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Beware the Government’s High-Tech Nose

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In 1958, U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater framed his opposition to the National Defense of Education Act (NDEA) in the form of an old Arabian proverb: “If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” Goldwater, the grandfather of the modern conservative movement, understood government at its most basic.


Through my years spent inside the federal government, as a former analyst for the CIA, a Reagan-appointed federal prosecutor, and then as a U.S. Congressman -- I can personally vouch for the accuracy of Goldwater’s observation about the true nature of government: No matter how much power government has, it will always seek more. In fact, government is so predictable in this regard, I consider it to be one of Bob Barr’s Laws of the Universe.

Nowhere is this principle more relevant than in America’s clandestine national security programs, which have consumed trillions of taxpayer dollars since September 11, 2001. These programs, which at their core are an essential component of the national government’s responsibility, began innocently enough, justified by American’s (understandable) terrorism fears following the 9/11 attacks. However, in the dozen years since, these programs have grown in unimaginable size and scope, expanding the federal government’s reaches into nearly every nook and cranny across the country and around the globe.

And yet, despite a “black budget” of more than $52 billion annually, and spanning more than a dozen agencies, the Feds still yearn for more power.

The New York Times recently revealed a top-secret strategy report from the National Security Agency (NSA), titled “Sigint Strategy 2012-2016” (“Sigint” is clandestine service jargon for “signals intelligence,” or information obtained through intercepting electronic communications). This report detailed the agency’s long-term strategy to “aggressively pursue legal authorities and a policy framework mapped more fully to the information age.” Cutting through the bureaucratic gobbledygook, the agency’s clear goal is to be able to collect information from “anyone, anytime, anywhere.” And, according to the report, the agency plans to do so by employing techniques to defeat cybersecurity protocols used by “adversaries” -- essentially anyone the Obama Administration considers a threat and which we now know to include conservatives and members of the Tea Party movement. Yet another facet of this plan is to corrupt encryption techniques through “commercial relationships.” The report also suggests “revolutionizing” how the Agency collects and analyzes data to “radically increase operational impact”; whatever that means.


The formerly closely-held report stops short of explicitly outlining policy changes to existing federal law; but it is obvious -- in both what we know about the nature of government, and from what we have already seen from the government’s secret spy programs -- that following the law is not a primary concern of the Executive Branch. The Obama Administration knows what it wants, and nothing -- not even the U.S. Constitution -- will stand in its way.

Of course, this unquenchable thirst for power is not limited to just the federal government; state and local governments also are afflicted with this particular mindset. Thanks to massive federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security, and an ample supply of technology no longer needed in America’s war zones overseas, local governments are acquiring frighteningly sophisticated, military-grade surveillance hardware. Even America’s smallest towns, such as Pawley’s Island, South Carolina (population: 103) and Tybee Island, Georgia (population: 3,067), now have surveillance technology designed to combat crime in major metropolitan areas.

In many cities and towns across the “Land of the Free,” networks of synchronized surveillance cameras watch virtually every move citizens make once they leave their homes. License plate trackers are used to record the movement and location of citizens’ cars. Military-grade armored vehicles dot the parking lots of local police departments. Drones are becoming law enforcement’s all-seeing eyes in the sky. Thanks to Uncle Sam’s access to taxpayers’ bank accounts, all of this technology now is within the budgets of America’s smallest towns, and most are rushing to the feeding trough.


The answer to “why” is always the same: “We need more power.”

In case it isn’t obvious, the end goal of many of these government programs is to build a comprehensive, exhaustive profile of citizens by aggregating “intelligence” from across the expansive federal, state and local government apparatus. Such a profile could (and likely would) include information on everything about you: criminal history, health records, firearm purchases, eating habits, domestic and international travel, financial information, and even genetic sequence (ever given a DNA swab?).

Information is power; the true currency of the 21st Century -- and government is first in line at the teller window.

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