President Obama recently gave a speech (January 17) at the Justice Department outlining a variety of procedural changes to some of the NSA spying programs. Why the changes? The government got caught with their hand in the cookie jar when Edward Snowden revealed that these programs not only spy on potential security threats, they also “unwittingly” can and do spy on Americans. And not simply a little here or there by accident; they vacuum up petabytes of phone and Internet data every day about you and me. Oddly enough most Americans don’t take too kindly to this invasion of privacy and so after months of soul searching Obama has decided to placate the natives by establishing a new cookie retrieval procedure. Ah! We have a procedure now; that will definitely prevent abuse.
In order to justify these spying programs Mr. Obama cites historical precedent for the benefits derived from such spying during wartime. The rather troubling message here is that if wartime practices (spying) are permissible upon your own citizens during peacetime, what other wartime practices might also be justified in order to advance the cause of protecting the homeland? Kidnapping? Murder? Would the justifications used today for spying be that different from the justifications for drone strikes on US soil to “take out” a suspected terrorist (along with any unfortunate innocents in the vicinity)? Make no mistake; we are “at peace” now, we are not “at war.” A mere pronouncement by blowhards of us being at war on a concept (terror) does not magically justify the use of wartime methods.
We are told terrorism changes the rules of the game. In the past it was easy to define our enemy. “They” were on that side of that line, and “we” were on this side of the line. But today, with terrorism, the enemy hides among us in plain site, like a melanoma masquerading as a freckle. If the enemy can be anywhere or anyone among us, then that necessarily means from an enforcement or prevention standpoint we are all presumed to be the enemy, that is, we are guilty until proven innocent. Listening to your phone conversations or reading your emails is the only way to exonerate you dear reader!
Our leaders would have us believe the infiltrative-sniper-like threat of the terrorist is something new, a 21st century phenomena that requires a 21st century response. But this enemy-among-us mindset is no different than the McCarthyism of the 1950’s – where a fever of paranoia gripped the nation into thinking the “commies” were everywhere, ready to unleash their fury at a moments notice. During this cold war we were indeed infiltrated by enemies (spies) in exactly the same manner we are infiltrated by terrorists today. The difference was back then the technology was so limited it necessitated that we do actual work to identify the actual individual threat in order to devote our limited and scarce resources to monitoring that threat. However advances in technology have facilitated laziness. Why devote energy to identifying specific threats when you can just monitor EVERYONE instead. Today’s technology allows spies to achieve what their predecessors only dreamt of: the complete and wholesale monitoring of the movement, actions and communications of every digitally connected human being on the planet. Unfortunately this information overload has ironically led to less effective results. This vacuuming of data has not resulted in a single instance of attack prevention.
Before Edward Snowden’s revelations we didn’t know what we didn’t know. The “people” can’t act as a check on government abuse if we aren’t even aware of the abuse. Thankfully Edward Snowden made us aware. Absent that revelation you can be sure Obama would not have been laying out these “reforms.” But make no mistake; these proposed changes mean nothing. If the US Constitution can be ignored by the majority of Congress, why should we have any hope that a few policy guidelines or oversight committees will have any impact on how government governs it own actions. Quis custodiet ipsos custodies