Spying on our friends and our enemies

The Political Circus

How much is too much? And when our government has already overstepped its authority, what can we do to rein it back in?

Earlier this week, allegations that the NSA was wiretapping not only domestic calls but also the calls of international leaders surfaced. More specifically, it was revealed that the NSA had been listening in on Germany’s head of government, Angela Merkel, since 2002 — before she had even been elected chancellor.

What is most disturbing about this is that the people under surveillance aren’t terrorists or spies. They are allies — people and countries we depend on daily to help maintain international order. They are allies such as Germany — a staunch supporter of U.S. foreign policy for decades.

Monitoring Merkel’s phone calls does not serve the anti-terrorist agenda that has been so prevalent in gathering national intelligence since 9/11. Instead, it damages our relations with international leaders — relations we need in order to maintain our foreign policy positions in far away arenas such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Germany, specifically, acts as an important partner in NATO, which has deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden to prevent piracy, and took over the no-fly zone in the Libyan intervention after the United States withdrew.

The information that has slowly leaked regarding the NSA’s activities over the past year reveals the disturbing amount of power the NSA has acquired over the last dozen or so years. Although the public was made aware of many of the powers the Patriot Act granted intelligence agencies in the name of national security, the much broader powers the NSA was granted were hidden from the public until Edward Snowden leaked this information to the international community.

Even when they were revealed in the Snowden leak, public outrage failed to create a substantial change in President Obama’s domestic policy. Regardless of Obama’s promise to review the NSA’s oversight and reduce it wherever possible, it doesn’t seem like we will ever enjoy the almost complete privacy that was supposed to be granted to us by our Constitution. The future that we face — one in which the government has almost complete access to the information we see, hear and receive — will contain provisions that violate the fundamental beliefs that our Founding Fathers sought to guarantee us and that resemble some of the facets of more totalitarian government.

And while its provisions are considered excessive by some, the Patriot Act has stood up to constitutional scrutiny by the Supreme Court and the people. The transparency built into our legislative system allows public debate and allows citizens to read the legislation that governs our lives.

NSA surveillance, however, has no such transparency. Citizens are not made aware of the limits of NSA surveillance; in fact, many think Obama isn’t even fully aware of all the activities the NSA conducts. And so, by avoiding the public debate and criticism that normally happens in response to proposed legislation, the NSA manages to evade one of the most important checks in democracy. Because of its opacity, the NSA manages to keep secret what it can and cannot do, and as the leaks continue to flow in, it seems almost as if the NSA has no limits to its power.

As a constantly developing event that was brought to the public’s attention only half a year ago, there has yet to be a Supreme Court case that definitively decides the constitutionality of a spying system like the NSA’s. However, preliminary hearings have the Supreme Court likely refusing to hear the earliest challenges to the NSA based on some legal flaws. Regardless of its constitutionality, however, the actual spying done by the NSA points to a much bleaker future for the nation’s privacy.

In contrast to the transparency and public debate necessary to control government activities, the secrecy of organizations such as the NSA and its surveillance programs makes it nearly impossible for citizens to understand the full extent of the government’s covert actions. Even in the face of national outrage over the massive spying program Snowden uncovered, Obama faced only a 4 percent swing in approval ratings.

Our inability as citizens to effect true change in Washington over the past few years, even with nonviolent demonstrations such as those of the Occupy Movement, indicate a new era of democratic inefficacy. The culture of Washington has become so insulated from the lives of real citizens that it no longer responds to the very people it was meant to represent. Perhaps we will have to reconcile ourselves with that reality.

Kevin Gu writes the Thursday column on politics. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @gukevin888.