Why 'Watching The Watchers' Became 'Building Progressivism in Idaho' in The Mind of Jonathan Alter


The Jordan Ballroom in the Boise State University Student Union Building had already begun to fill by the time the patrons and board members of the Frank Church Institute joined them after their $60-a-plate meals. A grove of television cameras had established itself in the back of the ballroom on a platform.

Everyone had gathered to hear Frank Church Conference keynote speaker Jonathan Alter deliver a speech, titled "Watching the Watchers: Security vs. Liberty." He eventually spoke to his advertised topic, but first, he gave Boise a pat on the back.

"Idaho is really doing its part [with regards to progressive policies]. Or, I should say, Boise is doing its part," he said.

Up in the front row near the center aisle, Mayor Dave Bieter chuckled. 

Alter is an author, columnist for Newsweek and television analyst on MSNBC and NBC News. Lately he has served as executive producer of Alpha House, Amazon.com's foray into originally produced television.

The center of Alter's speech was progressivism, but he was able to weave the security/liberty dichotomy into his remarks by framing it in terms of what progressive politics add to the discussion. His four-point definition of his political philosophy included governmental transparency, market regulation, a sense of compassion and reverence for human rights.

As though pointing a finger at the cause of the safety/freedom divide, in his remarks about human rights, he threw a jab at the Bush administration to the delight of those in attendance.

"The war on terror ... is a war without end," he said. 

Progressivism, according to Alter, is ideally suited to mitigating the relationship between our concerns for our wellbeing and individual liberties. Its demands for transparency and accountability, in the realm of national security, translate to a more open process for obtaining wire taps and surveillance warrants. Alter lamented that only in the last year have Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) judges been identified by the press—a fact he said Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, who served on a senate committee designed to increase the accountability of U.S. agencies, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"The answer is democratic accountability," he said. "In an era where the government knows a lot more about us, we need to know the government a lot more."