Below is my column in this week’s U.S. News & World Report, which is part of a debate over the question: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency’s Data Collection? On the other side was former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Professor John Yoo who answered the question in a predictable no. I suppose my answer was equally predictable.
The response of the White House and congressional allies to the disclosure of a massive surveillance program of all calls by all Verizon customers is eerily reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Various leaders like Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., assured citizens that there is nothing to fear in having the government collect all of your calls, including details like their duration, location, time and your associations. Call it the sequel: “Dr. Obamalove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love a Police State.” Our leaders are assuring us that such databanks will help them protect us from others, but who will protect us from our protectors?
The disclosure of the secret order for every call by every citizen (domestic or international) comes on the heels of a scandal involving the investigation of reporters by the administration. It came before the disclosure of another massive data-mining program that seized e-mail, photos and other private communications from some of the biggest Internet companies. It is all part of the same growing surveillance system in the United States – a system demanding absolute transparency of reporters and citizens alike.
[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]
Years ago, civil libertarians raised an outcry over the Total Information Awareness data-mining project, an operation viewed as so dangerous to privacy and civil liberties that it was formally stopped by Congress. It was designed to allow the government to follow citizens in real time by linking massive databanks and electronic systems. While many celebrated an increasingly rare victory for civil liberties, it now appears that the intelligence community merely broke the system into smaller pieces.
Each of these intrusions has been justified as making us safer, but collectively that creates a fishbowl society where privacy is little more than an illusion. We are approaching the tipping point in our system, where liberty is giving way to authoritarian power. While our current leaders may be benign, we are increasingly dependent on their good motivations and discretion for our liberty. It is precisely the system that the framers rejected at our founding. Benjamin Franklin warned of the siren’s call for power by government officials when he observed that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
If we allow these officials to strip us of our privacy, we have not failed the Framers. We have failed ourselves.
JONATHAN TURLEY is the Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University
U.S.News & World Report, June 7, 2013