When I worked in Congress, budget time brought out great creativity as government agencies tried to defend their turf. The Interior Department would engage in an annual ritual. If they faced cuts, they would issue a press release announcing the closing of the Washington Monument to visitors due to lack of funds. The "Washington Monument drill" got everyone's attention and, since no member of Congress wanted to hear from constituents about why they couldn't visit the monument on vacation, the maneuver was quite successful.
Such is the nature of the terrorism defense trotted out in front of a House committee recently. Arguing the ends justify the means, the head of the N.S.A. (National Security Agency) testified the massive government spying on Americans, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, is proper and correct because it has foiled a number of terrorist plots. He, and the Obama administration, are counting on the sheep-like tendencies of Americans, frightened by the specter of anonymous terrorists, to be easily stampeded into trading their privacy for the illusion of security. (do I need to repeat Ben Franklin's admonition on this point, or have I used it enough previously?)
Of the thousands of people killed by terrorists worldwide, how many can you name who were Americans? Two, five, maybe ten? At the same time, there were 30,000 gun-related deaths just in the last year in this country. Yet, Americans can be convinced to abandon the 4th amendment, and their right to be free in their homes and papers, but if anyone were to suggest the government should know who owns a gun, all hell would break loose. Why does the word "terrorism" evoke such irrational fear while even modest attempts to regulate guns is politically anathema?
It was predictable the government would march out a spymaster to remind us how only by giving up our privacy can we hope to fight terrorism. The vacuuming up of billions of phone calls, emails and internet searches by average Americans is legal and justified because it helped stop a couple of amateurish plots to attack us. Is it really this easy? Are we really this gullible as a people? Congress can't even pass a law requiring universal background checks for gun purchases, (saving thousands of American lives?), but can pass the Patriot Act, virtually unanimously, which effectively eliminates 1/10th of the Bill of Rights. 30,000 dead Americans doesn't even dent the 2nd amendment, or generate irrational fear, but 3 dead in Boston justifies government intrusion into our private lives which creates the greatest authoritarian big brother in history. How is this possible?
Granted, being able to catalog everything we do in our cyber-lives has stopped some terrorist attacks. However, you will notice there are no claims to have had much of an impact on Al Qaida, Al Shabob, or terrorists in Mali, Libya, most of Africa or the Middle East. Al Qaida is wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria and our intelligence agencies can't tell one group from another, as they attempt to arm the good rebels and not the bad ones, but they are very good at spying on us for our own protection.
Imagine a knock on your front door, opening it to find uniformed police who announce they are going to search your home from top to bottom taking anything they wish into evidence including your computer, cell phones, letters and family pictures. They have no warrant...no probably cause...no suspicious actions on your part. They can do this any time they wish, as often as they wish and you cannot object or stop them. When complaints flood into the A.C.L.U.'s offices, local politicians and police point to the fact these random, warrantless searches have caught some thieves and drug dealers and violent criminals keeping you safe. You should feel grateful. Do you? Of course such a law could never pass nor could the arrest of some crooks persuade people to allow police to rampage through your house any time they wish. Yet, this is exactly what Obama and Congress authorized to happen when they put on their dog and pony show, complete with general's stars and epaulets, and tell Americans they are safer from terrorists when they give up all expectations of privacy.
Obama bristles when he is compared to George Bush on national security policy. He touts how his reforms have created checks and balances to prevent abuse. These are the same checks and balances which prevented the I.R.S. from targeting some non-profit groups...the same ones which prevented the Justice Department from seizing the records of more than 20 phone lines in the offices of the Associated Press...the same checks which kept them from naming a Fox journalist as a criminal co-conspirator of leaked secrets...the same ones which stopped the A.T.F. (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) from selling guns to Mexican gangs and then losing them and being unable to track what happened to them. The F.I.S.A. (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court received over 39,000 requests to spy on Americans in the last years and rejected 11 of them. A rubber stamp is not a check. Congress, and Obama, do not provide any check or balance either. Congress members, including Diane Feinstein, admit knowing about this spying for years without raising any objections. (Oregon Senator Ron Wyden did raise some objections, but had to do so in private, out of public view, since all of this information is top secret...again no check or balance)
Ultimately, the entire argument for this privacy neutron bomb is if we didn't do it, something bad is going to happen. Be afraid, be very afraid because without all this spying there could be another Boston. (Oh wait, we were being spied on for years and Boston happened anyway)
Recently, in USA Today, three NSA whistleblowers offered up a viable compromise which could leave the 4th amendment still relevant. It's called "two degrees from Bin Laden". They conceive of two zones of inquiry...if someone from Yemen or an Al Qaida-like organization or affiliate, is communicating with someone in America, or if Americans are visiting and viewing terrorist websites, suck up everything you can on them, their communications, and everything on whoever they are communicating with in this country. This is one degree from Bin Laden. It would also be allowed to go after anyone associated with someone in this country who was involved or communicating or searching or talking about someone or some group in another part of the world. This is two degrees from Bin Laden. However, outside these two zones, leave everyone else alone.
Will Americans be stampeded into giving up even more of their civil liberties by playing the "terrorist" card? Will we once again bend over and take whatever the government proposes because we are scared? Are we really more scared of a random act of terror than we are the attacks resulting in over 30,000 dead Americans every year? Trotting out the N.S.A. general was as predictable as the Washington Monument drill. Will it be as effective?