Security vs. Civil Liberties

The revelations have been coming in at a dizzying pace; so fast that I’m reluctant to write about what’s going on, for fear of whatever I say being outstripped by events. The NSA, the National Security Administration, has been engaging in digital surveillance to a greater degree than anyone had ever supposed.  Glenn Greenwald broke the story for the Guardian, insisting that he would not reveal his source.  Greenwald was also the first guest on Sunday, on This Week with George Stephanopolous.  Since that time, though, his source has already outed himself.  He’s a 29 year old guy named Edward Snowden, who worked for the NSA in Alaska.  Salon came out with more details today, with more to follow.  Snowden probably faces federal prosecution, if the US can extradite him from Hong Kong, where he has sought safe haven.

What Snowden revealed is that Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Facebook, seven of the biggest high tech communication companies on earth have cooperated with the federal government in a top secret program code-named PRISM.  PRISM allows the NSA to access emails, documents, audio and video chats, photographs and connection logs that allow them to track a person or trace their connections to others. The companies all deny that this is true, but the information seems solid. Of course, officials at the NSA also insist that Greenwald’s story is factually inaccurate.  Which, again, he anticipated.  On This Week, Greenwald said:

Every single time any major media outlet reports on something that the government is hiding, that political officials don’t want people to know, such as the fact that they are collecting phone records of all Americans, regardless of any suspicion of wrongdoing . . . They attack the media as the messenger and they try and discredit the story. This has been going back decades, ever since the Pentagon Papers were released by the New York Times, and political officials said, you are endangering national security.

The only thing we’ve endangered is the reputation of the people in power who are building this massive spying apparatus without any accountability. There is no national security harm from letting people know that they are collecting all phone records, that they are tapping into the Internet. These are things that the American people have a right to know. The only thing being damaged is the credibility of political officials and the way they exercise power in the dark.


Powerful words, from maybe the most dedicated and passionate defender of civil liberties in the media today. As for Snowden–a 29 year old guy, no high school diploma, who joined the NSA as a security guard and worked his way up to become a security analyst–he’s one of those guys, like Bradley Manning and Julian Astrange, who is either a hero, a traitor, or something in-between.  Depending.

So how badly do these revelations harm national security?  So terrorists now know that the NSA may have the capability to listen to their phone calls, follow their internet trail.  Terrorist networks depend on communications, obviously, so how harmful is it for them to read The Guardian, and see these revelations about PRISM?  I can’t see that it’s harmful at all.  Have terrorists ever watched a single episode of 24?   Or Page Eight, or Homeland or Person of Interest or Covert Affairs or Spooks or Luther?  Heck, even Castle had an NSA plot this season. And how many movies? Uh, I would think terrorist networks might have found Zero Dark Thirty kind of interesting, wouldn’t you think?  Or, you know, the new James Bond movie?       

My point is not that American commercial television is hurting America’s War on Terror.  That’s silly.  My point is that any terrorist network that doesn’t have an inkling that their internet traffic may not be entirely secure is probably too stupid to be much of a threat to us.  What Snowden revealed is details of a kind of surveillance that’s supposed to be top secret, but which in fact is central to basic plot points of every contemporary spy thriller in movies or on television.

No, the damage is here is political.  This kind of electronic surveillance is exactly the kind of thing candidate Barack Obama attacked when he was running for the Presidency, and which he is currently defending, now that he’s in office. Which means our President is a liar and a hypocrite.  Right?

Well, yes. Of course he is.  But on This Week, the main point that a whole bunch of people all made, journalists and politicians alike, was that there will always exist a tension between national security and civil liberties.  The President I admire most in US history is Lincoln, Honest Abe.  Our greatest President, really without much debate or dissension.  But, as President, he suspended habeas corpus.  Here’s the document in which he defends it.  He also ordered the arrest and deportation of hostile journalists.  Here’s that document.

My second favorite President ever?  Gotta be Roosevelt.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the guy whose New Deal got us out of the Great Depression (and yes, it really did), the guy who subsequently beat Hitler.  And the guy who ordered the arrest and internment of Japanese-Americans who were loyal US citizens.  Here’s executive order 9066 in which he ordered it.  The California governor who implemented it, Earl Warren, later became the author of Brown v. Board.

Every parent knows this tension.  As a parent, your number one priority is to keep your kids safe.  Obviously, there are lots of other things you want for them, but their safety is paramount. Well, when your kids become teenagers, that task gets way harder–super hard.  They want their freedom, they want to hang out with their friends, they want to make their own way in life.  And that’s all good, that’s all what they should want and fight for.  But oh my gosh is it hard.  We want to screen their friends, limit their car and internet usage, restrict their movements, give them curfews.  All of which kids resent.  And should resent.  Civil liberties v. security.  Safety v. freedom.

And then something cataclysmic happens.  FISA and the Patriot Act and all those other civil-liberties-restricting laws all came in the wake of 9/11.  And it’s easy for me, as a liberal, to dismiss Dick Cheney as a monster and George W. Bush as a fool and discount their very real fear over another attack.

But I have to think the President of the United States has to take a terrorist attack, or the threat of an attack, very seriously indeed.  I have to think that a President takes it personally, even.  And weighing national security concerns against a possible (abstract) threat to civil liberties, I have to think that Presidents naturally come to worry more about security.  Protecting America has to come first.  And this seems to me pretty non-partisan.  All Presidents have to think this way.  Which is why, when they’re out of office, they become friends, even if they were the bitterest political rivals previously.  I don’t think the close personal friendship between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, for example, is in any way fake.  I think they both of them know things no one else knows. What it feels like, in the gut, when Americans die in an attack.

But our country was founded on civil liberties, on unalienable rights.  And that’s why PRISM is dangerous.  The Fourth Amendment protects us from illegal searches and seizures, and what is PRISM but an illegal search, without real due process.  That’s why we need to protest.  That’s why journalists need to dig, and whistleblowers need to come forward, and Congress needs to investigate and the Supreme Court needs to remain vigilant, and not just the Court, but we need to too.  That’s why Edward Snowden really is, sorry, but it’s true, a hero.  When our country is attacked, you’ll often hear the public say things like ‘it’s time to rally ’round the President.  I’d say instead, ‘it’s time to scrutinize everything he does. It’s time to watch him like a hawk.’

So we have this secret program, and it’s now been revealed, and all kinds of strange bedfellows are falling in together.  President Obama defending Bush-era programs.  Rand Paul joining Bernie Sanders (!) in protesting them.  But I don’t think we’re less safe for knowing about PRISM and other similar programs.  Glenn Greenwald is right.  We’re the United States of America and we don’t do things like this.


2 thoughts on “Security vs. Civil Liberties

  1. Juliathepoet

    I agree that this is something we all need to take seriously. I can’t help but think this is part of why Jon Stewart feels compelled to make the movie this summer. The more I hear about the movie he is making, the more important I think it is. I hope it lives up to its potential for making people think.

  2. Julie Saunders

    Am I the only one who pretty much assumed that the government had access to my emails and phone records already? A few of my friends and I were talking about this over the weekend, and nobody was surprised or particularly scandalized.

    I mean, Google already indexes all of my emails, chats, and searches. Facebook permanently saves everything I post. Verizon has all of my phone records. What’s one more organization with access to my stuff? And why should I trust it more or less than any of the others?


Leave a Reply