President Obama is not violating his liberal principles by defending the NSA. He is exercising them.
Let's say you're a liberal. Your inclination is to ward against authoritarian government invading personal privacy. You grew up appalled by the actions of Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. You raged against the PATRIOT Act when it was proposed by President George W. Bush.
And yet today, after seeing all the recent leaks about Presidenet Obama's high-tech surveillance, and absorbing all the anger from various civil libertarians, try as you might to shake your fist and pound your keyboard, you're just not feeling the outrage.
Does this mean you're a giant hypocrite?
There is, in fact, a strong liberal case to make for America's current use of surveillance to combat terrorism.
Liberals are not libertarians or anarchists. Liberals believe in a proper use of government to maximize the common good, including public safety.
What liberals have long opposed are abuses of power that harm individuals yet do nothing to keep us safe: systematic torture, racial profiling, FBI infiltration and disruption of civil rights groups, communist witch hunts, Japanese interment camps, the Palmer raids — the list goes on.
Similarly, liberals oppose the abuse of political power to intimidate political opponents, such as the Bush administration's purge of U.S. attorneys who wouldn't pursue trumped up allegations of voter fraud, or Richard Nixon's (thwarted) attempt to use the IRS to punish adversaries.
In this case, such abuses did not occur.
Glenn Greenwald, the civil libertarian activist/journalist who helped publish the leaked information in the Guardian, argued on MSNBC Monday that "the U.S. government is collecting under the aegis of the secret FISA court the telephone records of every single American on American soil, every single phone call they make, international, and local, and storing those telephone numbers in a database and constructing massive data files that enable all kinds of intrusive surveillance" (emphasis added).
Not even Greenwald can claim that the government is actually practicing intrusive surveillance today. His argument is that intelligence officials might someday.
The NSA has been engaged in this sort of surveillance ever since 9/11, under two presidents of decidedly different ideological outlooks, and two administrations with vastly different records on the use of political power. Yet not even the most strident civil libertarian has evidence that this "metadata" has been abused.
Maybe someday some abominable security official or political hack will break the law and violate the Constitution with such abuse. But that's a maybe that can be handled under our current laws and judicial system, should it ever occur.
Meanwhile, we have evidence that NSA surveillance is helping to prevent terrorist plots. Some challenge that evidence, and it's hard to definitively sift through the debate because much of the program remains secret. But at least it's actual evidence and not mere hypothesizing.
Of course, America's record on civil liberties when faced with serious threats is poor. Grave abuses have repeatedly occurred in the name of panic, or just out of rank pursuit of political power. Whatever your ideology, it is understandable to approach this debate from a perspective of cynicism and strive to keep as much personal data out of the federal government's hands as possible.
But what Greenwald and Co. fail to appreciate is how these modern technologies appear to be diminishing the temptation for abuses. We are not deporting or interning Muslims en masse. We are not infiltrating and disrupting Tea Party meetings (delicate sensitivities about those having to wait a bit for tax-exempt status aside) despite multiple incidents of far-right domestic terrorism. Instead, we are employing cutting-edge technology in an effort to pinpoint actual terrorists.
The NSA's current method of surveillance is government action on behalf of the common good, which to date has not produced any substantive infringement on personal freedom. It is part of an overall counterterrorism approach that is profoundly superior to past administrations' records in regards to protecting our civil liberties. President Obama is not violating his liberal principles by defending the NSA. He is exercising them.
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