NSA’s domestic spying program: Beware the wolf

Our government’s domestic spying has damaged the nation more than any terrorist attack ever could

Cartoon by Joel Dyer

This is not an easy column to write in a calm voice or free of profanity, but I’ll give it my best shot. That said, please feel free to toss in all the mental expletives you want as you read along. I’m sure you’ll know just where to put them.

As recently reported everywhere, the federal government has launched an overzealous and unprecedented invasion into all of our private lives, supposedly in an effort to keep us safe.

So what does it mean for us now that the government is keeping tabs on every phone call, text and email we send or receive?

If you just thought to yourself, “It makes me feel safer,” do America a favor and never vote again. Such thinking makes you as much the problem as the power-hungry, shortsighted idiots in Washington (apply the Mark Udall exception here) who have unilaterally taken it upon themselves to vanquish many of our most cherished civil liberties by way of secret courts and other cowardly means.

Willingly giving up your constitutional freedoms in exchange for vague governmental promises of safety makes you neither free nor brave, just naïve and dangerously disconnected from the lessons of history. Unfortunately, this brand of governmental abuse isn’t new. It has previously reared its ugly head in many places where increasingly authoritarian governments have used public safety as a justification for restricting their own citizens’ freedoms. We’ve seen similar mass domestic surveillance in Russia, Germany and, of course, Joe McCarthy’s good ol’ U.S.A.

Am I exaggerating the seriousness of the current situation? Not one bit. If all you do is go to work, cash your check and watch TV, then you probably won’t notice any significant difference in your life now that you are under constant government surveillance.

But that’s not true for all of us, particularly those of us who occasionally voice our opinions or expose corruption within our government or its corporate keepers.

Part of my job as a journalist is to be a watchdog over government, which requires that I sometimes have to protect my sources, even if it means going to jail to do so. Now that the government has used an insanely broad reading of the equally insane Patriot Act to suspend my and everyone else’s right to privacy and Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure, it is going to be difficult and sometimes even impossible for me to protect my sources from a prying government that can track every call, text and email I originate or receive.

This isn’t an academic exercise. I often report on things like environmental activism and domestic terrorism, areas in which protecting sources is sometimes absolutely critical to getting the story out.

What would have happened to my past reporting on Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bombing and the antigovernment movement if today’s warrantless surveillance had been in place?

Would I have been able to tell my stories? Would I have gone to jail for revealing secret government documents?

During the seven years I reported on the antigovernment movement and domestic terrorism, I regularly revealed the contents of court-sealed FBI reports in publications such as U.S. News & World Report, Vanity Fair and my own book on the subject, Harvest of Rage. Much to the government’s frustration, I was also in regular contact with several antigovernment adherents wanted by federal and state authorities, including one Richard Keyes, who was on the 10-mostwanted list while I was reporting on his life on the lam for BW and Mother Jones.

I like to think that my readers and even the government, who back then asked me to testify before a Senate subcommittee on terrorism as an expert, benefited from that reporting because it increased our understanding of people committed to antigovernment beliefs and the use of terrorism to make their point.

As I mull the current situation, I don’t think I could write many of those stories today without my sources being put at risk of being identified, which, considering my sources, would put me and my family at risk. It’s also possible that in the current shoot-the-messenger atmosphere where going public with secret government documents can land you in jail (this is also not new, just ask Daniel Ellsberg), it’s likely that writing those same stories today would put me behind bars. It’s a chilling reality that now confronts many journalists and their sources.

I don’t feel safer today because the government is spying on every one of us, and neither should you. What kind of country are we living in when a supposed progressive (I use the term very loosely in this case) politician like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of a Senate intelligence committee, says she wants Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old whistleblower who exposed the NSA’s mass surveillance tactics to the Guardian newspaper, to be extradited from Hong Kong and tried for treason. Treason, Ms. Feinstein, really? They can still execute people for treason.

Feinstein apparently puts a high price on her personal embarrassment at being exposed as one of the principal political supporters behind our government’s current despicable surveillance practices. It appears she doesn’t understand that it is she and her constitutionally challenged peers who are the ones guilty of selling out the country, not Mr. Snowden.

I know the argument. If you haven’t done anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear from the government rooting through your underwear drawer. The U.S. government can be trusted to collect all of your personal information and then never use it. Right. To believe that line of manure you’d have to have been either cryogenically frozen during the 1960s and ’70s or not born yet.

Try telling all those Tea Party folks that just got a good lesson in government trust from the IRS not to worry about all their phone calls and emails being monitored by the government.

Or if you’re so far to the left that you actually took joy at how the government abused its power with the Tea Party, try this one on for size: The ACLU’s Campaign to Stop Illegal Spying says that 33 states are currently spying on drilling and fracking activists. That’s right, our government is now working overtime to keep an eye out for anyone who might cause a problem for its corporate pals and their profits. Are we really supposed to believe that they would never use or abuse the data they are collecting on us, as if the term national security couldn’t be stretched to cover our energy policies or the actions of the political adversaries of those in power? Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

When the government abuses its power, it always reminds me of a story about sheep that famed attorney Gerry Spence is fond of telling whenever he finds himself representing a client that most people find unsavory.

The quick version goes like this. Americans are a herd of sheep and our government is a wolf. Like any herd, our tendency is to push the sheep we don’t like out to the far edges of the herd so we don’t have to be bothered by them. When the wolf gets hungry, it slips down to the herd and kills and eats a few of those sheep we’ve pushed to the fringe. Most of the remaining sheep in the middle of the herd aren’t too bothered by this because they didn’t really like those Tea Party … I mean, those sheep on the outside of the herd anyway. But the problem is this: Eventually all the sheep we don’t like will be gone, but the wolf will still be hungry.

We all lose when the government abuses its power over any individual or group, even those we don’t care for.

Not only are many individuals and groups now being abused, there is little evidence that anything positive is being accomplished by the government’s monitoring of 300 million innocent people. All of this illegal government surveillance was in place when the Boston Marathon bombs went off. It didn’t help stop that attack. It didn’t stop Mayor Bloomberg or even President Obama from being sent letters poisoned with ricin. It didn’t stop the racist shootings at the Sikh Temple or any of the mindless slaughters, from Aurora to Sandy Hook.

Maybe collecting all of our phone calls, texts and emails has actually stopped some terrorist attack somewhere as they’re claiming — albeit with no details of what has supposedly been prevented — but that’s not the point.

The point is this: I don’t care. The price is too high. I refuse to give up my way of life and my freedoms in exchange for being told by a bunch of self-righteous politicians and government bureaucrats that they had to take away my civil liberties to protect me from a handful of crazy people sprinkled around the world, half of them living in caves. It would make more sense for the government to take away my car so I couldn’t get in a wreck.

While I appreciate (not) the concern for my safety being shown by the NSA, FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, every member of the U.S. Congress who has voted to extend this illegal surveillance on citizens and, of course, President Obama, I would just like to go on the record as saying that what this government is doing to the people of this country by spying on all of us without probable cause or legal authority is far more destructive to our nation than any terrorist attack.

When the trade center towers fell, we were heartbroken and angry, but we were not diminished in any way as a people. But what our government is doing today with its secret courts and mass surveillance of all U.S. citizens without cause or authority or any moral justification has diminished this nation in profound and possibly irreparable ways. We are no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave. If we let this stand we are no more than scared sheep who have traded our freedom to the wolf in exchange for his promise to keep us safe. We forget that the wolf gets hungry.

How much more of my freedom should I let this misguided government steal from me in the name of Osama bin Laden? The answer is “no more.” I can only hope that come the next election cycle, we will all say “no more” and take back those freedoms that have been so wrongly taken from us.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com