Point of View

Safe but afraid no way for Americans to live

June 15, 2013 

Attempting to tamp down concerns about the government’s collection of private information about its own citizens’ communications, the president and administration advanced three arguments: 1. The government isn’t really spying on us when it records who we communicate with by phone or Internet, just monitoring activity that could be investigated later in the event our behavior or someone else’s give rise to security concerns. 2. This isn’t a rogue program: Congress has been briefed and approved of the data collection. 3. The program has made us safer. These arguments, and the fact that many citizens may accept them, pose a serious threat to our democracy.

The claim that mapping personal communications and storing some for possible review later is not spying ignores the history of previous administrations that have turned the power of the state against political opponents. Many of the laws the administration says it is not breaking with this indiscriminate collection of personal data were put on the books in the 1970s after it was revealed that the CIA and the FBI ran counter-intelligence operations against domestic groups that opposed the war in Vietnam or championed Civil Rights.

Elected administrations had intelligence and police personnel build dossiers recording the beliefs and utterances of political opponents, and there were instances of government agents warning employers about the political views of employees and attempting to blacklist dissidents.

As a result, domestic spying by the CIA was explicitly banned and controls were instituted to rein in the politically motivated police surveillance of our citizens. But now, the government argues, massive surveillance is OK because our dragnet sweeps up everybody, not just the government’s political opponents.

Constant surveillance will have a chilling effect on political thought and speech. Imagine the effect on your daily conversation and your willingness to experiment with new ideas or thoughts when you feel your every utterance may be used against you at a later date. Most people will retreat into uttering banalities or adopt a corporate line, and the free exchange of ideas will be suppressed.

As a thought experiment, try this: Suppose instead of capturing your phone records, emails and Internet searches, the government was capturing your day dreams for use in investigating you at some point. Might that feel stifling? The difference is only a matter of filtering. People regularly express ideas they have barely considered and sometimes search for outré views on the Internet without embracing those ideas.

But, if the government proposes to query people later about these searches or expressions, it will inevitably narrow our conversation, just as having our private thoughts broadcast would inhibit us. The example of recording daydreams is not so far-fetched: Academic researchers are now able to use brain scans to reproduce images “seen” by people while they are dreaming.

Incidentally, the idea that our personal information will remain private, safe in a government vault, is suspect. The government is not great at keeping secrets.

Administrations routinely use leaks to undermine opponents and government employees use leaks to oppose policies. There are, reportedly, 1.5 million government and contract workers with security clearances. That is a lot of people who may potentially leak private citizens’ intimate thoughts.

Highly sensitive government servers have reportedly been hacked by Chinese and Russian hackers as well as by activists. The idea that our government will benignly store records of our contacts and web searches is not credible.

The administration made a point of arguing that the massive intelligence sweeps were authorized by Congress, which had been fully briefed. Many in Congress dispute that that briefings were complete or that consent was granted.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Congress cannot authorize searches that violate the Constitution. It is quite possible, despite the legal opinions written by the government for itself, that when the facts surrounding these wiretaps are known, much of the program will prove to be illegal.

Remember that the Bush administration generated legal opinions justifying torture under certain circumstances.

Finally, the government argues that these security measures have derailed terrorist actions and have made us safer. Perhaps, but at what cost? If we end up physically safe, but afraid of expressing our views, are we better off? Many patriots risked or gave their lives to protect us from police states that sought to conquer us in wars.

Will we now surrender to our own government the freedoms that generations before us fought to protect?

J. Adam Abram, chairman of the Board of Visitors of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, is a member of the Board of Directors of Human Rights First.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service