On June 6, 2013 the Guardian and the Washington Post began reporting on disclosures by a former employee of a private security firm. Eric Snowden, a twenty nine year old with fewer than twelve years of formal schooling, had contacted several reporters from these venerable newspapers to arrange to give copies of top secret documents detailing surveillance programs of the National Security Agency (NSA). These documents showed a pattern of systematic and secret government surveillance of many millions of American citizens. Those Americans targeted by the Agency included everyone who uses a cell phone or the internet. The government has been secretly watching virtually every Americans, as well as any foreigners with whom we may have had electronic contact. All of the information obtained has been carefully stored for future use whenever bureaucrats of the NSA secretly deem using it good.
All of this activity used to be called spying, intruding, and snooping. No polite verb has yet been advanced to euphemize these secret intrusions, but I am betting that “surveilling” will become a household word soon. This activity has been justified as necessary to protect the persons whose privacy has been secretly invaded. The President has said as much. His administration has given every indication that it will go after Mr. Snowden as though he were public enemy number one. This is the same administration which has recently tried to dodge explaining why it has been secretly wiretapping the phones of dozens of news reporters.
The President reluctantly admits this might be a good time for the American people to finally have a discussion about the government secretly spying on them. So why just now? If the President acknowledges that we deserve an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, what possible excuse can he have for preventing our participation for half a decade? Apparently the executive branch of government is not willingly going to allow our participation at all. The White House assures us that a court and several congressional committees have been protecting us from any possibility of abuse. We are in effect being told the system of checks and balances our Constitution created is in operation to prevent any executive excesses. We are to look to the judiciary and to congress for effective actions which allay our fears of tyranny by the executive. I have looked but I have not found.
The court that is allegedly protecting us is the FISA Court, created after 9/11 to pass upon government applications for secret warrants to do to suspected foreign bad guys what it has been doing to all of us. FISA is the anagram for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. I hasten to point out that I have had all of my internet use secretly recorded and my phone calls monitored, but I have never made a call, trip or email to any foreign place or person. The court that is supposed to protect me from abuse has approved this patent abuse of my privacy. But I do not feel that I have been singled out in any way. So far the government has applied for secret warrants over 33,000 times and failed to get the court’s approval only 11 times. For every three thousand requests to invade one or more person’s privacy in what would be an illegal manner without secret approval, all but one has been approved by the court. To call this court a government rubber stamp would be an understatement.
Well that still leaves the congressional watchdog committees that are presumably looking after citizen concerns for privacy. Senator Feinstein of California, a liberal Democrat from California and Chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, defended all of the secret spying by testily pronouncing that “It’s called protecting America.” That four word phrase is her response to any worries I might have about these intrusions; it also implies that I do not care about my country if I have qualms about the government spying on me. She has obviously known about this stuff for many years. So if she has been watching this go on for a long time and kept it secret, who am I to worry, right?
Maybe I am more comfortable with the idea that the Senate is looking after my privacy concerns if it has a vocal Republican member of one of these committees. So there is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He is a staunch NRA supporting conservative and about as anti-liberal as Ronald Reagan. Senator Graham is a member of another one of those Congressional committees (Defense) that is supposed to be watching the NSA and other intelligence-gathering agencies to make sure they are not doing improper things like secretly spying on innocent Americans. But he is already echoing the judgment of Dick Cheney that Robert Snowden is a criminal and a traitor. The conservative Senator has used this occasion to announce that it might be a good idea for the government to resume censoring our mail. He opines that censorship was good enough for World War II, so it just might be necessary for the War on Terror.
Come to think of it, I believe Lindsey Graham and Barbara Feinstein were members of watchdog committees in 2003 when national intelligence agencies misinformed them and the rest of us about alleged “weapons of mass destruction”. Both Senators used that faulty intelligence to justify votes for launching and continuing a disastrous war in Iraq. Presumably they both also have learned about such past dubious activities of the U.S. official intelligence services as the assassination program that secretly murdered tens of thousands of Vietnamese, the atrocious record of failure to alert this country to danger and the practice of secret operations which created greater danger, and the destruction of the democratic governments in Iran and Chile. All of these activities might have served as warnings to many currently concerned Americans, but they do not bother the likes of Senators Feinstein or Graham.
Americans deserve to know what their government is doing to Americans. The survival of their democratic society depends upon a citizenry that requires its government to disclose everything it is doing. Mr. Robert Snowden has taken a large step for the rest of us. His actions may also lead to greater protection for our privacy, which is another necessary condition for a free society. The recent disclosures will be the beginning of a renewed struggle for freedom only if we insist that he has acted as properly as he has acted courageously.