Senator Tom Udall – Freedom and Security

Senator Tom Udall made a spirited argument in favor of protecting both our freedoms and at the same time our security, implicated Russia in the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet, and said that the only conceivable way to end the wars in Syria and Iraq in the near term would be to send in US troops, but that nobody in the US, in or out of government, wanted to do that. Given the nature of his topics, there was a good deal of animated but civil discussion both during the Q&A and after the event.

Udall said that US intelligence agencies - the NSA in particular - needed to be subjected to more oversight to prevent abuses. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up liberty in the name of security deserve neither,” Udall, a Democrat, said that although “clearly this is a time of great threat,” that did not mean we should throw away our Constitutional rights. The First Amendment Freedom of Speech and the Fourth Amendment Freedom from Unreasonable Search “are important freedoms” and should not be sacrificed lightly. “What we can do (in the intelligence field) and what we should do are two different things - and confusing that has got us into a lot of hot water recently.” He said that the current FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court, which is meant to oversee what the NSA does, has only ever rejected 11 of the 34,000 surveillance requests made to it, and operates in complete secrecy with nobody arguing the other side. “We need more transparency - now we have a secret program overseen by a secret court collecting secret data.” This led, among other things, to the NSA bugging the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “This has damaged our relations with a critical ally whose help we need, and has damaged our foreign policy in general.” It could also be damaging to our economy, he said, now that Germany and others are debating shutting out US internet companies from their markets.

The Senator from New Mexico, who is on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said that despite the difficulties in gathering evidence on the ground from the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17, and the proliferation of theories about who or what was involved, he was pretty certain about the basic outline of the story. “When our government comes out and publicly states that the missile battery came from Russia, was brought across the border and operated by the separatists, then you can be pretty sure that is what happened.”

Udall also said that the advances in Iraq by the Islamic extremist group ISIS were a cause for worry, but that beyond the military advisers that the US has sent to help out the Iraqi Army fight back, he thought sending US troops back to fight “would be a big mistake.” In the bigger picture, he said, the US invasion in 2003 which removed Saddam Hussein and replaced his Sunni govenrment in Baghdad with a Shiite-led government also reshuffled the regional power balance. “There are consequences that flow from that.”

And when pressed on what the US can and should do to stop the war in Syria, Udall said that sending more weapons would not change anything - all the regional powers are already sending weapons. “The only thing that would really change that war is putting American boots on the ground, and nobody wants to do that.” After President Assad’s troops were shown to have used chemical weapons against their own people in August 2013, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted by 10 to 8 to authorize the US to bomb Syria in retaliation, but the White House realized that it would be hard put to get both houses of Congress to go along, let alone the American people in general. Instead the US agreed to the Russian plan to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons stockpile. “And by and large that has happened.” If only ending all the violence in Syria -- and solving the rest of the problems in the world -- was so simple.