More than two hundred and fifty years ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote one of his most often quoted (and misquoted) phrases:
Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. (November 1755)
Shortly after the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, the US Congress did pretty much that, in the passing of the infamous Patriot Act. They were sold on the idea that, without free access to all sorts of private information on every single US citizen, the intelligence community and the NSA could not protect the country against terrorism.
Since then, the NSA and the FBI have expanded the reach of the most invasive provisions of the Patriot Act to access and store records on all internet and telephone activity by US citizens—all US citizens, not just those whom either agency already has reason to suspect engage in terrorist, or even garden variety criminal activities.
Your phone calls, your emails, your internet searches, your forum and blog postings.
Because, seems to be the reasoning, what if?
What if someone thinks that who you call and where you post indicate that you are a terrorist, or have terrorist leanings?
Instead of, as per the provisions of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, asking authorities to prove they already have probable cause to spy on you, before they start spying on you, Section 215 of the Patriot Act means that they can spy on you first, so that they can find something to charge you with in whatever information they collect.
You feel safe yet?
About two years ago, I read this article on nbc.com (link goes to the wayback machine page). The article highlights how complacent US citizens have become about the very real abuses of power that are not only possible but increasingly likely when a country doesn’t bother to curtail its government’s intrusion in the lives of its citizens.
We think that, since we have done nothing wrong, we are safe–and we forget that all it takes is for someone to accuse us of wrongdoing.
“Right now, the abuses seem theoretical. There seems to be a lack of historical context, a lack of cases where the government has abused power,” he said. “People seem to have forgotten about J. Edgar Hoover.”
“We’ve already recognized that police need extraordinary powers to violate privacy … but we have to recognize that when you give someone the power to violate privacy, that power is ripe for abuse.”
Last night at midnight, some of what the ACLU¹ considers the worst parts of the Patriot Act expired.
Such as the part that lets the FBI conduct “thousands of secret searches of homes, offices, and other premises in the United States—an astounding 6,471 such searches in 2013 alone—the vast majority of them in cases having nothing to do with terrorism.”
The intelligence community is in a tizzy over this. The Obama administration–which has a horrible civil rights record², regardless of all the good things that have come from it–has issued dire warnings and continues to paint any critics of unchecked surveillance as anything from irresponsible, grandstanding politicos to lacking common sense.
Of course, this is by no means the end. No government agency is happy to see its power curtailed in any way–particularly not the NSA, the FBI, and police in general. This week there will be a vote on a House bill, the USA Freedom Act, which while curtailing some of the far-reaching powers of the Patriot Act, still fails to fully protect private citizens from intrusive government spying.
Me, I’m happy that at least a few senator-type people have remembered that you can search for terrorists without violating the rights of everyone else. A government should serve the interests of all its citizens, not of the paranoid and/or power-grabbing few.
¹ It’s posted on Slate, but it’s written by Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of at the ACLU.
² Edited to add these links: Obama: a disaster for civil liberties at Los Angeles Time; Obama’s dismal civil liberties record at Salon.com; A lame civil rights record at Politico Magazine. Please notice that these articles span four years.