Friday, November 1, 2013

Balance Between Spying & Privacy Is Essential

At the same time the Obama Administration frantically fiddles with Affordable Care web site glitches, it’s been dealing with a conceivably more precarious dilemma that affects our global relationships and reputation.
As invasive surveillance, in part sanctioned by the controversial Patriot Act, as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, passed from one administration to the next, it appears the National Security Agency routinely intensified its vast spy network since Barack Obama took office.
Following revelations last spring of extensive domestic surveillance by an unrestrained NSA that provoked selected outrage here at home, subsequent disclosures of eavesdropping on dozens of America’s allies rippled across the Atlantic to spawn a degree of bitterness not witnessed since the Cold War.
Indiscriminate spying on foreign leaders and their citizens by the agency responsible for keeping an eye on international targets is problematic, but it is not as serious as the breach of trust the agency engaged in by spying on citizens not suspected of activities that might jeopardize the nation’s safety.
The can of worms — or deadly snakes, depending on your viewpoint — was set in motion last spring when former CIA contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the world the extent of America's electronic surveillance programs. As a result, it now appears likely that nearly all communications, everywhere, were accumulated and scrutinized for suspicious patterns.
‪ ‪Despite an era constantly vigilant of terrorist violence, there is something appallingly un-American and openly undemocratic about government surveillance with a security-at-any-cost mentality. ‪
 Several months ago, New York Times columnist Charles Blow summed up the matter when he wrote that allowing security fears to outweigh Constitutional considerations amounted to “burning down a house to rid it of mice.”
‪Since 9/11, we saw George W. Bush, then Barack Obama, engage in extraordinary executive powers that lack sufficient justification and undermine civil liberties, all in the name of “national security.”
Even in the aftermath of an attack when security measures are heightened, it is irresponsible to disregard basic constitutional rights. When that transpires, it not only weakens democracy but it bestows minor-league success on the terrorists.
‪Months ago it was revealed that the NSA, a branch of the U.S. military that deals with foreign threats, was collecting phone calls made or received by Verizon customers in the U.S. More recently, according to additional Snowden leaks, other companies, such as Microsoft, Google and Apple, reportedly voluntarily gave the agency access to their computer servers so the NSA could access all sorts of information without any kind of court order.  ‪
‪That not only violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure, but also the First Amendment right to free speech. ‪
  “National security” is the government’s customary pretext to supersede civil liberty objections. It was hoped that the worst abuses of the Patriot Act would end after the Bush era, but President Obama has maintained and, perhaps, expanded President Bush’s policies. ‪
The first order of business is to examine and rein in rampant intelligence community exploitation by a bipartisan Congressional Committee empowered to investigate the NSA and examine all U.S. intelligence programs. Then, those findings should be made public before bringing those agencies under supervision that will restrain future misuse and restore the protections of the Bill of Rights.
Since its enactment, the Patriot Act has led to reckless and flagrant abuses of power that should, at least, be modified by substantial legislative action or, at best, retailored to end unwarranted spying to make certain no government agency can capriciously violate constitutional rights with an ambiguous motive.
In 1975, long before the Internet and ubiquitous computer use, Senator Frank Church chaired a committee charged with investigating and making public the abuses of American intelligence gathering agencies, said of the NSA:
“…we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
 I previously condemned the Bush Administration for domestic spying. While some defended the president, advocating the right to break the rules to preserve the nation’s safety, others unashamedly defended domestic spying tactics used since the dawn of the Cold War. No government or private agency should be given the authority to blatantly wiretap and circumvent the liberties guaranteed by our Constitution without a court order. That’s anarchy.
Technological advances have afforded us a trove of benefits, yet it has also unlocked a Pandora’s Box of unlawful activity introduced as “Big Brother” in the George Orwell classic “1984.”
Regardless of what one thinks of Edward Snowden, he clearly violated the terms of his employment agreement by publicly disclosing classified details. On the other hand, he did direct the spotlight on the excesses of an American intelligence agency.
The practice of spying on one’s own citizens used to be commonly associated with totalitarian  governments, like Russia and North Korea, and have no place in a democracy, unless lawfully approved.
What must be done, sooner than later, won’t be readily acceptable, but, even so, it is absolutely necessary. As the Obama Administration repairs the glitches that have plagued the onset of national health care, it should also be more transparent about surveillance requests, as it develops a strategy that strikes a proper balance with key measures to safeguard national security without unreasonably impinging the privacy and abusing the civil rights of law-abiding citizens.