Sacrificing Liberty for Free Nights and Weekends

In 1759, Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Historical Review of Pennsylvania, “They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Since 9-11 and the Patriot Act, politicians and pundits have batted Old Ben’s quotation back and forth so much that we risk it becoming a cliché.  Today, however, it deserves re-examination.

What Franklin knew, nearly two and a half centuries before terrorists turned airplanes into weapons of mass destruction, was that a people who were willing to trade their liberty for short-term security would, eventually, end up with neither.

That sentiment has never been clearer than these last two weeks since the truth behind the government’s domestic surveillance program began coming to light.

Whether you laud Edward Snowden as a hero, or revile him as a traitor, the fact remains that beginning with President George W. Bush, and expanded dramatically under President Barack Obama, government’s warrantless data collection efforts against all U.S. citizens have grown exponentially.

Here’s what we’ve learned since: Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile (the “big three” U.S. mobile providers have turned over the NSA data for all domestic-originating mobile phone calls.

How long this has been is still an open question and may well vary by carrier.

According to Elspeth Reeve of The Atlantic, the NSA domestic surveillance program goes much deeper.

Reeve writes, “[T]he NSA isn’t just collecting the things we say.  It’s also tracking what we buy and where we go.”

In 2008, The Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman reported that the NSA’s domestic data collections “have evolved to reach more broadly into data about people’s communications, travel and finances in the U.S. than the domestic surveillance programs brought to light since the 2001 terrorist attacks.”

That means e-mail records, bank transfers, phone records, and travel records.

In the wake of the Obama-IRS scandal in which the administration engaged in a three-year targeted campaign of harassment and abuse against conservative groups, Tea Party committees, and now at least five pro-Israel organizations, the real danger is what happens with all the data being collected.

If the government has records of every phone call made by Americans, every e-mail and text message we send, every bank transaction, every shopping receipt, and can track every place we’ve travelled, sooner or later someone in this White House is going to start looking, right?

As it happens, “sooner or later” is yesterday.  According to Abby Ohlheiser and Rebecca Greenfield, also of The Atlantic, the seven-year-old program called PRISM, in which the NSA collects all online data is “the most prolific contributor” to the President’s daily intelligence briefing.

All of the sudden, maybe it isn’t so bad that Mr. Obama skips more than 50% of his intel briefings, because it now seems the flow of information from PRISM and the collection of data on American citizens goes directly the an Oval Office that has already proven willing to use the power of government to persecute it’s enemies.

As with most issues, how the polls suggest Americans are reacting to these shady goings-on depends on how pollsters ask the question.

According to Rasmussen, 59% of Americans oppose the government’s secret collection of phone records, compared to just 26% who approve.

However, according to Pew Research 56% support the NSA’s snooping problem when they phrased the question as “As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.”

The Pew question does three things that build support for the program:

  • First it minimizes the scope of the data collection to just phone records.
  • Second it at least potentially suggests that each intrusion is being authorized by a court rather than a secret court having given the government effectively unlimited powers to collect this data.
  • Third it suggests that the only use of this data is to investigate terrorism.  That may have been the original intent, but we have no more guarantee that it will be the outcome than we had that the IRS would be prevented from using its powers to harass conservative, Tea Party, and pro-Israel groups.

Right or wrong, the public outing of Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T hasn’t stopped the data collection from happening.

If anything, because it’s all public knowledge now, it has emboldened the Obama Administration in its surveillance of ordinary Americans.

A recent eight-point drop in Obama’s approval ratings may change this, but so far the Administration has been almost defiant in its defense of these programs.

Similarly, those of us who continue to use AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are rewarding enabling the Administration’s unacceptable surveillance programs.

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