Tuesday, June 11, 2013

BIG GOVERNMENT SURVEILLANCE AND THE EYE OF SAURON


               The National Security Agency's massive general surveillance of the phone and Internet communications of multiple millions of Americans eerily recalls the image of the Red Eye of Sauron sweeping like a menacing monitor-beacon over the Free Peoples of the West from a dark tower in Mordor. 

                Sensational metaphors aside – I just could not resist that one -- a remarkable aspect of this affair is the atypical division of opinion it has generated, confounding the usual divide between liberals/Democrats on one side versus conservatives/Republicans on the other.  In this case, the division appears to be drawn between two somewhat diversified general groupings that cross the standard lines.  Staunchly supporting this unprecedented mass surveillance by Mega-Tech Government is an unholy coalition of Obama Administration members and political supporters; Bush Administration alumni and loyalists who supported the earlier (and less sweeping) Patriot Act surveillance prototypes; advocates and defenders of Big Government; and the grizzled military/national security/intelligence Establishment of both parties.  Opposing the program are genuine libertarians of both the left and the right, and from both parties; hardcore, across-the-board opponents of the Obama Administration; and constitutional conservatives who oppose Big Government expansionism, without necessarily embracing the libertarian ideology.

 

                                     The All-Seeing Eye of Big Government Surveillance

                SR is more of a cultural conservative than a libertarian.  Nonetheless, coming on top of five years of the Obama Administration's anti-constitutional, oppressive, and perfidious misgovernance, the exposure of the grotesque scope of the NSA surveillance programs has pushed me over to the libertarian camp on this issue.  Without going into all the details of this complex affair, two particular issues seem especially persuasive in rejecting the Establishment's defense of this ugly, over-rated, and over-reaching citizen-surveillance program.

                First, virtually every defense and justification for this ominous monitoring program depends upon a false premise:  i.e., that it is a necessary and effective means of preventing catastrophic acts of terrorism and other major damages to national security.  The Chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees – persons who are themselves complicit in the establishment and continued approval of the surveillance – insist, for example, that the programs are crucial, and that they have been "instrumental" and helpful in stopping several possible terrorist incidents. 

                 These claims are suspiciously vague, and must be taken entirely on trust, because the particulars that would reveal what really did or did not happen on the prevention side are invariably too confidential to reveal.  On the other hand, we do know that our national security Inspector Clouseaus have failed to thwart terrorist plots, such as the Boston Marathon fiasco, even when, for example, Putin's Russian intelligence services provide them with strong and specific advance warning.  So no one should buy these vague claims of the NSA program's alleged effectiveness unless and until there is a hard and specific demonstration that -- and in what way -- it was critical to stopping a truly substantial number of likely terrorist attacks.  As President Reagan famously said in another context, "Trust, but verify." 

                But some suggest a better idea altogether.  Rather than spending billions of tax dollars monitoring our own citizenry's communications, the Government might actually do something palpably effective to prevent terrorism, like barring radical Islamicists from entering the United States altogether.  Yet the same national security hardheads who so enthusiastically monitor innocent Americans' communications are paralyzed by Obama's policy of coddling Islam from taking such directly preventive measures.

                In any event, even if there were hard evidence that the surveillance program had actually helped to thwart a few potential terrorist incidents, it still would not justify the establishment of wholesale, dystopic police state surveillance of the general populace.  And at a cost of so many billions as to stagger the mind.  Enough of this notion that merely invoking the talisman of fighting terrorism justifies the surrender of our civil liberties and granting national security bureaucrats a blank check on our national treasury.  Instead, a rigorous cost-effectiveness test needs to be applied to these programs.  The tangible and demonstrable benefits of the program must be carefully weighed against its enormous impositions on privacy, liberty, and democracy, as well as its present and future costs in government expenditures.

                Secondly, we are repeatedly assured that the Government is merely gathering a mysterious category of information called "metadata" and that there are various checks to prevent the abuse of particularized prying into an innocent citizen's actual communications and transactions.  Of course, these checks are not foolproof; on the contrary.  We are nonetheless supposed to place our trust in the unimpeachable integrity and restraint of the officials and judges who control, operate, or supervise use of this massive surveillance matrix. 

                But the demonstrated corrupt and abusive behavior of the Obama Administration and its minions in scandal after scandal confirms that such trust would be foolishly misplaced.  The IRS's abuse of its power against conservative organizations in a shocking program of insidious political discrimination; the duplicity and deception by the national security agencies in the cover-up of the Benghazi disaster; the Justice Department's malfeasance and misrepresentations in such cases as the Operation Fast and Furious gun-running fiasco and the New Black Panthers voter intimidation outrage in Philadelphia; all these, and many other comparable episodes, demonstrate all too well that governments in general, and this administration in particular, should not be trusted with such massive discretionary power to monitor the communications of the citizenry. 

               We have simply been lulled for too long by the dubious pretext of national security necessity into a blind and passive trust that can no longer be sensibly justified.

                For those who nonetheless remain inclined to trust the Government with this massive power, closer consideration of the particular men and women in whom this trust is placed is in order.  Take, for example, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who was asked the following in a recent senate committee hearing on government surveillance issues:  “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”  Looking like a latter-day Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but without the theatrical charm, Clapper, after an excruciating and shifty-eyed consideration, responded, "No, sir."  But when the questioning senator pressed him, he apparently realized he might be getting himself into testimonial trouble, and so offered the following bizarre qualification:  “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”  Given what we now know about the astronomical volume of data gather by NSA on at least "millions" of Americans, the brazen mendacity of Clapper's testimony on this grave matter is astonishing and disturbing.  There is nothing "inadvertent" or "unwitting" about NSA's undisputed mass collection of "any type of data" on millions of Americans.  And yet this character – and others like him, such as the devious Attorney General Eric Holder -- is a man who serves at the very highest levels of the government bureaucracy which we are expected to trust with the surveillance of the communications of virtually the entire citizenry.  With protectors like this, who needs threats?

                The threats to liberty and privacy raised by this open-ended mass sureveillance program are many and varied, but one is particularly salient in today's polarized political environment.  The Obama Administration and its liberal allies have exploited recent multiple murders by unhinged psychopaths to advocate legislative and regulatory programs to restrict the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding American gun owners.  It does not take a paranoid imagination to foresee that the sophisticated, all-seeing electronic surveillance systems of the NSA and other agencies – especially when coupled with gun registration requirements that have been ardently proposed by gun control advocates – could be used to help identify, investigate, and prosecute Americans who exercise their Second Amendment rights in a manner deemed too assertive by an over-reaching Federal Government.  SR has previously posted about the disturbing historical precedent of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's notorious Sword Hunt, see "Lessons of the Sword Hunt," Splashingrocks.blogspot.com, which reduced the Japanese people to abject subservience for centuries.  Let's hope we never reach the point in this country where the all-seeing surveillance powers of the Government threaten the American right to keep and bear arms with the prospect of a similar weapons hunt.

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