With both the Washington Post and the Guardian winning the Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story on National Security Agency surveillance, I thought I’d have a go at winning one myself. By now, the fiery outrage most people feel over the fact that their government is spying on them has receded to a dull throb of passive disgust, occasionally punctuated by revelations of even more blatant violations of privacy. This is unfortunate. Everyone, from the staunchest libertarians to the most progovernment progressives, should work together to put an end to the blatant violations of due process.
Beyond simply violating our Constitutional rights, broad domestic surveillance gives rise to a host of other problems. There have been accusations that the NSA, rather than close software security holes such as the recently revealed Heartbleed exploit (remember to change your CalNet password), has manipulated them to collect information. The blanket violation of privacy also threatens to stifle dissent, as silence may be bought with threats of bringing our indiscretions to light or prosecuting some harmless infraction. As absurd as this may seem, one need only look back to the rumors surrounding J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to see how small a leap it would be from surveillance to blackmail.
None of the above allegations or fears have been proven to be true. Yet even the most far-fetched conspiracies begin to seem plausible, even likely, when the government repeatedly lies about what it is doing, only to be caught and then lie again. And when U.S. citizens are executed with drones and secret courts issue broad warrants to collect the personal data of millions of people — due process and probable cause be damned — it is difficult to believe there are limits on what the government feels it may do in the name of security.
In the words of John Adams, “we are a nation of laws, not of men,” and the government has a duty to enforce the law — with force if necessary. But only if necessary — and even then with the utmost discretion. If the government does not trust its people, it will also come to fear them, and when the government fears its people, it will resort to tyranny. The NSA’s domestic spying is part of a larger pattern of the government’s willingness to use force and power against its citizens, whether through domestic drone use, militarized police forces or just resorting to the use of force more frequently. The exercise of force by the state is not some distant abstraction reserved for bad people in hard-to-pronounce countries or violent criminals. One need only look back to November 2011 during the Occupy protests on Sproul to see how quickly authority reverts to force when, to quote Kevin D. Williamson, it “has a standing army and nothing to lose.” Everyone’s a libertarian when the batons come out.
Defending civil liberties is a bipartisan effort. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who received a standing ovation while speaking March 19 at UC Berkeley on this very issue, has been working closely with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the biggest defenders of civil liberties in the Senate, to roll back domestic surveillance programs. In the House, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., has been working tirelessly to rein in the NSA. Last summer, he and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., co-sponsored an effort to end the blanket surveillance of U.S. citizens. While their amendment was narrowly defeated, its support was split evenly between the two parties: About half of those who voted “aye” were Republicans, and half were Democrats.
As students at UC Berkeley, we have something of a legacy of defending civil liberties. If that legacy is to mean anything, we must be proactive in our opposition to blanket violations of our Fourth Amendment rights, as well as other excesses of power. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who would trade a little liberty for a little security deserve neither and will lose both. There is certainly something to be said for the government protecting its citizens. But if that protection comes at the cost of our essential liberties, it ceases to be protection and becomes a prison.
Your government lies to you. And not just about the location of nuclear submarines or the identities of CIA spooks in far-off places. They lie to you — and the people who are supposed to be overseeing them — about what information they collect about you. They don’t trust you. One need not be a libertarian to recognize the danger in this. Even those with the most idealistic view of government must realize that any state that mistrusts and fears those whom it is meant to serve will inevitably abuse its power. In the words of Barry Goldwater, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Here is an opportunity for broad, bipartisan cooperation and meaningful student activism in defense of our civil liberties to ensure that the government — however much one may love or hate it — serves the people. Let’s make it happen.
I’ll take my Pulitzer now.