Privacy SOS

Haul the NSA before Congress

Congress is about to reauthorize warrantless wiretapping, the biggest gift lawmakers have ever given the spy agencies, federal law enforcement and the US military. The statute up for extension, the FISA Amendments Act, should actually be called The Death of Privacy Act because that’s its effect. 

We are told the government needs these broadest of all possible surveillance authorities in order to Keep Us Safe. We want to be safe, right? We want to be free from bodily harm. We don’t want people murdering us or our families or our friends. We don’t want to turn on the television and see more skyscrapers crumbling in our cities, or the wreckage from car bombs and shredded limbs strewn across our streets. Heaven forbid.

For over ten years two administrations, red and blue, have repeated the mantra: We must trade some of our cherished liberty in favor of needed security. “We live in dangerous times,” we are told. “Our adversaries take advantage of our freedoms to harm us.” What good are civil liberties if we are dead? This is the underlying message. 

But it is a dangerous fanstasy. The government cannot keep us safe from all possible harm, and all too often doesn’t even try. A story published in the NYT this morning reports that major softdrink manufactures put flame retardant in their drinks, and the US government allows it — even though there are clear links between drinking flame retardant and numerous cancers. The national security establishment tells us that natural gas is a central element to our so-called “energy independence,” that it will set us free. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t tell us about how fracking, the risky extraction technique, poisons our drinking water. The list goes on. 

Today we have yet another reminder that the government cannot always keep us safe. Maybe that’s imprecise. We have a reminder that all of our lost liberties have added up to something quite other than bodily security. They have added up to what Bill Binney calls a “turnkey totalitarian state.” And the bodies keep piling up.

The children murdered at a Connecticut elementary school were not protected from harm by the National Security Agency’s warrantless spying operations, which literally eviscerate our privacy and threaten our democracy at its very core. Those children were not protected by the Patriot Act, or by the Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, or any of the other slew of anti-American, anti-civil liberties, pro-state power statutes rammed down our collective throats over the past twenty years.

Fighting the “war on terror” at home by disregarding and violating our core liberties has not made and will not make us more “safe,” as today’s horrific shooting and the spate of mass violence in America over the past few years demonstrates with gallons of innocent human blood. The stench is sickening.

These post-9/11 measures are about control, pure and simple. And if we think things are bad now, just wait until there is another Muslim terrorist attack against the continental United States. All of the powers are lined up. The technologies are in place, our local police forces militarized to the hilt. That turnkey totalitarian state Binney warns us of can be flicked on — directed at all of us — like turning on the lights. Things will get worse unless we act. We need a mass movement not only for personal privacy but for rolling back state power more broadly. 

The people who fought the British in the US war of independence were concerned about a lot more than just unfair taxation. They wanted freedom. We’d do well to pay attention to our own dearth of it these days, and do what’s necessary to change it before it’s too late.

A great and timely first step would be for Congress to haul the NSA before them in hearings to demand why their limitless spying powers didn’t stop the shooting today in CT, or the seven other mass killings we’ve witnessed in the US this year. Then they can ask the NCTC why it didn’t predict the shooting, given that its mission includes preventing future crime. 

If Congress pokes the beast a bit, it will find that none of these measures can or will keep us safe from all possible harm. But they are very effective at killing democracy.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.