On September 20, 2001, as America mourned the victims of 9/11, President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress.
Bush said al-Qaida hated Americans’ “freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to vote and assemble and disagree,” and that “these terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life.” To root out the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and defend the American homeland, Bush announced the outline of a new security apparatus: more onerous airport security, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “strengthening of intelligence capabilities” generally (through the CIA and NSA) and increased efforts to intercept “terror here at home.”
Four weeks later, Congress overwhelmingly passed the USA Patriot Act, which granted the federal government sweeping new powers to surveil its own citizens, enhanced monitoring of suspicious transactions in the financial system and tightened security across the country. Use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court expanded, as did NSA data-gathering operations like PRISM, not known to the public until 2013.
Twenty years later, this new surveillance state has proven itself unable to deliver accurate information to policymakers, as the failure to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan National Army and the fall of Kabul elucidates. It has proven itself unable to prevent domestic terrorist attacks like San Bernardino, Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon bombing, even when federal law enforcement was alerted to the individuals who eventually committed these atrocities. But most perniciously, the surveillance state has its own entrenched interests and threatens to undermine the very freedoms that Bush identified as integral to the American experience. Since 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA’s surveillance of the American people, we have learned many disturbing things, all of which suggest an intelligence apparatus with its own interests and leverage over the co-equal branches of government spelled out in our Constitution.
We learned that then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied in his 2013 congressional testimony, stating that the NSA did not “wittingly” collect Americans’ cellphone data and emails. We learned in 2017 that the FISA court, long abhorred by civil libertarians as an end-run around the Fourth Amendment’s rigorous warrant requirements, allowed surveillance of individuals working on the Trump campaign, relying on the Steele dossier and other partisan opposition research masquerading as “evidence.” The intelligence community jumped from having a theoretical ability to manipulate domestic US politics to using that ability. Earlier this year, multiple outlets confirmed that officials at the NSA read conservative commentator Tucker Carlson’s emails for reasons that remain unexplained.
In our time, left-wing talking heads and establishment liberals increasingly equate conservative Americans with the Taliban and insist that domestic terrorism is a greater threat than radical Islam. In this environment, it is easy to see how the immense new powers to deal with “terrorism” outside the normal strictures of constitutional law will be wielded against political enemies, those who dare voice opposition to the progressive orthodoxy on anything profounder than marginal tax rates. The “freedom to disagree” that Bush cited in his September 2001 speech to Congress as a fundamental American virtue is now in greater danger from domestic tech companies and intelligence agencies than it is from the Taliban or al-Qaida.
Even if the surveillance state’s post-9/11 expansion provided reliable intelligence and prevented domestic terror attacks, the trade-off would be debatable. Yet, the same thugs who harbored al-Qaida before 2001 now run Afghanistan in 2021. Most radical Sunni terrorists still come from the crude-rich Gulf nations, as they did in 2001. Domestic terror attacks still occur tragically but infrequently in the United States. These things have remained constant, but Americans’ civil liberties have not. This begs the question: why pay billions of dollars relinquishing our own rights if the results look like what we see in Afghanistan? Especially at this perilous moment, the answer is obvious: don’t.
If we want to preserve the quintessentially American liberties that Bush and the Congress of 2001/2002 sought to defend, it’s time for a dramatic rollback of the expanded surveillance state they enacted.
Nathan Richendollar is a summa cum laude economics and politics graduate of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. He lives in Southwest Missouri with his wife Bethany and works in the financial sector.