Chicago Tribune writers engage federal surveillance programs | Bleader

Chicago Tribune writers engage federal surveillance programs


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Edward Snowden
  • AP Photo/The Guardian
  • Edward Snowden
A friend asked what I thought about the recent revelations that the National Security Agency is collecting and storing complete records of our telephone and Internet activities. I said I didn't know. We need to be kept safe. But no one likes Big Brother. The sheer volume of data guarantees that no one is paying any attention to most of it. But can we defend a government surveillance operation on the grounds that it's too massive to worry about?

And this judicious weighing of competing interests in lieu of indignation—or, more appropriately, fury. Doesn't it suggest that our biggest and perhaps only real regret is finding out? Is this why the big shots keep us in the dark—we can't handle the truth?

(I have no doubt Washington is riddled with people who think that's true, people who think that if it came down to it the public would declare "Do what you must but keep us safe" and therefore, for the sake of its own civil liberties, must never be cornered into making such a choice.)

At any rate, my thinking about these NSA revelations is a work in progress, and I'm writing to thank the Tribune for its assistance. The Trib in recent years has reoriented itself as a local newspaper, but it remains rich in pundits comfortable with national and global issues; and on Sunday several of these weighed in on national security.

The editorial page found reasons not to worry too much. Two presidents with "very different attitudes about national security and civil liberties" approved the surveillance, congressional intelligence committees "presumably" approved, and authorization presumably came from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court (not that anyone except its anonymous members know who's on this court).

"The stakes are high here," the editorial page intoned. "Greater knowledge and a vigorous debate can only help in finding the right balance."

Columnist Clarence Page contributed an overview of an ancillary issue—the Justice Department's seizure of media records during leak investigations. And John Kass and Steve Chapman addressed the NSA in much more pointed language than their editorial page did.

Kass mourned. "We were once a people who prized individual liberty above all else," he wrote. "But we've given it up. We're tired. We might as well admit it. What we've done, what we've given up, won't stop gnawing at us until we concede the truth of it. We gave up freedom after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. . . . We were afraid and we gave it up. And President Big Brother, who campaigned against these Bush policies, has taken it to another level without much dissent from his adoring media. . . .

"We'll be told by pro-Obama and pro-Bush media mouthpieces not to worry, that those who shriek about the loss of freedom are irrational, perhaps even suspect. We can listen to them, close our eyes and go to sleep. Or we can remind ourselves who we were, and what we can be again."

More to my taste is the Tribune's cerebral libertarian, Steve Chapman. He compared the NSA's entitlements to the old general warrants that allows the British to ransack the homes of colonists they had a hunch might be up to mischief. "The problem with indiscriminate ransacking of homes and effects is not that it's ineffective in finding wrongdoing," Chapman writes. "It's that the innocent people should not be punished in the pursuit of the guilty. It's that the need to protect the safety of the public has to be balanced against preserving the privacy of the individual."

Chapman went on, "Obama thinks you really shouldn't worry about all this." And a White House spokesman called the NSA's phone records program "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." But that leaves Chapman to ask "two nagging questions: Why should we believe you? And what have we lost?"

I'm not sure what the concept of "privacy of the individual" means these days, when I can't drop in on Facebook to play a quick game of Scrabble without finding out where 50 of my "friends" just had breakfast. But if that's something I don't need to know, it's something the government needs not to know. Unlike Kass, I don't think America has lost its essence. But we've lost something. Some kind of Faustian deal has gone down.

Bonus question:

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden=Toby Bell, whistleblower of John Le Carré's latest, A Delicate Truth. Yes or no? Will we cheer Snowden as we cheer Bell? Discuss.