The Spectacle Blog

Norms and the NSA

One judge rejects 'national security.'

By on 12.16.13 | 9:23PM

Yesterday United States District Judge Richard Leon found that the NSA’s collection of telephone records is likely unconstitutional.

As Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) told reporters, “It is an astounding day when a federal judge says a government surveillance practice would leave James Madison aghast […] The idea of collecting all these phone records is not inoffensive data collection as some of the proponents have said. It is digital surveillance."

This is big news on the heels of 60 Minutes NSA hagiography.

We’re moving in the right direction. A federal court outright rejected a NATIONAL SECURITY DIRECTIVE [!!!] to gather information on nearly all telephone calls made to, from, and within the United States. Simply put, this is an important reminder that “big government doesn’t just make you buy health care, etc.” So where to from here?

Legal norms literally govern us all. They confirm power, shape discourse, command and regularize behavior, limit our range of discussion, and constrain action at every level of civil society. I hope that yesterday’s ruling initiates a “normative cascade” that rejects the surveillance state’s status quo.

George Washington University’s Martha Finnemore has written extensively about norms and ideational concerns. She suggests that by the latter stage of the norm cascade, internalization occurs. Ideas and beliefs achieve a taken-for-granted quality and are no longer a matter of broad public debate; e.g. nowadays, few people today discuss whether women should be allowed to vote, how to justify the utility of slavery, or whether medical personnel should be granted immunity during war. Internal and external legitimization depends upon adherence.

For the past decade, we have accepted the fundamental erosion of our liberties by writ of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Yesterday, the legal presumption behind that logic shattered. It reified a shift toward reclamation of civil liberty.   

With that said, I’m not entirely sure what decisions will construct a legal system that salvages global and domestic policy. But this strikes me as an important first step.

Ultimately, I’d like to think that the wholesale intelligence consumption of our phone-calls isn’t a necessary evil in this “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Perhaps this ruling reminds us that the greatest threat to our rights exists right here in Washington.

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