Governments undoubtedly perform many useful functions, and in general the good that they do outweighs the bad.
But this does not mean that their actions should never fall under scrutiny. Centralized power abides by its own logic, and has its own prerogatives; and while an enlightened ruler can work wonders when bringing noble aspirations to tangible reality, mediocre leaders can actively erode the principles of liberty, privacy, and public safety. I was reminded of this fact by reading some recent news stories.
Several days ago, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the NSA’s mass surveillance programs of its citizens, justified on the ever-shifting grounds of “national security,” are in fact illegal. The ruling arose out of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the NSA in the wake of disclosures by dissident Edward Snowden that Verizon was required to turn over to the NSA (on a daily basis) all of its domestic and international phone records.
The NSA had maintained that Section 215 of the Patriot Act allowed them to sweep up all of this “metadata” whenever it wanted to. The ACLU disagreed, taking the position that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution could not justify the NSA’s broad powers, which essentially amounted to the de facto creation of a vast database on every citizen, regardless whether they were suspects in any criminal activity.
Readers may recall that the government’s rubber-stamp “FISA Court” (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) had permitted such data collection provided it was related to “authorized investigation” of suspected terrorist activity. This shadowy “court” (which is not really a court at all, in any meaningful sense of the world) had given carte blanche to the program since 2006. It had never denied any government requests for information. It had been renewed over forty times since 2006. The NSA’s position was basically that everything and anything might be relevant to a terrorist investigation, so it was justified in collecting everything and anything on everyone.
And there things stood until last week. The Second Circuit, however, was not persuaded by the government’s logic. It noted the obvious: if we were to accept the NSA’s position, we would be forced to conclude that the program had no collection limits at all. The collection program was patently illegal under the very section of the Patriot Act that had created it (Section 215).