Beginning this summer, former NSA employee Edward Snowden dropped a series of bombshells across our collective sense of security. Thanks to his whistle blowing, we have learned that the NSA routinely spies on phone and internet traffic, gathering and storing massive amounts of data on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals.
In theory the NSA’s activities are monitored by members of Congress and FISA courts. But not only are these courts secret (something which should be anathema to a democracy). Their officials have often complained that they don’t have the information they need to evaluate the NSA’s activities. We know the NSA has broken the law on thousands of occasions, in some cases inadvertently, in others likely not. We also know that national security officials have lied to Congress about the extent and character of their programs, meaning that between secret, uninformed courts, and elected officials who are kept in the dark, there is no real check on the activities of the intelligence agencies.
It is not the data collection that is the most offensive element of the NSA’s work. It is the surreptitious and dishonest manner in which the intelligence agencies have established their right to snoop. Their behaviour bespeaks a guilty conscience, and their lack of transparency is out of keeping with our values.
We have been told that the NSA’s activities are necessary, that our liberties must give way before the demands of national security imperatives (imperatives generated by U.S. terror abroad), and that this intrusive intelligence gathering has prevented terrorist attacks on the U.S.
In reality, there is strong evidence to suggest that NSA activities have not been critical to preventing attacks on the U.S. and that intelligence officials have misrepresented the significance of their work. In reality, transparency in our foreign policy might actually reduce the behaviours that create global terrorism and reduce the need for a powerful national security state. The citizens of a democratic state should not have their rights removed in the name of a “security” that has nothing to do with the public welfare. The NSA’s theft of our rights has occurred without debate and without scrutiny.
Today, some conscientious members of Congress are seeking to rein in the power of the national security apparatus. The Obama administration has today announced checks on the operations of the NSA. And Republican Jim Sensenbrenner—formerly a proponent of U.S. terrorism—has come out swinging against power of the security state, sponsoring the USA Freedom Act.
The Freedom Act is being backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the foremost organisational defenders of civil rights in the United States. The ACLU has also provided information about how the President’s proposals, the recommendations of his review group, and the USA Freedom Act measure up to the ACLU’s calls for reform of the security state.
I hope that all those who believe that Snowden is a traitor and that his actions hurt the United States take note of these developments. Without his actions we would never have known—no less debated—the behaviour of the intelligence agencies which take such an adversarial view of the public. We would never have been able to reform the rogue agencies which lost their way as they waged a war of terror.We have much work to do in reforming our national security apparatus. Rolling back the abusive security state is a first step. We also need to focus—urgently—on the manner in which so many threats to the U.S. are of our own making, stemming from our hubris, militarism, support of colonial-style governments, dictatorships, and non-state terrorists. Let us hope that these first steps are but the beginning of a journey towards the refashioning of a country with a healthier and more democratically-consistent view of its relationship with its neighbours in our world.