How the Politicization of Terrorism Has Fueled Domestic Surveillance

The hottest news item of the last 24 hours is the leak of a memo revealing a top secret NSA program called PRISM that allegedly gave the National Security Agency direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Skype, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, YouTube, and PalTalk. This comes a day after the same Guardian reporter, Glenn Greenwald, broke the story of a secret court order that “requires Verizon on an ‘ongoing, daily basis’ to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.”

Domestic surveillance has been on the rise ever since the Patriot Act was passed in reaction to 9/11, but why is this the case when the incumbent President, as a candidate in 2007, claimed to be opposed to the tracking of those who were not suspected of a crime:

This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.

During Obama’s administration he has signed extensions of both the Patriot Act and FISA. In the last 24 hours we have seen how these extensions are playing out. Since these acts may well legalize these surveillance actions and that technically the FISA court approves government requests, the Obama administration believes that it isn’t breaking any promises. However, the FISA court does not appear to be an instrument of restraint in the least (emphasis mine):

The Fisa court is in the habit of granting wide approval to the government. In 2012, the government requested its imprimatur for surveillance 1,856 times, an increase of 5% over its 2011 petitions. The court approved every request in both years.

There are two main reasons I believe contribute to the continuance and expansion of domestic surveillance under Obama’s administration. First, that there is an inertia to this kind of government power and it is extremely rare for an administration to give up powers it was already granted. Second, that the hyperpartisan political climate turns any act of terrorism into a political scandal. In this article I want to focus on this second reason.

Immediately following the attacks on 9/11/2001, Americans from all political ideologies came together and supported the Bush administration. President Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed. In the face of attack, American’s united.

During Obama’s administration, every ‘terror’ attack has been immediately politicized. There were 13 attacks on US consulates and embassies post-9/11 while Bush was in office. They were not heavily politicized at the time. The attack in Benghazi during Obama’s administration, in contrast, has become “nothing but a politicized smear campaign.”

Conservatives reacted to the bombing at the Boston Marathon by suggesting Obama is a secret Muslim, calling for his impeachment, and directly blaming him for the attacks. Whenever an attack that can be labeled as ‘terrorism’ occurs, conservatives politicize it in an attempt to create a scandal hoping to score political points or to put Obama on the defensive to draw him away from other policy priorities.

This environment makes the administration more willing to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of security. A culture of fear combined with a culture of blame turns national security into political strategy. A free and open democratic society will always have security vulnerabilities. While it’s not exactly zero-sum (a pure security vs. privacy or security vs. freedom dichotomy is false), there are trade-offs. The odds of being killed in a terror attack are 1 in 20 million (in comparison, a natural-born US citizen is twice as likely to become US President in their lifetime than die in a terror attack). The political consequences of a potential attack, no matter how limited, are driving the administration to sacrifice a number of our country’s best principles for security from something that results in far fewer deaths than people imagine.