The National Security Agency is breaking trust in democracy by breaking trust in the internet. Every day, the NSA records the lives of millions of Americans and countless foreigners, collecting staggering amounts of information about who they know, where they've been, and what they've done. Its surveillance programs have been kept secret from the public they allegedly serve and protect. The agency operates the most sophisticated, effective, and secretive surveillance apparatus in history.
Recent disclosures about the intelligence gathering activities of the NSA, and the ensuing federal response, have demonstrated that the agency is a rogue state — unaccountable and out of control. Intelligence community leaders have openly lied to elected officials and the public about the nature and extent of the agency’s data collection efforts. And despite their responsibility in carefully overseeing intelligence agencies, President Obama and Congress have shown no credibility as custodians of the NSA. So far, Congress has shown far less tolerance for baseball players allegedly lying about personal steroid use than military leaders lying about surveillance programs that undermine the bill of rights.
Congress has shown it cares more about baseball players lying about steroids than the NSA lying about spying
After more than a decade of legal adventurism, secret presidential orders, and deceptive wordplay, policymakers and intelligence officials have erected a surveillance apparatus that can track the location of hundreds of millions of people, collect the phone records of the entire nation, and tap into the very backbone of the internet. Every day, the NSA collects millions of electronic records belonging to people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. It may even know what you’re up to in World of Warcraft, because the bad guys are apparently slaying dragons while they plot terror attacks.
The secret court responsible for overseeing the NSA’s activities is required to, on a yearly basis, approve only general guidelines on how the government intends to collect intelligence on foreigners. The NSA is not supposed to spy on American citizens, but it "incidentally" collects vast amounts of data on them anyway. Intelligence Community director James Clapper and others have defended these practices by contorting words like "collection" and "surveillance" in ways that make Bill Clinton’s 1998 soliloquy on the meaning of the word "is" look like amateur bullshitting.
In 2005, then-Senator Obama opposed changes to the Patriot Act that would have allowed what he called "government fishing expeditions targeting innocent Americans." Obama said the government needed "to show the American people that the federal government will only issue warrants and execute searches because it needs to, not because it can." As president, Obama has not only extended Bush-era programs, but expanded the NSA’s ability to conduct indiscriminate, warrantless surveillance.
Despite his endorsement of NSA bulk surveillance, President Obama may not even know everything the agency is up to; the White House and the NSA can’t even agree about whether the president knew the agency was tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone. Obama allegedly spent five years in office without knowing his military was eavesdropping on world leaders. Congress has operated with similar blinders despite its permissive attitude on bulk spying, though now it complains that the NSA hasn't shared enough in its annual show-and-tell sessions. In the face of this ignorance, several Congressional leaders now want to retroactively authorize the NSA’s mass spying programs rather than audit them.
An irrational fear of terrorism still plagues US policy
Of course, none of the NSA’s surveillance programs, irrational "homeland security" policies, or limitless wars started in the past decade would be possible without the nagging specter of terrorism. In the years following 9/11, President Bush, President Obama, and Congressional leaders have obsequiously accepted dubious claims about the threat of terrorism, eroding the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in the expanding intelligence bureaucracy’s wake.
Even calls to rein in the NSA from the most reform-minded members of Congress are framed by the specious idea that terrorism is the nation’s supreme hazard. "Our first priority is to keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism," Senator Ron Wyden wrote in a November op-ed. Nevermind the fact that Americans are roughly four times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a terrorist. You would think the National Weather Service might be able to get a larger piece of the federal pie, or at least a color-coded thunderstorm advisory system. Instead, we have airport pat downs and PRISM.
Do we need to be afraid of the NSA, as one might be afraid of a boot stamping on a human face, forever? Probably not. But the erosion of American civil liberties won’t appear out of thin air as an Orwellian caricature of totalitarianism. It looks more like a computer server silently blinking in a Utah data center, as it reconstructs the connective tissue of your entire life: a thorough diagram of your existence that can be recalled at any time by someone with the right permission level and the right query. Who’ll be behind the machines in four years? How about in 20? Who will our enemies be then?
This is not the kind of American exceptionalism we want
The NSA, like the totalitarian spy agencies of the past, believes it is entitled to all the world’s knowledge. Directly following 9/11, the Bush administration began a data-mining program called "Total Information Awareness," and the NSA has stated publicly that it intends to "live on the network." That arrogance belies an underlying naivety about our true ability to prevent violence, which at some point no amount of secret billions in the spy budget will change. And aggressive behavior — like tapping the phones of world leaders and spying on hundreds of millions of foreign nationals — has negative consequences for us, whatever our intentions are. While some legitimate foreign surveillance is necessary, the NSA's unlimited ambitions, which includes efforts to undermine the encryption standards we rely on for basic privacy, undermines overall trust in the internet for everyone. American exceptionalism cannot justify making our friends insecure; it ought to demand the opposite.
In an 1822 letter to Kentucky Lt. Governor W.T. Barry, James Madison wrote that "a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both." Madison’s letter, originally espousing a robust public education system for Kentucky, has since been used as an appeal for open government. "A people who mean to be their own governors," Madison wrote, "must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." Today, the people appear utterly unarmed against the National Security Agency, which holds a incredible amount of knowledge about citizens while withholding essential facts about how it spies on them. That secret knowledge is secret power, which is anathema to democracy when in the hands of an unaccountable elite.
During colonial rule, "general warrants" from the British crown threatened the safe spaces of American social life by allowing the King’s agents to search anyone, anywhere, at any time, regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. Today, many of those spaces are on the internet — a place we can no longer trust to be secure from our own military, which considers many parts of your electronic life beyond the protections of the Bill of Rights. Only by ending the bulk surveillance of American citizens immediately, and by rebuilding the federal oversight intended to keep the NSA from violating the law, can trust in our democracy be restored.