Like hits for Katy Perry, the scandals for the National Security Agency just keep coming. In the wake of revelations that the NSA has been tracking virtually every phone call ever made and sifting through Internet data like a crazed prospector panning for gold at Sutter’s Mill, there’s yet more disturbing news with every passing day.
The latest is that between 2006 and 2009, Politico reports, the NSA lied about its activities to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court charged with authorizing its snooping. Worse still, this outcome is a toxic mix of spy-agency overreach and bureaucratic incompetence. “An internal inquiry into the misstatements also found that no one at the NSA understood how the entire call-tracking program worked,” says Politico, which quotes an unnamed source who explains, “There was nobody at NSA who really had a full idea of how the program was operating at the time.”
This is as outrageous as it is dispiriting (and predictable). But a dozen years after the 9/11 attacks ushered in the global war on terror, there’s no reason that we should have to live in fear of our government’s efforts to keep us safe and warm. Here are four basic principles that should inform what might be called a libertarian national security state. That is, one that helps to protects us without routinely transgressing constitutional guarantees to privacy, due process, freedom from illegal searches, and the right to be left alone.
1. Transparency uber alles.
One of the main reasons that Barack Obama’s approval ratings are in the crapper is because of his epic failure to live up to his promise to run what he guaranteed would be the most transparent administration EVAH. That’s especially true when it comes to national security issues. Even the most hardened anti-terror hawks have been shocked by revelations of widespread secret drone strikes, extra-judicial kill lists, a war on leakers and journalists, and ubiquitous snooping on Americans.
However disturbing it was to learn of massive surveillance of law-abiding citizens in violation of restrictions on the NSA, it was made even worse by blatant lies to the American public. When Director of National Intelligence James Clapper flat-out lied under oath to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), there should have been immediate and visible consequences, both in terms of personnel and policy.
In an age of Wikileaks, Anonymous, Edward Snowden, and other ultimately unstoppable forces, transparency isn’t just a buzzword, like green energy or farm-fresh. It’s an eventuality and the first government that levels with its people about what it’s actually up to will be far stronger and resilient than one that is constantly hiding its activities. We’re grownups, for Christ’s sake, and if some sort of restriction on our freedoms or oversight on our activities is actually defensible and necessary for a legitimate security purpose, we’ll respond in a responsible way.
Every bullshit, after-the-fact rationalization drives a deeper wedge between citizens and government. White House press releases like the one issued on July 23 don’t help. “In light of the recent unauthorized disclosures,” it read, “the President has said that he welcomes a debate about how best to simultaneously safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens.” In such moments, Barack Obama moves beyond cynicism into the realm of pure insult.
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