I’m going to talk to you about the National Security Agency (NSA) revelations. You can probably guess what I have to say. As I do my best to be dependable, I’m going to say some of that. Then, as you likely also guessed, I’m going to tell you that you shouldn’t vote for candidates unless they support substantially curbing the NSA and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court’s powers. Finally, I’m going to tell you this: Don’t work for their surveillance regime.
The Obama Administration and the NSA claim that the NSA’s activities are simply devoted to preventing the “bad guys” from “getting us”. Let’s cut to the chase – we know that’s not true. It would be more accurate to say that our government uses the NSA as one tool among several in order to be the biggest, baddest guy in the global ring: We spy on the European Union, the United Nations, the personal correspondences of the Mexican and Brazilian presidents and doubtless many other widely-suspected terrorists.
Granted, much of the NSA’s work is directed toward foiling the actual bad guys, too. I get why an organization charged with preventing terrorist attacks wants to collect every bit of communication they can get their hands on, such as every piece of metadata on Verizon Wireless customers. Or why they might want to threaten and sneak their way into getting encryption keys and “backdoors” for major electronic service providers. It’s useful. It makes their jobs easier. At the end of the day, NSA agents probably just want to get home at five and have a beer like the rest of us.
That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, constitutionally or morally. I am well aware that in comparison to former President George W. Bush’s blatantly illegal wiretapping program via the NSA, President Barack Obama is pretty much an angel. I am also aware he followed the law down to the letter (putting aside for the moment the growing pile of the NSA’s violations of the law that are trickling out).
I’m not a big fan of the slippery slope idea. I don’t think this pattern of greedy surveillance inevitably leads to Big Brother. Anyways, like most people, I have nothing to hide – why should I then be bothered by surveillance?
I’m bothered because it’s out of control. Congress was pretty much entirely in the dark about the extent of the NSA’s activities, and members were lied to point-blank about basic facts. The administration may have been following the letter of the law, but it’s laughable to say that the NSA’s activities have been in the spirit of the Constitution.
I’m bothered because yet again, Douglas Adams’ description of the U.S. as a “belligerent, adolescent boy” is spot-on. Even if we grant the legitimacy of surveillance of citizens in the name of preventing terrorism, the extensive surveillance of high-level state officials has made many of the countries who were optimistic about a change in American foreign policy after Obama’s election once again bitter and disillusioned at such typical American lack of respect.
I’m bothered because I high-fived strangers in Grant Park on election night in 2008, and we shouted, “Yes, we can!” I was proud when health care reform passed, when many other liberals were disappointed. I was moved watching Obama tear up while thanking his young campaign staff, telling them that he believed they were going to be far better leaders than he.
I’m bothered because as far as presidents go, Obama was probably our best shot at getting White House leadership to curb unwarranted surveillance, and he has done nothing but legitimate and entrench what previous presidents built up.
Voting for candidates that support changing the surveillance regime is the most important thing we can do, but I think we can do more. I know Williams students to be intelligent, ambitious and committed to the communities of which we are a part, large or small. Unsurprisingly then, I know many Williams students are drawn toward volunteering, interning and working for the federal government.
If that’s a path that you want to take, throw your considerable brains and brawn behind people who deserve it. Don’t work for members of Congress who quietly accept the status quo on surveillance, and don’t work for Obama’s White House.
Other people will take the place you might have had; it’s true. But if it isn’t a Williams person, that will be their loss.
Sarah Rosenberg ’14 is a political economy major from Chicago, Ill. She lives on Water Street.