Recently, at the Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago, Trish Reagan asked former President Bill Clinton to share his thoughts on domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) for Bloomberg TV.
Clinton defended the NSA programs as necessary, saying, “I don't see any alternative to trying to track all of these groups around the world that are trying to basically wreck the ordinary operations of life in America or kill a lot of people, and so far I'm not persuaded that they've done more harm than good."
Americans who are worried about government monitoring "ought to be careful what they put on emails," said Clinton.
What the former president is recommending is self-censorship. It would be naive to think that self-censorship does not already exist in the United States, particularly with regard to social norms. But, this brand of self-censorship is much more a threat to the functioning of democratic processes because the government has been vague, publicly, about the kinds of information it is tracking.
In that situation, people can have reasonable assurance that they are not being investigated only if they avoid communicating on a wide range of subjects and, especially, if they avoid public forums where their communications are most visible. The resulting void in public debate almost certainly would be filled by government and corporate propaganda, to the detriment of democracy.
A different America is being created, one where the citizens behave less like a free people and more like employees of the NSA. That would be a major shift away from a fundamental assumption of our Constitution that government answers to the people, not the other way around. And, if a former NSA technical expert is correct, Americans will be less safe than before.
The government is constructing a legal and technical architecture that William Binney calls “turnkey totalitarianism.” In place of a foe that strikes occasionally somewhere in the country (and might continue to strike in spite of NSA surveillance), Americans could have a foe that is ever-present in our homes, our schools and cafes; a foe that knows all of our weaknesses; a foe more powerful than any other.
That is what generals call a “pyrrhic victory.” Unlike Mr. Clinton, many national security whistleblowers, myself included, are not ready to accept that this is the best this great country can do in terms of fighting terrorists. But, to find a better solution, the federal government must stop muzzling employees like Binney, Thomas Drake and Russell Tice.
Linda Lewis is a policy analyst with degrees in emergency management and geosciences. Her experience includes 13 years as a policy analyst and planner for the U.S. government. During that time, she brought attention to serious deficiencies in government preparedness prior to the disasters that confirmed her analyses. Those included emergency communications (9/11 terrorist attacks), federal assistance (hurricane Katrina) and decision making (Columbia shuttle disaster).