There’s been much talk on the interwebs today about the NSA data-mining Verizon’s and other companies’ phone records. While I’m not one to call double-standard on “my own team” nor defend Obama very often, I have to jump in here. And realize, I am in good conservative company here. This morning conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager covered the topic in a positive manner and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich), who has an 88 rating from the American Conservative Union and sits on the House Intelligence Committee, both agree with me.
Many people are throwing around the Franklin quote, “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” I bolded the words I did because many folks are also conveniently (although I suspect unintentionally in many cases) leaving those words out and they really make all the difference. Without them, the quote could be interpreted to mean any form of government is bad since any form of government necessarily puts certain restraints on complete liberty. As Madison said, “if men were angels no government would be necessary.” Of course, he added the converse that, “if angels were to govern men then no controls on government would be necessary.” But both parts of that quote are equally necessary. Like so many things in life and government, security policy requires a balance. If men were angels then we’d have no need to fingerprint. If men were angels we’d have no need for passports or any other form of ID. If men were angels we wouldn’t need surveillance at the ATM, guards at the airport, a military or even our cherished Second Amendment rights. If men were angels we’d live in Utopia, the definition of which is a place which doesn’t exist, at least not on earth.
But men aren’t angels so we do need government and the laws that it passes and enforces. We have the liberty to practice the religion we want but not to engage in child sacrifice. We have the liberty to speak freely but not to cry “fire” in a crowded theater or to threaten the life of the president. We have the liberty to keep and bear arms but try to acquire a Patriot missile and see what happens. And I’m guessing, regardless of how we interpret the Second Amendment (I, myself, believe, technically, there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution restricting us from having a Patriot missile), we wouldn’t have a problem with our friendly neighborhood FBI task force looking into a neighbor that was keeping one in his back yard.
So what about data-mining? I’m not too concerned (which doesn’t mean I’m not concerned at all). First, as Rep. Rogers states, this program has already stopped at least one significant terrorist attack in the U.S. Second, the program is authorized by Congress and supervised by a court.
“But we see how well government oversight is working!” you say. Yes, there are certainly more than enough examples within just the past few months to prove that the Obama Administration is as corrupt as few we’ve seen, so I understand the hesitancy of some to support data-mining. But if we take this approach then nothing the government does (at least as long as Obama is in power) can be trusted. And if that’s the case then what’s the point? It’s not a far leap from there to a whole list of quite possible conspiracy theories (shape-shifting aliens not being one of them in this case).
Our government is powerful enough (and always has been in relation to the power of the people) that it could, theoretically, frame a private citizen for some heinous act as a way to silence its opposition.
So we should be vigilant. We shouldn’t just skip along as if data-mining is as happy as a Saturday morning cartoon specials but we also shouldn’t just dismiss it off-hand as some sinister plot to take away our freedoms. Mostly because the so-called freedoms taken away by data-mining pale in comparison to the ones we gave up long ago and haven’t complained about in decades (if we ever did).
First, data-mining isn’t the government listening in on every phone call you make and copying down the contents of the shopping list you’re reading off to your wife. In fact, data-mining has nothing to do with the content of your call. It is simply a computer algorithm searching through millions of gigabytes of meta-data seeing if there are any patterns that might point to terrorist plots or some other criminal act. Maybe you made a call a few seconds before a bomb went off and that call bounced off a tower near the site of the explosion. Seems to me that data might be pretty useful. Of course, maybe you have absolutely nothing to do with the explosion, but if it meant finding the terrorist who did so or preventing another explosion from taking place, would you really have a problem with answering a few questions? Completely innocent people are rounded up all the time when something bad happens.
When Bobby Kennedy was shot, hundreds of people were held for questioning for hours at the Ambassador Hotel; the vast majority or which, I’m sure, authorities knew, without a doubt, weren’t responsible. But better to restrict the liberty of a few hundred for a few hours in an effort to catch an assassin than let everyone go, including Sirhan Sirhan.
Stupid people threaten the life of the president all the time. Most of the time they have no intention of causing any real harm. They’re just stupid. But aren’t we all glad that the Secret Service is vigilant about investigating all those folks?
We’ve given up a lot more information than the metadata of our phone calls. The government knows how much we make and who pays us. It knows about our real estate and vehicle ownership. It knows when and where we travel when we leave the country. Any time we make a transaction of more than $10,000 or transport that sum across international boundaries the government knows that too. To me, all that seems way more invasive than the fact I made a few calls yesterday.
And that’s assuming the government actually cares. Excuse me, but most of us just aren’t that special. And if our specific phone behavior is being that closely monitored then we probably either have ties to a terrorist group or are a major contributor to the Romney Campaign (the latter of which, of course, is completely unconstitutional, an abuse of power and is, thankfully, in a similar instance, being investigated by Congress). The government does care, however, how much money we make and if we withdrew $15,000 from our bank account last week. If you want to get in a tizzy over government overreach, get in a tizzy over that.
Yes, the government is wildly inefficient, at times abusive and vindictive, but if we’ve really reached the point where, to quote Obama in a speech earlier today, “people can’t trust government, we’re going to have some problems here.”
Does that mean we should give government all of our trust? Never! I don’t care who’s in the White House. I wouldn’t trust myself. That’s why I’m a fan of limited government. But it also doesn’t mean that we should look at everything the government does (even the honesty-challenged current administration) through the lens of some sinister plot to take away all of our rights and throw those of us who “cling to our God and guns” in prison camps. As bad as things are here right now, we’re not anywhere close to being North Korea.
Personally, I’m thankful that Obama has broken his promise to close Gitmo. I’m glad he took out Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone. To not trust government to at least some extent means to not trust the military or the police, for, in the wrong hands, they can inflict a lot more harm on the average citizen than any amount of data-mining ever can. And to not trust government to some extent means the only option left is armed revolt because, really, if you can’t trust a computer algorithm running a search on phone records at the NSA, can you even trust that we have free and fair elections?
So just ask yourself, is it the data-mining you have a problem with or is it the current data-miner-in-chief? If it’s the latter then don’t throw the baby (tools used to successfully prevent terror attacks in the U.S.) out with the bath water (President Obama; and no, Martin Bashir, that comparison has nothing to do with the color of his skin). The TSA’s policy of not allowing knives and guns on airplanes fails all the time. One friend mentioned that her husband unknowingly brought a pocket knife onboard a plane four times before a TSA agent found it. Does that mean we should just throw that whole policy out? And if so, why not just allow guns or even underwear bombs?
And if it is the former, just why are you so concerned about some federal government algorithm combing over millions of phone records (which, unless you’re one of the special cases named above, won’t even be connected to you) yet you don’t seem to have a problem with Verizon, AT&T, Facebook, or Google doing the same?
In conclusion, stay always vigilant. It is good and right that this story about data-mining is in the media and being discussed at such length. But just be wary of where you go with your arguments. Focus on the facts and the specific policy. Those of us on the right didn’t appreciate it when some on the left exhibited Bush Derangement Syndrome and flipped out no matter what he did (things that Obama is currently doing today, including data-mining). Don’t develop Obama Derangement Syndrome and flip out over data-mining just because Obama is currently in charge. Nor should you flip out over it because there’s the possibility it could be used for malevolent purposes. While the IRS is actually using data it is collecting for malevolent purposes, as much as I’d love to see it go, no one is seriously entertaining its end over this.