Courtesy of Yale-NUS College

A Conversation with Rahul Sagar: Politics and State Surveillance

Professor Rahul Sagar talks to the Research Desk about Edward Snowden, surveillance and why Singapore has succeeded in modernizing.

Nov 26, 2016

Rahul Sagar is Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi and Washington Square Fellow at NYU New York. Sagar holds a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University and a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. His academic focus lies in political theory, political ethics and public policy. Currently he is teaching a Structures of Thought and Society core at NYUAD, titled, Why Is It So Hard To Do Good? More information about his research and publications can be found here.
Can you tell us about your background? What made you interested in studying political science?
I was always interested in politics, yet thought I would either be a lawyer or an entrepreneur. I chose to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford because I thought it would be excellent analytical training. It was a heady time; the Cold War had ended, there were crises but also massive transformations, and I became increasingly interested in trying to understand one of the big questions: Why was the West able to succeed in developing and modernizing, whereas large parts of the East, especially India and China, lagged behind?
When I finished my undergraduate studies, I was all set to join the private sector, but at the last minute I was offered a scholarship to Harvard. I arrived there three days before [the Sept. 11 attacks]. That event had an impact on my work. But I also realized there, which I had not realized as much at Oxford, how little I knew about the history of politics, about how we got to the present day. Before I had not thought much beyond the 20th century. At Harvard, I devoted six years to studying political thought and theory, from the Greeks to the present day.
A lot of current events have shaped your path, what do you think of the political events this year?
In some ways the current events embody the concerns that have been animating my work for the last decade. One theme in my work has been concern about excessive enthusiasm for democracy. The possible danger it poses is populism, when we think the people — understood abstractly — are always right. This enthusiasm for the popular will tends to be directed against the so-called elites — the educated, successful or wealthy — or against minorities.
This kind of conflict, which sets aside evidence and reasoning about history and tends to be emotional and demagogic, worried me a lot. So when I graduated from Harvard, I decided to spend a year in Singapore, because I wanted to see what made it one of the three or four countries in Asia that really succeeded in modernizing. Why it had been able to do this when countries like India or China had been struggling? One of the things that struck me was how incredibly good the government was in making public policy; it was technocratic, thoughtful, moderate, reasonable and, in spite of what its critics said, liberal.
The experience convinced me of the importance of moderation, expertise and reasoned argument in public life. When it comes to policy, you have to think about the cost of your decisions, whether it’s feasible or not and what the anticipated and unanticipated consequences might be. And when you make decisions through plebiscites, you can end up with all sort of ill-conceived decisions that people later regret, or that have terrible consequences that weren’t anticipated, or that give rise to dangerous trends such as xenophobia and racism, which we’ve seen both after Donald Trump’s election and also after Brexit. And what that tells us is that citizens in democracies, even in educated and liberal democracies, can have emotional reactions or unrealistic expectations, which is indicative of deeper problems of the state and future of democracies.
In your article, you talk about how surveillance and communication technology has been shaping the path of liberal democracies. How do you think it’s changing now?
I’m not a fan of extreme left or extreme right reactions to problems of public policy. I prefer an evidence-based, thoughtful, moderate position that sees that there are competing arguments on both sides. So my concern with the Snowden case was that his argument — and that of his supporters — was that there should be little or no surveillance, that privacy is absolute and that no other value like national security is as important. This doesn’t seem like a credible claim to me and actually what we’ve seen in the last couple of months, since the rise of Islamic State attacks in the West, is that societies are asking for more security against terror. This tells us something about the mistake of reacting excessively in the way Snowden did.
What I argued is that we don’t have to be paranoid about state secrecy, because when governments engage in wrongdoing, people from within the system can leak out the evidence and draw attention to the matter. So leaks can play a good role, but as I warn in the book, leaks can also play a bad role. So what we see is that in both cases, Snowden’s and the recent WikiLeaks case, leaks can be harmful. In the first case they are harmful because they undermine the national security, and in the second, because they manipulate elections. My views run contrary to what people think; people like Snowden’s leaks because they think that privacy is important and they like the WikiLeaks disclosure of Clinton’s emails because they think it exposes politicians. But there is a flipside and I was trying to draw people’s attention to the argument they had not thought about.
You mentioned the system of checks and balances as far as national surveillance is concerned. Do you think individuals like Edward Snowden should play this role? Are there alternatives?
Checks and balances are essential elements of good government because they prevent the misuse of power. The question is, where should these checks and balances come from? Fundamentally, checks and balances come from constitutional arrangement of offices. Another form of checks and balances is [a] free press, [and] another one is civil society — so when we think the government is doing something wrong, an organization within the civil society or the press draws attention to that matter and someone brings the case to the court. That’s how we tend to see checks and balances function.
What I drew attention to in my book is that actually when it comes to matters like state secrecy, these traditional checks and balances can work less effectively, because very few people know what’s going on and so in those instances we often rely on informal or extralegal checks and balances, like whistleblowing and leaking. And in those cases, it is up to particular individuals to make the decision whether to break the law and reveal a secret, for example if they think that the secret is covering up some wrongdoing. But it’s a highly dangerous thing to do, which can endanger the security of fellow citizens, cause the death of people, for example, agents that are working for the government, set back intelligence collection or allow foreign governments to discover what I call sources and methods and thus prevent all the other kinds of intelligence collection that is not illegal.
The main reason I questioned, doubted or criticized Snowden’s actions was because I thought they were indiscriminate; he just simply revealed everything that the NSA was doing, including completely legal activities. So a great deal depends on how these extralegal checks and balances are used.
Snowden recently asked for a pardon. It’s highly unlikely, but if he were granted one, what would the consequences of that be?
I think it’s highly unlikely that he would be granted a pardon because of scope and scale of the damage that he caused and the indiscriminate nature of his leaks. Had he leaked something very specific, clearly showing wrongdoing that had resulted in measurable severe harm to Americans in particular, there might have been some case for a pardon. But in the present case, a pardon would lead to a great loss of morale, confidence and operating capability within the intelligence agencies; they would simply feel someone can just leak a whole bunch of information and suffer no consequences. And you would see a proliferation of harmful leaks as a result. That’s exactly why the government will want to punish him, or at least threaten to punish him – they want to show that this kind of behavior is not acceptable.
Do you think there were any positive outcomes of him leaking those documents?
If I had to think of one positive outcome, it would be further public confirmation from the three branches of government that they in fact wanted surveillance to go ahead. So it was exactly the opposite of what Snowden hoped he would accomplish.
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