Who do we love, Snowden or Obama? Just like in the “Twilight” vampire-romance series, Americans are trying to decide which hero should go home with Lady Liberty. Choose your vampire carefully.
Snowden, the shadowy former Booz Allen Hamilton employee who leaked information about government snooping programs, alleges that he and his fellow agents had authority to wiretap anyone.
Obama, for his part, insists that the secretive program is “transparent,” explaining, “That’s why we set up the FISA court.” Does Obama know what the word “transparent” even means? Or does he intend the term to induce mass hypnosis to avoid public scrutiny of the NSA’s data-mining programs?
Obama further proposes that he “set up and structure a national conversation” about the program. So nice of him to offer, but the conversation is well underway already.
NSA Director Keith Alexander told Congress that the agency’s programs have thwarted 50 attacks, at least 10 of which targeted the United States. But rest assured, Obama told Charlie Rose, your “emails are not being read by some Big Brother somewhere.”
Still, the American public remains in the dark about the details of the NSA programs. Five of the key arguments supporting the NSA programs are enough to give us pause.
(1) “We can trust the federal government.”
In reality, the federal government has overdrawn its trust account with the American people. Despite hollow assurances of adequate checks and balances on the NSA program, recent examples have shown the opposite. Those in the trust-me corner tell us that all three branches of government have approved the programs. Oh, that’s a relief: Is that the same three-branch approval that gave us Obamacare?
They assure us that the intelligence-gathering community is apolitical. Just like the apolitical IRS, which operated as a brazenly partisan organ in the 2012 elections.
They tell us the first job of government is to provide for the common defense. True enough, but that abstraction does not resolve how we evaluate specific cases or how to balance privacy and security.
How many citizens have lost their privacy, and by how much? How many misuses were made of the information? How many actual threats have we thwarted? What’s the right trade-off?
Speaking of trade-offs, whatever happened to Obama’s high-minded promise that, “as for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” or that “we will not give them up for expedience’s sake”? We’ll just chalk that up to Inauguration Day rhetoric.
(2) “Bush did it, so it must be OK.”
NSA supporters argue that conservatives somehow have no right to challenge a program begun under a Republican president. “What amuses me,” Obama said, “is now folks on the right who were fine when it was a Republican president but now Obama’s coming in with a black helicopter.” What amuses me is the president’s public admission that his high-minded Inauguration Day rhetoric long ago gave way to expedience. Besides which, many critics on both sides of the aisle have always questioned the legitimacy of these practices.
(3) “The program has prevented many attacks.”
Keith Alexander told Congress that 50 attacks have been disrupted thanks to the surveillance program. This may or may not be true, depending on how you define “disrupted.”
Did the program yield the one piece of intelligence that was the proximate cause of the disruption? Were there other ways to yield the information that are less intrusive, more narrowly tailored, and more targeted, or were there ways to obtain other information that would be just as good or better at preventing attacks and did not subject Americans to such wide surveillance?
Recall the debate over waterboarding. Many supporters of the NSA programs opposed, and still oppose, enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. Both sides debate whether enhanced interrogation played a decisive role in locating Osama bin Laden, but it is indisputable that some of the evidence leading to bin Laden was gained through enhanced interrogation techniques.
Without answers to many more questions, how can we know whether attacks have really been thwarted specifically by the NSA program and whether there are less intrusive ways of yielding the same if not better results?
(4) “The public supports the program.”
Here we confront the same issue that plagues all discussion of what the public supposedly wants: the problem of how poll questions are worded. CNN has touted a poll showing most Americans support the NSA program, but its questions promised respondents that the government “does not target” citizens and that the NSA program “is kept under strict controls” and is used “to locate suspected terrorists.” Somehow, during the Bush era, media pollsters did not shill for administration policies.
(5) “Another attack will cause even greater losses of freedom.”
Forget about “don’t let the terrorists win,” we now have an extortionist policy toward our individual freedoms. Accept these intrusions or there’s more where they came from! Never mind the fact that our federal overlords have no right, power, or authority to take away our freedoms unilaterally. Wartime expansion — and abuse — of federal power has historical antecedents from the Civil War (suspension of habeas corpus) to World War II (internment), but Obama has repeatedly declared that the War on Terror is over.
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If these five arguments are the best supporters of the NSA dragnet surveillance program can advance, they have failed to carry their burden of proof. Of course, it’s hard to do much better without the facts, but those are classified: Big Brother could tell us, but then he’d have to kill us.
Gayle Trotter is a writer and attorney. Her views are her own.