Apparently not most Americans, the majority of whom—according to a Pew Research poll—think the NSA's secret surveillance of millions of Americans is an acceptable way to fight "terrorism."
That echoes conversations, blog posts, and comment threads I've run across in the past few days that basically say: "What's the big deal? I have nothing to hide. They're doing this to make us safer. If you don't pal around with terrorists, it's not a problem. And Obama said nobody is listening to my phone conversations, so who cares?" (Yesterday, for example, Charles argued that this NSA surveillance is no more serious than market research for advertising firms.)
For the sake of argument, let's take Obama at his word and say the NSA is only recording the time, duration, and location of millions of Americans' phone calls—and if your phone habits send up a red flag, and you're somehow digitally connected to terrorists, then you could be subject to wiretapping and more extensive surveillance.
The problem with that: The government's definition of "terrorism" is extraordinarily broad.
In the past few years, we have seen multiple cases in our own backyard of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and federal anti-terrorism dollars and resources going to investigate anti-war protesters in Olympia (with concerted infiltration by an intelligence analyst from Fort Lewis), people who might have "anarchist" or "anti-government" literature in their homes or might know May Day demonstrators, and people who threw a series of after-hours parties.
Apparently, when government officials say "terrorism," Americans think of some guy in Yemen buying surface-to-air missiles to shoot down their favorite relative's plane over Des Moines, Iowa.
But we can see that when the anti-terrorism dollars get doled out, they also go to investigating hippie grandma anti-war protesters, people who might know people who might have broken some windows, or people who haven't engaged in any serious activism since the WTO.
So what's the problem, besides law-enforcement confusing political dissent with terrorism?
There's the "chilling effect" of political dissent and affiliation, for one: If we know the government's definition of terrorism is so broad, and we know that being digitally connected to dissidents puts you at risk for targeted scrutiny, everyone has an incentive to remain politically mainstream, as well as stay away from any protests or protesters, dampening robust political debate. You know the rest from high-school civics. (You can find a case study of surveillance and chilling effects in this report from CUNY law school. The link is a .pdf, by the way.)
And when innocent people get caught in the dragnet, it can potentially derail their lives. A few years ago, I interviewed Michael German, a former FBI special agent whose specialty was domestic terrorism and undercover surveillance. He now works for the ACLU. (It's a little odd how many career FBI and NSA agents are now banging the gong about the dangers of their former employers.)
German said that if the FBI is under the impression that you know someone who knows something about "terrorism," they might pay visits to your employers or landlords, not to mention the possibility of them raiding your home. Another example: If you're an immigrant working towards a green card or citizenship and you, say, talk with with Marxist professors who talk with radical Greek anarchists, that could jeopardize your status.
Then there's the "turnkey totalitarianism" issue. Even if you do trust the Obama administration, or the people at the NSA, or the folks on the Senate intelligence committee, we have created an enormous apparatus that could be hideously abused—and until a few days ago, most Americans didn't even know it even existed.
But don't take my word for it. If you haven't yet, check out this 2012 story in Wired which features William Binney, the "senior NSA crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network."
He explains that the agency could have installed its tapping gear at the nation’s cable landing stations—the more than two dozen sites on the periphery of the US where fiber-optic cables come ashore. If it had taken that route, the NSA would have been able to limit its eavesdropping to just international communications, which at the time was all that was allowed under US law. Instead it chose to put the wiretapping rooms at key junction points throughout the country—large, windowless buildings known as switches—thus gaining access to not just international communications but also to most of the domestic traffic flowing through the US.
... sitting in a restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40 years of his life, Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,” he says.
Another problem: How secure is our security apparatus? A 2008 story from the San
Francisco Diego Union-Tribune detailed how a group stole files on potential terrorists and "operated with impunity from one of Camp Pendleton's most heavily guarded buildings." So there's the theft issue, on top of everything else.
But there's nothing to be worried about.