Friday, August 2, 2013

Who's Winning?

by Bill Holmes

This post was originally published on July 1, 2013 in The View Point.
It seems like every time I tune in the TV or read an article lately it's about some new infringement on our liberties. Although this trend didn't start with 9/11/2001, it has certainly accelerated since then.

The biggest change came with the passage of the Patriot Act which was written, passed and signed into law by October 26, 2001. That includes coming up with the convoluted acronym USA PATRIOT. You didn't know it was an acronym? It stands for Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism. Catchy isn't it? It just rolls off the tongue. I bet Congress spent more time on the acronym or backronym than on the actual legislation. When is the last time Congress accomplished anything in only six weeks? The Patriot Act was extended in 2011 with very few changes.

I won't go into the details of the act but in general it changed the rules of the game. Whereas individual rights and freedoms were once the principal concerns, we now could infringe on those rights in the name of national security. It changed the way government agencies were organized and how they share information. It changed the rules about gathering that information and the restrictions on that gathering. The rules of subpoena were changed and relaxed. The lines between domestic and foreign surveillance were blurred.

As is to be expected, the government agencies involved took the ball and ran. They fully exploited their new freedoms even at the expense of our individual freedoms. It is the nature of man and his institutions to seek power and control. Once a little bit is achieved there is a burning desire for more power and control. The problem is the Patriot Act made it easier for these agencies to increase their power. We need laws and rules that make it more difficult for government to infringe on our rights and freedoms.

So, now we have the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) is monitoring phone records, emails and social media sites. They regularly receive information from the major Internet providers, phone companies and social sites. The president and others have assured us that the government is not listening to our phone conversations or reading our emails. If you believe that then you probably think everything on the Internet is true.

Now I don't think that the NSA is listening to my phone calls or scrutinizing my Google searches but I do think they could if they wanted to. I also don't think they would need, or even ask for, any judicial OK to do it. Maybe if I write about government surveillance, Google Al-Qaeda or “friend” a suspicious person on Facebook I might show up on their radar.

The concern is that once government has the keys to the information, the odds are that they will use those keys. Even if they don't, someone else will use the keys. That has been proven by the Edward Snowdon affair. Do we even know what information he took or who he has given it to? There is no way that millions of people can have “top secret” clearance and the information remain “top secret”.

I remember right after the 9/11 tragedy that our leaders implored us to return to normal life as soon as possible. Go shopping, go to the movies, go to the park, go out to eat.  If we didn't do these things then the terrorists had won. Too bad our government didn't take their own advice. They went into a bunker and passed sweeping legislation in a very few weeks.

Besides the Patriot Act, the president and Congress got us into a protracted war in Afghanistan and soon thereafter in Iraq.  We opened a prison in Guantanamo, foreign soil, for terrorist prisoners so we wouldn't have to abide by all those pesky US laws. US citizens who were Muslims were discriminated against and profiled often involving physical violence.

The current administration and Congress have followed along the same path. The fact that Obama has continued so much of what was put in place by Bush (43) makes me wonder about the phenomenon that seems to happen with every new administration or new congress. That phenomenon is that things barely change from one to another. Every presidential candidate talks about change but few actually do it. I wonder why this is. Is it because things are just more complicated than expected, the optimistic view. Or is it that so much government stuff is kept secret that the new president says “Oh shit, now I understand”, the pessimistic view. This Bush to Obama hand off is not the first time I've been confused. How many administrations kept the Vietnam War going?

The one time when change happens is when a crisis, real or perceived, occurs. Then we go overboard. Our alleged leaders pass sweeping legislation that doesn't accomplish what it was supposed to. Either the legislation is flawed to begin with or it gives too much leeway to the implementation and enforcing agencies of the executive branch. If you allow an executive department to make the rules they will build an empire. They will spend every cent Congress allocates and then ask for more. They will push every restriction to the limit and then probably blow through it. That's our nature. Grab as much power and budget as you can. Bureaucrats don't care about our rights. For that matter, members of Congress don't really care about our rights either. They care about reelection and the perks of office.

Although not related to terrorism, the recent IRS problems are another example of big government agencies running amuck. It's also an example of the government scrutinizing our political and/or religious beliefs.

How many billions of dollars have we spent on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and on the NSA and related agencies? How many individual rights have been trampled on? How many dollars will we continue to spend? It's estimated that the NSA has 40,000 employees and a $10 billion annual budget. Of course the real numbers are “top secret” so I guess only the four million people with top secret clearance know for sure. Remember, the NSA is only one of many agencies spying on us so the budget numbers are way bigger than $10 billion per year. Don't get me started on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with their ever changing rules and general incompetence.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a few of those billions of dollars available to fix our decaying infrastructure, lower our staggering national debt, rebuild West, Texas and the New Jersey coastline or even lower taxes?

There is a TV program on CBS called Person of Interest about the guy who programmed the machine that analyzes all the data the government collects. He programmed a back door to the computer that he uses to save peoples' lives. I originally thought it was a fictional drama but I'm beginning to think it is actually a documentary. Is there a back door entrance to the NSA computers? If so, who has the key, the good guys or the bad guys?

Our government urged us to get back to our normal lives after 9/11. They then decided that normal was to go to war with two countries, reduce our rights and build huge government agencies. All this comes down to my original question. Who's winning? Is it us who have drained our treasury and reduced our freedom or is it the terrorists? I don't have the answer but this doesn't feel like winning to me. At best I'd call it a draw. Maybe that's as good as we can expect. We need national security but we also need to maintain our basic principles. Let's remember what we're protecting.

What do you think?


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