Should we be concerned about government programs that track our phone records and Internet activity? In light of recent revelations about such programs, that is the question on the minds of many American citizens.
Interestingly, it's an issue that transcends political ideologies. Who would have imagined that Republican Sen. Rand Paul, the New York Times and progressive libertarians would share the position that the Obama and Bush administrations have gone too far on this issue, eroding the constitutional rights of everyday Americans.
Conversely, President Obama has united with former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and Brad Blakeman (adviser to President Bush) in defending these programs. Unfortunately, arguments raised by these unusual alliances only serve to muddy the water.
Let's try to clarify the issue by identifying and assessing the threats in order to understand how they can best be mitigated.
What is the "threat?"
When we look at this issue, the most obvious threat is that of a terrorist attack. The cost of terrorist attacks, perpetrated against the U.S., has been substantial. Not only in loss of life and damaged property, but also in the tremendous cost on the American psyche.
But there is another threat Americans are concerned about, the erosion of our privacy and constitutional rights. We recognize that it does us little good to protect ourselves from a terrorist attack if we lose sight of who we are and surrender our fundamental freedoms.
We have two threats to concern us - attack by terrorist entities and erosion of our privacy and constitutional rights by our government. How do we assess these threats?
When assessing a threat, we must consider two fundamental variables - capabilities and intentions.
Where the terrorist threat is concerned, their "intentions" are clear. They intend to attack our citizens and the fabric of our society.
Their "capabilities" are less clear. Traditional military measures have a limited ability to assess and mitigate terrorist capabilities. Signal and physical intelligence gathering seem to be effective tools in terrorist threat assessment and mitigation.
Clearly, intelligence operational capability is necessary to address this threat. But does that intelligence net need to ensnare every American citizen who uses a phone or an Internet connection?
When we consider the threat, posed by our government, on our privacy and constitutional rights, we must still consider the same two fundamental variables - capabilities and intentions. Consider the treatment of Native American tribes, Japanese-American citizens during World War II, or more recently, conservative groups targeted by the IRS.
Our founding fathers recognized the fact that the "intentions" of our government were changeable, so they sought to establish a government with limited "capabilities." Unlike the limitless power of the British monarchy, from which we had recently gained our independence, the Founding Fathers established protection for our citizens, in the form of the Constitution, against government tyranny.
Today, we refer to tyranny as "government overreach."
Back to the original question, Should we be concerned about our government tracking our phone records and Internet activity? As our government seeks new "capabilities" to deal with terrorism, or any other issue, we must scrutinize any measure that erodes our constitutional rights and remain skeptical of shifting government "intentions."
It is the right and duty of all citizens to preserve our hard-earned freedom for future generations.