A series of leaked documents hinting at the overwhelming scope of National Security Agency intelligence operations ignited, in recent days, an old debate that has simmered since Sept. 11, 2001. To what extent are Americans willing to sacrifice privacy for safety?
Most sources attribute to Benjamin Franklin a quote that resonates more than two centuries later: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The principles are the same today, but the stakes are dramatically different.
On the security side, today’s terrorist has the theoretical ability to wipe out entire cities. The weapons at his disposal have an indiscriminate destructive power Franklin could not have imagined.
On the liberty side, technological advances provide the government with unprecedented surveillance capabilities.
It would be difficult to find two Americans who agree on the perfect balance between security and privacy. In a representative democracy with constitutionally imposed checks and balances, we must hope our leaders will arrive at reasonable solutions.
The leadership issue, however, is one of the most troubling aspects of recent revelations.
Before his first presidential term, Barack Obama preached an almost libertarian view of the proper balance between security and privacy. The post-9/11 panic, he said, had veered the nation away from fundamental values of freedom and privacy.
Obama was relentless in attacking former President George W. Bush for surveillance programs Obama has since continued and even expanded.
Obama’s reversal smells like hypocrisy.
Suspicion of Obama is appropriate. His version of transparency on surveillance, like armed drones, has been to give pretty speeches after leaks force his hand.
In the midst of suspicion, though, Americans should recognize that finding the proper balance between security and privacy is dependent not just on ideology, but on facts.
It may be, as many Democrats have claimed, that Bush used the 9/11 attacks as an unwarranted excuse to spy on Americans and the world. It may be, as both Democrats and Republicans now allege, that Obama’s pre-2009 rhetoric on civil liberties was hogwash.
In reaching these conclusions, though, we must condemn leaders of both parties in Congress and numerous federal judges, all of whom allowed the surveillance to continue.
The less nefarious possibility is that Bush and Obama embraced the same programs because they had unique access to the same facts, information they did not have before entering the White House.
Real threats face America. Any attempt to balance security and privacy is defective without access to those facts.
Cynicism directed at politicians usually turns out to be merited. Recent U.S. history suggests Obama’s transition from civil libertarian to Orwellian puppetmaster is deserving of scorn.
There is an outside chance, though, that many Americans — confronted with the same facts and responsibilities as Bush and Obama — would have made the same choices. The burden is on Obama, but it’s worth hearing him out.