Written by John W. Whitehead
“Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”—A senior intelligence official previously involved with the Utah Data Center
The recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers, with the complete blessing of the Obama administration, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past decade.
As I document in my new book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (available now at Amazon.com), what we are witnessing, in the so-called name of security and efficiency, is the creation of a new class system comprised of the watched (average Americans such as you and me) and the watchers (government bureaucrats, technicians and private corporations). What too many fail to realize, consumed as they are with partisan politics and blinded by their own political loyalties, is that the massive bureaucracies—now computerized—that administer governmental policy transcend which party occupies the White House.
This explains why the civil liberties abuses carried out by the Bush Administration have not been corrected by the Obama Administration. Rather, they have been expanded upon. Take, for instance, the warrantless wiretapping program conducted during the Bush years, which resulted in the NSA monitoring the private communications of millions of Americans—a program that continues unabated today, with help from private telecommunications companies such as AT&T. The program recorded 320 million phone calls a day when it first started. It is estimated that the NSA has intercepted 15 to 20 trillion communications of American citizens since 9/11.
To our misfortune, the Obama White House has proven to be even worse than the Bush White House when it comes to invading the privacy rights of Americans. As Yale law professor Jack Balkin notes, “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state. [Obama has] systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.” Unfortunately, whereas those on the Left raised a hew and cry over the Bush administration’s constant encroachments on Americans’ privacy rights, it appears that the political leanings of those on the Left have held greater sway than their principles. Consequently, the Obama administration has faced much less criticism for its blatant efforts to reinforce the surveillance state.
Insisting that terrorists “will come after us if they can and the only thing that we have to deter this is good intelligence to understand that a plot has been hatched and to get there before they get to us,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, is defending the NSA’s actions, as well as the secret court order requiring Verizon to turn over its phone records to government agents. It’s a tired, overused line that preys on Americans’ fear of another terrorist attack and offers phantom promises of security while ensuring neither safety nor greater freedom. Even the vague and unsupported claim put forth by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) that the NSA surveillance program “helped thwart ‘a significant case’ of terrorism in the United States ‘within the last few years’” fails to justify a program of this magnitude, which makes everyone a target and turns us all into a nation of suspects.
Clearly, the age of privacy in America is coming to a close. We have moved into a new paradigm in which surveillance technology which renders everyone a suspect is driving the bureaucratic ship that once was our democratic republic. It will not be long before no phone call, no email, no Tweet, no web search is safe from the prying eyes and ears of the government. People going about their daily business will no longer be assured that they are not being spied upon by federal agents and other government bureaucrats.
Thus, the question looms before us. Can freedom in the United States continue to flourish and grow in an age when the physical movements, individual purchases, conversations, and meetings of every citizen are constantly under surveillance by private companies and government agencies?
Whether or not the surveillance is undertaken for so-called “worthy” (read: politically expedient) reasons such as preventing another terrorist attack, does not surveillance of all citizens gradually poison the soul of a nation and render us all data collected in government files? Does not such surveillance completely eviscerate our right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as guaranteed by our Constitution?
John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization whose international headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead serves as the Institute’s president and spokesperson, in addition to writing a weekly commentary that is posted on The Rutherford Institute’s website (www.rutherford.org), as well being distributed to several hundred newspapers, and hosting a national public service radio campaign. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties issues has earned him numerous accolades, including the Hungarian Medal of Freedom.