Although an amendment in the House this past July to defund one of the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance programs fell short by 7 votes, the coalescence of ideologically-dissimilar representatives who voted for it marked a watershed moment in our current dialogue on citizen rights. The amendment in question sought to rein in the N.S.A’s blanket collection of data on all Americans. According to one of the chief sponsors of the amendment, Rep. Justin Amash, it “limits the government’s collection of records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act to those records that pertain to a person who is subject to an investigation under that provision.”
This marked the first time Congress has had a debate leading to a vote on any of the hitherto unknown programs disclosed in leaked classified documents two months ago by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
In a sense, this is an enduring debate; one we have had since the birth of our nation. The Founding Fathers who chartered the course of our freedom repeatedly encountered instances that demanded the framework and basis for our ideals be revisited. And, as is now the case in our post 9/11 world, the question of if any of our liberties is ever expedient for sacrifice on the altar of convenience oftentimes arises.
The Fourth Amendment, which many Americans claim the N.S.A programs run afoul of, was the result of an instance of this revisiting. A reassertion of the freedom of the citizenry from unreasonable search and seizure by an all powerful government. But this provision has not been absolute, our courts have been careful to allow exceptions in circumstances where the need of law enforcement to secure public good and safety in the face of imminent or probable harm is in question.
It is this latter position the present administration has used in justifying the existence of its secretive mass surveillance programs. The administration has repeatedly claimed that the threat of a terrorist attack on the homeland occasions this position, and because it has no way of divining where plans of an attack may originate, such wholesale collection of all communications of Americans becomes necessary.
At first blush it is a seemingly plausible argument. But in chastising city law enforcement in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond (2000), the United States Supreme Court held that “the gravity of the threat alone cannot be dispositive of questions concerning what means law enforcement may employ to pursue a given purpose.” The Supreme Court may yet be the final arbiter on this issue, but as is now overwhelmingly evidenced by this recent vote in Congress, many Americans and their representatives hold grave and substantive questions concerning the operation of these programs. Among which are concerns other than the infringement upon the Fourth Amendment.
In President Obama’s second inaugural address, he vocalized that for fear of abuses and excesses “we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority.” He was right. On this issue, such established skepticism is well tendered in the recognition that allowing a select few to indiscriminately collate data on every American poses grave danger to the foundational tenets of the republic. That despite noble intentions, such grand power ultimately corrupts the noblest of men or administrations.
As proven, the American people have no interest in handicapping the executive branch in its charge to keep Americans safe. Willingness to subject to intrusive body searches and countless other counter-terrorism measures since 9/11, as well as well-meaning laws passed by Congress, are candid examples of this. But we do also know we may not shred one ideal, no matter how inconvenient in the present time, to hope to secure an equal or better ideal at the opposing end. As Benjamin Franklin once noted: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”