Freedom and democracy are the reasons to worry about domestic spying

Tuesday, January 17, 2006 at 09:05 AM

Mr. Bush and his cohorts would love for you to think that the NSA domestic spying controversy is about your personal privacy rights versus the safety and security of the country.  After all, privacy is a good thing, but you can convince a lot of people that the safety of all of us is far more important than keeping prying eyes from the phone call you had with Aunt Agnes.

But Mr. Bush and his friends know the truth.  They understand that it really comes down to balancing the need for security from external threats with the need for security from internal threats posed by a government with the power to monitor everything about its citizens.

We're talking about security against terrorist attacks on one side of the scale, and security from internal political attacks against democracy on the other.  Both are real, both are important.  Get the balance wrong--go too far to either side--and you lose.  But in the long run, don't you lose worse if you allow democracy and freedom to be destroyed by your own government?

Let a branch of government have the unlimited power to decide what information it will gather, and why it will gather it, with no oversight at all from a neutral observer like a court, when that same government has the technical means to intercept every message sent by every person over a wire or over the air, and you have given that branch of government the power to suppress all dissent, to fend off all legal challenges to its power, and, most dangerous of all, the power to indefinitely perpetuate its existing power.

And think about what this power can do.  Government spying on dissidents and boat rockers can prevent public debate that needs to occur.  Lack of these debates can affect policy and perpetuate policies that severely harm the nation.  How long would our engagement in Iraq last if the government locked up or discredited all those who oppose it?

Government acquisition of information on investigations of it--think Valerie Plame, Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, and on & on--can prevent justice, perpetuate corruption and waste, and eventually discourage citizens from reporting wrongdoing at all.

Obtaining information on the opposing political party and its candidates can turn every election to the advantage of the party that currently holds power.  How long then before "the party in power" becomes simply "the ruling party?"

The only thing that can keep a government with this kind of power in check is its own sense of ethics and conscience.  Do you think that the president--whether this president or one of his eventual successors, can be trusted to voluntarily refrain from abusing this kind of power?  Is that the kind of risk you'd be willing to take rather than impose a simple requirement that some objective party review what the government is doing?  When the government already has the power to perform the surveillance FIRST, and simply get court approval of its actions and motives after the fact?

So when you think about this controversy, don't get sucked  into the propaganda about how important spying is to the government's efforts to protect you. It's just as important to the government's potential to control you.  Ask yourself a few simple questions:

  1. If no one but the president and the president's allies are in on the details of the spying program, how would we ever know that the spying is as limited as they claim it is?

  2. Even if it is currently as limited as they claim it is, how do we know that it will stay that way?

  3. Is the danger that such a program might be turned against protesters, political enemies, and political opponents serious enough to require that the government take the simple step of going before a court within 72 hours of performing surveillance, to explain what it did and why it did it?