Dear Donald Trump: Roll Back the NSA
By Nathan Richendollar '19
Not that many W & L students should or would remember three year-old acts of Congress, but following Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013, Congress outlawed the bulk collection of Americans’ phone data from companies like Verizon.
However, the NSA is still collecting online activities of Americans, and Washington and Lee students to boot, via PRISM, which gives the federal government direct access to the data caches of companies like Google, Skype, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft. Every action you, yes you, have ever taken on an electronic device has been stored by private companies that can identify IP addresses in case someone in the federal government ever wants to single you out. Plus, who’s to say the NSA actually ended metadata collection for phones? It was already caught spying on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the body tasked with overseeing it. Seriously. The NSA and CIA were spying on the people who oversee them. And just in case anyone has forgotten, immediately before the Snowden leak, National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified before the committee that American intelligence agencies were not “wittingly” collecting bulk data on Americans. You have to give him a break, though. According to him, this was the “least untrue” answer he could have given. Like Foghorn Leghorn might say: yeesh.
This blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment, leaning on the same kinds of bulk warrants that the Brits used in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts, which the American patriots decried, seems more than a trifle troubling in the hands of a government famous for mission creep. The national income tax was supposed to be a temporary relief project for victims of the Johnstown Flood, remember? What ever happened to that quaint notion?
Back on the subject of internet surveillance, we’ve all heard the old trope, the rationalization of madness: “I’ve got nothing to hide.” I wonder if federal departments would respond with the same cheery “Aw shucks” mentality if we wanted to see all of their correspondence regarding, say, Fast and Furious……. Ben Franklin’s boot polish you’ve got nothing to hide. Everyone does. Haven’t you ever read 1984? It just depends on the meaning of what is to be hidden and from whom. Whether or not you have something to hide depends on what the government is looking for and why. If the government is only looking for terrorists, you’re probably safe, sure. But if in under the cover of looking for terrorists, they are also looking for marijuana smokers, crack users, poachers, illegal CD burners, and other misdemeanor criminals, plenty of people will find that they have something to hide from the NSA after all, something that can be leveraged by the state to bend citizens to a collectively-determined will if it so chooses. Further, if the government gets to the point where it wants to identify political dissidents in order to silence, punish, coerce, or persecute them (see Koskinen, John), the power to collect and access all electronic communications since the dawn of PRISM could become civically fatal.
Case in point: College Democrats are scared that Donald Trump is now the president of the United States, some to the point of attending consolation meetings (a few campus independent thinkers might be scared right along with them for different reasons). Whether this instinct is correct or not, how do they feel knowing that the Trump administration has the power to use the NSA, if it so chooses, to identify environmentalists, multiculturalists, and ethnic minorities? Might this be a good sign that no administration should have this terrifying power? Essentially, the NSA’s sweeping powers have rendered inoperative NAACP v. Alabama, in which the Supreme Court held that the government cannot compel a political or civic group to divulge a list of its members (part of what made the IRS targeting of tea parties so contemptible is that many tea party groups were asked to do just that under threat of tax penalty).
But it keeps us safe, right? First off, wrong, or at the very least, highly misleading. Though the NSA’s bulk collection programs may yield information needed to stop terrorist attacks or domestic crimes, this information has become so jumbled up with the correspondence of everyday Americans that the “haystack” in which the needle lies has been needlessly enlarged, making spotting stupidly obvious malicious intent harder, not easier. How else would one explain that while the NSA’s high-powered surveillance programs were in full swing, the Tsarnaev brothers, who the Russian government literally warned us about, were able to carry out their dastardly attack untrammeled? Or the fact that murder rates in this nation, falling naturally for so long without the surveillance state’s impressive powers, have stagnated? Or the success of the Orlando shooter, who was previously questioned by the FBI about his ties to known terrorists and should have been under intense monitoring by the feds? This isn’t a matter of not having enough intelligence, it’s about having much too much intelligence to make sense of, and maybe a personnel shortage.
I’m not an ACLU supporter or a nutcase, but it seems to me that something has become awfully backwards when foreign enemy combatants are being read Miranda rights on the battlefield but American citizens are being deprived of constitutional liberties at home. Seems to me we might want to flip the script and protect the rights of citizens to privacy and free association while targeting those we should really be monitoring with a laser focus. Nor am I the only person with this idea that bulk data collection actually impedes security. Multiple NSA whistleblowers have the same complaint: that metadata programs are really about control over the populace and institutional power, not national security. For everyone who we actually suspect of being terrorists, we can use warrants to surveil their communications without compromising the rule of law.
Secondly, even if such unconstitutional surveillance were keeping us “safe,” the main purpose of this nation is not to preserve safety at all costs. If my ancestors wanted to be “safe,” they would have stayed in jolly old England and Germany, where they were, as Joseph Conrad said, “between the butcher and the policeman.” Instead they opted for the Ohio frontier of the 1820s, full of bears, snakes, disease, and wildcat banks, not to mention actual wildcats. Why? Because liberty is more important than safety to thinking people. Safety is fleeting, but liberty lost today is lost to my children and their children’s children, not just me. It is inherently selfish and antisocial to accept the premise that to [ostensibly] protect myself from the slight chance of harm today, I can subjugate my great grandchildren to a government that has the power to scrutinize their every mistake, fear, weakness, and personal connection.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” If we let the information industry become centralized to a few companies in the back pocket of the United States government, the American experiment in republican self-government cannot long endure. This nation’s most powerful ideal, its greatest contribution to the human spectrum of thought, is freedom, not safety, and staying free of an all-knowing centralized government is about as basic as it gets on the “how not to succumb to tyranny” checklist.
It’s time we ask ourselves a fundamental question at this campus and in this nation: How much of our liberty are we willing to sacrifice for how much safety? Would we give it all away to get 1% more security? 25%? Because we’re giving the freedom to associate, speak freely, and have personal privacy away completely for effects that may very well be negative. Has the status quo of modern technologically-driven life, replete with its empty savings accounts, cookie-cutter houses, easy credit, flat screen televisions, and traffic jams gotten so good, has peace become so sweet, as to be worth purchasing at any price, even essential liberty? If that is truly what society wants, we are in the most efficient statist government in history, one in which, as Aldous Huxley said, the people have the illusion of freedom because they “love their servitude.” I can think of no better time to ask ourselves such questions and shake off the manacles of an overblown surveillance state than after Americans just profoundly told the status quo to, as we say in Michigan, “go jump in a lake.”