From the Associated Press:
The Obama administration has conducted warrantless searches of Americans’ communications as part of the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations that target foreigners located outside of the U.S., the administration’s top intelligence official confirmed in a letter to Congress disclosed Tuesday.
These searches were authorized by a secret surveillance court in 2011, but it was unclear until Tuesday whether any such searches on Americans had been conducted.
The recent acknowledgement of warrantless searches on Americans offers more insight into U.S. government surveillance operations put in place after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The government has broadly interpreted these laws to allow for the collection of communications of innocent Americans, practices the Obama administration maintains are legal. But President Barack Obama has promised to review some of these programs to determine whether the government should be conducting this type of surveillance at all.
“Senior officials have sometimes suggested that government agencies do not deliberately read Americans’ emails, monitor their online activity or listen to their phone calls without a warrant,” Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado said in a joint statement. “However, the facts show that those suggestions were misleading, and that intelligence agencies have indeed conducted warrantless searches for Americans’ communications.”
Such is, I fear, one of the unintended consequences of a post-9/11 security state: Country gets attacked. Legislature proposes to expand surveillance programs in bid for greater domestic security (think Patriot Act). Government, as they’re wont to do when flexing new muscles, conveniently interpret new laws as broadly as possible so as to capture as much putatively useful intel as possible. Data collection umbrella invariably begins covering tracts of communications previously prohibited to it until we arrive at revelations such as this one: warrantless searches of Americans who are neither inclined or determined to commit any illegality or act of aggression towards the US.
I like considering myself as much a defense-hawk as any other conservative, and as such appreciate a robust foreign surveillance apparatus, but having said that, the federal government has as much responsibility in liberally safeguarding American privacy as it does spying in far-flung lands. No such thing as too much constitutional circumspection.
The 4th Amendment isn’t yet another Etch-A-Sketch “red line” we can allow to be hopscotched over for the hopeful sake of stumbling onto the next terror attack being plotted on some Yemeni iPhone. Additionally, the fact that innocent metadata or communications may be swept into the cross-hairs of governmental agencies as they focus on the more nefarious sources, even if inadvertently, doesn’t absolve them.
If the ratchet effect is indeed a real phenomenon, it may perhaps be most evident here: if they can justify warrantless collection of minor data points today–location, time of call, etc.–what will they attempt to legitimize down the road? Who knows. It is time to ask the question, though. Even some conservatives have tried shooing away criticism on grounds that a lack of any victims under these programs diminish any concerns that have arisen as a result of them.
Color me unconvinced. If victimhood is the supposed litmus test for legitimacy, we’ve already gone too far down the rabbit hole. The idea that we ought wait for an American to be molested by such a program before questioning its permissiveness strikes me as constitutionally–and morally– flawed. In my estimation, better to preempt the ratcheting before it’s allowed to happen. Freedoms evaporate quickly where there is an unrestrained security state, and no government ever restrained itself voluntarily. Time to start doing it for them, perhaps?
Security is good. Liberty is inviolable.