The NSA – Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Terrorism

Posted on Friday 12 May 2006

The NSA’s assembly of Americans’ domestic phone call information into the world’s largest database is just one of many post-9/11 incursions into aspects of American lives, and although Polimom spent much of yesterday reading tons of opinions (left and right), what I found didn’t soothe my disquiet (from USA Today):

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

Yes, I get it that they’re not “listening in” (although there’s an enormous leap of faith there…).

Yes, I realize we’re at war. Not only that, but like everyone else, I know that we’ve been down this road before. During WWII, we forcibly relocated nearly 120,000 people (most of whom were American citizens) to internment camps, and Abraham Lincoln took this path when he suspended habeas corpus in two states during the Civil War. (Of course, we’ve already done this.)

So silly Polimom, what is your problem? You just said we’re at war, and there’s plenty of historical precedent for extended executive powers for security reasons. We’ve slipped down this slope in the past and returned to the top.

As ever, it was during a conversation with someone else that everything started to gel for me. It went like this:

Polimom: I’m really bothered by the NSA’s assembly of all the phone records.

Friend: I think it’s great! It’s what they’re supposed to be doing because we’re at war.

Polimom: It doesn’t bother you that your phone number will be linked to people you know nothing about, and patterns you aren’t involved in?

Friend: It’s not that big a deal, and you know, the medical insurance companies already collect all this type of information.

Polimom: But they’re not the NSA, invested with super-secret cloak-and-dagger war-time powers over citizens. If we go down this road much further….

Let’s stop right here, k? Because that’s where I finally nailed down my problem with the situation.

History shows that war, suspicion, and at least some loss of civil liberties go together, and America has, in fact, slid down that hill in the past and come back again… but there’s something much different this time: I can’t identify the bottom of the slope.

When does this war end? How will we know that?

Is The War against Iraq? If it was, I could see a return to our freedom from government surveillance and the re-establishment of rights at some point in the future (presumably, when they get themselves a real live, functional government).

But The War isn’t against Iraq. It’s against terrorism, and unless somebody has a way to wrestle that definition into a box, we’re in real trouble.

Will “terrorism” just surrender? Does The War end when we occupy “terrorism”, or “terrorism” is overthrown? HOW?

This, my friends, is what’s so very scary for Polimom about the continuing incursions by the government into our personal lives. We’re on a path that we’ve traveled before, but there was always a definitive temporal moment when the insanity ended — when America looked around and said, “The war is over! At last, we can get back to normal.”

We can’t do that with this war, and if we can’t define the bottom of the slope we’re sliding down — if The War has no definable end — then the brakes won’t ever be applied to our loss of privacy and rights. These slow, individual encroachments on our lives and liberties will simply accumulate over time…. decades, or even lifetimes.

When it’s all said and done, that long, drawn-out process could twist the very warp and weft of our country’s fabric and lead to the ultimate defeat – that we won’t be America anymore.

Wasn’t that what Osama was after in the first place?

(Also posted on Polimom, Too.)

* * * * *

Update: According to WaPo, polls show that the majority of Americans support the NSA’s efforts:

Underlying those views is the belief that the need to investigate terrorism outweighs privacy concerns. According to the poll, 65 percent of those interviewed said it was more important to investigate potential terrorist threats “even if it intrudes on privacy.” Three in 10–31 percent–said it was more important for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

15 Comments for 'The NSA – Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Terrorism'

    May 12, 2006 | 7:44 am

    Although I agree with your post, the last line is a bit sloppy. We would no longer be America in a different way from the one Osama wants us not to be America. We would be like Nazis. Osama wants us to be like the Taliban. Astute comparisons between the two don’t mean that Osama would hold a photo op with a “Mission Accomplished” banner should we turn fascist.

    I appreciate your thoughtful approach to this sensational story — quite different from the bloodthirst that hit so many blogs yesterday. I opted for a different tack as well. If you’re interested: pandora’s database.

    May 12, 2006 | 8:48 am


    I played with that last line for hours, but ultimately left it in because I don’t agree that Osama wants us to be like the Taliban; he wants to destroy America.

    I think that the endless war stance may achieve that goal for him, without any further effort on his part.

    May 12, 2006 | 12:04 pm

    The prospect of an endless war — endless in principle, not only in practice — is indeed disturbing. Because terrorists are an amorphous, hidden enemy, it’s difficult to predict how long it may take to oppose them. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the effort altogether.

    As it’s doubtful terrorism will ever go away altogether, perhaps we need to explore what level of threat we can be comfortable with. Those words sound weird put together in that way — probably because it’s an odd way to think.

    Still, although we derided the federal government’s color-coded threat designations, some type of dialogue along those lines may be necessary in order to determine what we need to see happening (or not happening) in order for us to begin stepping down from our (now perpetual) guarded stance.

    I don’t hear that dialogue occurring. I hear people either insisting that we should fight terrorism period, or demanding that we scale back altogether and let freedom ring.

    I’m cutting and pasting these comments of mine from another thread, as they’re relevant to this discussion. I wrote this five months ago; please keep in mind that I do not approve of the NSA’s collection of basically all phone call information (although I do favor the wiretaps of select individuals making international calls).

    What I’m really interested in exploring, however, are the three points I originally posed. Not because I think I’m right — there’s certainly ammunition in there for you to fire right back in my face — but because I myself don’t have a ready answer:

    First, I can’t help noting that the primary weapon the terrorists used against us was our own freedom. (Have fun with that one.)

    Second, I note that not one single terrorism attack has succeeded on American soil since 9/11.

    Third, when it comes to protection of liberty, I have a hard time siding with a citizenry that had the audacity to blame Bush for 9/11 after only eight months in office. When we have that kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t attitude, I have a hard time blaming Bush for choosing the damned-if-you-do alternative that saves lives, rather than the damned-if-you-don’t option that risks another attack.

    It’s a platitude that freedom is risky. More terrorist attacks? “That’s the price of freedom,” we say. Frankly, I’m not satisfied with that answer if it means that a terrorist could kill me on American soil, leaving my family without a provider — or that my wife or child could be killed or horribly wounded in an attack. Under those risks, I’m not satisfied with the kind of simplistic dogmatism that says, “Sorry, we can’t explore the bounds of freedom, it just has a price and you’ve got to live with that.” Our society already accepts some limitations on freedom — no slander or libel, no screaming “Fire!” in a movie theater, etc. What could be done to protect Americans that we would accept as not ideal, but necessary — or at least advantageous, in a lesser-of-two-evils way — in a world that is not ideal? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the platitude is, actually, the best answer. But I refuse to accept it without first wrestling over it. That is a discussion I would find stimulating.

    May 12, 2006 | 12:05 pm

    Incidentally, when I wrote, “But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the effort altogether,” I was referring to the effort to predict or set limits on how long it will take to oppose terrorism.

    May 12, 2006 | 12:34 pm

    The idea that we are “at war against terrorism” is, on its face, ludicrous. It’s like saying that we are “at war against armies” or “at war against sneak attacks” or “at war against airplanes that drop missiles.”

    Terrorism is a tactic, and its definition is vague; one could make a good argument that the American revolution, for example, included lots of “terrorism.” You don’t go to war with a tactic. You go to war against an enermy. In the case of this “war,” if you call it that, the enemy is a loosely connected group of small organizations with varying agendas, abilities, and tactics.

    “War against terrorists” is, however, a very useful rhetorical device for a government that wants the public to accept all kinds of incursions into privacy, restrictions of civil rights, and expansion of executive power. And the neat thing about is that terrorism – which has been around all through history and likely always will be – is not going to go away, so you can enter a state of permanent war and keep using it to justify all kinds of things.

    May 12, 2006 | 12:40 pm


    I agree totally, and always did, that “terrorism” isn’t a sensible enemy, and warring against a tactic is exactly why there’s no way to ever end the thing.

    In fact (in the course of writing this post), I have surfaced a background thought that we really have no choice but to engage one country after another, in succession, because “terrorism” isn’t something with which we can actually engage, specifically.

    My husband and I discussed this problem at length after 9/11, but for some reason, people have stopped talking about it. It was subverted by Iraq, at least by the conscious mind, but I think it’s high time we started talking about it again.

    May 12, 2006 | 12:55 pm

    John, you’re right (and so is Polimom, and so am I) to question our perpetual state of warfare. But arguing that the terrorism we face now is no different from any before 9/11 is far-fetched. Osama bin Laden hit the World Trade Center in the early 90′s, true. But before that, I can’t recall anything from history that rivals the resourcefulness, determination, and effectiveness of these terrorists. Nothing that ever happened in the last century stopped air travel for three days. Or caused businesses and schools all over the nation to shut down within hours.

    Implying that government wants to pry into our private lives, and is only using terrorism as a means to that end, seems beyond plausible. Why would Bush want to pry into my private life, independent of fighting terrorism? I’ll be honest, I just don’t see it.

    Your arguments against federal incursions into privacy, etc. would be more persuasive if you assumed that the hearts of your direst enemies might be well-intentioned, though fatally misguided. The approach you take above smacks of extremism.

    May 12, 2006 | 2:18 pm

    “Nothing that happened in the last century stopped air travel for three days. Or caused businesses and schools all over the nation to shut down within hours.”

    Well, lessee. No air travel in 1906 to be shut down. Silly statement. Businesses and schools shut down, Pearl Harbor did that. We went to war with Japan, interred the Japanese-Americans, took their property, dropped the bomb. Wait, we dropped two bombs. I won’t go into my views on some of that. But the issue Poli’s talking about, an end, was achieved.

    I grew up in the era of the missile crisis. I remember the nuns piling the 4×8 tables in the lunchroom on their sides and us huddled behind them in drills just in case the Russkies dropped the bomb, which we expected would be any minute. That was surely a time of terror. I remember the fear on my parents’ faces when the Cuban missile crisis was happening. I can still see Kennedy’s face in black and white on the TV. I’m pretty sure our schools and businesses were closed that day and maybe for a couple days, but I’d have to ask my mother. I mostly remember being frightened.

    In any event, we had the Cold War. Walls built, spies all over the world, the precarious balance somehow managed to hold. We went into Korea, then got out. We went into Vietnam. We all know how well that went. We even went into Iraq before this, and got out.

    Now here we are. Not at war with Iraq per se, but with nameless, faceless, and more importantly, country-less enemies. Lies got us in there, and there is no exit strategy as the country gets more and more destabilized (but it’s not a civil war.)

    Meanwhile back at home, the administration continues to lie and get caught in their lies, and we allow the fear of another possible attack to keep us complacent about incursions into our civil rights. Poli’s concern about the fact that it all seems so open ended is a valid one. This will all continue as long as we allow it. My fear is that by the time we say, “Hey, you guys have crossed the line!” it will be too late to do anything about it.

    Doesn’t that worry you, just a little bit?

    May 12, 2006 | 3:47 pm

    Slate, doesn’t it worry you, just a little bit, that I’ve already answered your question?

    It never ceases to amaze me, the lengths some people will go to in order to convince me of a point I’ve already argued.

    May 12, 2006 | 5:23 pm

    Forester said:
    Implying that government wants to pry into our private lives, and is only using terrorism as a means to that end, seems beyond plausible. Why would Bush want to pry into my private life, independent of fighting terrorism? I’ll be honest, I just don’t see it.

    Government intrusion and abuse of power are not always done by evil men. Unchecked power has its own logic that leads to abuse. That is why the framers rejected the idea of an unitary execute in favor of a representative govenment with inherent checks built into it by separating its functions. The NSA spying is dangerous because it has no oversight. It will lead to abuse – and not because the men doing the surveillance are evil. It will lead to abuse because the only people there to tell them when they have gone too far are the people doing the spying in the first place. Adrenaline will inevitably triumph over reason.

    There are many dangers in what the NSA is doing. The one that should worry all of us is that it is being done in violation of specific laws put in the books to prevent unilateral abuse of power by the executive branch (18 U.S.C. §§3121-3127 and 50 U.S.C. §§1841-1846).

    You can read my post on my site if you like about how those laws are likely being violated.

    By the way, polimom, a wonderful thoughtful post, as always.

    May 12, 2006 | 5:41 pm

    Nothing to add, here, except there is the possibility of using phone records to harrass political opponents. If only Nixon were president now.

    Nice comments everyone — especially Mash.

    May 12, 2006 | 7:52 pm

    Mash, it looks to me like you’re extending my idea, not refuting it — correct? You wrote this:

    The NSA spying is dangerous because it has no oversight. It will lead to abuse – and not because the men doing the surveillance are evil. It will lead to abuse because the only people there to tell them when they have gone too far are the people doing the spying in the first place. Adrenaline will inevitably triumph over reason.

    I agree with this. I also note that it presupposes that the spying is being done for a purpose — it doesn’t start as abuse, only leads that way. (If it started as abuse, then I would disagree with your premise that these leaders aren’t evil, only unchecked.)

    May 12, 2006 | 11:10 pm

    (shroeder, thanks ;) )

    forester, it is not necessary to make the argument that the leaders are evil. It is enough to argue that they do evil deeds. Evil deeds can and often are done by people who are otherwise good.

    I wasn’t attempting to refute your ideas or trying to extend them. I just did not think it necessary to tackle the “Bush is evil” argument because I think it is irrelevant to the threshold question of unchecked executive power.

    May 13, 2006 | 6:58 pm

    I think they softened us up for permanent warfare with the Drug War, another unwinnable war that has been fought on Americans and is used as an excuse to violate civil liberties.

    May 15, 2006 | 9:54 am

    I am surprised that almost nobody notes what seems to me the most striking aspect of the affair: the fact that Quest refused to provide their data and allow NSA equipment, and that as a yet to be proven result, they stopped getting government contracts (there are reports of them being threatened with that), their shares plumeted, the CEO that refused the NSA request had to resign and now is being investigated for insider-trading charges. If this is true, as in all scandals, the cover-up or the reprisals are a much stronger and easier to prove crime…
    The media is not digging much on this path yet though…

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