intelligence Squared US, specifically the episode on the Arab Spring. Today, I will present the opening statement I would have delivered rebutting the motion, “Spying Keeps You Safe”.)

Before I begin, let me concede a shocking point: I agree with the motion. Spying does keep us safe. I mean, if we didn’t have any police, would we have more crime? We would. So if we didn’t have a single spy or counter-terrorist, would we have more terrorists? Yes, we would.

Of course, we don’t really mean that spying keeps us 100% safe. And we don’t really mean this motion in the abstract. The motion is really asking whether the exorbitant costs of the spying apparatus--in both fiscal and civil rights terms--keep us safer than if we spent that money elsewhere. Especially when it comes to domestic spying by our government.

Literally, by any metric--cost-benefit, lives saved, efficiency--America wastes most of the money it spends on counter-terrorism and spying.

Let me give you a thought experiment to help explain how. Last year, America’s intelligence agencies spent a collective $75 Billion with a B on intelligence. What if we had only spend $70 billion? Would the likelihood of a terrorist attack have gone up? By how much?

Unfortunately, those are all questions America’s intelligence chiefs can’t answer, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to answer. And if they can’t answer them, do we really think “spying is keeping us safe?” They can’t even tell us how!

In our contemporary times, terrorism is excessively rare. Terrorism kills less people than gun violence. Or bee stings. Or heart attacks. Or suicides. Even the year that America suffered 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in history, more Americans died in car accidents. But even making those comparisons doesn’t capture the fact that you have a better chance to win the lottery than die of terrorism.

In fact, because terrorism is so unlikely, intelligence spending actually hurts Americans because we could use it in better ways. Instead of improving economic opportunity or curing diseases, we spend money paying multiple agencies to write the same reports with the same information. We pay signal intelligence agents to spy on their ex-wives and girlfriends. Or we encourage FBI agents to ignore financial malfeasance, organized crime, drug trafficking and other crimes to entrap Muslim Americans.

So vote against the motion because spending on spying means not spending the money on other concrete ways that could save lives now. As the debate goes on, we can also discuss how the intelligence community over-hypes this threat, how the intelligence community over-estimates its effectiveness, how the intelligence community favors expensive technological solutions over low-cost, more effective human intelligence solutions, how spying on Americans hurts our civil liberties and we can also discuss the waste in the intelligence community.

But most importantly, spying doesn’t keep us safe...in fact it’s killing us.

(Unfortunately, we don’t have enough street cred to get invited on Intelligence Squared. From my listening, though, to win an Intelligence Squared debate, the best technique is often to reframe the terms of the debate. Eric C and I have tried to do this in our series, “The Costs of Security” where we have tried to reframe the debate on terrorism in the U.S.)