By Bartlett D. Cleland
Our civil liberties suffered another loss this week when the Senate chose to duck surveillance reform by killing the USA Freedom Act. The legislation would have limited the data dragnet that is currently being used to harvest Americans’ personal information via spying laws. Specifically, the legislation would have ended “bulk collection under Section 215 of the Patriot Act” and required the federal “government to more aggressively filter and discard information about Americans accidentally collected through PRISM and related programs.”
In addition, all Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) decisions for the last decade that included a significant interpretation of the law would have had to be disclosed publicly, and “Internet and telecom companies would be allowed to publicly report an estimate of (1) the number of FISA orders and national security letters received, (2) the number of such orders and letters complied with, and (3) the number of users or accounts on whom information was demanded under the orders and letters.”
In all, the law would have partially reclaimed our civil liberties and given the public some idea of how surveillance laws are being interpreted and used where citizens are concerned.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Various government agencies have pretty clearly been violating the spirit if not the very letter of the amendment, and at least one court has agreed. Alarmingly, the NSA has been allowed to operate in this fashion for years, often simply through deception. Some people argue that since they “have nothing to hide” then it is fine if the government keeps tabs on them, and by extension, all law-abiding citizens. Or that security protects life, hence securing an essential element for liberty.
They have apparently never paused to understand exactly what it is they are saying.
First, such actions by the government undermine the rule of law, which virtually every aspect of our society depends upon. Second, if the Fourth Amendment can be ignored solely by the judgment of an executive branch agency, then what about other rights?
Can an agency ignore freedom of speech or engage in cruel and unusual punishment?
Third, while dying does deprive a person of enjoying liberty, so does government keeping track of one’s communications and movements. The violation goes to the very foundation of the nation. The Founding Fathers understood the threat of government, having lived under and observed the breadth and depth of government’s reach. Their philosophy, as enshrined in the Constitution, was a limited government.
We live in a time of unparalleled advances in technology, but technology is merely a tool that can be used for good or evil, to empower the state or empower the people. We must choose continued individual liberty, reject expansive government control and not let a weak-willed Senate stand in the way.
This commentary by Bartlett D. Cleland, Resident Scholar for Tax and Innovation Policy at the Institute for Policy Innovation, is reprinted with permission by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.