About Ben Friedman

Ben Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute. He co-edited two books, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It (Cato 2010), and U.S. Military Innovation Since the Cold War: Creation Without Destruction (Routledge, 2012).

Mike German, Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, interviewed Friedman on August 4, 2014. Read an edited transcript of the full interview here.

Part 1: Fear, Risk, and Vulnerability

Ben Friedman discusses fear management in national security, arguing that overrating the threat of terrorism creates costs to society, both financial and to our civil liberties. Political entrepreneurs exploit this overwrought fear, Friedman argues, which cramps democratic debate. He asserts that public policy should be driven by risk rather than vulnerability

Part 2: Scoping the Intelligence/National Security Enterprise

Ben Friedman estimates that homeland and national security spending approaches a trillion dollars annually, including wars and veterans’ expenses. Citing research by Steve Pinker that shows that the world is less violent than previous eras, Friedman argues that the U.S. is actually quite safe, which makes such exorbitant spending unnecessary.

Part 3: Politization of Intelligence

Ben Friedman explains the difficulty of completely divorcing intelligence agencies from political influences. He disputes contemporary statements by intelligence officials that suggest the world today is more dangerous than previous generations.

Part 4: Threat Inflation

Ben Friedman points to the work of Sherman Kent, a former CIA analyst, who suggested that the CIA is driven primarily by the need to be right. Friedman suggests that the different voices in threat analysis could provide dissents that might temper the agencies; tendencies toward threat inflation.

Part 5: Secret Government is Stupid Government

Ben Friedman argues that excessive secrecy in government stifles debate, which leads to ill-considered policies. Friedman finds Congress less willing to conduct effective oversight of national security actions for a variety of reasons.

Part 6: Primacy vs. Restraint

Ben Friedman describes the debate over U.S. grand strategy, pitting realists who argue for a restrained foreign policy against a bi-partisan primacy consensus that advocates for interventionist policies. Friedman says the primacy view gets us in “avoidable fights,” and incurs unaccounted costs to society. Moreover, there is little social science evidence to support that U.S. power projection is making us safer.

Part 7: Tools of Democratic Control

Ben Friedman describes the robust tools Congress has to conduct oversight, but suggests its failure to assert its power in national security issues has led to malfunction of constitutional balances. Friedman also feels the press has generally performed poorly in checking abuse, though he cites exceptions such as Dana Priest’s coverage of secret CIA detention sites.

Part 8: No Cabinet of Doves

Ben Friedman discusses President Obama’s habit of selecting foreign policy hawks for leadership positions in the national security and intelligence community. Friedman laments that while many academic researchers support a restrained foreign policy, few such advocates find positions in government.

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