Marc Thiessen in the Washington Post tells us, “Calm down, folks. Big Brother is not watching you.” Joe Klein in Time tells us not to worry because, “this remains, and always will be, an extremely libertarian country.” Besides, “our national security is more important than any marginal — indeed, mythical — rights that we may have conceded in the Patriot Act legislation”. Richard Cohen tells us there is “no story” here. After all, “no one lied about the various programs disclosed last week. They were secret, yes, but members of Congress were informed — and they approved. Safeguards were built in.” William Saletan of Slate isn’t concerned with the collection of massive amounts of data itself, only in how it is used and what safeguards are in place. He says, “we just have to build in sensible, visible restrictions”.
Part of the problem here is not knowing what the NSA is doing, or even what its safeguards are. It appears that Congress has been absent or sleeping through security briefings. Dana Milbank reports that “a seemingly bewildered Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, alleged, ‘All of us are sort of asking what in the world has gone on’”. “Worse,” Milbank says, “lawmakers quashed efforts to allow even modest public disclosure of the broad contours of the program”.
I presume Congress didn’t want the public getting upset with how much their privacy was being invaded.
Unfortunately, the FISA court, the other facet of the safeguarding system, isn’t telling us much either. Milbank says, “The FISA court itself colluded in the secrecy. After senators asked the court to provide declassified summaries of its decisions, the chief FISA judge, Reggie B. Walton, responded with a letter on March 27 citing ‘serious obstacles’ to the request.”
The whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, says he was disturbed by what he saw, but even more by where things are headed, calling it “the architecture of oppression” and “turnkey tyranny”.
The point here is not that the current system isn’t legal, nor that Congress hasn’t been notified, nor that the FISA court isn’t overseeing requests. It’s that very few are knowledgeable enough of these programs to determine their legality, it’s that very few members of Congress have even attended the briefings, it’s that those briefings are likely completely inadequate in detail to convey the full scope involved, and it’s that the FISA court has so readily acquiesced in approving ten of thousands of requests.
But that isn’t even the worst of it.
It’s that these programs are growing frighteningly powerful and could so very easily be used for oppression and tyranny – from just minor “nudging” of the American people to get them to do what officials what, to Chicago style intimidation of political opponents, to outright full-fledged totalitarian control.
Americans understandably are willing to give up a measure of their privacy to gain a degree of security against real threats that could kill – in worst case scenarios – millions of people. But most view these incursions into their privacy as mostly minor and of little real concern. After all, is it so bad that the government is watching out for terrorist plots by using computers to read emails and listen in on phone conversations? Don’t we want them to do that?
Well, the problem is that was only the beginning. The more data the government acquires, the more it can tie seemingly unrelated data points together allowing it to more easily uncover terrorist plots. But that same ability also means that the government can know everything about us, including everything we believe in, everything we do, and everyone we are associated with. At some point, we cease being individuals, we cease being persons, and instead we become much more like cattle who can all too easily be controlled.
Turnkey tyranny. How apt. And that’s the real problem.