This week, NU College Republicans commemorate the personal liberties enjoyed by Americans with their Freedom Week event. In light of this celebration, the NSA’s covert surveillance program, which has become the center of a major controversy, calls into question the meaning of our most basic freedoms in an increasingly interconnected, high-tech world.
The issue of personal privacy extends far beyond the last six months, when Edward Snowden began leaking classified documents detailing the NSA’s spying regime. In the USA PATRIOT Act, which passed in October 2001, the Bush administration curtailed the privacy of individuals in an effort to secure freedom. According to the Justice Department, the act “enabled investigators to gather information when looking into the full range of terrorism-related crimes.” This extension of jurisdiction, however, enabled the government to expand its surveillance program as technologies for collecting data became more efficient.
On the domestic front, the NSA collected information on everyday Americans’ phone calls and emails. Even one of the architects of the Patriot Act, Jim Sensenbrenner, recently accused the NSA of “ignor[ing] the civil liberty protections … drafted into the law.”
Internationally, innovative technologies allowed the NSA to monitor the electronic communications of foreign officials, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Secretary General of the U.N. Ban Ki-moon. These revelations, publicized only because of Snowden’s actions, have tarnished the Obama administration’s reputation abroad. However, the fury of U.S. allies like Germany is not just directed at the use of surveillance programs.
Virtually all states have security services that conduct espionage, so that function of the NSA is unexceptional. However, the liberal and widespread monitoring of diplomats’ personal communications violates norms of international behavior. Even more alarming to foreign leaders is the possibility of private emails that were monitored by the NSA now being publicized due to the actions of whistleblowers like Snowden.
This dual threat of exposure has already produced a serious backlash in the international community. In light of the NSA’s extensive spying program, American claims to moral authority appear dubious when the U.S. government engages in disrespectful and illegitimate behavior.
Aside from international reputation, the revelations have called into question the very character of the nation. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, reflecting national opinion, have begun a visceral debate over the validity of the NSA’s actions and Snowden’s efforts to reveal them.
According to Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., Snowden performed a valuable service as a whistleblower because Congress was “not really aware … about what these programs were being used for and the extent to which they were being used.” However, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has focused on the administration’s failure to prevent Snowden from leaking the documents. In a Nov. 10 interview with Der Spiegel, McCain questioned how a low level employee like Snowden could “have access to information which is … damaging to the standing prestige of the United States” and called on NSA Director Keith Alexander to be fired.
Either way, the domestic surveillance program represents a failure on the part of President Obama, who promised to “establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Moreover, it could be construed to violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that the government is prohibited from unreasonable “searches and seizures” without a warrant.
Accordingly, the national dialogue on this topic needs to reflect the nature of this threat. Over the past few months, there has been much talk about individual privacy, as well as international obligations. However, those discussions are secondary to the debate over the need for guaranteed freedoms.
In today’s world, the greatest threat to personal liberty does not spring from the components of al-Qaida remaining in Afghanistan, nor does it arise from the unpredictable Islamic Republic of Iran. Those actors can threaten the United States as much as they want, but they cannot change the culture or the laws that have given this country unprecedented world hegemony. Only we can do that.
One of the most amazing aspects of this country is its political flexibility. Our democratic system is robust and provides regular opportunities for citizens to express approval of their leaders through elections. A party’s electoral defeat one year can lead to a renewed triumph in the next, providing incentives for the introduction of novel ideas.
This structure, grounded in 237 years of tradition, assures representative accountability and political flexibility. But as the issues of the day change, constitutional guarantees remain constant. These include the rights to free speech and a free press, among others.
Most importantly, these rights are meant to be inviolable; they represent the limits of government. So when our government is working in secret, violating its most basic obligations, it should provoke an intense debate.
As we move through Freedom Week, we need to reflect on the value of our freedoms. If we cannot or will not work to secure the rights already guaranteed by our Constitution, then we are failing to appreciate their significance. And if we do not stand by our most basic values, then the sacrifices made by generations of Americans to create a land of such bountiful opportunities will have been for nothing.