By Professor of History Dr. Sander Diamond
We learned from Edward Snowden’s illegal and unprecedented breech of national security that in the name of national security in the Age of Terrorism, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) most sophisticated computers have been collecting and storing nearly all of our electronic communications.
The magnitude of this Congress-approved project (named Prism) is so great that it can only be expressed in numbers beyond our comprehension and will soon be stored in a building complex larger than a shopping mall. The NSA hopes to ferret out nuggets of information which, after analysis, will thwart another terrorist attack in the post-9/11 environment. We have been assured that the NSA’s program has already been successful in preventing new attacks. We have also been assured that the NSA and other agencies that share this information are not reading our mail, so-to-speak, unless there are red flags that indicate the planning or coming execution of an assault against the United States or its allies. We have been asked to trust the government that this information will remain secure and sacrosanct.
While millions of Americans find this more than mildly distasteful, they are willing to give the government a pass since the events on that pristine morning in the late summer of 2001. Others believe that what the NSA is doing is in violation of the Fourth Amendment which, in part, reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated… but upon probable cause…” This is at the heart of the ACLU’s legal challenge to the NSA’s program. What is being done in peacetime in the name of national security may in time be argued before the Supreme Court.
Governments have known a great deal about their people since the advent of civilization. Moses was commanded to tally up the Hebrew’s Twelve Tribes (the Priestly tribe was exempted) as they walked to the Promised Land. What Moses was ordered to do was very precise: “Take a census of all the congregations of the people of Israel, by families, by father’s houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head…”
In our promised land, local, state and federal agencies have been collecting information for 237 years. In general, the courts have upheld the right of the government to collect data. Throughout our history, many Americans have had a deep suspicion of government and carefully guard their privacy. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution to ensure that the new government did not abuse its powers, and that our inherent rights were protected. In wartime, these rights were not suspended but laws were passed to ensure the security of the nation. During the Civil War telegraph lines were tapped
It is unlikely surveillance will end in an age when the United States is a prime target for attacks of all kinds. In a word, this is the future. However, the government has to do far more to allay the suspicions of its people. Merely saying “trust us” is not enough. For starters, multi-layer firewalls have to be put in place to make certain that hackers and foreign governments do not gain access to our private worlds. The government should stop out-sourcing the collection of data and must do a better job of vetting its employees. The Snowdens and Private Mannings of the world are not fighting for our freedoms.
It is also time for Congress to place time limits on how long information can be stored; deleting information after a reasonable amount of time unless a person(s) or group(s) have been red- flagged under the probable cause mandate in the Fourth Amendment. And, Congress has to be pressured to make certain that the litmus test of probable cause is adhered to.