The subject is the recent revelations that vast amounts of electronic data belonging to U.S. citizens are being collected by the feds in the name of national security. As articles in The Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post point out, the National Security Agency has secretly collected U.S. phone records and other online activity for several years spanning two presidential administrations.
All of this — and probably much more — is done in the name of thwarting the plans of jihadists who have already proven themselves capable of committing deadly acts of terrorism in the United States and across the globe.
Yet, Edward Snowden, a former private contractor working for the NSA, told reporters from The Guardian and The Washington Post that the programs are well over the line. “Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere,” Snowden says on a video hosted at The Guardian’s website. “I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.”
So, back to our podium assembly, probably on a sunny June afternoon in the White House Rose Garden. President Barack Obama along with President Bush and Republican and Democratic members of Congress look directly into the TV cameras and walk back their defenses of the collection of so-called phone records metadata.
The programs are a step too far, they say. While legal under the PATRIOT Act, this massive invasion of the privacy of U.S. citizens must come to an end. Never again in this manner will we trade liberty for security, they promise.
Thwarting terrorist plots may become more difficult, they sigh, but the trust of the American people is more important. So from this day forward, they sum up, we will no longer gather up the electronic dust left by Americans as they use computers and mobile phones.
No American can reasonably expect such an announcement. Even if our leaders were sincere in their declarations, a backslide into electronic snooping would happen within hours of a terrorist attack in the United States. The stakes are too high and the tools too attractive to do anything else.
Our electronic tails grow longer by the day, an inescapable fact of this digital age. So do those belonging to terrorists who would plot to fly airplanes into buildings or set off bombs at a major sporting event. Their emails, phone calls and other means of electronic communication constitute a puzzle for members of U.S. national security.
For this reason alone, U.S. counterintelligence can be expected to sift through the millions and millions of phone records generated in order to seek out patterns. In other words, the NSA and other government agencies will try to solve this puzzle before another 9/11 happens.
Many rational observers have pointed out this examination of the calls we’re making and taking can be easily misunderstood. No one is listening in to a Saturday evening call to Grandma’s house. The data produced is so massive that individuals have very little to fear, unless, of course, they are consorting with terrorists. As Michael B. Mukasey, a Bush administration attorney general, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Some wallow in the idea that they are being watched, their civil liberties endangered, simply because a handful of electrons they generated were among the vast billions being reviewed in a high-stakes anti-terrorism effort.”
Yet, Americans can be forgiven for feeling uneasy about this snooping. Many may have expected they were being watched. Confirmation that they are, at least on some broad-based level, is another thing. The one thing we can all expect is that the U.S. national security operation is not likely to scale back efforts any time soon.