Closing Out My Exchange with Adam Serwer

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, October 1, 2010, 9:50 AM

Here's a suggestion for the New York Times editorial page: Hire Adam Serwer. He's a liberal blogger over at the American Prospect who is everything the New York Times editorial page is not: consistently thoughtful and open to engagement, respectful of opposing arguments, which he takes the trouble to describe fairly. He's a pleasure to disagree with--and that's, alas, a rare thing these days. Had he written the editorial that I criticized this morning, it may have had a similar bottom line, but I have no doubt it would have been sounder.

Yesterday, Adam responded to my earlier post that, in turn, responded to his prior post. Adam's bottom line is:

Look, I'm going to freely acknowledge that for the most part, liberals are indifferent to the forward march of the imperial presidency. But for the civil libertarian left, the story of the last few years isn't one about Republicans lying about intelligence or matters of national security, it's about the government lying about intelligence and national security. Looking back at matters like the threat of a "mushroom cloud" to justify support for war in Iraq, and the insistence that the hundreds of people who were released without charge from Gitmo despite being tagged "the worst of the worst" mean that you simply cannot take the government's word for it. So even if one believes the evidence against al-Awlaki to be persuasive, the fact is most Americans found the rationale for war in Iraq persuasive. Most Americans are frightened enough of the unconvicted detainees at Gitmo that they can't stomach them being placed in a federal prison on American soil. We are dealing with a genuinely difficult dilemma here--an enemy force that doesn't wear uniforms and isn't easy to identify. Which is why it's so important to get it right.

The fact is that recent years have proven that even if the executive has the best interests of the American people in mind, terrifying intelligence information that seems conclusive at one moment becomes disastrously false the next. As with war in Iraq, the deaths that result from those erroneous conclusions is, unlike detention, completely irreversible. For that reason, folks on the civil libertarian left--and the genuinely small government right--think that granting a secret, unreviewable power of life and death over American citizens, even in the limited circumstances Wittes describes--and I think history has shown that the limits on those circumstances rarely last--is unconscionable.

I'm going to let this be the last word here. I think our exchange has served both to narrow the issue genuinely in dispute and to put a spotlight on the real point at issue between thoughtful people supportive of the administration's approach and thoughtful people opposed to it.