For the "what's the big deal" crowd, a friendly reminder
I applaud civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald who draw our attention to it. But it is important to keep it in perspective. Far too many people get their notions of what our government is all about from Hollywood; the paranoid thriller is a wonderful form of entertainment, but it’s a fantasy. The idea that our government is some sort of conspiracy, that it’s a somehow foreign body intent on robbing us of our freedoms, is corrosive and dangerous to our democracy. This remains, and always will be, an extremely libertarian country; it’s encoded in our DNA. We now face a constant, low-level terrorist threat that needs to be monitored. A great many lives are potentially at stake…and our national security is more important than any marginal–indeed, mythical–rights that we may have conceded in the Patriot Act legislation. In the end, the slippery slope, all or nothing, arguments advanced by extreme civil libertarians bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the slippery slope, all or nothing, arguments advanced by the National Rifle Association. --- Joe Klein
For those who are too young to have experienced it (or are too old to have a good memory of it like Joe Klein there) this story from journalist and author John Judis about his experiences as a young American dissident should tell people exactly why they should be skeptical of government surveillance power.
It's not just a Hollywood fantasy:
As my FBI file, which I later obtained, attested, my movements were being monitored even when I didn’t know it. (Most of it is, unfortunately, blacked out.) In organizing demonstrations, I encountered people who turned out to be government agents. I was pulled over by the police with guns drawn for no apparent reason. And I also received inquiries about my tax returns from the IRS even though I was living on about $3000 a year during much of this period. These inquiries, which to this day may or may not have had something to do with my politics, certainly make me sympathetic to the rightwing groups who were barraged by inquiries from the IRS—whether or not these inquiries were directed by higher-ups in the administration.
There were, obviously, people who were subject to far greater harassment than I was, and who played a much greater role in the new left. But that’s what makes my case interesting. I can pretty safely say that there was no good reason to put me under surveillance. After the Watergate scandal, Congress finally recognized that the FBI and CIA had widely overstepped their Constitutional bounds. In 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It was supposed to limit agency surveillance to people whom the agency suspected, on sufficient grounds to convince a judge, were actually agents of a foreign power. The government agencies weren’t supposed to fool with anybody else. But 35 years later, we learn a government agency has been empowered to monitor all of us all the time. That indiscriminate power, like the power that the CIA and FBI held after World War II, can be directed against domestic dissent.
And that is why this is a fundamental threat to our freedom.
This happened in our lifetimes, Judis' and mine. It's not some abstract slippery slope scenario --- it's very real. If you think it cannot happen to you, think again. Judis was a young intellectual who called himself a socialist. And perhaps some of you do too. Maybe you think of yourself as an environmental activist or an anti-corporate populist. You just don't know when the government could decide that this is a threat and use all that information they've got stored in their vast data bank to make a case. If your "enviro-terrorism" or "anarchism" can be shown by six degrees of separation between you and someone else they've flagged in their data bank, they will have all the "probable cause" they need to pursue you with everything they have.
These were, by the way, activities that took place under both Democratic and Republican administrations by agencies that operated pretty much with impunity. This isn't a partisan issue and it isn't just a matter of executive power. So it's important to keep in mind that is also an issue of building a vast top secret surveillance bureaucracy (which apparently, includes a vast number of outside contractor bureaucracies as well) that endlessly seeks to expand its power and exists through elected governments of both parties. These things can easily get out of hand ...