Over the past few weeks I’ve listened intently as Washington has tried to deal with the revelations that the NSA is data mining every phone call we make and monitoring our e-mails and social media. What our leadership says and does in response to these disclosures not only speaks to them, but speaks volumes about us and our willingness to sacrifice freedom for a false sense of security.
I believe most Americans are troubled by the revelation that some giant NSA computer is storing every bit of information about every phone call we make. At a March 12 Congressional hearing, the Obama administration flatly denied that such a program existed. But when The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported information regarding two of the massive data mining projects, our leaders quickly backtracked, saying lying to Congress was necessary and how important these secret programs were for our national security, our loss of privacy a small price to pay.
Here’s a sampling of the spin beginning with the President:
President Obama, a man elected criticizing the Patriot Act and vowing to end the Bush policies regarding surveillance, tried to comfort the populace by saying, “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.” But this week he’s pulled back on his “nobody’s listening” assertion and now says the government mines the data of each and every call, but only listens to phone calls after getting a second specific warrant from the secret FISA court. In other words, the data mining identifies suspicious behavior, and the government goes back to a secret court to get a second secret warrant to “listen in.” He has given no details on what it takes to get the second warrant or what it takes for the FBI to target someone for this higher degree of scrutiny. So an ordinary citizen should garner no comfort from his “no listening” assertion. “No listening” this week apparently means – “not unless we want to.” Who knows what it might mean next week.
No wonder The New York Times said, “The administration has lost all credibility on this issue.” What do his words mean for you and me? At a minimum, they mean that who we call, when we call, whence we call, and how long we talk is no longer private information. If allowed to continue, a precedent is set that allows this President or any future administration to trample on our rights for most any reason, without even telling us.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defends spying on Americans by saying, “It’s called protecting America.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, also defended the program saying, “I’m glad the NSA is secretly collecting millions of telephone records.” Both Republican and Democratic leaders are rushing to defend the program the American public didn’t know existed until a couple of weeks ago. Apparently, if we listen to them we should be grateful to be targeted for surveillance. Former Vice President Dick Cheney came out of the woodshed to defend warrantless surveillance and called whistleblowers – “traitors.”
What do all these words mean for us? (1) “Protecting America” means data mining ordinary people’s day-to-day phone records. (2) We are under such a great threat that we have no choice but to sacrifice any semblance of privacy when it comes to communication with our neighbors. (3) One thing is for certain: our leadership considers each and every American a “suspect” in the War on Terrorism.
What about those whistleblowers and reporters who were no longer able to stomach the knowledge that our government is secretly “bugging” each and every one of us? The Justice Department immediately opened an investigation and said it will “vigorously” go after them. One man who admitted being a source has had to flee the “land of the free, and home of the brave” to avoid being arrested and subjected to unlimited detention. The newspapers that broke the stories can anticipate the same treatment experienced by AP and Fox: secret subpoenas, wiretapping, surveillance, and prosecution. It should be obvious to anyone that any whistleblower or reporter who does his job and reveals clandestine programs is a “presumed traitor” and will be arrested and detained.
Surely the American people aren’t as stupid as our leadership thinks. We know that data mining is a monumental invasion of privacy. We believe that before our government can abrogate our civil liberties in the name of “national security” we’re at least entitled to know precisely what the government is doing and the reason why. Surely we don’t go along with the prosecution of the people who think we as citizens have a right to know. What happened to “America doesn’t give in to terrorists?” If we allow our individual rights and freedoms to be trampled, haven’t we done just that?
What is clear from the government’s “rush to defend” is that neither the President nor Congress really care what we think when it comes to privacy. They figure given enough time and spin our outrage will die down, and we’ll accept the fact that right to privacy is a thing of the past. I think and hope they are wrong. I’m disappointed and surprised that organizations which have long been strong advocates for privacy, such as women’s rights advocates and pro-gun advocacy groups, haven’t seen this for what it is-an attack on the very notion that privacy is a fundamental right. Maybe they haven’t thought it through yet.
What does the NSA surveillance programs say about us? It all depends. If we are silent, then we shouldn’t be surprised when cameras and loudspeakers come into our homes or when criticism of the government becomes an act of treason. Have we already begun the long slide down the slippery slope toward totalitarian or Orwellian government?
We still elect our leaders in this country. Power in America still lies with the people for the moment, but only when we act — not when we are silent.