Unless you've been living under a rock for the last month or so, chances are you've heard the latest revelations regarding the NSA's unlawful invasion of American citizens' privacy. According to the Washington Post, "The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents."
In a free society, it is always a struggle to maintain an appropriate balance between liberty and security. We want the government to respect our privacy, but we also want them to keep us safe. How and where to draw the line has been and will continue to be a subject of fierce debate. Benjamin Franklin famously declared that "they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Regardless of whether you agree with Mr. Franklin, chances are you expect your government to conduct itself lawfully and ethically at all times. Our government is one of laws, not of men. The Constitution, not the President or Congress, is the final arbiter of what's permissible and what's not. This is what makes the NSA scandal so problematic, and it is notable that the government's overreach in this area is drawing criticism from both sides of the political aisle.
The discovery that one of the nation's foremost intelligence-gathering entities has broken the law and is collecting data on innocent American citizens is shocking, but it shouldn't be. This is only the latest and perhaps most egregious in a long line of troubling conduct by the Obama administration. The fact is, a reckless disregard for the law has become a hallmark of this government. First there was the Fast and Furious scandal, then the Benghazi cover-up, then the IRS debacle. With each controversy, at every turn, President Obama and Administration officials have poo-pooed any suggestion that they've done anything wrong. They've dismissed each incident as a "phony scandal." They've insisted that the truth makes no difference. Apparently, the elites that run our government feel that they know best how to employ the vast power at their disposal. Whether or not their actions are in accordance with the law is of little import.
This is not the attitude of a democratic government, it is the attitude of an autocrat. Mr. Obama made it quite clear after his reelection: He has a mandate and he intends to use it. Use it, indeed, Mr. President, as is your privilege. This does not mean, however, that you have the right to make an end-run around the Constitution – the document from which your powers derive and by which you are constrained.
The American people are witnessing firsthand the kind of things that happen when a nation's citizenry allows complacency and apathy to rule. We all have a stake in keeping government restrained within its limits, and when we abdicate this critical duty, power is quick to consolidate itself. History teaches us that there is an inverse relationship between the size of government and the extent of the liberties men enjoy. As government grows, freedom shrinks, and a society whose leaders have little respect for the law will quickly become a lawless society in which the operative principle is no longer "What does the law require?" but rather, "Who has the power?"
There are more and more cars on the road today sporting bumper stickers saying, "I love my country, but I fear my government." Is it any wonder? We must reclaim our heritage as a nation of laws and not of men. Lawbreakers – both in and out of government – must be held accountable for their actions. Let the debate about the balance between liberty and security continue, as it must in the times in which we live. But never let us blindly accept the canard that our security justifies brazen usurpations of power by unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats at the top. If we do, we will not be secure from the predations of our own government. Remember, Big Brother is watching.