By Steven Greenhut | Franklin Center
Most Americans who pay any attention to politics believe the nation’s great chasm is between “Red State” Republicans and “Blue State” Democrats. While the nation’s two major parties have their differences, the real divide is and always has been between those who reflexively trust the authorities and those who recognize that their own government poses the gravest threat to their liberties.
The latest scandal, in which a whistleblower revealed two National Security Agency programs that gather the phone and computer records of Americans in a fishing expedition designed to find links to terrorists, has jump-started this debate. As the Associated Press reported, this has “reinvigorated an odd-couple political alliance of the far left and right. A number of Democratic civil liberties activists, along with libertarian-leaning Republicans, say the government actions are too broad and don’t adequately protect citizens’ privacy.”
The most vocal spokesman for this group, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, recently said, “Get a warrant and go after a terrorist, or a murderer or a rapist. But don’t troll through a billion phone records every day. That is unconstitutional.” That seems obvious, but not many other political leaders are joining that chorus.
Since the scandal broke, the establishment has been telling the public that the government is not violating anyone’s privacy. They tell us the program has “safeguards.” NSA’s chief and others claim it has foiled plots. Yet we already see the unraveling of official claims about this and other scandals. The only real check on it comes from a kangaroo court that almost always approves the government’s request. Americans have reason to worry.
“Given the scope of these programs, it’s understandable that many would be concerned about issues related to privacy,” said Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “But what’s difficult to understand is the motivation of somebody who intentionally would seek to warn the nation’s enemies of lawful programs created to protect the American people. And I hope that he is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
McConnell has been feigning concern about abuses of federal power while taking shots at Edward Snowden, the source of the NSA leak. But Democrats have been just as loathsome. Obama has mocked concerns about privacy, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said, “Everyone should just calm down and understand that this isn’t anything that is brand new.” I could hear him during the American Revolution: “Calm down. The British troops have been engaging in unreasonable searches for years, so what’s the big deal?”
There always will be some threat to justify the government’s demand for more power. But when that government operates in secrecy, how is the public supposed to make sure officials don’t abuse their authority? The loud-mouthed defenders of uncontrolled federal snooping depict as traitors anyone who exposes what is going on, but that’s the only way for us to learn the details when the government overreaches. At least we can see firsthand the kind of mindset that has allowed despotic regimes to fester in other times and places.
Many Americans embrace the “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear” school of thought. The list of potential wrongdoing keeps getting longer, by the way, when one considers all the regulatory rules that govern every aspect of our lives. Even these naïve souls ought to wonder about the next program that Big Brother might enact to make it easier to fight enemies.
U.S. citizens are supposed to have natural rights that are inalienable – i.e., that government cannot trample upon. Yet now we are all subject to whatever a bureaucrat in a federal agency decides, and anything we say or write on our computer can be subject to monitoring. We are supposed just trust them. Revealing details of a program that should have been publicly disclosed, apparently, is an act of treason. That same government, by the way, claims the right to use a drone to kill anyone it determines to be an enemy of the nation. At what point does this echo a dystopian movie?
I’ve reported on government at the local and state level and have seen firsthand that agencies always grab as much power as they can. The most secretive agencies are the ones rife with abuse, and those agencies often cover up the misdeeds of their own agents. People often are drawn to power for less-than-noble reasons. That’s the nature of humanity and of government, although such lessons – at the core of the nation’s founding – are lost on the likes of McConnell and Obama.
As Andrew Napolitano wrote for Reason, “The modern-day British soldiers – our federal agents – are not going from house to house; they are going from phone to phone and from computer to computer, enabling them to penetrate every aspect of our lives. If anything violates the lessons of our history, the essence of our values and the letter of the Constitution, it is this.”
That coalition of left and right better expand rapidly or else this program will just be the stepping stool to another bigger and more effective governmental intrusion designed to “protect” us from terrorists while destroying our liberties in the process.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org