It has been an interesting week not just to be a political scientist in the U.S. but to be a citizen. The bombshell dropped by Edward Snowden that the NSA is collecting meta data of our phone records via Verizon and other digital records via some of the biggest names in tech has set off a fierce debate. I have found myself in heated debates with friends, family members, and colleagues, many of whom I did not expect to find on the opposite side of me on this issue. I am as surprised about who has come out in defense of a program as well as how many are so willing to accept the government's explanations that it is legal, there has been oversight, and no harm has been done to innocent citizens, without probing deeper.
Today, NYT columnist Thomas Friedman weighed in on the subject. Friedman professes to be struggling with the NSA programs when he writes:
I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.
That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.
As an educated citizen and as a journalist who is presumably trained to ask questions, Friedman's column is shocking in it's lack of further interogation of the government's claims. It is shocking in that he seems to have no line in the sand and he seems to be willing to tolerate a high level of spying to stave off the day when all of our civil liberties are totally gone. He never states how much is too much invasion of our privacy. Are there any limits for him? Can the government do anything short of looking at anyone's email, phone records, "anywhere, anytime"? Based solely on the government say-so about the utility and necessity of the programs, he is willing to believe?
Friedman is also astounding at the level of trust he is willing to bestow in a secret court that has shirked its responsibility to be discerning and a small subset of congressmemebers (certainly not the whole Congress was briefed) who have signed off without much debate. The FISA Court rubberstamps, not all Members of Congress were briefed, those that were briefed were gagged from raising their concerns. One friend speculated the probably if you audited the records of a federal magistrate anywhere in the U.S. , they will have turned down more government requests for a warrant than the FISA Court.
In his column today, Friedman said, "Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened." David Simon similarly stated, "We don’t know of any actual abuse." I agree with Dan Drezner who responded:
Here's my question: how the f**k would Friedman know if abuse did occur? We're dealing with super-secret programs here. Exactly what investigative or oversight body would detect such abuse? What I worry about is that we have no idea whether national security bureaucracies abuse their privilege.
Here's what we don't know: What data does NSA have (phone records, internet browsing records?), How long is the meta data kept? How many person's information has been stored (probably not just people who make calls to foreign nationals), Who has access to the data?, How is the data analyzed? What is the number of citizens who have been contacted by the governmend based on the meta-data analysis? How many of those contacted were actually engaged in terrorism? Even Members of Congress cannot answer these questions.
With all that is unknown, Friedman, Simon, and many others are willing to trust that no abuse has occurred and have stopped asking further questions of the program. We can debate whether legality confers legitimacy (the program is technically legal), and whether the checks and balances system is enough to curb government abuse, but in this case, the most rudimentary checks were missing, so why trust the government on this?