They say there’s progress in history. Technologically? Absolutely. But morally? Most certainly not.
Technology simply affords human nature — that stubborn and stagnant little creature — greater opportunities to do good and to do evil. Now, one can simply text a number to donate money to the Oklahoma tornadoes relief effort. But one can also simply hack into a major security network to steal government secrets. (Though the former might be easier than the latter.) In brief, technology simplifies the given means to our desired ends.
So it’s no surprise that the NSA and FBI have been collecting data — or “metadata” rather — on our phone communications, our Internet activity, our credit card transactions, and probably more. It’s just too easy; they have the technology to do it, so why not? And as if that weren’t enough already, they’ve assured us that they’ve stopped there, not listening in on the calls themselves. Even if they have the most effortless means of being able to do so, we’re supposed to trust these officials in good faith that they’ll maintain their boundaries and not abuse their powers.
In grudgingly addressing this matter last week, President Obama came across as disgruntled and somehow surprised by the fact that Americans are rightly upset by these recent revelations.
In fact, defending these programs, the president said, “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.” Yet one can’t help but recall his insistence in his 2008 speeches on the campaign trail that the choice between “the liberties we cherish and the security we provide” is a false one.
All of this raises the question: What ever happened to the shimmer of hope and change, the senator who was going to bring more transparency and less corruption to government?
The short answer: He became president.
This kind of surveillance we now see is all part of the executive mentality, a mentality that pervades the federal government irrespective of political party. Peggy Noonan calls it a “built-in bias” toward “doing too much and not too little” so to avoid any catastrophe under one’s watch.
Many commentators are instead blaming these newly leaked surveillance programs on the PATRIOT Act — despite the fact that similar surveillance systems were operating in the 90s as well. The following passage written in 2000 reveals the overreaching of the federal government under Clinton (incidentally, it’s from last week’s Spectator Flashback):
In 1994 [the Clinton administration] railroaded through Congress a law to dumb down phone technology in order to facilitate government wiretapping. On October 16, 1995, the telecommunications industry was stunned when a Federal Register notice appeared announcing that the FBI was demanding that phone companies provide the capability for simultaneous wiretaps of one out of every hundred phone calls in urban areas. The FBI notice represented “a 1,000-fold increase over previous levels of surveillance.” …
The 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement law led to five years of clashes between the FBI and the communications industry over the new standards. The Federal Communications Commission was the bill’s designated arbiter; in August 1999, the FCC caved and gave the FBI almost everything it wanted. The FCC ordered that all new cellular telephones become de facto homing devices for law enforcement by including components which enable law enforcement to determine the precise location from which a person is calling.
Just like now, the rationale and justification then invoked national security. Moreover, federal officials have continued to maintain that it has all been done within constitutional boundaries — in other words, approved by the FISA court. As our own Matt Purple has pointed out, FISA was originally conceived as a check on executive overreach. But between “1979 and 2011, they rejected only 11 of more than 32,000 surveillance requests.” Not much of a check.
In any case, the fact remains that even after revelations of civil liberties abuses under Clinton and especially Bush, and after Senator Obama’s campaign of rosy rhetoric, the NSA is still invading our privacy. It’s the executive mentality: if the technology exists and can be used in the name of national security, then use it.
Neocon Charles Krauthammer put it bluntly: “Well, [Obama’s] had a lot of [changes of heart] and there has been a lot of hypocrisy. And I’m not surprised when he becomes commander in chief and they come about the threats out there and his hair stands on end and he says, ‘Well, perhaps Bush was on the right track.'”
Since technology is exponentially facilitating the surveillance of America’s citizens as well as — in the mind of the president — the security of said citizenry, it looks like this executive mentality is here to stay.
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