Do We Need More Government Surveillance?


Safety and Freedom Are Not Mutually Exclusive

I have been surprised at my fellow citizens willingness to trade their personal freedoms for security. According to a new poll conducted by The Washington Post (29 September 2001), between 69 percent and 95 percent of respondents favored granting police additional powers to tap telephones or intercept voice mail or e-mail, as well as to hold foreign terrorist suspects indefinitely. The paper concluded, "One sacrifice Americans said they are willing to make is in their civil liberties."

At one level, I suppose I'm not surprised. People are afraid. And, when they are afraid, most are eager to exchange anything — including their civil liberties and privacy — to regain a sense of safety and security. As Maslow demonstrated a long time ago, our needs are hierarchically arranged. Personal safety comes before more abstract needs like freedom.

But I would suggest that this is sentiment does not reflect America at its best. Our forefathers did not die to secure our safety. They shed their blood so we could be free. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive, but we had better understand the difference between them. If we surrender our freedom, we will be neither free nor secure.

Perhaps most Americans don't realize what powers the federal government already has. The U.S. government operates the most comprehensive and powerful surveillance systems on earth. It includes three major components.

First, there is Echelon. Comprised of a vast network of satellites and listening stations around the world, this high-tech system intercepts and analyzes virtually every electronic transmission, worldwide. Some experts estimate that the system intercepts as many as three billion communications every day, including phone calls, e-mail messages, Internet downloads, and fax transmissions.

Second, the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (aka, "FinCEN") monitors virtually every financial transaction on the planet. Since 98 percent of all transactions are electronic, this is fairly easy to do. It also explains why the federal government is so hostile to cash transactions and is doing everything it can to stigmatize them.

Third, the FBI's DCS-1000 (formerly known as Carnivore) sifts through all e-mails coming from and going into the major Internet service providers. It scans the addresses of both the sender and receiver, along with the subject line, in order to decide whether or not to make a copy of the entire message. Many privacy advocates fear that this system has no limits, for it opens the e-mails of many people who are not the subjects of investigations. Moreover, there is no accountability, since only the FBI agents know what they are downloading using this program. (Compare this with a traditional telephone wiretap targets calls only to and from the suspect, and is implemented by the phone company.)

I'm not opposed to any new legislation that truly prevents or inhibits terrorism. But the government already has more than enough surveillance power. Since it already monitors virtually every form of communication and every financial transaction, what more could it possibly need to combat terrorism?

No, the 9-11 tragedy did not happen because the government lacked intelligence about the event before it happened. The failure was in the government's ability to analyze that information and understand the nature of modern terrorism. New laws would not have made a difference. More government surveillance would not have prevented it.

The framers of the Constitution understood the danger of unbridled federal power. Unlike so many Americans today, they did not assume that "government can be trusted." In fact, based on their experience with the British Crown, they were convinced the exact opposite was true. Government was the last thing you could trust. The entire history of the human race testified to this fact. Therefore, they instituted a form of government where elected officials and government appointees were severely restricted in their powers and ultimately accountable to their sovereigns, "we the people."

The only thing additional surveillance powers will do is set aside the presumption of innocence and make all Americans suspect. Far from combating terrorism, this would only serve to make us more like the terrorists themselves, who hate freedom and everything it represents. If they succeed in making us a more repressive society, then they will have achieved their goals. And we will have lost the very thing our forefathers shed their blood to protect: our freedom.

In the aftermath of the 9-11 crisis, we need to be suspicious of federal bureaucrats lobbying for bigger budgets and more powers. Like cockroaches in the night, they are coming out of the woodwork to claim their share of the spoil. Many are capitalizing on public sentiment, attempting to enact sweeping new legislation without the benefit of significant reflection or public debate.

The best thing we can do at this dangerous hour is to "just say no." No to the installation of new surveillance technologies. No to new surveillance legislation. And no to the surrender of our civil liberties and privacy. Don't let anyone make you think this is unpatriotic. It is not. Quite the opposite. It is profoundly patriotic. In the words of Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty or give me death."

Copyright Family Guardian Fellowship

Last revision: April 03, 2009 08:18 AM
  This private system is NOT subject to monitoring