Blind Men's Bluff: Why the Surveillance State Is Doomed

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Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is by far the most outspoken foe in Congress of the NSA and the domestic surveillance state that was created by Woodrow Wilson in 1917, accelerated by Harry Truman, and made exponential by the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001.

He delivered a remarkable speech on July 23 at a meeting held by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. This is a standard Democratic Party Beltway organization: pro-union, pro-global warming, pro-green, pro-big government. But on civil liberties, it is on the side of rolling back the federal government in general and the NSA in particular.

Wyden’s speech was a summary of how the NSA has provided incorrect information to Congress and the public. He did not say “lies,” but this is what he clearly meant. He admitted that Snowden — unnamed — blew the whistle on the NSA. Snowden provided evidence of the extent of the data collection, which the NSA’s director had categorically denied to Congress had been going on. Wyden’s speech is the best summary I have read on the extent of the NSA’s systematic deception of Congress.

He ended his speech with these words:

We find ourselves at a truly unique time in our Constitutional history. The growth of digital technology, dramatic changes in the nature of warfare and the definition of a battlefield, and novel courts that run counter to everything the Founding Fathers imagined, make for a combustible mix. At this point in the speech I would usually conclude with the quote from Ben Franklin about giving up liberty for security and not deserving either, but I thought a different founding father might be more fitting today. James Madison, the father of our constitution, said that the the accumulation of executive, judicial and legislative powers into the hands of any faction is the very definition of tyranny. He then went on to assure the nation that the Constitution protected us from that fate. So, my question to you is: by allowing the executive to secretly follow a secret interpretation of the law under the supervision of a secret, nonadversarial court and occasional secret congressional hearings, how close are we coming to James Madison’s “very definition of tyranny”? I believe we are allowing our country to drift a lot closer than we should, and if we don’t take this opportunity to change course now, we will all live to regret it.

The NSA — secret budget — is using a secret law and a secret court system — the FISA-authorized court system — to construct a truly Orwellian apparatus for spying on the American public. Members of Congress are not legally able to reveal any of this. He said that he cannot legally speak of what he knows. Were it not for Snowden, he made clear, he could not have spoken about what he knew before Snowden went public.

He thinks the American public is becoming more aware of this, and more hostile.

Last month, disclosures made by an NSA contractor lit the surveillance world on fire. Several provisions of secret law were no longer secret and the American people were finally able to see some of the things I’ve been raising the alarm about for years. And when they did, boy were they stunned, and boy are they angry.You hear it in the lunch rooms, town hall meetings, and senior citizen centers. The latest polling, the well-respected Quinnipiac poll, found that a plurality of people said the government is overreaching and encroaching too much on Americans’ civil liberties. That’s a huge swing from what that same survey said just a couple years ago, and that number is trending upward. As more information about sweeping government surveillance of law-abiding Americans is made public and the American people can discuss its impacts, I believe more Americans will speak out. They’re going to say, in America, you don’t have to settle for one priority or the other: laws can be written to protect both privacy and security, and laws should never be secret.

On the next day, July 24, the House of Representatives voted down an amendment to cut the NSA’s budget — the official one, not the real one, which is secret. It was Nancy Pelosi who made the difference. She carried the NSA’s water. The failure of Congress to make a token cut in the National Security Agency’s official budgeton July 24 was a green light for the NSA to spy on all Americans, forever.

Congress knows that the voters do not care enough to mobilize against the Patriot Act, which is the heart of the surveillance state. They also know that most House members are immune from the voters. Gerrymandering works. They also know that they, personally, are not immune from the NSA’s monitoring of their telephone calls, emails, and other communications. They can count the votes. They know who is on top. The surveillance state is on top.

The surveillance state is now unstoppable politically. Legally, there is no possibility that it will be rolled back. It is now the non-law of the land. Wyden thinks the voters may roll it back. They won’t. It is unstoppable politically.

But this does not mean that it is inherently unstoppable. On the contrary, it is eminently stoppable. It will be stopped. Economics will stop it.

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