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Obama's surveillance program is bad, but it isn't a surprise

There's absolutely nothing surprising in the current revelations about the NSA spying on Americans.
I don't mean they're unimportant, that we shouldn't care, or that we shouldn't push back against the security state. But the ugly truth is, this is business as usual. It's what law enforcement and security agencies do, time and time again, if they're not kept on a tight leash.
In the 1960s, the FBI spied on the civil rights movement (Martin Luther King was a particular target) while the CIA spied on the anti-war movement (despite a charter that banned operations inside the U.S.) and the NYPD infiltrated left-wing activist groups . During the Clinton years, the government fought against encryption technology that would make it harder for security agencies to read people's email. Under Bush II, the government spied on Muslims, Greenpeace and gay-rights groups without warrants or suspicion of criminal activity and the NSA engaged in warrantless wiretaps.
So it's not surprising that under Obama we have the NSA collecting meta-data on everyone's phone calls, extracting information from Yahoo, Amazon and other Internet companies and doing a lot more we don't know about yet. Unacceptable and unconstitutional, but that's rarely stopped government's urge to pry.
Nobody wants the next 9/11 on their watch. Nobody wants to miss hearing the one phone call that could have stopped a terrorist attack. And the only way to be absolutely 100 percent certain is to maintain absolute surveillance of everyone, everywhere, at all times. Like Miranda rights and the right to counsel, the right not to be spied on just "handcuffs" law enforcement from protecting us, and nothing's more important than protecting us, right?
This is why the Fourth Amendment matters. The amendment that says we don't get spied on without probable cause to believe we're up to no good. Because governments always think they're justified watching everything we do, and always wonder why we'd object if we have nothing to hide.
Since the NSA revelations broke, the main defenses have been that the NSA isn't really "spying" as it's only collecting meta-data (who we call, not what we say); that if we're not doing anything wrong, we have no reason to worry about surveillance; and that we need this program (along with every other security program in existence) to keep us safe.
Starting with the first excuse, meta-data can tell the government a lot. A call to an investigative journalist, a gynecologist, a company advertising a job opening, or to a local neo-Nazi or anti-war group, all reveal something about us. When added to all the other data available to the NSA (and as noted at the link above, they're gathering more than they admit), I imagine it reveals even more.
Second, even if we're not doing anything wrong, our secrets can hurt us. If the NSA puts together disparate facts and decides incorrectly that you or me or anyone fits a might-possibly-could-be-a-terrorist profile we could end up on a No-Fly list or publicly identified as a person of interest.
Beyond that, I believe that even in the age of Facebook, most of us have something we'd like to hide. Getting an abortion, attending AA, discovering you have cancer, trying to conceive a baby, learning your spouse is cheating'this is stuff a lot of us still don't talk about, except with our closest friends. It's not that it's wrong, it's that it's nobody else's damn business. Not casual acquaintances, not co-workers, not the government. Hell, my wife and I don't commit any crimes in our bedroom, but I sure wouldn't want NSA putting hidden cameras in.
As to safety, we're now hearing loud cries about how the NSA program could have averted 9/11. However the 9/11 Commission Report listed several ways we might have stopped 9/11 but bureaucratic snafus and misunderstandings kept it from happening. Claims that it only occurred because we didn't give the government enough power to spy on us are just bullshit to justify the security nanny state.
Even if I trusted the government (and its private for-profit security contractors and all their employees) not to abuse its knowledge, that wouldn't change my views. Our right to be free of government spying doesn't depend on who's in office or running the NSA, and it doesn't disappear just because W or Obama or J. Edgar Hoover insist we should be really, really scared and need to have faith in them.
We don't have to justify our desire to keep our lives private. Government has to justify its desire to spy. And in the current case, it hasn't.

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Updated Jul 11, 2018 1:01 AM UTC | More details


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