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When Power Corrupts

“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them, we scrubbed them thoroughly, we actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment, and my team’s assessment, was that they helped us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and without looking at content — that on net, was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment of that.

But I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy, and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society. What I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.”

That was President Obama, speaking on the data-mining and surveillance program PRISM, the homo erectus stage in the evolution of our loss of privacy. Much has been said about PRISM, its legality, and its effect on privacy and our country over the last few days. More information will be made known to the public by some exceptional journalists over the next few weeks and months. But there is a much larger, underlying issue with PRISM and programs like it that can’t be solved by great journalism or whistleblowers, and that is the undiluted power that corrupts so many of our elected officials.

Let’s not pretend that we know everything that comes across the President’s desk. But what we do know is Republicans hate to agree with President Obama on anything, and that speaks to the ‘power’ aspect of a program like PRISM. Evidently, members of Congress have some sort of pseudo-militaristic outlook on terrorism (without the military leadership experience to guide that outlook), to the point where they had to give the NSA the ability to access the information of everyone, to spot patterns that may or may not be visible, just in case they suspect you or someone you correspond with of doing something with terroristic motivations, and expect us to understand and agree wholeheartedly with them.

The bipartisan support and nonchalant disposition displayed by our elected Congressional officials  has been the most demoralizing aspect about PRISM. The same Democrats who were mad about the Patriot Act being abused under President Bush, and the same Republicans who were calling for President Obama’s head for his “excess abuse of power” in the IRS scandal, have acted like PRISM is no big deal.

Both sides of the media — from Mother Jones to Glenn Beck — are outraged about PRISM and the NSA seizing phone records from Verizon, yet Congress is untroubled with both. Here is their justification for initiating these programs, and their thoughts on PRISM becoming public knowledge.

“I read intelligence carefully, and I know that people are trying to get to us. This is the reason why we keep TSA doing what it’s doing. This is the reason why the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. This is the reason for the National Counterterrorism Center that’s been set up in the time we’ve been active. It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.

I think people want the homeland kept safe, to the extent we can. We understand — I understand — privacy. Senator Chambliss understands privacy. We want to protect people’s private rights. And that’s why this is carefully done. That’s why it’s a federal court of 11 judges who sit 24/7, who review these requests and then either approves them or denies them.”

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) of California speaking on the NSA phone records program. The federal court Feinstein speaks of has not denied a request in four years.

Let me just emphasize, this is nothing particularly new. This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this.

To my knowledge, we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information. It is simply what we call metadata that is never utilized by any governmental agency unless they go back to the FISA court and show that there’s real cause as to why something within the metadata should be looked at.

That’s been very clear all along through the years of this program. It is proved meritorious, because we have gathered significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia speaking on the NSA phone records program. A citizen would not have registered a complaint against a program they did not know existed until a few days ago.

Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions. Surveillance programs like this one are consistently subject to safeguards that are designed to strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and civil liberties and privacy concerns. I believe it is important to address the misleading impression left by the article and to reassure the American people that the Intelligence Community is committed to respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all American citizens.

James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, speaking on PRISM. Clapper believes the initial article published by The Guardian leaves a “misleading impression” about PRISM, but rest assured, everything is great with your privacy.

Every time I hear an elected official speaking on PRISM or the NSA phone records program using a phrase that amounts to “We’re Doing This to Protect America From Terrorist Threats,” I am immediately reminded of the phrase that dominated the preceding months before the Iraq War; “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” We are quickly becoming two sides of the same coin. The arguments are the same. “We are right, and you will be happy once we get our guy.” Somehow, that guy never shows up.

Sure, we can make America a fully surveilled-state, monitoring phone records and internet data of everyone that uses an American company, and terrorism will drop (we think), even though every fully surveilled-state experiences more terrorist attacks than America currently does (see: Russia, India, China).

The complete confidence that the ability to collect data from everybody will somehow stop terrorism is reminiscent of the utter certainty that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, and would use them. The fact that Congress does not want to discuss PRISM in a forum that could call for its removal or the reduction of  its scope, and believes that it is completely normal for the Government to have the ability to run all your information through NSA servers, because, “we’re doing this to protect America from terrorist threats,” and  “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to worry,” evokes memories of the Bush administration still believing to this day there was no need to debate whether invading Iraq was the right decision, because an evil dictator who could have conceivably acquired said WMDs was permanently removed. They would all say, “the cause justifies the means,” except we are on a scale where the costs are far greater than they ever needed to be.

The reasoning behind these two events sound homogeneous, and if you didn’t know any better, could easily say they came from the same leadership group. The phrase “power corrupts” doesn’t apply to one side of the aisle. All leaders are susceptible, no matter how noble your intentions may be when you began. Somehow, this needs to change, and quickly.

For some reason, elected officials expect us to trust them, even when their predecessors have trained us not to, as we have been burned by so many of them. These officials have become so detached from reality, living in the bubble of Washington, they believe being surveilled wherever you go, or the NSA reading your emails and checking your phone records just to make sure you aren’t a terrorist is just something we should get used to. The problem is, they are partially right. People will get used to it, and young people —  like Kyle Wagner of Gizmodo, who wrote one of the most nieve and troubling opinion pieces published on this topic — won’t care about it.

That’s the issue. When people stop caring about their privacy, and power inevitably corrupts those in charge of our Government, you have two of the three main ingredients of the formula that birthed modern-day China (the third ingredient is to arrest or forcibly stop those who oppose you). The people that currently oppose these kinds of personal intrusions and the loss of their civil liberties won’t be around forever, and for them, maybe that’s a good thing. There is no version of this world I can imagine in which there is no terrorism, but I can envision a world where having no privacy is normal, and that is terrifying.