Today, as we pause to remember those who lost their lives 12 years ago in the most savage attacks on U.S. civilians in American history, we might also reflect on what else has been lost in the aftermath of those acts of terrorism.
The prevailing wisdom from the September 11th terror attacks was that we were targets because the terrorists “hated us for our freedom.” In the days and weeks following the attack, as we struggled to regain our footing, we made a collective vow as a nation to not permit our enemies to destroy the principles that made America the leader of the free world.
Yet, in a dark irony, in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. citizens have witnessed one of the greatest assaults on the Constitution and American freedom since the founding of our nation. These attacks came not from al-Qaeda or some other foreign enemy, but from our own government. We forgot that enemies of freedom are not always abroad.
Revelations of unprecedented abuses of power have rocked the Obama Administration; springing not only from the usual suspects – the IRS, the TSA and the NSA – but from other agencies normally viewed as more benign bureaucracies, such as Health and Human Services and the Securities and Exchange Commission. And it is not only the Fourth Amendment that has been undercut deeply by these abuses of power; but other, less-known but equally important constitutional provisions, such as the right to contract and to petition the government. The list is indeed long.
Yet it is perhaps the revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive domestic surveillance program that are and should be most troubling to us all; for they touch us all, and in ways we scarcely can imagine – or which George Orwell in his worst nightmare could hardly have dreamed.
Many citizens suspected such privacy abuses were occurring even before Edward Snowden’s recent revelations. However, the extent and brazenness of NSA’s actions as revealed by Snowden, is breathtaking. For example, not only do we now know the NSA has been routinely eavesdropping on untold billions of electronic communications by average, law-abiding citizens; but that the super-secret agency has undermined lawful efforts by concerned citizens to protect their communications by employing encryption.
For years, privacy advocates including myself have argued we are swiftly approaching a pivotal moment in American history – the point at which the rule of law breaks down and the very concept of “civil liberties” -- not just the rights themselves – becomes meaningless.
Already we are far past the point in the debate at which discussions are had about whether the federal government is in engaged in domestic spying, without any particularized suspicion the targets of that surveillance have done anything wrong. That question was answered several years ago. Now, there is only a single focus in the debate about online privacy: everything you say or do can, and likely will be collected, cataloged, analyzed and stored by the federal government. Nothing is sacred, and nothing is protected.
How did we reach this point? Following the 9/11 terror attacks, the Congress granted the Executive Branch significant power intended to pursue enemies abroad, and to protect the country from future attacks. As the Bush Administration expanded these powers far beyond their intended scope, Congress grew somnambulant and fearful of reining-in the Executive Branch. The ball put in play by his predecessor has been picked up by President Obama, who has proudly carried it inside the red zone.
The Administration now treats the U.S. Constitution like a coupon book, tearing out perforated phrases or sections to use or throw away as it sees fit. We are no longer a nation ruled by the Constitution, but rather a country guided by the whims of one man, with a Congress that mostly sits quietly on the sidelines as the President and those under him act at will.
Still, there is hope. Congressional leaders such as Rep. Justin Amash and Sen. Rand Paul remind us it does matter who we elect to serve in Congress; and that individual members with courage and understanding can make a difference. We need more like them, and fewer Lindsey Grahams, John McCains, Nancy Pelosis and Harry Reids – Washington elites whose understanding of the Constitution and its drafters barely scratches the surface of the Preamble. We need leaders more concerned about our vanishing right to privacy underlying the Constitution, and less about their next overseas boondoggle.