Headlines abound touting the new curbs to our government’s domestic spying program signed into law Tuesday by Presidents Obama. We see it described as “landmark legislation ending the government’s bulk telephone data dragnet” and as a “legislative overhaul” to end the government’s “collection of private telephone records.”
This new law, known as the USA Freedom Act, purportedly provides that our government will stop collecting wholesale data on our phone calls. But let me ask you something: Do you actually believe our intelligence agencies will stop spying on us? Seriously, deep down, do you think our government will actually end this program that it claims has been keeping us safe?
I doubt many of you do. Our overall trust in the government is all but gone. Indeed, a poll released a few months ago found Americans’ trust in our government to do the “right thing” is at 13 percent, which is the lowest level in the 55 years of measuring that issue, even lower than in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
And how can we be expected to trust the government especially on the issue of domestic spying given its recent track record?! After all, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied under oath about the NSA surveillance programs to Congress in 2013? For those who may have forgotten, on March 12, 2013, Clapper appeared before the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence where this exchange took place between Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Clapper:
Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Clapper: “No, sir.”
Wyden: “It does not?”
Clapper: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
A few months later Edward Snowden leaked documents showing that the NSA had been collecting massive amounts of metadata from phone companies about calls made by U.S. citizens. After this discourse, Clapper first defended his original answer to Congress but then ultimately admitted that his response was “erroneous.”
Now if Clapper had been fired and indicted for perjury, at least then it would have given us the sense that the government valued being honest with us. Instead Clapper still serves as the director of national intelligence while Snowden remains in Russia, in essence a fugitive.
So, no, we don’t trust the government. But do we care if the government invades our privacy as long as it keeps us safe? Obviously some people, including myself, care a great deal about it. Our nation’s Founding Fathers enshrined a right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment. It is truly one of the bedrock principles our nation was founded upon, namely that we have a “right” to be secure in our “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government. And that “shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.”
But a CNN poll released Monday found that 61 percent of Americans, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, support the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. So does this mean that most Americans truly do not care about privacy?
Well, it’s not that simple. Other polls show that when questions concerning privacy are asked, Americans overwhelmingly support the principle of not having others snoop into our lives. In fact, a Pew poll released just two weeks ago found that 74 percent of Americans think it is “very important” to be “in control of who can get info about you.”
So how is it that privacy can be so important to so many yet we see a solid majority contradict that by supporting the government’s spying program? The answer is fear. When we are afraid, we are willing to give up freedoms for that. And we have been a scared people since 9/11.
As Rand Paul, a person who I don’t agree with often, stated Monday on Laura Ingraham’s radio show (a person with whom I never agree) when asked about why some support a loss of liberty: “Often we use fear, and we say, ‘We won’t be able to catch terrorists.’”
Paul then asked how much of our civil liberties are we prepared to lose, “So should we put television monitors in every house to try to prevent terrorist attacks?” Paul added, “There is a zero-sum game here that leads us down a slippery slope to where there would be no freedom left.”
Paul is right. With the advances in technology, who knows how the government will be able to monitor us in the future? Perhaps via our TV monitors, as Paul suggests, or things we can’t even imagine at this time.
I don’t think most Americans truly want a loss of liberties or the “freedoms” that the neocons claimed Bin Laden wanted to take from us. But they do want to be safe.
Maybe it’s just best to let the government lie to us like Clapper did. I’m sure some view Clapper’s lie as not being sinister in intent but more akin to a “good lie” in the sense of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, when Huck lied to save the life of his black friend Jim.
So what do we want: honesty and less security, or lies and safety? If I had to bet, I think most would be cool with believing the lie.