For a decade, members of Washington’s political establishment have derided civil libertarians, mocking their warnings about the slow but dangerous creep of the Surveillance State. Sen. John McCain, one of Big Brother’s most vocal cheerleaders on Capitol Hill, recently referred to his colleagues who expressed concern about the Obama administration’s use of drones as “wacko birds.”
Yet with last week’s revelations of the National Security Agency’s widespread programs of virtually unlimited surveillance of American citizens, the birds have come home to roost. As I warned a decade ago when it was becoming clear that the government had no intention of relinquishing the power entrusted to it after Sept. 11, 2001, the day would come when routine, warrantless surveillance would be institutionalized. Welcome to yesterday.
In the years since I and some conservative colleagues, among them Grover Norquist and David Keene, first warned about the ramifications of Uncle Sam’s unquenchable thirst for data on American citizens, things have only worsened as technology has advanced. Rather than heed the warnings from privacy activists and a few members of Congress, President Obama and his Cabinet cohorts have expanded executive authority beyond all reasonable bounds, to surreptitiously and unlawfully spy on all citizens in order to “keep us safe.”
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration employs the same, boilerplate “national security” justification as its predecessor. This, of course, reflects the axiom that government, no matter the political party in charge, inexorably will seek more power and never relinquish that power unless it is reined in by the people, the courts or the Congress.
Like George W. Bush, Mr. Obama firmly believes he can don the “commander in chief” hat anytime he likes, so long as it can be justified as necessary to “get the bad guys,” as retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said last week in defending the NSA’s massive eavesdropping programs. Thus adorned, neither the president nor his Cabinet officers think they have to admit to any limitations whatsoever on their power to “do whatever is necessary” to carry out their self-defined notion of “protecting us.”
Mr. Obama obviously cares little that such a perverse reading of his constitutional authority contradicts his own statement in 2007, when criticizing the Bush administration for doing precisely what he now has been forced to admit doing. Mr. Obama said then, “This [Bush] administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not.” Apparently, it all depends on who is doing the violating.
To hold that the president has “inherent power” to secretly purloin, indefinitely store and analyze at will however much private data technology enables it to obtain from telephone and Internet communications by millions of law-abiding citizens effectively nullifies the Fourth Amendment. We indeed have come full circle back to the despised “general warrants” that King George’s agents employed as a means of controlling his Colonial subjects.
We now are “subjects” once again.
Before us lies irrefutable proof of this panoptic technology; within its unseen walls, everything from cellphone metadata to emails, video and voice chats, photos, stored data, file transfers, videoconferencing, and social-media activity are all hostage to the ever-open eye of Uncle Sam’s benign agents, implementing “Prism,” “Carnivore,” “Stellar Wind” or whatever clever acronym the bureaucrats concoct.
These government snoops and their masters clearly understand what Ayn Rand explained many decades ago: “When you take away a man’s privacy, you gain the power to control him absolutely.”
How Uncle Sam has gone about taking away our privacy is clever — not lawful, but clever.
Intelligence agencies, in securing a secret court order to conduct dragnet data-mining on millions of citizens, found their “authority” in a provision of the USA Patriot Act (the infamous Section 215) that never was intended for such purpose. By using this “business records” provision, the Obama administration also cleverly circumvents even the weak limitations on such eavesdropping contained in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Whether Congress now wakes from its decadelong slumber and opposes these abuses of power remains to be seen. Ever since certain Patriot Act provisions first were subject to reauthorization in 2005 and 2006, Congress has routinely renewed them. Even today, high-ranking members of Congress, including Mr. Chambliss and his Senate colleague from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, glibly brush aside charges that the government is improperly gathering information to which it is neither entitled, nor is it necessary. For Mr. Chambliss, the fact that no citizen “has registered a complaint” about the supersecret surveillance program is evidence of its constitutionality. From Mr. Graham, we hear the childish refrain, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
With such profound constitutional understanding as reflected in these statements, is it any wonder Americans hold Congress in such low regard?
Unfortunately, “we told you so” is of little solace if our representatives in Congress and our supposed constitutional guardians in the federal judiciary remain compliant in these unprecedented, massive invasions of our privacy by the executive branch.
Bob Barr is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia.