by Pete Mazzaccaro
I usually don’t have a hard time reaching a conclusion about what side I’m on when it comes to big issues in the news. Recent “revelations” that the NSA has been using breathtakingly thorough methods to scan the emails and phone calls of Americans without warrants is a tougher one for me to sort out.
First, I say “revelations” because anyone who has followed the news even a little bit should not at all be surprised by the details of the extensive NSA programs used to snoop on our electronic conversations. Following the hysteria of the 9/11 attacks, Congress quickly ratified the Patriot Act, which set the standards for domestic surveillance we’re so surprised to learn about now.
Part of the reason there has been very little outrage about that which was learned from whistleblowing defense contractor-turned international fugitive Edward Snowden, is that our nation’s leadership really is not surprised. The original Patriot Act was ratified in the house by a vote of 357 to 66. In the Senate, it was passed with a vote of 98 to 1. That lone dissenting vote was cast by former Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin.
When an extension to the law was signed by President Barack Obama in 2011, extending for another four years portions of the law that kept in place the basic rules regarding domestic surveillance, no one complained.
The thing is, our whole government, Democrats and Republicans are “all in” on collecting the data on U.S. citizens. It’s difficult now for card-carrying members of any party to claim ignorance or to use it as a way to contrast the governing styles of one party over another. On this matter, I don’t think there’s a difference between George W. Bush or Obama.
So it’s difficult to drum up the pique required to get the right level of outrage over the story. I think anyone with common sense knew this was happening. I haven’t at all been surprised by the scope of any of the revelations or the fact that many big technology companies assisted the government.
And finally, not only am I not surprised, I’m pretty certain that the program works. The ability to mine data with the sorts of technological tools now available has got to be turning up information the government would miss otherwise. We can’t even begin to imagine, I think, what sorts of plots the NSA has learned of and thwarted. If he’s to be believed, NSA director Keith Alexander told Congress that PRISM, as the surveillance program is called, has prevented ”dozens” of terrorist attacks.
And the public, generally here, seems to agree. According to a recent poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, 56 percent of Americans say it’s acceptable for the United States to spy on Americans under secret court orders. A sizeable minority – 41 percent – believe it’s unacceptable. If the question is more generic – is it OK for the government to intrude on privacy rights to stop terrorism? – 62 percent say yes and only 38 percent say no.
And yet, it comes back to this: Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Personally, perhaps it’s because of the business I’m in, I don’t believe Snowden should be prosecuted for shining a light on the NSA data collection or the fact that it used corporate contractors to help out.
Despite what our government may or may not do to prevent terrorism and whether or not those methods are supported by the majority of Americans, it’s important that we learn about what is happening and, hopefully, get the information we need to stop it if we believe it’s gone too far. If it hasn’t already.