What's left of Wilentz's defense of the NSA after we toss out all the ad hominem stuff? He concedes that Snowden's leaks "have revealed worrisome excesses," but that Snowden showed bad faith by not addressing them in the correct way. His problem, common to the leakers, is that he thinks it "impossible ... to reform this clandestine Leviathan from the inside" and seeks to "spin the meaning of the documents they have released to confirm their animating belief that the United States is an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions." According to Wilentz, the leakers haven't proven their case. While the NSA is "in need of major reform," Wilentz argues that it "has acted far more responsibly than the claims made by the leakers and publicized by the press." He believes that the leakers' libertarian paranoia has blown their revelations out of proportion in their own eyes. Their paranoia -- if you concede the label -- has no place in a liberal democracy.
The leakers and their supporters would never hand the state modern surveillance powers, even if they came wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse. They are right to worry, but wrong --even paranoid -- to distrust democratic governments in this way. Surveillance and secrecy will never be attractive features of a democratic government, but they are not inimical to it, either. This the leakers will never understand.
For "democratic," read "representative" and it makes more sense. The problem with the leakers, in Wilentz's eyes, is that they seem unwilling to delegate to any representative "modern surveillance powers. "Democratic" government, however, depends on this delegation as an act of faith by the citizenry. By tarring the leakers as libertarians, Wilentz wants to suggest that the real problem isn't that they don't trust government with certain powers, but that they don't trust government at all, such distrust being inimical to liberal representative democracy. But their relations with Russia suggest to Wilentz that only the real enemies of democracy, the authoritarians, benefit from the leakers' compulsive distrust of democracy in America. What Wilentz can't take seriously is the leakers' implicit assumption that American hegemony is a greater threat to the world than the power of any authoritarian state, that such hegemony is the ultimate authoritarianism that belies all boasts of liberty at home. If the leakers want to say that, we can debate it, but Wilentz isn't interested in that debate. He seems convinced that American power can never be a bad thing -- as long as Democrats wield that power, I suppose -- and he reads almost like a neocon as he waxes Russophobic, arguing in effect that to be against the U.S. on any point is to be against liberty (despite one's libertarian pretensions) and for tyranny. On on level, I can see where he's coming from. A lot of today's distrust of complex systems is irrational and ill-informed, and for Wilentz the leakers fit that profile. It's one thing for him to argue that the leakers' own evidence fails to prove their case; each of us can test that premise on our own. It's another to suggest that citizens have a duty to trust their government with modern surveillance powers. I'm sure Wilentz doesn't see this as a blind trust or an absolute duty, but when the subject is a permit for secret activity, there seems to be more ground for enduring skepticism than Wilentz would concede. And when his argument for trust closes out a threefold hatchet job on the leakers that one might expect to read in a Russian newspaper, it doesn't quite turn out as trustworthy as Wilentz might hope.