Security VS liberty
There is an ever going debate over whether or not the need for security trumps the right to certain civil liberties. Since the beginning of the United States, civil liberties have been infringed upon to allow for a more secure nation. “When the French threatened American sovereignty on the high seas in 1798, John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, blatantly punishing free speech as traitorous. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus (the rule giving citizens a right to take their grievances to court).” ( Thomas, Klaidman, Hosenball, Isikoff, and Wolffe.) The list goes on.
Today, the National Security Agency (NSA) is performing data collection on millions of Americans and foreign citizens. These actions are not monitored by a form of checks and balances, they do not require warrant, and they are done in secrecy. Recently, Edward Snowden, a private contractor for the NSA leaked multiple documents showing the extent of these data collection programs. The documents exposed many lies told by officials, and revealed how much power the NSA had. It is the obvious conclusion after reviewing data on the matter, that the civil liberties and democratic ideals that are the very basis of American citizenship and society, are too often are manipulated or infringed upon in the name of “security”. The programs of surveillance like that of the NSA violate the civil liberties and the democratic process in which this nation was founded upon.
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The very basis of democracy, something the US claims to have waged war over, is the idea that citizens of a nation should be allowed and able to make decisions for themselves through the process of voting. However, recently, we have seen the complete bypass of the democratic process as public views are disregarded. The NSA and other government organizations have been operating in secrecy to spy on Americans and foreign citizens. They are doing so without warrant, which clearly violates 4th amendment. The government claims that these new programs are intended to protect the American people, but they did not give the American people the chance to decide that. The truth is that “in a July poll by Quinnipiac University, 45 to 40 per cent of U.S. voters said the government’s anti-terrorism efforts go too far in restricting civil liberties — a dramatic reversal from a poll in January 2010 that showed 63 per cent believed the government’s efforts didn’t go far enough.”(Luiza Savage). The sudden reversal was due to new documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The documents revealed classified information about the NSA’s surveillance programs. In essence, it revealed what the NSA was actually doing in their efforts to spy on Americans and foreign nations. Many Americans were outraged by what Snowden considered an “excessive intrusion on the privacy of Americans.” Others were equally outraged by the fact that this information was kept secret. Especially due to remarks made by public officials. For example, the president had this to say, “It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs.
The American people need to have confidence in them as well…” Had president Obama truly believed that, he would have presented the American people with the actual facts of the situation. Along with the president, the Director of National Intelligence “was forced to admit publicly that his previous assurance in Senate testimony that the N.S.A. was not collecting data on millions of Americans was false.”(Debate in Government Spying Programs). These government installations are continuously lying, not only to the American people but also to the people who are supposed to actually run the government. Since 9/11 we have seen increases in government spying and “sketchy” surveillance programs. Senator Ron Wyden said that “The combination of increasingly advanced technology with a breakdown in the checks and balances that limit government action could lead us to a surveillance state that cannot be reversed.”(Luiza Savage). This is touching on the fact that there isn’t a program or group to ensure that the NSA and organizations like it are not abusing their powers. The US government is built on a system of checks and balances where different groups monitor each other. This system isn’t present in accordance to the NSA. Some feel that unchecked power like this can lead to abuse or manipulation by certain influential groups. Some have even begun to suggest a similarity in the actions of the NSA and the Nazi government in Germany leading up to World War II. “America and Germany may be democracies, but states can change. The intelligence agencies might one day use their knowledge to identify and intimidate citizens. We remember the Gestapo. We remember the Stasi.” (Jochen Bittner) We have seen in history what intelligence gathering programs can become. The US cannot become like that or even close to it, but they are currently heading in that direction.
This blatant disregard for the democratic process over such a controversial issue is implorable for the supposed “free world.” Foreigners are watching the US repeat history’s mistakes and give in to fear as it discards its principles in the name of security. It is human nature to protect oneself against all threats. “In moments of crisis, presidents, if they believe in executive power (and most inevitably do), will do almost anything to protect the country.”(Thomas, Klaidman, Hosenball, Isikoff, and Wolffe). Throughout history, we have seen horrible things done in order to “protect one’s country.” Hitler believed he was doing the right thing for his country, to protect them. The Romans slaughtered people by the hundreds of thousands to set examples to those threatening the country. J Edgar Hoover thought he was protecting the country when he framed and blackmailed Martin Luther King jr.
All these people used public fear and hatred to fuel and justify their actions. Today, people all over the country are terrified of terrorists. Many have put blind faith in the government and allow them to do as they please. After something as traumatic as 9/11 took place, it is hard to imagine Americans being unbiased. It is important to take into account what the outside world thinks of the recent events unfolding in the US. Some are less concerned about violations of privacy, and more concerned about possible security risks. They feel that all that information and power in the hand of the wrong person can be a terrible thing. “Imagine the next Edward J. Snowden strives not for a global debate on privacy, but simply for money. How many Rubles, how many Renminbis would certain governments or companies pay for just a snapshot of the N.S.A.’s hard drives? And if data can be stored, it can also be altered.
Imagine someone taps the N.S.A. computers, alters certain information and diverts it back into the data stream. What would be the impact of such a breach on, say, high-frequency trading?” (Jochen Bittner). This raises the idea that information gathered by an insider can be sold to the highest bidder. This would most likely be a country like China, Iran, North Korea. Keep in mind, the information the NSA gathers is not only from Americans. It gathers information on all countries of importance. Branching off the idea of corruption, what if someone like J Edgar Hoover were to be given a high position in the NSA. They could alter the files on certain people, resend it into the data stream, and then the government could mark them as a terrorist. This is more plausible than one might think. As stated earlier, the system of checks and balances is not in play in this situation. That means that nobody is there to make sure this abuse doesn’t happen. Germans have also suggested that a path like this could lead to what Germay experienced under Hitler. Alexis de Tocqueville believed there was a process that could lead to something like that. “A democratic government increases its power simply by the fact of its permanence. Time is on its side, every incident befriends it, the passions of individuals unconsciously promote it; and it may be asserted that the older a democratic community is, the more centralized will its government become.” (Tocqueville). By this he means that incidents like 9/11 create more fear.
That fear makes people feel insecure or unsafe in their current state. They turn to the government to protect them, granting them more power to do so. In Todays world, this seems like it will go on forever. Obama has said it himself, “terrorism will never stop.” There will continue to be more and more programs that violate civil liberties unless people take the chance to reform privacy laws and surveillance to prevent this from continuing. People with another perspective concur that security from terrorism is worth sacrificing a few civil liberties. This paper is not intended to deny the existence of a threat worthy of precautions. It is understandable that those who were terrified by the events of 9/11 and the portrayal of terrorism in the media would react in such a way. Even though gang violence and street crime is a much more relevant threat to Americans than terrorism, the media portrays terrorism as a constant threat from which no American is exempt . The natural response to such a fear is retaliation or blind devotion to whoever offers a solution. People who share this viewpoint feel that the liberties with which the US justifies its actions and built itself upon are worth sacrificing to defend itself from terrorism. They feel that these new programs and laws are necessary to fix the intelligence failures that missed large elements of 9/11, and to defend against further attempts to inflict terror in Americans. People often say “What if the intelligence agencies fail again in connecting the dots? Remember 9/11?”(Jochen Bittner).
They say “What’s the point in having civil liberties if the country that allows them is destroyed by enemy combatants?” It is this misconception, that terrorist forces have the capability to destroy the very fabric of the United States that has allowed these programs to continue. The reality is that we are yet to see real results from these programs. And in the years since 9/11 there have been so few terrorist attacks, and the few that there were left very few dead. The attacks that were stopped were stopped due to a malfunction or an ordinary person noticing it. The majority of terrorist attacks that occur are not committed domestically. The threat in the US is not great enough to justify these means of “protection.” Every day, dozens of people die by guns in the United States. They are not killed by terrorists and neither the guns, the people who sold them, or the people who used them are being watched by the NSA. It is with this information that people wonder whether these programs are truly intended to protect Americans. Billions and Billions of dollars are spent on these new programs, but terrorism does not come close to being the biggest threat to Americans.
Things like bee stings kill more people each year in the US than terrorism does. If terrorism has gone down so much since 9/11, then why is it being treated as a more and more relevant threat? With this data, one should come to the conclusion that by no means other than to prevent annihilation, should civil liberties and the democratic process be infringed upon to the extent that they are. The US has always claimed its democratic ideals and its possession of freedom to be what makes the country great. Yet when the ideals of American citizenship are tested by acts such as 9/11, America turned to Un-American solutions. Now, the country is set on a path to become a surveillance state unless something is changed.
Thomas, Klaidman, Hosenball, Isikoff, and Wolffe. “Full Speed Ahead” 1/9/2006, Vol. 147 Issue 2, p10-18
Luiza Savage Maclean’s. 9/2/2013, Vol. 126 Issue 34, p1-1. 1p. 1
The New York Times , Late Edition (East Coast) [New York, N.Y] 11 July 2013: A.18.
The New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) [New York, N.Y] 10 Aug 2013
The New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) [New York, N.Y] 31 July 2013:
The New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) [New York, N.Y] 29 Aug 2013: A.27. Jochen Bittner