Shortly after the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings was arrested, I went to some friends’ house for dinner. We discussed the use of surveillance cameras to identify the two Tsarnaev brothers and speculated on whether other cities would be increasing their use of them. Almost certainly, we thought. My host, Paul, said that increased surveillance by the government doesn’t really bother him if it keeps him and other people safe.
Probably many if not most Americans agree with him. The number of people in any society who care about democratic freedoms is rather small. Similarly, the number of people who care about constitutional government is small. Hence our Congress’ rush over the last 12 years to surrender both for the sake of security, and the irony that the very people charged with upholding the Constitution have been eager to abrogate the rights spelled out in it. Thus, the suspension of habeas corpus rights, the expansion of secret surveillance programs, extrajudicial detentions and killings and a raft of other abuses following 9/11. In the Boston bombings, martial law was imposed and an entire city shut down to look for one teen-ager. Police conducted warrantless door to door searches, which the Constitution explicitly forbids. A reporter interviewing a legal expert disturbed by this noted that most people in Boston were probably happy to open their houses for this purpose; the legal expert pointed out that consent doesn’t mean much if you’re staring down the barrel of a gun, which is why the Constitution prohibits such searches.
This week’s revelation in The Guardian newspaper that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting metadata on millions of Americans’ phone calls may cause people to re-evaluate whether they really want the government poking its nose into their business without cause. I hope so because while it may sound relatively harmless if the government knows who you called and for how long you spoke, it’s unrealistic to think that the information gleaned could not and would not be used against you should it ever be in an unscrupulous or misguided government official’s interest to do so. And it’s a small and obviously easy step for the government to move from knowing when and whom you telephone to listening in on your conversations. It’s possible the government would ask the permission of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court before doing this, but as the FISA courts appear to be rubber stamping anything the government requests this is unlikely to afford you much protection from an intrusive government eavesdropping on your conversations not because you’ve done something wrong but simply because somebody thinks one might conceivably learn something of interest.
The subsequent revelation in The Washington Post of June 6 that the NSA is also mining Internet data from the servers of nine leading Internet firms, collecting emails, photos and videos, indicates the government is massing enormous amounts of personal information about millions of citizens. Big Brother is watching.
Perhaps like Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, widely quoted as saying “If you’re not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” many Americans will be unfazed by the news that there’s little in their lives that remains private from the reach of the government. But the potential for abuse is huge. As FBI director, J.Edgar Hoover misused his authority to keep tabs on tens of thousands of Americans, from prominent politicians to actors and entertainers to so-called subversives, and used his knowledge not only to smear reputations but to intimidate presidents. Do we really want to give the government carte blanche to spy on us all? Is it so inconceivable that the government could misuse its vast and growing authority? There’s plenty of evidence that the government already has, not only in the breadth of its snooping but in the secretiveness with which it’s proceeded
After the news in May of the government seizing the phone records of Associated Press journalists, the new revelations about the NSA combing through the phone and Internet communications of millions of ordinary Americans should be a wake-up call to citizens. The old saw that people get the government they deserve is true. If we the people don’t care about good government, we surely won’t have it. If we don’t care about protecting our liberties, we will lose them. Because we can never be too safe, there will always be an argument to be made about why we can’t afford to preserve our liberties. But the people who fought our revolution and drafted our Constitution didn’t think safety was more important than liberty. Maybe we shouldn’t either.