Trust us. Would your government — and the private contractors your government hires to do the work — do anything bad? Snooping into the intimate details of the lives of everyone is not nice. Besides, it could be worse, and that’s all the proof anyone needs to see that it’s not really bad at all.
So don’t worry. Be happy.
This is the emerging defense of the government in “the metadata scandal.” President Obama told a California audience Friday that before he was president he, too, had “a healthy skepticism” of the aggressive intelligence services, but now, with further safeguards, which he did not identify, he decided that snooping is worth it.
“You can’t have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he says. A speechwriter’s clever line, but it was an answer to a question that nobody had raised. Critics of Big Brother don’t expect a hundred percent of anything, they just don’t trust the big bully more than maybe 2 percent.
James Clapper, director of U.S. intelligence, pours on a little soothing syrup. The snooping, he says, “cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. persons located outside the United States.” Of course not. But note the weasel word “intentionally,” and what, exactly, is a “U.S. person” if he is not a citizen? The Washington Post reports that, while in one surveillance program American citizens are not “intended” to be targets of surveillance, large quantities of “content” from Americans are nevertheless screened to track or learn more about the target.
Fear is a great motivator, and in the wake of 9/11 the politicians, frightened themselves, used fear of further attacks to persuade us to give in to the darkest terrors of the night. We tolerated the intrusions of the security state, the groping in the long lines at the airports, the barriers around government buildings. George W. Bush even allowed the Secret Service to close Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to use as a convenient parking lot for government cars.
In a fit of fear we assumed, as Peggy Noonan observes in the Wall Street Journal, that “we’ll just do it now, and down the road we can stop it. It’s just an emergency thing. We can make it go away when we no longer want it. But can we? Do government programs tend to remain static, or wither? Or do they tend to grow?”
The intelligence services do some good things, and presidents necessarily rely on them, though new presidents get intelligence briefings designed to scare them into going along with schemes they once reviled. The world is truly a scarier place than the rest of us can imagine. But the spooks have to be watched, listened to — but not necessarily agreed with. Spooks by nature see the world through dark glasses and look for shortcuts across the Constitution to “do evil so that good may come.”
The National Security Agency even urged the George W. Bush government in 2011 to “rethink” the Fourth Amendment, with its pesky prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure. The Fourth Amendment is all well and good, the NSA argued in a memo intended for the president, but “the Information Age will however cause us to rethink and reapply the procedures, policies and authorities born in an earlier electronic surveillance environment.”
We know this White House doesn’t think much of the Second Amendment, it has reservations about the First. When these amendments are pushed aside, the rest of us won’t have anything left. We’ll wonder how it happened.
President Obama insists that nobody at the National Security Agency is listening to anybody’s telephone calls. That may be true. Not unless they have to listen, anyway. But “aggregated metadata,” collected and analyzed by computer technology, is more revealing than content. Two NSA whistleblowers, J. Kirk Wiebe and Billy Binney, told Megyn Kelly of Fox News how it works. When the government’s computers collect information “about you that includes locations, bank transactions, credit card transactions, travel plans, EZ Pass on and off tollways; all of that can be time-lined. To track you day to day to the point where people can get insight into your intentions and what you’re going to do next.”
The “innocent” metadata can see who you call and for how long, see what bills you pay and when, your favorite restaurants and what you usually eat, even how many glasses of wine you order to go with the veal piccata.
Good citizens must resist the temptation to regard their government as the enemy, since we know that no government agency would ever lie, cheat and steal from us. So don’t worry. Be happy. If you can.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.