“Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you worry?” We’ve all heard and read that thought expressed during the never-ending debate over U.S. intelligence agencies massively spying on Americans … all of us. The answer to the question is that there’s plenty to worry about.
After a big brawl, Washington has nibbled on the edges of the problem, making it a tiny bit more time-consuming for the shadowy National Security Agency to worm into nearly every facet of our once-personal lives. Now, if they even follow the law — which is a big “if” — our spooks will have to go through a few preliminary procedures before they violate our privacy.
Rand Paul became a temporary hero by using Senate rules to delay passage of the so-called USA Freedom Act, so our national-security agents will not be able to store all the information about our telephone calls, the who where and when. The phone companies will hold the information, and officials will be required to take an extra moment and a few baby steps to get it.
Government officials insist that they need unimpeded access in order to protect us against terrorists, but they can’t really tell us why — it’s a secret. And what they do reveal sometimes turns out to be bogus. For instance, when pressed about the claim that they need these tactics to stop violent plots against this county, they admit that in all the years since 9/11, the intrusive tactics have not stopped one attack.
As for the “if you’re not doing anything wrong” rationale, here’s why we should worry about our private lives being stripped naked: For starters, to paraphrase a famous American who shall remain nameless, it all depends on what “wrong” is. Do we have to worry about access to our health and psychological records by people who have no business knowing what’s in them? How about the stuff in our lives that’s not illegal but embarrassing?
By the way, don’t take much comfort in knowing that our cyberspies might have gotten their wings ever so slightly clipped. The aerial wings of law enforcement are cramming the skies with their planes, drones, choppers, etc., scooping up everyone’s cellphone information from a given area, according to The Associated Press. Among their tactics: creating a phony wireless tower. Also according to The AP, they are doing the same thing on the ground, and secretly sharing the technology with local police departments. They also can and do follow potentially every vehicle using license-plate recognition. They try to keep this stuff secret, but when caught they insist that they need these tools to catch the bad guys. Besides, if you’re not a bad guy, why should you … well, you know.
Back to the NSA: We are now painfully aware of how far that massive apparatus has gone, thanks largely to the disclosures of Edward Snowden. No need to explain that he’s the one who raised the alarm about the surveillance on all of us, nor to remind that he’s languishing in Russia. He wants to come home, but understandably is afraid to. U.S. government officials, from the top down, make it very clear that if he does, they will throw away the keys after they lock him up for the rest of his life. After all, he disrupted their cozy little arrangement — never mind that they paid no heed whatsoever to the idea that, in a democracy, we are supposed to be entitled to freedom from arbitrary government action.
Shouldn’t we get to debate whether Snowden ought to come back to a hero’s welcome, even though he couldn’t claim protection under whistle-blower laws. They are stacked to exclude intelligence, based on the idea that secrecy has become sacred. Personal liberty used to be, but apparently it’s not anymore. That’s wrong.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.