The World of Justin Amash

October 30, 2013 Topic: IntelligenceSecurity Region: United States

The World of Justin Amash

Misreading the founding fathers on security and secrecy.


By 2013, the nation created by George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson had become an Orwellian nightmare known as “the Surveillance States of America.” One might expect such a claim from the left, but, in fact, it comes from a leader of the Republican Party, Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI). In a remarkably short period of time, Amash has emerged as the heartthrob of the congressional class of 2010 and of the growing libertarian wing of the Republican Party. A self-proclaimed champion of the civil liberties of the American people, Amash has allied himself with Congressman John Conyers, a perennial opponent of American foreign and defense policy, in a crusade to dismantle the “criminal” operations of the National Security Agency. Realism, however, demands that any American government engage in spying.

Congressman Amash brags that only he and his libertarian allies recognize the “uncomfortable truth” that the Constitution is a “libertarian document.” Amash uses Facebook and Twitter to celebrate his accomplishments in defense of the “Constitution” and to accept the accolades of his many cyber-fans, a practice that would horrify the very founders he repeatedly claims to admire, especially James Madison. Madison believed that the permanent interests of the community were enhanced through a republican form of government rooted in representation and resistant to the whims of public opinion. While Madison rejected the notion of parroting the will of the public, Amash brags about using the internet as a tool to force his colleagues “to think twice” before casting a vote. “I use the internet” he proudly notes, “to keep government accountable to the people, as the Constitution demands.” This is as far removed from Madison’s claim in Federalist #10 that representation will “refine and enlarge the public views” as one can get.


Amash claims on his Twitter page that he has “the highest ratio of sweet to not-so-sweet tweets of any Member of Congress. I defend liberty & explain every vote @” The Congressman is so obsessed with his internet reputation that his own Chief of Staff once observed that “when the voting was every two minutes, there was a real danger he might miss a vote while he was updating his Facebook page.” James Madison was opposed to pandering to the public, and rejected the type of populist, demagogic appeals that emerge from Amash’s cyber-pulpit. Of course Amash is not alone in using social media, but few of his colleagues justify this practice on the grounds that they are acting in accord with the intentions of the founding fathers. Madison, the architect of the Constitution, hoped that representatives would act as a filter on public opinion, and would not reduce complicated issues of public policy to 140 characters or less.

A journey through Amash’s Facebook and Twitter pages is a trip through an alternate universe. Amash has become the darling of the besieged internet service providers, and they are repaying his kindness. “Thx to @google for inviting me to their awesome #NYC campus” Amash tweeted recently. Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg leaned-in to the debate over the National Security Agency “scandal” in a speech praising her new friend in Congress, by “imagin[ing] what the world would be like if elected officials all over the world were [as] honest and transparent” as Justin Amash. In between celebrating his visit to Google and Buzzfeed’s New York headquarters and praising the achievements of the American defector Edward Snowden, Amash re-tweets the messages of Snowden’s enabler Glenn Greenwald. While Amash is unsure about a pardon for Edward Snowden, he wants to see James Clapper removed as the Director of National Intelligence and prosecuted for lying to Congress, while the current NSA Director, General Keith Alexander, is a greater threat to American liberty than the nation’s adversaries. Not only is General Alexander and the NSA guilty of un-American activities, so was President George W. Bush, for he “suspend[ed] the U.S. Constitution.”

Amash further claims that “the U.S. government has come out in full force against you, the American people. I will always stand with you.” For his efforts to restrict the nation’s intelligence community, Amash has won the praise of such outlets as Mother Jones magazine. It hailed him for sponsoring a bill that is one of the NSA’s “worst nightmares”—Amash, of course, immediately retweeted the piece. In arguing for American restraint against those who intend to harm the United States, Amash discards the principles of the American founders in favor of Captain James T. Kirk, a political philosopher of some renown: “there will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.” Apparently, according to Captain Kirk as channeled through Congressman Amash, the United States government runs the risk of mirroring the tactics of Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately for the fate of the Republican Party, and possibly the republic, Amash’s understanding of the American “Constitution” and of the intentions of the framers who drafted it is superficial at best. Secrecy and an aversion to transparency, as well as the use of clandestine intelligence operations, are as American as apple pie. With all due respect to Parson Weems and Justin Amash, George Washington knew how to tell a lie, and was ruthless in his pursuit of intelligence, urging his agents to “leave no stone unturned” in their pursuit of secrets. The founding fathers engaged in covert mail opening throughout the revolutionary war, for as General Washington noted, this would provide “innumerable advantages” for the American cause. Washington went so far as to provide instructions on successful mail opening techniques: “contrive a means of opening them [letters] without breaking the seals, take copies of the contents, and then let them go on.” Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams served on a committee charged with disseminating excerpts from this intercepted mail for propaganda purposes. Many of these same founders would go on to suspend the rules of the Article of Confederation and draft a new Constitution in strict secrecy. Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention were not released until 1840, over fifty years after the framers assembled in Philadelphia, while the United States Senate met in secret for its first years of existence, mimicking the example set by the Continental Congress. Yet Amash claims “you can’t have a free society with secret laws,” a position not shared by those who drafted the document he professes to venerate.

Following the adoption of the Constitution, Washington and Madison led the fight in 1790 to create a secret service fund which would be exempt from the norms of congressional oversight. Additionally, Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison withheld information from the people’s representatives when they believed this was in the national interest. As Washington observed when he invoked executive privilege during the debate over the Jay Treaty in 1795, “success must often depend on secrecy.” Jefferson echoed Washington’s sentiments when he noted that “all nations have found it necessary, that for the advantageous conduct of their affairs” certain secrets should “remain known to their executive functionary only.” Jefferson also added on another occasion that the Senate “is not supposed by the Constitution to be acquainted with the concerns of the executive department.” If Jefferson saw a limited role for the Senate, he saw even less of a role for the House. Jefferson’s conception of executive power would have undoubtedly inflamed Congressman Amash, especially when he noted that “on great occasions every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of the law” if necessity so required.

In their battle against government secrecy and intelligence gathering, Congressman Amash and his allies believe they are defending the legacy of the founding fathers. Not so. “[I] follow the Constitution . . . that’s what I base my votes on,” Amash claims. But the congressman’s caricatured understanding of the founders is misguided. The American founders understood that the Byzantine world of international relations was one of deception, discord and war. In recognizing this, they grasped something Amash dismisses: that for liberty to prevail one must see the world as it is and acting accordingly.

Stephen F. Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and the author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics (2012). The opinions expressed here are his own.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.