“You can fool some of the people all of the time,
and all of the people some of the time,
but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
– Abraham Lincoln
In response to President Obama’s changes to the NSA’s collection of metadata, USA Today commissioned a poll which found that over 53 percent of Americans oppose our government’s collection of telephone and internet data from American citizens. Of those who paid attention to the President’s speech, 73% say his changes won’t make much difference in protecting people’s privacy. It appears that the American people weren’t fooled; they agree with commentators, most of whom referred to the changes as “modest” or, more honestly, a “sham.”
Why didn’t the American public react as the President had hoped? Why are they skeptical? Perhaps, it is because the President chose to reject most of the recommendations made by his own panel of experts, who called for the end of the NSA’s collection of the telephone records of virtually every American. Clearly, the American people appreciate their freedoms and their privacy, and don’t think they should have to sacrifice those rights to fight terrorism. They weren’t fooled by either the Administration’s lame reforms or the President’s eloquence.
How has President Obama morphed from a very vocal opponent of spying to its head cheerleader? Why does the leadership of both parties espouse an “anything goes” policy when it comes to National Security? The dynamic is simple, but dangerous: “nothing happens on my watch.” It’s similar to the football strategy of playing a “prevent defense,” giving up yardage bit by bit in the hope that time will run out before the opponent can score. Unfortunately, the yardage in this case being sacrificed is the Fourth Amendment and its protection against unreasonable and warrantless searches and seizures. Unlike football yardage, once sacrificed it can never be regained.
President Obama is correct when he says, “Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes.” We have given heretofore-private information to these entities voluntarily, to use in an entirely legal fashion-we hope. So why shouldn’t our government be able to use similar information to protect us from potential acts of terrorism? Good question. In his speech, President Obama justified continuing the NSA program saying he has found nothing to indicate “that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about our civil liberties.”
Here’s why the argument fails: private companies are not the government. Our government has overwhelming power. Whether through deliberate malfeasance or simply down that slippery slope, the potential for misuse of our personal information by the government is enormous. We have already learned that the NSA has given the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) data on “suspicious activity,” and the DEA ordered its agents to lie about their source. The DEA is an agency that has the power to seize property, prosecute and imprison American citizens. Who else has the NSA given your information to? The FBI? IRS? CIA? No one knows. We are told it’s none of our business-national security.
Until Edward Snowden revealed the ongoing policies of the NSA, the average Joe believed that a court ordered search warrant, based on substantial evidence about a crime, was required for law enforcement to tap our phones or access private computers. We also believed that the NSA only spied on people outside of the country. Turns out we were wrong on both counts. Somewhere, somehow, the Fourth amendment was torn to shreds under the umbrella of national security and the doctrine of “not on my watch.”
President Obama spoke passionately about the employees of our intelligence agencies, and I have every reason to believe they’re all are good people, but good people sometimes do the wrong things for very bad reasons. Elected officials close traffic lanes for political paybacks, IRS employees target individuals who are vocal in disagreement with the administration, and even the occasional President keeps an “enemies list.”
Tyranny begins when law enforcement stops targeting crime and the prevention of a crime, and starts targeting people in the hopes of finding a crime. Terrorists win when we start sacrificing our freedoms and liberty because we fear their tactics so much we emulate them. Our country was founded in no small part because we sought liberty and freedom from a government who felt free to invade homes and confiscate private property. We fought a civil war in no small part to make sure that all individuals were entitled to freedom. We accept reluctantly the occasional criminal avoiding justice because law enforcement violated his “rights.” A secure nation is a worthy ambition, but not if we must sacrifice the constitutional freedoms that lie at our foundation.
The tables have turned: the government may be watching us, but we, the American people, are watching them. Watching and waiting to see which of our leaders will have the courage to proclaim that we will not sacrifice our freedoms because of the actions of mad men.