The disclosure that the federal government has been secretly mining phone and Internet records on a widespread scale should trouble all Americans who value their rights to privacy and freedom of speech.
It’s the type of activity that would have never been tolerated less than three decades ago (think of former President Richard Nixon) and should serve as a warning of how far our rights have eroded in the panic that followed the 9-11 tragedy.
It’s especially disappointing that all this is happening on President Barack Obama’s watch. Obama was openly critical of what he deemed abuses by the Bush administration, which first implemented the tactics. Now he defends those practices as an effective deterrent to terror attacks and has aggressively prosecuted whistle-blowers who seek to restore the balance. Meanwhile, the evidence of the massive surveillance effort’s success in scuttling terrorist plots has been marginal while the potential for abuses is enormous.
Take for instance, Edward Snowden, who was able to gain access to sensitive documents while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency. The jury may still be out on Snowden’s motives for disclosing information about the extent of the surveillance program to the press, but it illustrates how easily someone within government can access the data. Are we to take it on faith that those in power would never abuse such access to blackmail political rivals or use information for other unsavory purposes?
The reassurances that rules are in place to prevent abuses is facial at best. Vague guidelines that are supposed to ensure government doesn’t stray outside the law and a secret court that has virtually rubber-stamped every request trotted before it hardly qualify as precautionary measures.
We’ve already seen the administration overstep what most would consider a breach of free speech by secretly obtaining voluminous phone records of Associated Press reporters. Obama later acknowledged the danger of creating a chilling effect on journalists, whose investigation of the political process and decision-making helps hold government accountable to the citizens it serves.
That incident and others outline the need for a fulsome and open debate on the extent and value of the surveillance programs. That debate should, among other issues, involve discussion about how best to safeguard the rights we value as Americans.
It’s good to see several prominent Republicans also raise the issue, although most Republicans were content to look the other way when President Bush was in office. A bi-partisan push in Congress could help bring this issue forward.
Ironically, Obama himself laid the groundwork for such a discussion when he delivered his highly-touted speech on the war on terror at the National Defense University. In his speech, the president outlined the sacrifices that had been made and how the landscape in the war on terror had evolved since the tragedy of 9-11.
“America is at a crossroads,” he declared. And the actions that the nation took would help define it for the future. “We have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.”
Obama would do well to heed his own advice as the nation grapples with how to best safeguard not only citizens’ lives but also their freedoms.