George Orwell said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
What is in front of us now is the prospect of a global contest between the democracies and two giant surveillance states, Russia and China. One of these great powers is poised to use force to crush the democracy of the second-largest country in Europe, Ukraine. The other is building an array of missiles and invasion forces to intimidate another democracy, Taiwan, into submission.
No Western leader wants to say it yet, but we are in a new Cold War – with all the risks, foreign and domestic such a struggle entails.
This Cold War will be very different from the last. Digital technology and globalization enable the continuous stealthy presence of democracy’s adversaries in our internal debates, deliberations and research. While there is a need to use surveillance to protect the American people, in such circumstances our government can be counted on to make powerful arguments to limit our liberties.
Certainly, history suggests this new era will breed threats to human liberty not just from abroad but from home as well. Consider the record – from the imprisonment of objectors to America’s entry into World War One, to internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent during World War Two, to the post-9/11 secret court orders that gave NSA access to almost every American’s phone records.
That last emergency enabled a massive expansion of the surveillance state at home. The Bush Administration responded to terrorism by expanding surveillance in all directions, engaging in lawless bulk collection of Americans’ personal information without an obvious connection to terrorism. Even after the reforms that followed the Snowden revelations, similar abuses have continued.
Earlier this month, in response to a letter sent last year by two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the government revealed redacted documents showing that the CIA has been running a clandestine dragnet of Americans’ data. This appears to be a lawless program rooted only in an executive order, EO 12333.
Thus, the rapid expansion of government surveillance that took place in the Patriot Act era, often unauthorized by statute and contrary to the Constitution, continues to morph into new forms today. These abuses persist despite a federal court finding that the NSA’s vast collection of Americans’ metadata did not result in stopping a single terrorist attack.
It is up to civil liberties advocates to remain vigilant and vocal. We should call on our champions in Congress to demand much closer oversight of government surveillance than we’ve known in the post 9/11 era. They should divert intelligence and law enforcement agencies from the temptation to use this new emergency as an excuse to extend further lawless surveillance of Americans, treating us all as criminal suspects.
The whole point of our efforts, whether by the government on one side or by civil liberties organizations on the other, is to protect America from the total surveillance states that threaten us. It would be a great irony if we became what we are defending against.
Bob Goodlatte is a senior policy advisor for PPSA and served as the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.