In the debate over how much information the government should be able to collect from people, defenders of government acquiring significant amounts of information argue that the information cannot be accessed unless there is a good reason for doing so, such as acquiring information against a terrorist threat. Critics, however, counter that there is no assurance that the government will not access the information in other circumstances. Experience with government information collection certainly reveals numerous circumstances where unauthorized access occurs, with the penalties seeming to be quite limited. If private information is to be collected, then we need a better system…
Yesterday 205 members of the House, defying the partisan polarization that has recently characterized that body, voted for an amendment limiting the NSA’s blanket collection of telephone records. Last week a federal judge appointed to the bench by George W. Bush lit into a government lawyer claiming limitless executive authority to assassinate U.S. citizens in drone attacks. The tide may be turning. But most heads in the war on terror ultimately spring from one hydra, and that hydra lives: a post-9/11 authorization of force through which Congress ceded an enormous and amorphous swath of power to the President to wage war without end on an enemy without definition.
I’ve just returned from a vacation in Paris, which I report partly to induce envy (I went), partly to seek sympathy (I returned) and primarily—having favorably compared our revolution to theirs in this space—to give credit where due: The French have managed to maintain security amid an environment of openness in a way that has eluded us. Part of the reason is that the French internal security services keep a close watch on radical Islamic activity. Another is that they have not had to confront a calamity on the scale of 9/11. But one wonders, as I have speculated here before, whether some of the difference has to do with attitudes toward risk. The French may have accepted 99 percent security. We demand the full 100. And that extra percentage point—which is, not incidentally, delusive—is a costly one indeed.
Joseph Schumpeter wrote that one cause of the demise of capitalism would be the steady conquest of the private by the public sphere. To judge by the most recent revelations about PRISM, that may be the demise of democracy too. For this is by far its most troubling aspect: not merely the snooping, from which most of us are probably exempt, but the coopting of the vast private space that once stood between individual and state, which means no one any longer is. The blurring of the border between state and society, not merely the loss of privacy itself, may prove to be PRISM’s most enduring legacy.
From Barack Obama to Karl Rove, the ruling class is in unison: The NSA’s collection of data on virtually all Americans is essential to preventing you from “being blown to smithereens on your morning commute” – as the Wall Street Journal editorial put it. In the words of General Keith Alexander, director of NSA, this surveillance has “helped to prevent” “dozens of terrorist events.” Later, the tally rose to “over fifty.”
The PRISM/NSA program of collecting call records of millions upon millions of Americans will surely dominate our national political conversation for the foreseeable future. The issue obviously touches privacy concerns we all have while hitting other uncomfortable spots. Release of the PRISM program obviously builds on the anxiety of the current scandals that have come to light in the Benghazi, IRS, AP and James Rosen surveillance fiascos, among others. Americans, it seems, are on a rendezvous with destiny of losing faith in the federal government as a whole because of the failures of its current leadership class found at the top of the administrative, diplomatic, and security departments and agencies. It can’t happen soon enough.
In the last several years, a U.S. citizen has had an infinitely higher chance of being killed by a Mexican drug cartel than by either a foreign- or domestic-bred terrorist. These cartels are sophisticated networks that depend on high-tech communications. Their roots run deep into American society. They are international in scope. They target civilians indiscriminately. Surely programs like PRISM could help to identify their communications, suppliers and customers and generally disrupt their operations. Why not—on the general theory that PRISM is justifiable because it saves American lives—turn the NSA loose on them?