I have heard Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote about liberty so many times lately I could probably say it in my sleep. ”They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Mr. Franklin is one of my favorite Founders, and I believe this quote is both sound and timeless. But have some been misapplying his words as a rebuke of today’s National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs?
A close examination of Mr. Franklin’s words makes it clear that his quote does not apply to our situation today. The NSA programs are not taking away any “essential liberty”; nor are the efforts only for “a little temporary safety”.
The grim reality is that both liberty and security are essential ingredients for any successful society; and a balance is critical. An extreme version of one or the other, and society ceases to exist. Pre-WWII Europe is a good example of a society that had close to 100% freedom and zero security. Needless to say, Hitler had his way with them until the United States got involved. But on the other end of the spectrum is North Korea; a society with 100% security and zero liberty. Clearly, the extremes of either of these essential elements are not attractive alternatives.
I believe the NSA programs strike the correct balance between liberty and security, without violating our constitution, for three reasons: oversight; bi-partisanism; and track record.
Both programs have oversight from all three branches of government. The NSA is led by the Director of National Intelligence who serves the President as his principal advisor on matters related to national security. However, the NSA surveillance tools were approved by congress in the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and updated in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008; and the Intelligence Committees from both the House and Senate exercise strict oversight of their operations. Finally, no actual “spying” can be done unless there is a warrant approved by the FISA court.
But the spying is not as bad as the media portrays it. One program involves the collection of call records from U.S. phone companies. However, this information does not include content of calls, location, or the subscriber’s name and address; only the number and times. This “metadata” is kept in a “lockbox”. But the NSA cannot even open this lockbox unless they have a warrant from the FISA court and intelligence of a terrorist calling from overseas. If it can be shown that the terrorist is calling a number in the lockbox, the information is then given to the FBI for further investigation.
This is essentially the same process for Prism, the program that conducts surveillance on internet traffic with the help of nine different providers such as Google and Facebook. The government cannot even look at your email, for example, unless they have foreign terrorist intelligence and a warrant from the FISA court. Then they take that warrant to your provider and ask for the specific account information.
This process does not violate the Fourth Amendment of “unreasonable searches and seizures” because it is based “upon probable cause”.
Next, these programs were approved and updated through bi-partisan acts of congress. Both Democrats and Republicans believe these surveillance tools are necessary in our war against radical Islamic terrorists. But most convincing is that when President Obama was only a senator he relentlessly campaigned against these surveillance programs. However, now as President, Mr. Obama is not only in favor of the programs but has expanded them.
One could call this hypocrisy; but I believe after entering office President Obama was confronted with the frightening threat our country actually faces, was forced to concede the danger, then wisely decided to continue the use of the programs. It is this abrupt turn-around by Mr. Obama that is extremely compelling evidence to the importance of the surveillance.
Lastly, these programs are necessary because of their successful track record. The NSA has testified to congress of more than 50 foreign and domestic terrorist plots foiled since 9/11 due to these sophisticated surveillance tools.
Look, I am no fan of President Obama. In fact, I believe he should be impeached for real scandals such as Fast and Furious, Benghazi and/or the IRS. But I refuse to let my political differences with President Obama cloud my opinion on this. We need the NSA and what it is doing to keep our country safe.
I also understand the slippery-slope argument and the fact that other scandals have eroded our trust in government. It seems plausible our current administration could try to use NSA data to destroy political enemies. This is not good whether the President is Democrat or Republican. However, over the last 12 years, due to multiple layers of oversight, there have been zero abuses of the surveillance programs to date.
So it comes down to this: Are you more afraid of the slippery-slope of an untrustworthy government using these powerful tools for political gain? Or, are you more afraid of an actual terrorist attack where thousands of Americans could once again be killed? Remember, there is no liberty without security.