Section: News

On The Record: Dr. Ben Wittes

On The Record: Dr. Ben Wittes

by Graham Reid

Dr. Ben Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the Harvard Law School – Brookings Project on Law and Security, visited Kenyon this past Tuesday to give a talk in the Gund Gallery Community Theater on “Drones, Surveillance, Detention, Interrogation, and the Rule of Law” in honor of Constitution Day. Kenyon Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) sponsored the talk with help from a grant from the Jack Miller Center.

What did you cover in your talk?

I’m not sure if people know why colleges like Kenyon bring in people like me to give Constitution Day speeches. But there’s actually a legal reason for it, which is that Senator [Robert] Byrd in 2005 inserted into an appropriations bill a requirement that all institutions that get federal funding have to do this. … I think when you’re talking about the Constitution on Constitution Day, or in observance thereof, you have something of an intellectual obligation to think about issues that we often talk about simply on their own merits, in terms of constitutional government. We talk about the Constitution all the time. We almost never do it explicitly. You very seldom say, “What is the challenge of running a long-term confrontation with an overseas non-state adversary to constitutional government in general?” We tend to dive deeper in the weeds than that, but these are all manifestations of the same broader problem, which is: how do you do a rule-of-law society when you’re doing a set of things that are kind of ugly? How do you, can you and how do you structure what I generally call hard national security choices in the context of democratic and constitutional government?

Coming to a fairly liberal college campus like this, were you prepared to face strong views on the left?

Dude, I went to Oberlin [for undergrad]. You guys are mild compared to where I went to school. I’m not remotely naive that my view about a lot of these issues are not the norm on any college campus, let alone a lefty liberal arts campus. I actually don’t come here expecting to persuade anybody of anything. I don’t go to a college with the idea of evangelizing people as to my views, nor do I respect people who do. When I come here or to any campus, I don’t go with the idea about actually particularly expressing my views about issues except to the extent that they’re asked for. I go rather with the ambition of giving people a lens through which to think about issues that are very hard, and they’re actually very hard whether you’re on the left or on the right or, as I am, in the center, and sort of contemptuous of the political spectrum along which these things are decided.

What do you hope people took away from your talk?

The political discussion often takes place as though the issues are not hard. These are questions we fight about as a society because they’re freakin’ hard and because they involve very fateful and difficult questions of risk allocation in the face of very imperfect information. The Constitution is an interesting framework for thinking about those issues and the second thing is there is a point of view that often doesn’t get talked about in these issues, in these conversations. These are very difficult questions. My perspective’s changed over the years. It’s changed in response both to changes in my own values, but more fundamentally in changes in what information I have access to and how I process that information.

One of the things about being in a college is that you have incredibly great access to certain types of information, and no access to other types of information. One of the things about being in a think tank is that you often have access to a lot of that information, like what the people who were doing these things are actually thinking.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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