To Protect Our Constitutional Rights, We Must Surrender Them

by Robert Arvay

What a tangled world wide web we’ve weaved…

There has recently been a lot of controversy about the government program called PRISM, which uniquely among the myriads of names of government programs and agencies, seems not to be an acronym, but simply the name of a government surveillance project based on its reliance on optic fibers. 

The controversy is this: How far should the government (be allowed to) go to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States? Stated another way, it is, how much of our rights should we surrender in order to protect our lives? And stated yet another way, how much of our privacy should we surrender in order to protect our privacy?

Near the end of his presidency, George W Bush proclaimed that in order to protect the free market, we must violate freemarket principles. To that presidential oxymoron, Barak Obama has now added one of his own: to protect our Constitutional rights, we must surrender them.

Let’s be fair. The National Security Agency, and its related agencies, are between “Iraq” and a hard place. If an attack occurs, we criticize them for not doing enough surveillance to prevent the attack. But at the same time, we criticize them for doing too much. What’s a poor spy to do?

My reply to that conundrum is simply this name: Lois Lerner. I could add other names, the names of those ithe Internal Revenue Service who exercised government power to abuse our rights for their own gain, both personal and political. What if former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman had been in charge of PRISM? Would he have been planting listening devices in Easter eggs?

The point is that, as citizens, (borrowing from Newt Gingrich’s phrase), we “lend” power to the federal government. We do not give them power. Ideally, we continually conduct our own surveillance on those in power, making sure that they exercise those powers according to the Constitution. Ideally, the moment they abuse those powers, we revoke them, and replace the abusive officials with more competent, more trustworthy people.

Unfortunately, the ideal is too rarely realized in a timely fashion. Abuses go on for years before they are discovered, and even more years pass before remedial action is taken. Sadly, those remedies are usually too little, too late. The old guard retires, and passes the torch of corruption to a new batch of venal, mercenary opportunists promising the moon to a gullible, miseducated public.

Thus we find ourselves in the age-old dilemma that has plagued the peasantry for millennia. We must continually hope that the next king will be a good one, that the next tyrant will be merciful, and that the monarch’s tax collector will leave us with enough food to survive the winter, while the king feasts on sumptuous banquets, intentionally oblivious to our hunger.

A revolutionary idea was supposed to have solved this dilemma. We are supposed to be a nation of laws, no longer dependent on whether the king is a good one. We are supposed to govern ourselves, never to be ruled from on high. Don’t laugh, I’m serious.

Apparently, thus far, the NSA is comprised of good men and women, dedicated public servants who are devoted to protecting us from terrorists, and who expect little in return from us beyond their meager salaries. Maybe that’s true.

Would that this were the case in the IRS.

But therein lies the dilemma. Ten years from now, we may have finally fired all the bureaucrats in the IRS and replaced them with honest public servants. But in that same ten years, a new influx of spies will be manning the computers at the NSA. And we will have no means of conducting surveillance on those who conduct surveillance on us. We will just have to trust them.

Yes, we are soberly assured that the NSA is not “listening in on the content” of our conversations. Many a Brooklyn Bridge has been sold to people who are willing to believe that. The technology is there. For a few dollars at Radio Shack, any basement-dwelling nerd can set up surveillance from his mother’s house, and tap your phone.

Do we honestly think that no one at the NSA, with vastly more technology at their disposal than Radio Shack, is listening in to any phone conversation he desires to hear?

The lame excuse is that there are billions of phone conversations going on at any given time, and that it is impossible to listen in on them all. Of course that is true. But technology makes it unnecessary to do so. Computers can “listen in” on the “mega-call,” survey the vast electronic ocean of signals, and selectively pick out items of interest to zero in on. An excellent example of this is the manner in which the infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, was found and killed through electronic surveillance.

Escobar managed to avoid detection by never speaking over a telephone. But one day, just for fifteen seconds, he made the fatal mistake of saying a few words on the telephone. During those fifteen seconds, while millions of other people were also on the phone, computers detectedand flagged Escobar’s “voice print.” And within minutes, a detachment of police had found and killed him.

All this happened in 1993, nearly twenty years ago. If the government could do that with twenty-year-old technology, what could they do now?

Our second president, John Adams, hit the nail squarely on the head when he said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

If we, the American people, lose our rights, it will not be because some tyrant forcibly took those rights from us. It will be because we will have failed to live up to our end of the bargain. We are not losing our rights; we are squandering them. For, the worst abuse of the Constitution is the willful failure to defend it.

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