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No Place to Hide

“The [National Security Agency’s] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.” 

– Senator Frank Church.

Senator Church made that statement in 1975, thirty-eight years ago. He chaired a committee that was formed to develop legislation to rein in the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and other intelligence agencies, which had long since been operating outside the bounds of the law, including the Constitution — especially the Constitution.

The Church Committee recommended, and Congress passed the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.” The operative word here being “foreign.” There was also established a court, the FISA Court, to authorize warrantless wire taps.  From 1979 through 2012, the FISA courts received 33,949 requests and denied seven. That’s a 99.98% approval rate.

Beginning in 2004, the FISA court started approving “National Security Letters.” These give the FBI the power to compel disclosure of customer records held by banks, telephone companies, internet service providers, and others. There have been 128,135 NSL’s issued. Another 43,370 NSL’s have been issued directly involving U.S. citizens.

In 2006, Qwest Communications refused to cooperate with the FBI.  When the matter went to court, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor on ruled that the government’s domestic eavesdropping program is unconstitutional and ordered it ended immediately. The decision was reversed on appeal.

Recently, we have learned of a program called “PRISM.” It seems that for some time now the NSA has been doing exactly what Senator Church warned against all those years ago — collecting telecom and internet information, including “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, and documents” on virtually all Americans – they call it “Metadata.”

With these secret spying programs being outed, president Obama tried to calm fears: “We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”  Obama went on to say that, in spite of, “the modest encroachments on the privacy that are involved, it was worth us doing.”

Modest encroachments? Worth the doing? You mean by playing fast and loose with the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution? You want to protect our liberty by, uh, suppressing our liberty? What?

Well then, some important questions to ask in all this are how well these programs are working and are they helping us prevent terrorist attacks. And what happened to the limitation of keeping these programs focused on “foreign Intelligence” as they were intended?

After 9/11, and through this date, there have been 53 planned attacks on United States soil, or on planes headed to the U.S., by Islamic Terrorists. Of these, 29 were “foiled Islamic terrorist plots” and only five resulted in fatalities, which totaled nineteen people — two at the LA airport in 2002, one  at a Little Rock military recruitment center, 2009, thirteen at Ft. Hood, also in 2009, and three from the Boston Marathon bombings.

So, let’s put this in perspective. There have been 19 deaths in the U.S. from terrorism after 9/11. During that same period, there have been 418,340 people killed in motor vehicles, 119, 000 homicides with firearms, and 27,960 deaths from home fires. In 2012 alone, there were 28 deaths by lightning strikes and none by terrorist attack.

Therefore, it would be accurate to say that there is no existential threat of a terrorist attack in the United States. And even if there were, the programs we have in place are grossly inefficient at detecting and stopping such threats. Exhibit 1 is the Boston Marathon bombers. We had to rely on Russia for intelligence on the two brothers and even that was after the fact.

So it should be absolutely clear that the real threat of Islamic terrorism in this country is way overblown. The fear-mongers and the scare-mongers have won the day. They have facilitated hysteria and fabricated paranoia. Seems to me the sizable commitment of resources to these counterterrorism programs is like trying to put out a candle with a fire hose – and missing the candle!

Terrorism will never be zero, just as crime will never be zero. But given the strategy we have in place to deal with it, my concern is whether our country will devolve into a quasi-Orwellian dystopia where Big Brother is watching and listening, watching and listening, watching and listening . . .

As H. L. Mencken said almost 100 years ago, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

This is an expanded version of an Op-Ed piece published in the Joplin Globe on June 17, 2013

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