The whistleblowing of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden appears to have ignited a movement to restore the Fourth Amendment, the fundamental right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, of which the NSA routinely violates through its warrantless collection of citizens’ personal data.
“Ubiquitous surveillance,” he told The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, is “rapidly destroying” the “value of the Internet, along with basic privacy.” He did not see what he did as a heroic act because what he did was in his self-interest. He did not want to “live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”
The Fourth of July, a day to celebrate American independence, will forever evoke a sense of ambivalence in this journalist because Native Americans, African-American slaves and women were entirely omitted by the founders of this country. However, none can deny that the privileged white men who declared independence were against such things as “writs of assistance,” which were general warrants that allowed officials to engage in searches for any smuggle materials within in any suspected premise. It gave Great Britain immense power to target individuals and groups that intended to engage in dissent against the tyranny of King George III.
James Otis, the colonial patriot of Massachusetts, helped to inspire the founding fathers to include a Fourth Amendment. Part of the genesis of this critical amendment can be traced, as I understand, to the speech he gave against general warrants where he declared it was “universal” and “directed to every subject in the King’s dominions.”
Every one with this writ may be a tyrant; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner, also, may control, imprison, or murder any one within the realm. In the next place, it is perpetual; there is no return. A man is accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him, until the trump of the Archangel shall excite different emotions in his soul…
“A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle,” Otis also stated.
This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient…
Today, the general warrant does not threaten Americans’ homes but an area of American life, where the government can obtain, in many respects, far more important and private information: the Internet.
The NSA has convinced a secret surveillance court to allow for the collection of any and all data the agency wants to store for use at any given date, even if the seizure of data for storage is not collected for a particular case where there is an actual suspect planning an act of terrorism.
The three branches of government have not only allowed this to happen, but officials of each branch have touted the agreement between all branches that what is being done is within the boundaries of law and supposedly respectful of civil liberties as evidence that the NSA is not doing anything wrong. The major Internet companies, as a result, have either complied with requests to participate in the provision of users’ data to the NSA or have been forced into handing over the data after fighting the broad collection.
Journalists should know that the Fourth Amendment can be inextricably tied to the First Amendment, which protects the right of freedom of the press. If one is not protected from unreasonable search or seizure of records related to their communications, how can they (if they even dare or want to) practice necessary investigative journalism fundamental to protecting or restoring liberties that have been eroded?
Most American journalists are the last people in this country to hold a whistleblower like Snowden in high regard for what he did. They can barely bring themselves to defend the absolute right to publish they have let alone the Fourth Amendment, which Snowden found to be under great threat as he worked within America’s ever-expanding spy agency.
Were these journalists publishing stories in the colonial era under King George, they would be detailing how the acts of colonists standing up against tyranny endangered the security of Great Britain’s kingdom. Or, they would be spotlighting the flawed aspects of the most well-known colonists’ acts of dissent to communicate to citizens the appropriate way to engage in an act of rebellion.
It is whistleblowers like Snowden, who will save this country from itself.
In 1821, John Quincy Adams said eloquently that the true America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” He continued, “She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would herself, beyond the powers of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom…She might become the dictatress of the world; she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”
An empire, America the Dictatress has become inculcated by both a siege mentality and arrogant self-importance that there are Terrorists out there, a collective Enemy, who wish to destroy America at every single hour of the day. This arrogance and fear has led to the great expansion of a national security state that threatens civil liberties and has incredible capabilities, the kind which Snowden exposed to the world.
The NSA mission is not to protect American civil liberties but to fight the great shape-shifting menace of Terrorism. But the massive surveillance apparatus it has developed to wield against Our Enemies is not even necessary to protecting the country.
According to Snowden, “Since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source?” Plus, consider “how many individual communications were ingested to achieve that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.”
On this Independence Day, Snowden’s act does not just provide an opportunity to reflect upon the loss of privacy but also the loss of the possibility of an open and free society because of this perpetual war on terrorism, where the government has secretly transformed the world into a battlefield claiming the authority to be judge, jury and executioner as it also subjects all citizens domestic and abroad, including leaders of countries who are allies, to what are Stasi-like surveillance programs
It is a time to think about the civil liberties we are supposed to have but do not because power prefers we do not have them.
It is a moment to consider the individuals like Snowden, who are willing to make sacrifices, so that others will realize the time to take a stand is now and not later.
It is that holiday where we can see so clearly how perverted the project of America has become because of the leaders we have allowed to govern without enough dissent from the people to keep them from destroying the lives and futures of so many.
Dismal as that may sound, there are people like Snowden who take great risks for ideals every day, keeping the spirit of this country alive. They may not win the support of Americans immediately (because we all can often be a terribly fickle population), but their resistance, their example, always creates the significant possibility of inspiring important shifts toward greater liberty, justice and truth and that matters most of all.