Every Fourth of July, somebody reminds us there’s more to this national holiday than hotdogs and fireworks. Take time over the weekend, we are piously admonished, to remember what it’s all about. Annoying advice, perhaps, but important. And, this year, more so than ever because one of our most basic rights is under attack.
In powerful words that still stir our hearts, our Founding Fathers laid forth the foundation on which America is built: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And those rights are so sacred “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.”
Clearly, the Founders were telling us they wouldn’t tolerate any wholesale attempt to undermine our basic rights — and we shouldn’t, either. So where’s the outrage today over the massive invasion of our privacy by the National Security Agency? Have we forgotten how to fight?
All we’ve been talking about for the last two weeks is Edward Snowden. Where is he? Will he ever get out of the Moscow airport? Will he be granted asylum anywhere? Who cares? The real issue is not Snowden’s fate. It’s what Snowden revealed about NSA’s collection of data, which we now know to be even more widespread than previously believed.
Under a broad interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and with the full blessing of the court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, NSA’s amassing and storing a record of every phone call — every single phone call! — made in the United States: from what number, to what number and how long it lasted: what Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has called “a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy.” The NSA has also capturing records of every email sent outside the United States.
That’s not all. The latest documents leaked by Snowden reveal that the NSA is also routinely listening in on communications of many governments, including our allies in the European Union. It’s targeted 38 embassies and diplomatic missions in Washington and New York for surveillance. And it bugged conversations of delegates to the Group of 20 industrialized nations meeting recently in London. When Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, French President Francois Hollande and other European leaders expressed alarm over NSA’s global spying, President Obama defended it, insisting we’re just “trying to understand the world better.”
But, again, it’s well and good that European leaders are upset. What’s frightening is that there’s so little concern expressed by the American people. In the most recent Washington Post poll, 56 percent of Americans find the NSA spying program “acceptable.” Who knows why? Maybe it’s a result of post-September 11 syndrome, whereby we assume we have to surrender our privacy in order to help track down terrorists. Maybe it’s because we’ve already volunteered so much private information to Facebook, Amazon and Twitter anyway, we don’t care about privacy anymore. Or maybe it’s because Americans trust Obama where they didn’t trust Bush and Cheney. Sadly, for whatever reason, when it comes to fighting for our right of privacy, we’ve become a nation of sheep.
That’s a mistake we will someday regret. We don’t have to go back to 1776 to be reminded of how tough our right of privacy was to secure and how valuable it is. The strongest argument for the Fourth Amendment’s right of privacy, in fact, came in the 1928 Supreme Court case of Olmstead v. United States — which was, ironically, the very first case about the government’s right to gather evidence by listening in on phone calls. By a 5-4 margin, the court held for the government. But the great Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote a blistering dissent, in which he tied the Constitution back to the Declaration of Independence.
To enable “the pursuit of happiness,” Brandeis argued, the makers of the Constitution “conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” He continued: “To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
Under that logic, there is no way NSA’s unlimited data collection can be justified. And no way we should accept it.