Issue of government remains bottom line

The issue of the National Security Agency having programs that have the capability of trolling through every American’s personal information and web surfing, as well as knowing at least the connections and times of every phone call in the nation, should be troubling.

But even more troubling are polls that show that the nation is, at best, divided on the programs’ existence and at worst are supportive – so long as the data being mined is catching terrorists.

Most Congressional reaction focuses either on prosecution of leaker Ed Snowden or emphasizes safety. Members of Congress and representatives of the nation’s security and intelligence apparatus said secrecy in the program and the safety it provides trumps any infringement on privacy.

The bad guys, the statements ran late week, would change their tactics of communication now that it was known the American government was sucking up all the digital information it could get its hands on. Reassurances were given that special targeting was only done on foreign nationals in the U.S. or Americans abroad, and not on the data of just the average citizen. Permission is court approved, the authorities said.

Of course, the permission is obtained in a secret court whose creation was made by Congress and whose existence certainly would not seem covered by the creation of the federal judiciary in Article III of the Constitution but would be more a creation of the legislative branch. And just who makes such decisions to seek the secretive court’s permission, and what grounds trigger seeking the secretive court’s permission, was not adequately explained.

The issue remains one of government trust: The security agencies say the programs have thwarted terror attacks, but they cannot specify how without giving away secrets about the programs. In exchange, citizens are asked to accept the premise that the government won’t use our own information against us.

If the nation has reached a point where, as the opinion polls indicate, security has taken precedence over the rights of individuals, then we have little to celebrate come July 4. If we have reached a point where secrecy is tantamount to liberty, the Declaration of Independence is no longer what it once was to our nation.

In times of war, and the government has said there is a war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation has a history of suspending certain privileges. Someone, some group, always ends up the target, and when the nation realizes it has violated the very tenets of freedom or the war ends, the liberties are restored.

In the case of a war without end, which President Barack Obama recently made clear is moving from a shooting war into a law and criminal investigation phase, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. And if much of the nation is willing to be subjected to data mining in the name of that phase, the right to individual privacy is gone, with little hope of restoration.

What happens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence if the government is all too aware of every movement and thought of its citizenry?

But at least, if we believe the statements of the very government spies themselves, we’ll be more secure.