Spying in the U.S.A.

June 26th, 2013

I don’t have much time lately, so this piece will be shorter than I intended, but I want to write briefly about the NSA’s spying programs.

The NSA is collecting, it seems, phone records for all U.S. citizens. They are collecting “metadata” on our phone calls—that is, what number a subscriber called, where they called from, and for how long the call lasted. The Obama administration tried to minimize this by claiming that the information collected did not include the subscriber’s identity or the conversations themselves.

That’s brazenly dishonest and preys on the public’s ignorance. While the program may not directly collect the subscriber’s identity, or the identity of the person they called (maybe! we really have no way to know, since the program is classified and this statement came from an anonymous administration official), it’s trivial for the government to look up who that phone number belongs to. Moreover, the information they are collecting is arguably more important than the conversations themselves, since they provide a very detailed picture of where a person goes, who they’re in contact with and at what times. The only way it could be reassuring that the NSA is not collecting identities and recording conversations is if you don’t understand how powerful a phone call’s metadata is, and how easy it is to look up who owns a phone number. This administration’s attempt to minimize it is, therefore, absolutely vile and reprehensible. It is not only dishonest, but disturbing. They are trying to use the public’s ignorance of the issue, which is a result of their tireless effort to keep these programs a secret, against us to prevent us from coming to an accurate understanding of precisely what the government is doing.

That is as worrying to me as the programs themselves. This administration has pursued leakers with a zeal and ferocity that this country has never seen before. President Obama claims that he does so in order to protect the lives of U.S. troops and intelligence agents in the field, but the administration’s response to these leaks shows another purpose: they are attempting to batten down the hatches to prevent the public from gaining an understanding of precisely what the government is doing to us in our name.

The end result is this: we have a government that collects all of our phone records, has access to nearly all of our personal, private online communications, and that not only refuses to tell us what they are doing, but attempts to cloud the issue and mislead us. They say that there are ample rules and safeguards in place to ensure this information is not abused. Bullshit. The only court overseeing it is a secret court whose decisions we cannot see, and who provides no real direct oversight whatever. And even if that were the case—even if they were using this information correctly and guarding it jealously from abuse—recording our every communication is inherently an abuse of our rights. It is an abrogation of the right to privacy when the government can record any and all communications we make. There is no privacy, just the government’s word that they won’t use their great power to harm us. This is not the beginning of a slippery slope; we have already fallen straight on our asses, slid down it and lie crumpled and battered at the bottom.

Our government spies on us all and lies to us about it. There is no gray here. It is wrong, and our government is doing us harm. Our government has convinced itself not just that it needs this power, but that it deserves this power, and that it deserves our trust. It does not deserve the power to collect any communications it pleases, nor does it deserve our trust that it will not use it to harm us.

In Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Address, he said:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

If there is a tight summation of Obama’s governing philosophy, this is it—the question is not how big government is, but whether it works. Through his actions, Obama showed his philosophy to be false. He did not restore the “vital trust” between the people and our government—he undermined it by doing his business behind closed doors and by ruthlessly ensuring that anyone who dared leak information to the public about that business is prosecuted. But worse, this shows why the size of government—that is, the extent of government’s power and its reach into our lives—is so vitally important. As the government’s power coalesces, and as it reaches further into our lives, the likelihood of abuse of power increases and the magnitude of its effect does, too. Worse, this philosophy justifies the very abuses we see now and the abuses that Obama criticized so much before running for president: if those in power feel they can use it without “unnecessarily” (the definition of which is, conveniently, defined by the government) impinging on our rights while still protecting our security, then it is justified—because the standard used is effectiveness.

That philosophy provides for a dangerous level of confidence in all levels of government, and confidence in their motivations and ability to prevent abuse. As James Madison wrote, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” But humans are not angels, and power tends to alter people’s sense of right and wrong in unbecoming ways. That recognition implies that we should be skeptical of government and skeptical of increases in government power, because abuse is so easy a road to end up on. Obama dispenses with that skepticism and embraces a focus on how well it works. The NSA’s spying, the most espionage prosecutions of any president in history, and the government’s attempts at misleading us are the direct result of that.

There’s nothing else to be said than this: it is wrong, and it should not stand.