The following unsigned editorial appeared in the July 1 issue of America magazine, a national Catholic weekly magazine run by the Jesuits.
There are few words that arouse more suspicion among a properly skeptical public than “Trust us; we’re doing what is best for you.” But these have been the insufficient assurances offered by the Obama administration and members of Congress about the activities of the National Security Agency, even as more questions are raised about the breadth of the NSA’s Internet spying and the Orwellian infrastructure it has been constructing since at least 2006.
It may be fair to say that most Americans, as habitual users of the Internet, are already thoughtlessly surrendering more private information to service providers and social networks — and their many corporate clients — than anything the NSA has so far attempted. In fact Big Brother is already watching, but he’s leaning over a cash register, not leering through a television screen; sales of data gathered about customers by cell providers alone are expected to reach nearly $10 billion by 2016.
And scary headlines in The Washington Post and Britain’s The Guardian newspaper notwithstanding, the NSA may be operating completely within existing law in collecting phone records and tracking overseas targets through U.S.-based Internet service providers. Unfortunately those laws are the most recent revisions of the deficient Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act. It is unclear what else the NSA may be up to.
The public may today shrug off NSA data gathering as a necessary evil, but it is a mistake not to be concerned about the slow encroachment of a surveillance society. While the threat from terrorism is real, the spectacle of a secretive federal agency, operating under limited legislative and judicial oversight while maintaining a vast capability to intrude on the privacy of U.S. citizens, is also a threat to a healthy democracy.
This is an agency that, with the turn of an administration and the issue of an executive order, could begin scanning the habits, connections, opinions and more of all Americans. In 2003 Congress rejected the notion of a governmental Total Information Awareness Program; now the nation is drifting into casual acceptance of its de facto implementation.
In fact, we have been adrift with respect to civil liberties — and more — far too long. Since that day of ash and horror on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has launched two expensive wars and endured the scandals of Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, and torture and detention without trial. In defense of freedom, American citizens have been vaporized in drone strikes and hundreds of others liquidated in long-distance executions that answer to no court and admit of no appeal. Against such grave events, the NSA digital eavesdropping seems a slight matter, but in truth it is a small part of a great historical drama too many Americans watch as bystanders.
In response to grinding terrorism by the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s, Britain institutionalized torture and began a shameful internment program that reached its awful conclusion at the Long Kesh Detention Center’s H-block. Confronting terror, the state of Israel likewise embraced innovative “interrogations” and began a strategy of “targeted assassinations” that require the glib acceptance of “collateral damage” among Palestinian noncombatants.
These make poor historical models for a mature democracy confronting its own threat to public safety. Surely the United States, in deference to its traditions, the rule of law and a historical esteem for civil liberties, can do better than replicate these dreary strategies? Yet U.S. drone attacks continue apace, and now the United States maintains its own H-block at Guantanamo Bay, complete with hunger strikers, force-feeding and “dirty protests.” What state model of social tracking and control does the NSA e-listening suggest?
Speaking about national security on May 23 at the National Defense University in Washington, President Barack Obama called for a debate on how to balance trade-offs of civil liberties and public safety. But how is the American public to contribute to a debate when it is consistently cut off from the information it needs to participate intelligently? The president said that Americans “know a price must be paid for freedom.” In this instance, however, Americans do not fully understand the price they are paying.
Legislation has been proposed in Congress that would declassify some Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act opinions, and Internet service providers are asking to be allowed to disclose their responses to NSA requests for metadata. These two steps make a modest beginning to the robust debate the administration claims to be eager to join. No one wants to deprive federal authorities of the legitimate tools they need to protect the public and keep the peace. Surely that goal and the goal of protecting what is left of individual privacy in this digitally intrusive age need not be mutually exclusive.
The views or positions presented in this or any guest editorial are those of the individual publication and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicPhilly.com, Catholic News Service or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Join the CatholicPhilly.com family
CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you and hundreds of other people become part of our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community and sustain CatholicPhilly.com as your trusted news source. Thank you in advance!
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
To Lucky Forward:
I suspect that if you were a victim of terrorism, you would demand that the NSA monitor electronic messages to spot potential terrorists before they strick again. This is exactly what the NSA is doing. Unfortunately and unbelievably, there are American citizens (like the Boston Marathon bombers) who are terrorists. As terrorists they are monitored by the CIA, NSA, FBI, etc. as they should (and must) be. As American citizens, they are accorded certain rights which are monitored by the FISA Court as they should be.
The FISA court is a rubber stamp. Our Constitution protects us from having what belongs to us seized by the government. Essentially all of our life activities are being tracked.
Do you really trust the government behind the IRS and Obamacare with all of our personal info?
The next Edward Snowden could sell the info to identity thieves, blackmailers, drug cartels, you name it.
The very same people who say there is no real privacy issue with living in Orwell’s “1984”, are often the same crowd that demand total privacy in the bedroom; it was the notion of privacy in the bedroom that lead to SCOTUS decisions Griswald v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, and the subsequent institutionalized murder of the most innocent life.
If we are going to live in a Culture of Life that is protected by law, we had better wake up and demand it!
I have carefully reviewed this issue. The Republican Chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee has said that the NSA (which is an arm of the US Defense Department) is doing exactly what Congress told it to do in the aftermath of 9/11. Tracking terrorist on a global basis is not easy. The fact that the NSA is attempting to keep Americans safe is good enough for me particularly considering the existence of the FISA Court to ensure that American’s civil liberties are always protected.