Guest column/The dangers of disregarding the Bill of Rights
During the Second World War, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the U.S. government and placed into concentration camps. Why? Because of fear. Since then, this same type of fear has caused many more irrational actions from our government. Last year, it became widespread knowledge that the National Security Agency was monitoring, collecting and storing private information from millions of American citizens. The range of activities from this federal agency was revealed to be enormous – such as tapping telephone calls; collecting text messages from cell phones; monitoring social media and what books Americans are reading or checking-out of libraries; along with sorting through millions of e-mails – all of this being done without a warrant.
Reportedly, this is carried out under the banner of national security. So, too, was locking up American citizens of Japanese heritage. Fear is the real source that contributes to such unconstitutional actions. Allowing this fear to permeate our lives is dangerous. Permitting the federal government to continue this “spying” on American citizens though is even more dangerous.
First, let’s look at the practical use of these spy programs.
As a former intelligence officer with a bit of experience in this realm – one should know – no matter how much material is collected, it’s of literally no use if intelligence officials are swamped with endless information. An infinite pile of reports are of little value, because there are steep limits to what intelligence officials can do with overloaded stacks of information.
The human element limits the very usefulness of the size of information that is being collected, not to mention – we now know that much of the information the NSA is gathering does not come from potential enemy combatants – but from millions of innocent American citizens who are going about their routine lives. If anything, this entire activity of data-gathering only serves to distract our intelligence community from what they could otherwise be focused on.
The record on our past intelligence predictions serves as evidence of this distraction. Last month, American intelligence failed to see the launch of a massive offensive in Iraq, from an insurgent organization, referred to in the press as ISIS. The most rudimentary intelligence work from good operatives can pick up on such growing operations well before such a big move takes place. Yet there have been plenty of other massive failures as well, which again, should’ve been quite easy to predict with simple work-such as the Russian move into the Crimea back in March. Again, completely missed. The mobilization of thousands of foreign troops, which represents the most basic form of intelligence duties, has gone completely unnoticed, over and over. There have been dozens of other big misses, too many to go into here, but with this dismal record of performance, it’s hard to believe that with all of these new-found powers, the American public should still think their tax dollars are being properly utilized.
Our intelligence community’s poor track record is just a symptom of what a huge bureaucracy produces. However, what the NSA has been doing with the information it secretly gathers should be concerning, as it is a sign that predicting and stopping real threats is not being properly emphasized. Not long ago, a $2 billion federal storage facility was completed in Utah. This facility can warehouse virtually limitless amounts of data and information. Storing all of this data on millions of Americans should raise a red flag. By nature, this is not pre-emptive intelligence, it is reactionary intelligence.
For instance, government officials can go back through this data warehouse of super computers and dig-up information on American citizens, but only after an order is given to do such a thing. This type of directive typically takes place, only after something or some event triggers such an order to go digging. Storing data does not prevent threats.
It can only really be used afterward, when the damage is already done.
A larger, more corrosive problem stems from this. This massive storage of what Americans are doing in their private lives is very telling, because the information stored and warehoused in government computers can be used in the future by those in power for corrupt purposes, and not for the stated reasons of protecting the public’s safety. As Lord Acton so famously stated, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But despite this, you might often hear from a neighbor or a friend, “Well I’m not doing anything wrong. Why should I care, I have nothing to hide?” This is quite possibly the most dangerous attitude, and if it prevails, then the republic could be lost indeed. It matters little whether you are doing something wrong. Imagine what an administration can do in Washington with such power.
Say there’s a tight Senate race in a given state, and the president wants his party to maintain power in the Congress – the White House can literally use this federal apparatus, these “national security” programs, for political reasons.
Digging up dirt on political candidates to crush the party’s opposition could become reality – if it hasn’t already. It matters little if it’s a Republican administration or a Democrat one. Political blackmail can become the norm, and with a colossal warehouse of stored data, this could be very easy to do. When centralized power grows to this height, the very democratic process can become undermined.
And, for those that still care about trying to keep the Constitution intact, we can see that these domestic spying and surveillance programs are clear and complete violations of the 4th Amendment to the Bill of Rights. Illegal searches and seizures are strictly forbidden – that is, if we are still to subscribe to Constitutional law. The massive seizure and collection of private e-mails, telephone conversations and what Americans habitually do on, say, their Facebook or Twitter accounts – all without a warrant – well, that is more power than any king or monarch could dream of.
Good intelligence work, like good police work, does not rely on immense, widespread spying. It relies on human smarts. Once a bureaucracy grows to extremes, human intelligence tends to shrivel. And with it, so too does our civil liberty. If you care about the 2nd Amendment, your right to keep and bear arms, you must also care for the 4th Amendment. If you care for the 1st Amendment, the right to free speech, or freedom of religion, you must also care for the 4th Amendment. Because when one is infringed, the others can become vulnerable as well.
The Bill of Rights, which ultimately was meant to safeguard the natural laws of life, liberty and property, must be taken as a whole package, not cherry-picked apart, deciding which one can go and which one can stay. Doing that is throwing out the oath of office entirely. When this happens, protecting the Constitution, “So Help Me God,” becomes nothing more than words. As Ben Franklin once wrote, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
(McGeehan, a resident of Chester, is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served as an Air Force Intelligence Officer, including a tour of duty in the Middle East and Afghanistan. He also served in the West Virginia House of Delegates.)