US officials from across the political spectrum are scrambling to explain reports in The Guardian and Washington Post of unprecedented government collection of the phone records of Americans and the tracking of the Google, Facebook, and Skype activities of Americans and non-Americans worldwide.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, insisted in an unusual public statement that the phone programmes did not involve the surveillance of American citizens.
Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the senate select committee on intelligence, asserted the government needs the information to find someone who might become a terrorist. Republican senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking member and vice-chairman of the intelligence committee, described the programme as “meritorious” because it allows government to collect information about “bad guys”.
President Barack Obama defended his administration’s unprecedented level of surveillance. “When I came into this office I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make: Number one, to keep the American people safe, and number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties.”
Obama can’t have it both ways. On one hand, he says he is trying to scale down the “war on terror”. On the other, he has increased the surveillance state whose only justification is to wage it. As al-Qaeda weakens, surveillance should decrease, not increase.
Those Washington-centric explanations are not enough. Throughout Obama’s presidency, liberal Americans accepted the argument that government would not engage in overreach.
Meanwhile, dizzying rates of technological change created unprecedented opportunities for government and corporate abuse — from drone strikes that make targeted killings politically easy to mobile phones that automatically track our movements.
The debate now unfolding is long overdue and a vital civics lesson. There is too little awareness of corporate and government data mining. And far too few protections against its excesses.
In the political short-term, Obama may be the biggest loser. This debate is the latest blow to an administration intent on making government seem competent, not oppressive. The metadata collection will strengthen a growing narrative of government overreach.
Consider recent headlines. CIA drones kill US citizens. Internal Revenue Service agents target Tea Party activists. The FBI collects the phone and email records of journalists it accuses of endangering national security. Those stories rightly cause a furore on the right and left of the political spectrum.
Fox News commentators, who have long warned of government overreach, cited the NSA disclosure as proof of “government gone wild”. But Obama’s real problem is that he is now losing the centre and left.
The New York Times said Obama’s promise that internal reviews of drone strikes, leak investigations, and surveillance, which he declined to publicly describe, would prevent abuses was no longer acceptable. “The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue,” the paper said in a blunt editorial.
The more centrist Washington Post editorial page asked why the phone record collection has been kept secret for seven years. It called for a clear explanation.
Thursday’s responses did not cut it. Clapper said that the disclosure of the programme “threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.”
I disagree. Terrorists already assume the US tracks their every phone call and online click. Militant groups have developed procedures to avoid detection.
Inside the US, meanwhile, fear of the political damage a successful terrorist attack could cause is creating an overreaching security state. Any loss of life in an attack is horrific, but stopping determined individuals from carrying out an attack is next to impossible.
Our politicians use the false promise of total security as a justification for eroding our privacy.
“If we don’t do it,” Republican senator Lindsey Graham said, “we’re crazy.”
In the coming weeks, a fierce debate is likely to emerge over the new US surveillance state. It’s about time. More transparency is crucial. We must develop clearer laws, procedures, and systems for protecting our lives from terrorists but also from our government and corporations.
* David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters
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