Lesson Plan: Intelligence Squared Phone Surveillance Debate

Intelligence Squared hosted a debate about phone surveillance at the National Constitution Center on October 7, 2014. The topic for the debate was Resolved: Mass collection of U.S. phone records violates the Fourth Amendment. For students preparing for next season’s surveillance topic, this debate is an excellent introductory resource. This article outlines a lesson plan based on the debate that can be assigned to students regardless of their experience levels.

All four participants in the debate are notable names in debates about surveillance. The affirmative team is represented by:

  1. Alex Abdo — Staff Attorney at the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. Abdo is a former attorney with the National Security Project where “he was involved in the litigation of cases concerning the Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Navy brig in South Carolina.” A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, he is now working on a lawsuit challenging the NSA’s phone records program. Abdo debated in high school for St. Mark’s, graduating in 1999.
  2. Elizabeth Wydra — Chief Counsel, Constitutional Accountability Center. A graduate of Yale Law School, Wydra is a Supreme Court litigator who has appeared as a legal expert for NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox News, the BBC, Current TV, and NPR. A former attorney at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in San Francisco, she has also worked at the Georgetown University Law Center’s appellate litigation clinic.

The negative team is represented by:

  1. Stewart Baker — Former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security and Former General Counsel of the National Security Agency. Baker is a lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson where he is known as “one of the most techno-literate lawyers around;” he has argued before the Supreme Court and has filed several influential amicus briefs. While working for the government, Baker created and staffed the Department of Homeland Security’s Policy Directorate which oversees policy analysis throughout the department. For his work with the NSA, he was awarded the Defense Medal for Meritorious Civilian Service.
  2. John Yoo — Professor of Law at the University of California-Berkeley and Former Justice Department Lawyer. A visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Yoo is best known for his time as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice during the George W. Bush Administration. Among other notable legal opinions, he authored a 2001 memo arguing that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit NSA monitoring of communications of U.S. citizens without a warrant. He is a graduate of Yale Law School.

The format of the debate is similar to a policy debate: a first affirmative constructive, a first negative constructive, a second affirmative constructive, a second negative constructive, a lengthy cross-examination period (including questions from the audience), a first affirmative rebuttal, a first negative rebuttal, a second affirmative rebuttal, and a second negative rebuttal. The moderator—John Donvan, a correspondent for ABC News—attempts to keep the debate focused on the resolution (or motion) and facilitates clash between the two sides.

The lesson plan follows:

  1. Students should download the unedited version of the radio broadcast; it is an mp3 that can be played on any device. The full debate is just over an hour and 20 minutes long, but it can be comfortably enjoyed at 1.5 or 2x speed.
  2. Students should flow the debate. Optionally, flows can be submitted for a grade and/or feedback. If students are advanced, they should be instructed to listen to the debate at an accelerated speed.
  3. Students should render a decision and write a ballot supporting that decision. The reason for decision should begin with a thesis statement which is then supported by at least one paragraph identifying and resolving the nexus issue(s) of the debate. Once the decision has been developed and explained, the ballot should describe in at least one paragraph the best opposing ballot and explain why it was not selected.
  4. Students should rank the four debaters from best to worst based on their performance in the debate. These rankings should be justified with one paragraph explaining why the best speaker was selected and one paragraph explaining why the worst speaker was selected. These explanations should be comparative and should include factors involving both content and delivery.
  5. Students should complete the following worksheet. These questions can be discussed in class or the written worksheets can be submitted for grading. A printable worksheet suitable for handing out to students is also available in Word and PDF formats.
  6. Optionally, in-class activities can be used after students have watched the debate and completed the worksheet. For example, the instructor could choose one student who voted affirmative and one student who voted negative to participate in a mini-debate about their decisions. The resolution for the debate should be Resolved: the affirmative team won the Intelligence Squared surveillance debate. The format of the mini-debate could be as follows:
    • Affirmative Constructive: 1:00
    • Cross-Examination of Affirmative Constructive: 1:00
    • Negative Constructive: 1:00
    • Cross-Examination of Negative Constructive: 1:00
    • Affirmative Rebuttal: 1:00
    • Negative Rebuttal: 1:00
    • Q&A With Audience (Rest of Class/Team): as needed

The audience members could also be asked to vote for the debater they believe won the mini-debate (regardless of how they decided the Intelligence Squared debate itself). The instructor can facilitate a discussion about the two ballots in order to teach students how judges think, how to package and frame arguments well, and how different people can find different arguments more or less persuasive depending on a variety of factors.

Another in-class supplemental activity could involve repeating the Intelligence Squared debate with students doing the debating. The same format can be used or times can be modified to accommodate a shorter class period.

Is there another in-class activity that would be a good supplement to this lesson plan? Please share it in the comments.

Intelligence Squared Surveillance Debate Worksheet Questions

  1. Abdo attempts to frame the debate around a nexus question. What is the question he thinks the debate is fundamentally about?
  2. Abdo previews three arguments that he expects the negative to make. What are they?
  3. Baker argues that the legal question has already been decided in favor of the negative. Why?
  4. Baker forwards the argument that mass collection of phone records is necessary to combat terrorism. He argues that targeted surveillance could not be as effective. Why?
  5. Wydra describes the origins of the Fourth Amendment. Why does she argue that this historical analysis supports the affirmative’s position?
  6. Wydra describes a recent Supreme Court decision written by John Roberts that highlights the importance of cell phone privacy. What is the name of this case? Briefly describe it. (This will require external research.)
  7. Yoo makes an appeal to his personal experience working for the government to explain why surveillance is conducted. What is his argument?
  8. Yoo compares the affirmative team to Robert Bork. Who is Bork and what is Yoo’s argument?
  9. What was the best connection moment in the constructive speeches? Why did this moment leave the biggest impression on you?
  10. What was the best question asked by an audience member? Why?
  11. If you had the opportunity to ask a question during the audience question-and-answer period, what question would you have asked? Why?
  12. Which debater performed best in the cross-examination? What separated him/her from the other debaters?
  13. Wydra alleges that the negative has failed to prove that surveillance is vital to effective counterterrorism. Was this argument persuasive? Why or why not?
  14. Baker appeals to his experience before and after 9/11 to explain why his position on this issue has evolved. Was this argument persuasive? Why or why not?
  15. Abdo analyzes the cost of data storage over time to argue that the government will be increasingly capable of storing complete records of digital information. Was this argument persuasive? Why or why not?
  16. Yoo contends that the Constitution is not a suicide pact and that it is reasonable to trust the legislature to determine surveillance standards. Was this argument persuasive? Why or why not?