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Down the Rabbit Hole: What's Really at Stake With Domestic Surveillance?

06/20/2013 02:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2013

The last few weeks have seen major developments in the public's understanding or misunderstanding of the U.S. intelligence community's activities. These revelations and the ongoing effort to either verify or debunk the claims of people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have created tense conversations among people who are usually allies in the political realm.

For those of us who care deeply about peace, justice, and the common good far more than partisanship, these debates are of great importance. My feeling is that, as with most debates, many individuals on both sides have overstated their point to combat what they see as exaggeration or misunderstanding on the other side.

As a result, the reporting on the reporting about the NSA's activities seems to oscillate between those who are saying, "Move along. There's nothing to see here," and those who say, "There is everything to see here." I hold no claim to some middle ground or "third way." What I want to share are just some quick observations that I've been slowly coming to as I talk to my friends on all sides of this debate.

Things it seems we would all be able to agree on:

  1. The world is changing rapidly and there are continually new opportunities for the "bad guys" to hurt us. And there will always be "bad guys" who want to hurt us. The United States should do everything within its power to stop these individuals within the limits of the Constitution, which is meant to protect our democratic ideals.
  2. The government and the military have to keep some secrets secrets in order to do their job of catching the bad guys. Legal intelligence gathering is as vital to our national security as it is to prosecuting the robbery of a neighborhood convenience store.
  3. There is a limit to our privacy in the digital age.
  4. Democracy is built upon trust. We have a social contract that says people are innocent until proven guilty. Unless people are caught breaking the law, we need to assume they are obeying the law (even when we suspect they are probably bending it). Without this basic level of trust, democracy falls apart.
  5. Journalism has reached a new low. The primary objective of all news corporations (not necessarily the journalists or broadcasters themselves) is to sell advertising and make lots of money for themselves and their shareholders. This fundamentally compromises the fourth estate.

Even if just for the sake of argument we can agree on these five things, there remain, it seems to me, areas of serious concern and arguments that seem more like distractions.

Areas of serious concern:

  1. The president and all those elected and appointed to serve our country have an obligation higher than keeping us safe from every harm. They have an obligation to uphold the Constitution. The Constitution and the ideals it inscribes are designed to keep us from compromising our basic human dignity in exactly these high stakes scenarios in which the heat of the moment would tend to make us cut corners and, say, kill people without due process or torture people or hold prisoners indefinitely without charges, to say nothing of a trial.
  2. Trust is not blind. When there is evidence that public servants have betrayed the public trust, either by covering up something that the public should know about or by denying that the evidence is relevant or important, we have a problem. In these cases public servants need to be held accountable and whistleblowers are precisely the people we need to protect. Just as democracy cannot work when the public harbors a general, pervasive mistrust of the government (as is so often the case with the Tea Party, for example), even so democracy cannot flourish when people who have been granted the public's trust flaunt that trust in our face and tell us the answers to public questions are none of our business.
  3. Our government cannot just kill whoever it likes and say, "Just trust us." What if China determined that an American citizen was planning a terrorist attack on Chinese soil, sent a drone to Anytown, USA, bombed his house, and killed the suspect? What would be the response of the United States? That would be an act of war. And what if the Chinese drone also killed the person's family members who were in the house and half a dozen neighbors living on either side of him? Would we say, "Well, you know, they discovered a credible threat to their national security. They've got to do what they've got to do"? Now, what if the Chinese government did this thousands upon thousands of times? What if the whole world operated this way? Would we not be plunged into global chaos? Yet the United States does exactly this while at the same time wanting to be respected and trusted as the leader of the free world. How can the United States credibly broker peace in Syria or Israel/Palestine while behaving this way in the rest of the world?

Arguments I find confounding:

  1. "There's nothing to see here." The alleged conspiracy or cover up may not be exactly as Edward Snowden or Glenn Greenwald say it is, but let's not seriously say that there's nothing to see here. This argument just sounds naïve.
  2. "This has been going on for a long time." Yes, that's right. There is a new element in what Edward Snowden revealed and it has to do with scope. The fact that this has been going on for a long time and apparently broadening and deepening is precisely the point, isn't it? I have watched with amusement as people like Sean Hannity have made a complete reversal from supporting NSA surveillance to now being against it. But is it any less absurd for people who were rightly against the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and NSA surveillance of American citizens during the Bush Administration to now brush it under the rug?
  3. "The media has really done a poor job of reporting on this." I agree -- to a point -- that in the Reddit world there is a rush to judgment. Everyone wants to break The Story, even those reporters who want to break the micro-story that the other guy got his facts wrong in his rush to break the big story. There is a distinction to be made between live, as-it-happens reporting and investigative reporting which, by its nature, takes longer. I confess my preference for thoughtful, investigative reporting, but as Mathew Ingram points out, many of the stories we're reading now would likely never have been written had the Guardian and the Washington Post not printed their original stories. There are precious few reporters who will put their jobs on the line to tell the truth in the face of the corporate media (Chris Hedges comes to mind as one of those few) and there will always be apologists to discredit the truly courageous reporters who dare to tell the truth (such as the late Michael Hastings who died tragically in a car crash yesterday morning).

To summarize: We know that PRISM is not a surveillance program but a massive computer system used to crunch data. But the claim that anyone who refers to PRISM as a data-mining program should not be trusted cuts off the conversation. Whether PRISM is a secret or a data mining program or not, it still represents the NSA's collection and processing of the data communications of millions and millions of Americans without probable cause.

It may be that Snowden exaggerated his claim that he could hack the president's email if he had the address and that NSA personnel can listen to anyone's phone calls. Maybe. But why should I take General Keith Alexander at his word any more than I take Edward Snowden at his? Because the general has a uniform? The argument that the NSA isn't doing something illegal because there's a law against it (namely, listening in on our calls and reading our email) seems to me like saying that there's no way my daughter ate the cookie I left on the kitchen counter because we have a rule in our house that she may not eat between meals. I'm not buying it! Why chase Snowden to the ends of the earth and threaten him with charges of espionage and treason if his claims boil down to no big deal and things we've known about all along anyway?

And what is the big deal? If we have nothing to hide, we shouldn't be so worried that the NSA is listening in to our calls to family and friends. But don't forget that in 2006 the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace organization, sued the Pentagon "in the wake of evidence that [the Pentagon] had been secretly conducting illegal surveillance of protest activities, antiwar organizations, and individuals whose only reported 'wrong-doing' was attending a peace rally."

It's important to remember that the imperial aims of any regime will not tolerate those who stand in their way. The enemies of our "way of life" are not only those who wish Americans harm but also those who would challenge the unlimited exercise of American power domestically and around the world.

While I think most Americans would happily agree that a certain kind of surveillance is essential for national security, we should make these decisions together and not simply be asked to trust the man with the most stars on his shoulder. I hope I'm wrong and Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are naïve, misguided young men who did something foolish (at the price of their personal freedom or even their lives, I suppose), but I have a feeling the rabbit hole goes much deeper than it seems and we will owe them both a huge thank you.