TAMPA, January 18, 2014 – President Obama outlined his proposed reforms of the NSA’s domestic surveillance activities in a speech on Friday. The speech was at times eloquent and the president’s intentions appear genuine, but his recommendations for reform are inadequate. As long as the government is trying to prevent crime or terrorism in the future, it’s going to trample liberty in the present.
The president stated the crux of the problem during his speech:
“So we demanded [after 9/11] that our intelligence community improve its capabilities and that law enforcement change practices to focus more on preventing attacks before they happen than prosecuting terrorists after an attack.”
Freedom requires that the government not attempt to prevent anything. All powers granted to the government relate to crimes committed in the past.
The Bill of Rights rests upon this assumption. Rooted in what is now called the “libertarian” principle of non-aggression, the Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from using force against an individual until it has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual has committed a crime in the past.
The Fourth Amendment goes even farther, prohibiting the government from even searching an individual or his papers (e.g., phone records, e-mails, etc.) without probable cause that the individual has committed a crime in the past.
The entire Bill of Rights supposes that you are beyond the reach of government until you have actually committed a crime. That logically excludes the possibility of the government preventing anything, because the government must employ force against the innocent to do so.
Proponents of domestic surveillance attempt to frame the debate into one of “balance between liberty and security.” That’s disingenuous. Americans are no more secure after giving up their liberties to the federal government than they were before.
When the controversy began after Edward Snowden’s disclosures to the press, the NSA claimed that 54 terrorist attacks had been thwarted by its data collection programs. When pressed, Clapper backed the number down to 13.
At a December 20, 2013 news conference, Reuters’s Mark Felsenthal asked the president, “As you review how to rein in the National Security Agency, a federal judge says that, for example, the government has failed to cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata actually stopped an imminent attack. Are you able to identify any specific examples when it did so?”
The president avoided the question.
The government’s efforts to prevent crime through airport security are even more ludicrous. While government agents confiscate toothpaste, fondle children and force elderly people to stumble through scanners without their canes, would-be terrorists walk right by. The only terrorist attacks prevented on 9/11 or since were thwarted by private citizens defending themselves after government security had failed.
Ben Franklin was right. Those who trade essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither.
President Obama means well, but his worldview prevents him from understanding the problem. He believes government is a force for good, but that’s un-American. The United States was born out of the idea that it is at best a necessary evil.
Government has only one tool in its toolbox: to bring to bear the combined capacity for violence of the whole society. That’s what makes it, in words often attributed to George Washington, “a troublesome servant and a fearful master.”
No society can remain free if that irresistible force is allowed to be employed preemptively. Asking the government to prevent crime or terrorism destroys liberty, by definition.
Twelve years after 9/11, Americans should know by now that they’re no freer or safer for giving the government more power. It’s time for real solutions. It’s time to take that power back.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.