Monday, August 19, 2013

Listen To Me (As Much As You Want)

Something's been bugging me.

This whole invasion of privacy thing seems to have raised its righteously indignant head again. After 9/11, we Americans didn't much care what our government did if it meant catching the terrorists who orchestrated and financed that horrific act, and preventing further attacks. Ethnic profiling, illegal imprisonment, torture and other civil rights violations – all those methods were fair game if it meant securing our nation and its citizens. Invasion of privacy was another method employed by our intelligence community.

Turns out this one was the kicker. Water-boarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation and incarceration without due process were, well, questionable. But don't you dare read my email! People were up in arms when it was revealed that our phones and online activity was being monitored with impunity. Pundits and novices alike railed and sputtered and pumped their self-righteous fists in the air and cited civil rights statutes that were being trampled upon. What right does our government have to spy on us? How dare they tap my phone, or read my email, or analyze my Internet activity. Yes, many patriotic, God fearing Americans were aghast at the notion of their privacy being violated willy-nilly. My question is: why?

Why should I or you or anybody else give a flip if some nameless, faceless technician in a windowless underground facility in Virginia is reading my email? I've got nothing to hide from the government. In fact, I'm more likely to have things I want to hide from my wife or my mother or my best friend than an intelligence analyst. The government doesn't care about me or my life, as exciting or intriguing as I may think it is. The NSA and the CIA doesn't care who's cheating on their taxes or their spouse. They don't care how much online porn someone's watching, or how many tweets they post, or how many friends they have on Facebook. What they do care about is suspicious activity that could suggest a future terrorist attack.

I'm pretty sure I've been profiled in my adult lifetime. I've been pulled aside at an airport in Europe and I was pulled over in the U.S. for no good reason. Was I offended? Mildy. Was I inconvenienced? You bet. Do I think profiling is wrong? Nope.

The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was so audacious and beyond the pale, no one thought it could happen. If the CIA had reported that it had somehow stopped an Al-Queda sleeper cell from crashing three commercial airliners into prominent U.S. targets like the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, we wouldn't have believed them. Conspiracy nuts and skeptics would've found some way to discredit the CIA's assertion and 99% of the country would've forgotten about the whole thing by breakfast the next morning. Moreover, the intelligence has continued to receive criticism – rightly so – for their inability to thwart the attack.

But the same people criticizing that lapse in intelligence gathering are now complaining about civil rights violations being perpetrated in the interests of national security. We can't have it both ways. Either an overzealous TSA agent is going to be given free reign to pull me aside and inconvenience me, or a shoe bomber is going to board my flight. Some underpaid analyst at the NSA may monitor my phone, email and Internet activity and discover how much I like Star Trek, but at least he'll also have a fighting chance of intercepting relevant communication between people who want to do our country harm. If Uncle Sam wants to read my email, have at it.

And here's the thing: we shouldn't even know the government is watching us that closely. It's none of our business how the CIA and NSA conduct their business. People like U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning and former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden are not doing anyone a service by leaking sensitive material to the public. We don't need to know how intelligence is collected. And neither do those that would do us harm. Unlimited transparency may seem responsible and civic-minded, but when it comes to the war on terror, all it does is give our enemies a heads-up because —duh!– they watch the news and surf the web, too. (And don't even get me started on Amber Alerts that pop up on our televisions and phones and inform the child abductor that we know what kind of car he's driving so he can ditch it and the authorities.)

The audacity of terrorist attacks demands audacious countermeasures. Anyone who's got a problem with the government monitoring their communication has something more to hide than an illicit affair or a porn addiction, and the government needs to know what it is. The rest of us should quit whining and be grateful that there's an intelligence gathering apparatus in place that may one day save our lives. (Or, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put it, everyone "should just calm down".) Frankly, I'd much rather have my phone tapped than be blown up.