LEFT TURNS: Dilemma of privacy vs. protection from terrorism

LEFT TURNS: Dilemma of privacy vs. protection from terrorism

June 13th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Question of the week: How do we make sense of the revelations of domestic spying to thwart international terrorism?

Fighting terrorism and preserving privacy have been this week's hottest topics - touching every one with a phone and a computer.

After Edward J. Snowden leaked secret training documents that detailed how the government logs all our telephone calls and collects all our emails and online data from Internet companies such as Google and Apple, pundits and Congress and residents have been asking what it all means.

What do we fear more: terrorists or government?

Who is Snowden: hero or traitor?

Does the surveillance achieve anything?

Today the Times Editorial Page debuts a new weekly feature: Left Turns.

With Left Turns, we join prominent political, civic, business or religious leaders from our region to discuss timely issues.

Frank Eaton

Former Tennessee House of Representatives candidate and Democrat from Hixson

During the past week we've heard alarmed voices in various media outlets criticizing President Obama for an overreach by the National Security Agency. If news that the NSA is using data dumps from Internet companies to investigate terrorism sounds like déjà vu, it is.

Early in his first term, President George W. Bush signed an executive order authorizing warrantless wiretaps, outside of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA), to track potential national security threats. This went on for years until it was exposed in 2005 and discontinued in 2007 after dozens of lawsuits alleging illegal searches of Americans without probable cause. In 2007 and 2008 Congress amended FISA, broadening its powers while protecting telecommunications companies from lawsuits. In 2009, Obama's own Justice Department acknowledged that certain NSA data collection efforts had exceeded the law, but said measures had been taken to bring them into legal compliance.

What we learned from Edward Snowden's leak is that a FISA court can issue a warrant for bulk data from Internet companies and that, it appears, the NSA has created a data mining application to exploit it. Senators on the Intelligence Committee who are briefed on such programs say this one has saved lives and is legal.

Apparently we're still going to spend time blaming Obama instead of looking to Congress, the judiciary, and ourselves for solutions to the dilemma.

And it's quite a dilemma. Our private information is strewn across data storage devices owned by private companies bound by their own security policies and laws that allow the government access to some of it under certain conditions. We click "accept" on a "Terms of Use" agreement online and expect Google or Facebook to act in our best interest, always with a naïve expectation of privacy.

The biggest fact we may all agree upon is that no president will likely act to curtail these data-mining programs if the case can be made that they're legal and are saving American lives. What we as Americans must decide is whether our national security from unnamed threats is worth the loss of the very privacy and individual liberty that we always thought our government was established to protect.

Instead of blaming the president, our interests might be better served by looking for answers from our own sense of societal purpose, as individuals and as a nation, and then letting our elected representatives know what those answers are.

Joda Thongnopnua

Co-founder of UNFoundation

This week has produced one of the most bizarre media cycles I've ever seen.

On Sunday, Edward Snowden stepped forward as the individual behind one of the most historically significant leaks in U.S. history. By Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition had organized to discredit Snowden in language that would make the Nixon administration blush.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Fla., and Senate intelligence chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have called Snowden everything from a traitor to a coward. David Brooks' thoughts in the New York Times' editorial pages are another clear example.

The journalists and news organizations that broke this story haven't been exempted from condemnation either. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a member of the committee charged with oversight of the United States intelligence community [ironically born out of the Church Committee in the mid-1970s], argued on Tuesday that legal action should be taken against Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the story.

Let that sink in for a moment: Top congressional members are calling for Snowden's head [figuratively, for now] and federal charges against journalists doing their jobs.

Over the next several days, the Obama administration will trot out intelligence officials during committee hearings and press conferences - all certain to testify that the surveillance programs are not only legal but also necessary to protect the American people from the looming threat of terrorism.

The question of legality ultimately misses the point. If a surveillance program of this scale is legal, Americans should be even more alarmed than if it were not.

In May, President Obama gave one of the most significant foreign policy speeches of his administration regarding the war on terror. "This war, like all wars, must end," he said. "That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands."

Bold words, but his expansion of the most invasive public surveillance operations in our nation's history and his administration's blasé reaction to its reveal demonstrates that a state of perpetual emergency continues.

Not quite the bipartisanship we all clamored for.

It's the responsibility of the American left to be outraged. Many of us voted for Barack Obama, but that was not an agreement to refrain from criticism. If anything, we have the duty to speak the loudest when we hold our leaders accountable.

Chris Brooks

Local activist, co-founder of Chattanooga Organized for Action, and recipient of the 2013 German Marshall Fellowship

Leaked National Security Agency documents from the past two weeks have revealed that the government likely has access to the phone calls, emails, video and voice chats, photo and file transfers and text messages of everyone around the world. The National Security State has erected what Edward Snowden, the source of the explosive NSA leaks, has called the "architecture of oppression."

One of the programs revealed in the leaked NSA documents is entitled PRISM and is described as providing the NSA with the capacity for "Collection directly from the servers" of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. The documents imply that the NSA is able to obtain the electronic communications of anyone without requests to the companies and without judicial oversight or court order.

In an editorial in The Guardian, Daniel Ellsberg, the courageous leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, called Snowden's leak the most important "in American history" and said it provides the "possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an 'executive coup' against the U.S. constitution."

A coup it is. In the United States, it is We The People that are the sovereign, the true head of State. The National Security State revealed by Snowden has been built completely in the shadows and is therefore unaccountable and undemocratic. President Obama is trying desperately to sustain this coup. His Justice Department has prosecuted six whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act - double the number of all past presidents combined.

Unfortunately, a great many progressives will not be joining with Ellsberg in the fight to roll back executive power.

A poll by the Pew Research Center comparing the partisan shifts in views of NSA surveillance programs between 2006 and June 2013 found that 37 percent of Democrats viewed them as "acceptable" in 2006. That number jumped to 64 percent of Democrats who approved of NSA surveillance programs when they were polled last week, after the publication of Snowden's leaks. That implies that a clear majority of Democrats have no problem with the "architecture of oppression" being secretly built by our government, so long as it's their candidate in control of it.

This kind of hack partisanship is a betrayal of the very values that progressives claim to represent. Moral consistency demands that we stand for what is right, no matter who is in office. It's time for progressives who identify as Democrats to stop drinking the Kool-Aid and start taking action in defense of our principles.