Clarence Fanto: Both sides have a case on government snooping
LENOX -- Big Brother is watching you, and me, all of us, in ways George Orwell never could have imagined in his seminal masterpiece, "1984.
As we all learned this past week thanks to leaked details provided to the Guardian newspaper in London and others, the National Security Agency as the government's eavesdropper-in-chief (nice phrase, Washington Post) has snooped electronically around the world, trolling for data from international phone calls, e-mail and other electronic resources of our digital age.
We knew that but now, come to find out that the NSA, dubbed "No Such Agency" in Washington because it's so secretive, has been collecting the same kind of information on virtually all American citizens, using Verizon and online companies to accomplish its goals.
Are we outraged by this? Should we be? And how do we gauge the reaction of prominent Capitol Hill figures who, in many cases, appear to have reversed roles, politically.
A reminder that in Orwell's novel, Big Brother was the mysterious dictator of the fictional nation of Oceania with one-party control over every aspect of citizens' lives. The author depicted a society where -- using massive telescreens even larger than today's jumbo-sized TVs -- 24-hour surveillance was a constant and not benign presence hovering over everyone.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper condemned the publication of "spying eyes" details as "reprehensible" for risking "important protections for the security of Americans."
He defended the program, in place since 2006 as part of the post-911 Bush administration's Patriot Act approved and extended by Congress three times, because the information "is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats."
Clapper also tried to explain his statement last March that the NSA does not "wittingly" collect data on millions of Americans. "What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails. I stand by that," Clapper told National Journal.
But it's too easy to simply acknowledge the domestic surveillance programs as the cost of doing business in an age when terrorism remains a potent threat.
As Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee pointed out, the NSA's records of domestic phone calls have thwarted terrorists. She emphasized that the program is lawful, has been extended repeatedly by Congress, and consists of "metadata" rather than content of phone conversations.
"Terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence, to understand that a plot is being hatched, and to get there before they get to us," she stated.
In hyper-partisan Washington, one of Feinstein's polar opposites is Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who told Fox News hosts: "I'm glad the NSA is trying to find out what the terrorists are up to overseas and in our country. I'm a Verizon customer. I don't mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States. I don't think you're talking to the terrorists. I know you're not. I know I'm not. So we don't have anything to worry about."
So, a prominent liberal Democrat and a high-profile conservative Republican are essentially on the same page.
But Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the author of the Patriot Act, stated that "I am extremely disturbed by what appears to be an over-broad interpretation." In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sensenbrenner added: "These reports are deeply concerning and raise questions about whether our constitutional rights are secure."
Partisanship is bound to creep in as we citizens try to figure out where we stand on all this.
At a local cafe on Friday, I overheard an articulate individual, clearly a supporter of President Obama, declare that since he trusts Obama and his administration, he has no quarrel with the "data mining" conducted by federal agencies. During the Nixon regime and the Bush presidency, however, the trust factor would be missing for him.
But we live in a country where roughly half the population does not trust Obama, and certainly not Attorney General Holder. But those conservatives, and some independents, tend to be the same people who are hawkish on foreign policy and on anti-terrorist policies. They're in a quandary, too.
For many people, these issues are far too complex and ambiguous. Take the comments by Helen Kozchuk, 82, of Pittsfield in Friday's Eagle.
Acknowledging that most of her telephone conversations are "jibber-jabber," she voiced a preference that the federal government not know about them. "It's just like looking through my window," she said.
But the government wouldn't know about what she, or you or I talk about on the phone or communicate in our e-mails -- unless we are conversing with known or suspected terrorists, in which case many of us could argue that it would be good for the surveillance agencies to be in the loop.
I've found that the more I delve into the details, the more ambivalent I become. We all wish that surveillance had intercepted the Boston Marathon bombers ahead of their dastardly deeds, assuming they may have been in contact with extremists overseas.
Maybe the sad yet inevitable conclusion is that there's a civil liberties price to be paid in order to reduce, though not eliminate, the threat posed by terrorists from abroad or in our midst. With great reluctance, I may have to agree with Feinstein, whom I respect greatly, and with Graham, whose views are antithetical to my own.
As Gilbert and Sullivan wrote memorably in "The Mikado": "Here's a howdy-do." Or as Yul Brynner declaimed on stage thousands of times in "The King and I": "Is a puzzlement."
Clarence Fanto can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org