DAN THOMASSON: Fine line separates security, privacy
June 12, 2013 10:20 AM

The scope of the government’s eavesdropping on Americans is breathtaking, with revelations of such Orwellian import they should frighten us into burning at the stake anyone involved in information technology.

But of course that would be impractical, because we all have capitulated to the IT age with an enthusiasm that ultimately may be our downfall, leaving no one to strike the match. Besides, the disclosure that nearly every communication we’ve had in our daily lives in much of the last decade has been monitored by the National Security Agency doesn’t seem to have caused much more than a shrug from the average citizen. Are we not safer, after all, from the terrorists that lurk around every corner from Portland to Portland than we might otherwise be without such ability?

Well, at least that’s what we are assured by our president and those he has put in charge of programs that have assembled what reportedly is enough data on you and me to fill a quintillion pages — however many that is. They defend this by saying it is a legally authorized intrusion into our privacy that includes safeguards of the judiciary and Congress to protect us from another 9/11 — which, they add, it has done on more than one occasion without enumerating the instances.

That is all well and good. But please explain how that assurance of careful oversight can be verified, when the very existence of this massive intrusion has never been a matter of public debate in or out of Congress and one court is allowed to authorize the surveillance. The 11-member court hears only the government’s arguments and operates in an atmosphere of secrecy. Most of the time, one judge makes the decision. And no rebuttal is permitted. The result is that requests are rarely denied.

It is interesting to note once again that when running for his current office, a young Sen. Barack Obama roundly condemned the very programs he now defends. But then a Republican was in the White House. I wonder if Obama now understands what Kermit the Frog has reminded us again and again: It isn’t easy being green — or president.

This is our government. While we always need to be wary, we should not fear it. There is a need for classified programs and a watchful eye in an increasingly violent world. However, it is only a tiny distance between what is permissible under our system and what verges on despotism.

Big Brother can assure us all he wants that the intrusions are minimal. We have only his word for that and there is seemingly no way to dispute it without facts that are kept from us. On the one hand, no one wants our enemies to know what we are doing to thwart them. That’s understood. On the other hand, built into the system is the principle that the price of our liberty may sometimes be high.

We should point out that suspicions about the two who allegedly bombed the Boston Marathon seem to have fallen through the cracks, although the Russians had warned us about the older, key brother. Were his communications lost in the vast mountain of material downloaded onto the NSA’s super-secret computers in its super-secret headquarters in the until-now super-secret programs that the entire Congress knew of but couldn’t talk about? We probably will never know the answer to that. We do know the ball was dropped.

None of this can be good for a democracy that prides itself in protecting the privacy of its citizens as well as their lives. We should trust those whom we elect to guard us from these governmental invasions. In his “Republic,” Plato wondered, as did Roman philosopher Juvenal before him, “Who shall guard the guardians?” It’s a question the founders of this republic contemplated in their system of checks and balances.

It is a tricky one when threats to our well-being seem everywhere. The emphasis in this case is balance. How can we maintain a semblance of security while at the same time preserve our freedoms? Who will make sure there is a guard watching our guardians? The press? Yes, but it, too, has fallen victim to the IT invasion.

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