We may have to concede as a society that the term “Orwellian” should be retired as archaic.
In 2012, we’ve seen the completed evolution of the Republican Party led by its ideal personification, Mitt Romney, into an unapologetic, lie and propaganda factory that shamelessly boasts its benefit and importance to the lives of 99% of Americans while transparently servicing only the wealthiest 1% and pandering to extremists to gain their votes for their 1% agenda.
With regards to surveillance policies that continue under the current Democratic administration, it seems so quaint and amusing now that there used to be cautionary tales in science fiction about a citizenry being spied on by their government, wherever they were and whatever they did. Those gullible sci-fi readers of the past bought into the concept that a population would eventually allow it’s evil government to curtail much of its privacy using the justification of defending them from the urgent, existential and eternal threat of terrorism. Well, if they could fantasize about a Star Trek-type future where all races and nations worked towards peace and money was no longer needed, who can blame them for viewing this “extreme” proposition as imaginary as well?
The problem with saying that those stories have become reality isn’t that we aren’t under the eye of Big Brother, it’s that our current government can’t be categorized as evil. Under Obama’s administration, the ACA (Obamacare) was passed which will save the health and lives of millions of Americans, DADT was eliminated giving gays in the military equality they had never received, the Lilly Ledbetter Act was signed which gave women a powerful tool to fight discrimination in the workplace, the Consumer Protection Act was passed to help protect US consumers from being preyed upon by banks and Wall Street, FEMA and other federal emergency relief programs have quickly and efficiently rushed to the assistance of those hit by natural disasters, the list of President Obama’s accomplishments that were and are aimed at helping Americans is long and still growing. So it simply can’t be stated with any veracity that our government is flat out evil.
So there is a dichotomy here that ideologues at the extremes are too frothed up to observe. Some on the extreme Left are just race horses wearing blinders, all they see is what they view straight ahead, there’s no peripheral vision, there’s no looking backwards at what has been passed, all there is in their eyes is what they see at this one moment in time and they assert that the entire character of the Obama Administration must be fully defined by it.
On the Right, everything has become a predictable and childish game of “gotcha!”, if any crumb of or substantive news comes out that can be characterized or twisted around into an attack on Obama, they’ll do so even if they have to completely contradict their recently supported positions.
Did even one of the Republicans or Right Wing talking heads attacking Obama over this NSA surveillance revelation attack George Bush and the Republican controlled Congress for initially passing the Patriot Act which led to this? Did they vehemently oppose the re-authorization of the Patriot Act in 2005 which provided for such an expansion of government surveillance? Of course not but if it works for them right now to decry the Democratic President to oppose what they fully supported under a Republican President…there are no principles or ethics to hold them back.
There are thoughtful and reasonable people out there who express that this NSA spying on Americans is an acceptable trade off of privacy for security. They point out that only metadata (the information about where calls were to and from and duration) was and is being collected from Americans, phone conversations are not being monitored. They propose that if this could help prevent terrorist attacks, it’s worth it.
But what we’re still learning is what that “it” is and how vast “it” is. From the Atlantic:
In 2006, USA Today‘s Leslie Cauley reported the NSA was secretly collecting call records with data from AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth. A source told Cauley, “It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world” and that the NSA wanted “to create a database of every call ever made” within U.S. territory. Likewise, in 2011, The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer spoke to former NSA crypto-mathematician Bill Binney, who “believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later.” He thinks the NSA wants all emails to be searchable, the same way we search with Google. “The agency reportedly has the capacity to intercept and download, every six hours, electronic communications equivalent to the contents of the Library of Congress,” Mayer said. As Mark Rumold, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Atlantic Wire last night, “This is confirmation of what we’ve long feared, that the NSA has been tracking the calling patterns of the entire country.”
Keeping in mind that while the recognition of this surveillance program, PRISM, is now breaking news to most Americans, as the above quote from The Atlantic reflects, there was awareness of this program many years ago. In 2005, the New York Times exposed the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping. In 2006, AT&T employees came out to alert the public that the NSA was tapping into their internet hubs to monitor and capture emails and other internet communication. So this shocking news…isn’t really quite as shocking news to those who have been paying attention.
What we lack in this nation is a genuine and honest conversation about this erosion of privacy in the name of seeking protection. It’s very difficult to weigh the two sides of this issue when there is no way we will ever fully know the full extent of either side. We are aware that there is an intrusion from our government into our private phone records and emails to the extent of what we’ve heard so far but it is pretty general and this is undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg, how much more is hidden beneath the surface we don’t know and will never be able to have complete confidence that we know the whole of it.
On the other side of the scale, we will also never be able to confirm how many terrorist attacks have been stopped because of such surveillance since the government reasonably asserts that such information, if made public, would be be valuable to those planning future terrorists attacks.
So though at this point, none of our politicians seem to be asking the public what balance it wants of privacy vs. security, we would have to admit that we could never make a fully informed decision on this and that is a massive problem. Even if the decision was up to the American people to decide whether to permanently trade some of their privacy for hopefully increased security, they would have to rely more on emotion and guesses than facts. And the sad thing is…Americans didn’t get to decide this, the current public response to the latest revelations make clear that most people had no idea that when they voted for their elected officials, that this would occur.
Consider the precedent of this as well when it comes to the usurping of Americans’ constitutional rights. Just a reminder what the 4th Amendment says:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
There is no exception in the 4th Amendment for the government to breach these rights, even if they claim it is for safety’s sake (unless they declare Martial Law). Warrants require probable cause and there is no probable cause to suspect the millions of Americans of being terrorists whose records have been seized. So just going by the letter of the law, putting aside whether it does or doesn’t keep the public safe, is not the seizing of records of Americans when there is no probable cause of their being involved in a crime, unconstitutional?
The weasels at the NSA have constructed an Ignorance Defense akin to, “If I stole your jewelry, it was unintentional.” They try to assert that when they scoop up the personal information of innocent Americans, it’s not purposeful, their scooper is just so big it happens. As they say ignorance is not a legal defense. Try accidentally taking a million iPhones from a store when you only paid for one and see how far it gets you at trial to claim that the illegal possession of nearly one million iPhones was unintentional, you just rented too big of a pickup truck.
That is the first question. Even if it is to the public’s benefit, can the government of the United States override the rights accorded citizens in the Constitution without amending the Constitution? If so, then the precedent says that rights guaranteed by the Constitution are in fact not guaranteed and can be compromised in pursuit of a cause that is represented by the government as in the best interests of the people.
The second question is the one that’s up for debate, is it worth losing some of our privacy for greater potential safety? There are worthy arguments to be made on either side of that debate but isn’t this all backwards? Shouldn’t the debate on carving away privacy rights be held BEFORE those rights are taken away by government?
The debate now is moot and purely for sport, our government has already taken some 4th Amendment rights away from us and out of fear that restraining this spying might result in a terrorist attack slipping through that becomes politically deadly for them or their party, there is only rationalization as to why acting unconstitutionally is a necessary and proper thing.
President Obama is broadly trusted and liked by most Americans, most believe he is earnest in wanting to help and protect Americans. However, those who are comfortable with the current trade off in giving the government such wide-reaching power in order to protect its citizens may not be envisioning how this power could be exploited by a less conscientious President. Had Mitt Romney won in 2012 and instituted the kind of corporate government that he and his recently released plans envisioned, this kind of surveillance could have been exploited in many other ways. Mitt Romney was a man whose campaign was based on dishonesty and spite towards those who were not in his economic strata, a man who did not recognize or respect contrary opinions, a man whose campaign was all about the ends justifying the means…if you placed this incredible power in an administration run and organized by such a man, would you feel as comfortable?
What is terrorism really intended to accomplish? Isn’t it conceived to instill a destructive level of fear in a population, to disturb them enough that it destabilizes their society and weaken them? We may have a stronger security apparatus for doing so but are we a stronger people and society when we allow our privacy to be eroded and our Constitution to be weakened?
We don’t know for certain if being under the surveillance of our government when we email, Skype, text, make calls, etc. has saved us from being attacked but we do know that some terrorist attacks have happened anyway. There is no way to spy enough to prevent one or two deranged people from killing innocents.
Broad surveillance of a nation may or may not reduce attacks or be worth the sacrifice but it must be kept in mind what kind of nation it is that we’re intent on protecting and if we are pulling out the supporting beams of our home to build a barricade around it.