by Celene Barrera '15
Last week, I found myself en route to Starbucks with one of my mother’s co-workers for a quick coffee break; we had the familiar conversation that every college student recognizes whether in their first year or their last: “how is school going,” “what are you doing this summer,” “what are you going to do after graduation…” When I explained my predilection for politics and political organization, she posed a simple question to me:
"Why is it that I feel most politicians are corrupt?”
My answer was quick. Chalk it up to a hobby of reading news articles.
“That’s because most of them–not all of them–but most of them are. They don’t care about who they serve, they care about who’s giving them their paycheck.”
The conversation took a refreshing turn for the better. After all, corruption and non-transparency have always been prevalent in government, and the recent National Security Agency scandal is no exception.
For those who are unaware or just need a quick primer, the basis of the ongoing NSA scandal is this:
1) An NSA contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, gave documents to British newspaper The Guardian including a top secret court order that mandated Verizon surrender millions of their customers’ phone records.
2) Snowden also exposed a far-reaching digital spying program called PRISM, which was unveiled in a Powerpoint published by The Guardian and The Washington Post: PRISM collects data from the servers of major tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google–all of whom vehemently denied association with the program and, within a matter of days, divulged information on the subpoena orders given to them by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court- well, at least as much information as they legally could.
Lawyers and law scholars from around the country all agree: no one will face criminal charges for these disclosures with the exception of Snowden, whose personal bank accounts have been frozen. In fact, what the NSA has done is actually legal because of the numerous amendments made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. We are not presently living in an age where individuals in politics or finance are punished for abusing their powers. Just this past Saturday the NSA publicly admitted they listen to U.S phone calls and read emails and text messages without warrants because they don’t need them—they only need an analyst to sign off on it.
It’s been said that surveillance is for our own good so that we can prevent terrorist attacks and such. Instead what we are faced with is a simple truth: our international foreign policy is interfering with our domestic policy, and it has been for quite some time. Never would I suggest that we devalue lives lost in attacks on the American people, but it is foolish to think that we are going to be able to live this way without more informants like Snowden coming forward; Daniel Ellsberg even claims that this leak was more important than the Pentagon Papers.
The President is aware of the government’s constitutional missteps, especially in regards to the NSA; in 2006 the NSA was authorized to perform wiretaps without warrants, in spite of outcry from civil rights organizations. Anyone who believes this surveillance is “for the best and for our safety” needs to pull the rose colored shades off. When telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon give up all of their customer’s “metadata” and allow the NSA to tap into their infrastructure, they can receive absolute immunity from civil liability or criminal prosecution as a result of the FISA Amendment Act, according to a CNET report. How long are we going to let the government observe every aspect of our lives before enough is enough? When are we going to admit that in political issues as large as this, partisan attitudes fluctuate with the presidential election cycle?
Take, for example, a 2006 quote from Vice President Biden that’s been resurfacing on the Internet, who at the time was commenting on the warrantless wiretapping authorization from 2006. Actually, watch this video of 2006 Biden briefly debating 2013 Obama:
“I don't have to listen to your phone calls to know what you're doing. If I know every single phone call you made, I'm able to determine every single person you talked to. I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive. . . . If it's true that 200 million Americans' phone calls were monitored - in terms of not listening to what they said, but to whom they spoke and who spoke to them - I don't know, the Congress should investigative this."
President Obama was once a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law Review. He was also the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. There is no doubt that he should have intimate knowledge of the premises our country was founded on, yet he has allowed his administration to follow in the footsteps of George W. Bush’s. He knows what the NSA is doing. And that’s a scary truth.
What’s next for Snowden? Facebook employee Dwight Crow launched a Crowdtilt campaign to assist Snowden with legal fees or anything of the like that raised over $15,000.
In an interview with The Guardian, Snowden revealed he was in Hong Kong and has been amassing large room bills because he has not left his room. He’s answered some more questions in a Q&A about his salary, why he chose Hong Kong as the country to flee to instead of Iceland (which has more stringent protections against extraditions), and more. Though mainstream media and Dick Cheney would have you believe Snowden is a traitor, only he was brave enough to publicize the government’s shockingly broad surveillance of American citizens. He was willing to give up his freedom–and probably the simple joy of ever seeing his family again–to revitalize the push for government transparency.
Here’s my advice: learn more about your government and the people who claim to serve you. See who they serve. And when your eyes are open, don’t be surprised if you get a bit angry. Consent of the governed is not a lost phrase—it just needs some help being pushed back to the forefront of our minds. Whether the issue is small enough that it begins with a conversation in a coffee shop or large enough that it’s debated across the nation, it matters. What’s important is that we take the time to remember the urgent need for transparency during a genuinely epochal expansion of police surveillance power–and that we do not stop until something is done.